Almost sixty years after his death, John Joseph Wardell Power is overdue for another look. Power is best known as the generous benefactor who provided funds for a department of art history at Sydney University and a collection that has since evolved into the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is not widely known that the university owns 300 oil paintings and 200 small studies by Power
The son of a successful physician, and grandson of colonial architect, William Wardell, Power was born in Sydney in 1881, and went on to study medicine at Sydney University. In 1906 he left for England, where he took up professional practice, inheriting his father’s fortune in the same year. At the end of the First World War he hung up his stethoscope and devoted himself to art. Over the following two decades, Power would exhibit his work in England, France and the United States, while living in London, Bournemouth, Paris and Brussels.
Power settled in Paris in 1929 because he thought it would be a cheaper place to live during the Great Depression, but also because it was the engine room for new developments in art. Debates were being waged between Abstractionists, Surrealists, and proponents of the new classicism called ‘The Return to Order’. Within the ranks of the different movements, arguments were even more rarified and divisive.
Power was associated with a group called Abstraction-Création, which was born from two earlier movements, Cercle et Carré and Art Concret. Not only did he exhibit his paintings at the group’s gallery, he bought work from other artists, and provided funds for projects. Like an earlier Australian in Paris, John Peter Russell, who bankrolled impecunious Impressionists, Power acted as both artist and patron. He was also a dedicated theorist, publishing a book called Eléments de la Construction Picturale (1932) which was well received in European avant-garde circles.
During the Second World War, Power and his wife, Edith, moved to the island of Jersey, where he died of cancer in 1943. In his will, he left the bulk of his estate, upon the death of his wife, to Sydney University “to make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in the plastic arts by means of lectures and teaching and by the purchase of the most recent contemporary art of the world.”
When it was delivered in 1962, the Power Bequest was valued at two million pounds – a staggering $42 million in today’s money. But the university did not hasten to fulfill its benefactor’s wishes. The Power Institute of Fine Arts would not be established until 1968, while the MCA only came into being in 1989. In the meantime the funds were very poorly invested, but that’s another story.
What is truly remarkable is that Sydney University has decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Power Bequest by finally devoting an exhibition to the work of its great patron. The phrase, “Better late than never”, springs to mind, but Power might have been disappointed it has taken so long.
If the delay seems like ingratitude we need to put it into a wider context, because our oldest and most prestigious university has never shown any significant commitment to the visual arts. Although it has museums such as the Nicholson and the Macleay, and the compact War Memorial Gallery, the project of building a first-class venue to house the university collections is forever being postponed. In this sense Sydney lags far behind its peers in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
Curators, A.D.S.Donaldson and Ann Stephen, have tried to give Power some overdue recognition, with a reconstruction in the War Memorial Gallery of a solo exhibition held at Abstraction-Création, at 44 avenue de Wagram, Paris, in April 1934. Because the university owns almost all of Power’s work, they have been able to include 26 out of 28 canvases. The fastidious Dr. Power left a detailed gouache and ink plan for the show, complete with tiny copies of each painting, so it was possible to duplicate the hang with precision.
The result is a marvellous time capsule that provides a facsimile of an exhibition of avant-garde art in Paris in the period between the wars. There is more of Power’s work on display in the Schaeffer Library, in the Mills Building, including a selection of small oil studies.
While Power’s style veers between synthetic Cubism and biomorphic abstraction, his paintings are in elaborate hand-carved frames that would not be out of place on 18th century canvases.
Power was a frame fetishist who even drew frames around his preliminary oil sketches, but this antiquated packaging of ultra-modern art was very common. It had been a masterstroke of the dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, to put Impressionist paintings into 18th century frames, rendering them acceptable to bourgeois clients.
One might speculate that Power, for all his avant-garde credentials, was a bourgeois at heart. Yet he was also conscious of the debt that modern art owed to the classical world and the Renaissance, and may have seen his frames as a way of maintaining that sense of continuity with the past.
Power was a mainstay of Abstraction-Création, but his work deviated markedly from the stated aims of the group. According to Virginia Spate in her catalogue essay, these artists saw non-figuration as “a purely plastic culture, which excludes every element of explication, anecdote, literature, naturalism, etc.”
This would eliminate most of Power’s works, which feature heads, bathers, dancers, and even the stories of Apollo and Daphne and Susannah and the elders. Regardless of his immersion in the late Cubist style, Power was largely a narrative artist. His acceptance by Abstraction-Création may have owed something to his stature as a theorist, and something to his wealth, as most of the other members of the group were terminally impoverished.
A number of works in this exhibition are titled Abstraction, which is a tacit admission that the other paintings do not fit this description. He uses a lot of colour, but the effect is decorative in the extreme. This is not necessarily a fault, as artists were often praised for their decorative qualities at the time, even Matisse and Bonnard. But there is a huge gulf between the striking, dynamic colour contrasts in Matisse’s paintings and the rather predictable combinations that Power employs.
Another consistent feature of these paintings is Power’s love of illusory three-dimensional space, which may reflect the influence of Fernand Léger, of Surrealism, and of Karl Blossfeldt’s popular book, Original Forms of Art (1929), which led many artists to experiment with biomorphic imagery. One can imagine almost any of Power’s paintings remade as a freestanding sculpture.
Donaldson and Stephen quote a line from the young Robert Hughes, who speculated that if Power had painted the same pictures in Australia rather than Paris, “he would possibly be regarded as the most important figure in our early avant-garde.” The curators would go one step further, awarding this title to Power without hesitation.
This may be true, if only because there is so little competition, but if Power was important in an Australian context he is a minor figure in the history of Modernism. While no other Australian artist was so closely connected with the European avant-garde, Power was a fellow traveller with academic, second-generation Cubists such as Louis Marcoussis, Albert Gleizes, André Lhote, or his good friend, Auguste Herbin. He is a competent painter, but there is nothing original about his approach. Obsessively neat and finished, his pictures borrow a visual language from Picasso, which is followed as an inflexible mantra.
By 1934, Picasso had moved on from Cubism, painting oils such as Nude in a garden (1934), which was shown at the Art Gallery of NSW earlier this year. It is inconceivable that Power could ever have produced anything so savage and sensuous. If we accept Power as our most significant early avant-gardist, he remains a painter who was more attentive to the forms rather than the spirit of modern art. Other Australian artists, such as Grace Cossington Smith, Eric Wilson and Ralph Balson, would paint more convincing pictures.
Although he lived as a professional painter, Power has all the traits of the enthusiastic amateur. He worked within an established style, and never seemed to tire of it. Indeed, his style-consciousness sets him apart from the great modernists who recognised no fixed rules or method, and delighted in pushing the boundaries. In this show we see that Power was no revolutionary. He was one of those artists who helped Modernism shed its rebellious image and become a new orthodoxy. He may have been a citizen of the world but in his accommodating disposition he was typically Australian.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 1, 2012