Australia’s economy may be one of the most robust in the world, but our art markets, and attendances at public galleries, lag far behind Europe and the United States. It is a cultural problem: a general feeling that visual art is not an essential part of life, merely a sideline or a luxury. This is reflected in the contracting budgets of the major art institutions, which are being forced to beg funds from a reluctant private sector while cutting back on exhibitions and programs.
It is especially disturbing that Western Australia – the home of the much-vaunted resources boom – is one the most grievously effected areas. Within a few months three of Perth’s most important commercial galleries will have closed. Meanwhile the state gallery looks horribly dingy and run-down.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia has never been prepossessing, but nowadays it is crying out for a makeover. The lighting is inadequate; the floors are covered with ugly, aged, grey carpets. The building feels tired, and this has an impact on the way art is displayed. It is not a place that people feel like visiting frequently, and when they do visit there is scant incentive to linger. The most depressing aspect is that very little has changed from when I last wrote about the AGWA almost two years ago.
It would require a substantial injection of funds to correct these problems, but prosperous Western Australia has none to spare. On the other hand this is not an adequate excuse for poor housekeeping, especially when one compares the immaculate appearance of the Art Gallery of South Australia, which receives an even smaller stipend from the state government.
The revitalisation strategy adopted by AGWA director, Stefano Carboni and his team centres on a program of imported masterpiece exhibitions from the great museums of the world. There have been shows from the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and now the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which will be sending six exhibitions over a three-year period.
In Perth last week on other business, I visited the first of the MoMA shows, Picasso to Warhol: 14 Modern Masters. Like all the exhibitions in the series this collection will be shown exclusively at the AGWA. It’s unlikely that many people from the eastern states will make a special trip to Perth to see these works, but for anyone travelling west it would be a shame to miss the opportunity.
While the presentation leaves something to be desired, there is nothing second-rate about the art. MoMA has been exceptionally generous in loaning more than 100 works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, Romare Bearden, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
Certain pieces, such as de Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914), or Miró’s Person throwing a stone at a bird (1926), will be familiar from standard textbooks on modern art. Almost everything is broadly representative of the chosen artists, which is everything Australian audiences could ask from a travelling exhibition. There is a whiff of tokenism in having Louise Bourgeois as the only female artist and Romare Bearden as the sole black American, but it could be argued that many another dead white male had superior claims for inclusion on art historical grounds. Perhaps the most glaring omission is a major Expressionist, such as Max Beckmann.
Picasso to Warhol makes us aware of the depth of MoMA’s holdings, and its iconic status as a repository for the art of the twentieth century. Australia possesses a mere handful of paintings by Picasso and Matisse, and none by artists such as Mondrian and Johns. We have only one sculpture by Brancusi – the National Gallery of Australia’s Bird in Space. When we want to tell the story of modern art we are often obliged to do it through works on paper, but this a despairing manoeuvre. Representing an artist with a print, in a display devoted to paintings, only tends to emphasise the gaps in a collection.
The effect is completely different when a gallery has the luxury of juxtaposing paintings, prints, and other works by the same artist. The MoMA show begins with a broad selection of pieces by Picasso, including paintings that trace his stylistic evolution from youth to old age, supplemented by a group of etchings. Calder is represented by sculptures and a case full of brilliant metal jewellery; Léger by his paintings and a film, Ballet Mécanique (1924); Bourgeois by sculptures and printed books; Brancusi by sculptures and photographs. Pollock’s paintings are accompanied by Hans Namuth’s famous footage of the artist at work.
There are many relationships between the artists in this show, both formal and personal. Duchamp helped sell Brancusi’s works to American collectors, and was a crucial inspiration for Johns. For Calder, a visit to Mondrian’s studio helped clarify the direction of his own work, and so on.
By starting the show with Picasso’s early Self-portrait, Yo (1901), and ending with a block of six silk-screen self-portraits by Andy Warhol (1966), curator, Jodi Hauptman has charted a course from youthful self-assertion to the era of mass reproduction.
The young Picasso portrays himself in the year he left Barcelona for Paris. He stares out at us with excitement and determination, his face illuminated against a dark background. Not only did Picasso have hair in those days, he even sported a wispy moustache. He is a typical Bohemian, set to enjoy the impoverished artist’s life, intent on making his mark on the art capital of the world.
With Warhol, Hauptman reminds us of his famous comment “I want to be a machine”. Arriving at the tail end of the modernist era, in New York, the city that stole Paris’s crown, Warhol aimed to dissipate the aura of the unique work of art and the artist’s hand. One thinks also of his comments about how art should be as reproducible as a can of Coke, which is the same product for the President of the United States or a bum in the street. His self-portraits are only distinguished by variations in colour. With a block of Campell’s soup tins, only the varieties on the labels are different.
There is an idealism in Picasso’s work that relates to the heroic power of the artist to reinvent the world as he sees fit. In Warhol we see an ideal of American-style democracy where men – or soup tins – are all created equal. Mondrian, who spent parts of his career in both Paris and New York, was an idealist of a different stripe. He believed that through form and colour alone, one could attain a “universal vision” of human existence.
The five works by Mondrian in this show constitute a satisfying cameo, which allows us to trace the development of his thinking and catch a glimpse of the spiritual passion that burned within those sober configurations of straight lines and squares of primary colour. The only missing element is a work from the transitionary Pier and Ocean series of 1915, although one is reproduced in the catalogue.
We might compare Mondrian’s purity and restraint with the spontaneity of Pollock, the playfulness of Calder, or Matisse’s more adventurous approach to colour. Jasper Johns, the only artist in this show who is still alive, has blended a painterly touch with conceptual rigour, in works such as Map (1961) which plays on the idea that something may be as concrete and familiar as the United States, but abstract in its manner of representation.
The direct antithesis of Mondrian’s elevated ideas about art are those of Marcel Duchamp, who satirised and undermined the air of sanctity that attends famous artists and their creations. In Duchamp’s worldview, institutions such as MoMA were temples for a secular society, and artists a bewildering group of major and minor deities, like the gods of Hinduism.
The irony, which would not have been lost on the artist himself, is that Duchamp is now one of the most celebrated figures in the modernist pantheon. This is partly because of what followed modernism – namely the cynicism of Postmodernism, a movement that surrendered to the idea of aesthetic exhaustion and began replaying the history of art in parodic form.
It will be a great breakthrough in Australian art education when this brief, dismal interlude is vanquished from the Higher School Certificate. As the works in Picasso to Warhol demonstrate, one can best convey the power and excitement of art by accentuating the positive.
Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters: Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, June 16-December 3, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 29, 2012