According to Hendrik Kolenberg, the Art Gallery of NSW’s Senior Curator of Australian Prints, Drawings and Watercolours, the Dobell Prize for Drawing is the most serious art award in Australia. This doesn’t mean the show is all grey and humourless, it is essentially a comment on the medium. Drawing is the armature of an artist’s work – the essential framework upon which everything else rests. Whether a piece be elaborately finished or a quick, conceptual sketch, a drawing provides a unique insight into the way an artist thinks. In a drawing the relationship between hand, eye and brain is laid bare in a manner that is often disguised in a painting or sculpture.
At the moment Australians are in the happy position of being able to see the world’s largest-ever survey of prints and drawings by Henri Matisse at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, and many exceptional works on paper by Pablo Picasso as part of the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. As if that wasn’t enough, Annandale Galleries are holding this country’s largest-ever commercial show of Picasso’s drawings, prints and ceramics, while Rex Irwin is also featuring Picasso’s prints in his Black and White exhibition.
I’ll come back to Matisse next week, and look for the moment at the Dobell Prize and Annandale Galleries. It would be a sad business to compare the two events because Picasso (1881-1973) was such a natural draughtsman he makes almost everyone else look like an amateur. The artists in the Dobell do not deserve this fate, as they are, as Kolenberg suggests, a group that takes drawing seriously.
The Dobell Prize itself has become a rather comfortable affair. As usual the standard of work is high, although there are not many pieces one would describe as exceptional. Unlike the Blake Prize, which has striven to reinvent itself and ended up as a shapeless mess, the Dobell has stuck to its guns for nineteen years, winning the respect of artists and public. The prize is awarded by a single judge and – in contrast to the AGNSW’s approach to the annual Sulman Prize – the Dobell Foundation has always tried to choose someone who will act responsibly in this role.
This year the judge was veteran painter, Guy Warren, which resulted in a record tally of 734 entries. Anyone who has ever met Warren knows he is a decent fellow with no hidden agendas. This comes through in his selection: a good balance of abstract and figurative, with very few items that might be seen as mere gimmicks. One wonders, however, if his steely objectivity was softened by the fact that this year’s winner, Anne Judell, has had a work included in 13 of the Dobell exhibitions.
Judell is almost a fixture in this prize, and it is pleasing to see that persistence has finally paid off. She is still a controversial choice because her style is uniquely unsuited to be noticed in a crowd. In her own estimation, her small triptych, Breath, is “shy, retiring and meditative”. A soft, smudgy abstract pastel of greyish, indeterminate colour, at first glance the work seems as insubstantial as smoke, although each panel has been crafted with fastidious care. The experience of looking at this unassuming work is not so different from gazing at drifting clouds.
A more obvious winner might have been Joe Felber’s Spiegel im spiegel (ie. Mirror in the mirror), a multi-panelled drawing of a mountain executed in a range of media. This is the title of a very simple piece of music by Arvo Pärt, although this may not bear any relevance to Felber’s work, which combines vigorous mark-making with a sense of monumentality. It’s a slab of high Romanticism viewed through a broken lens.
There might also be a case for the work hung alongside Felber’s – Peter Gardiner’s Hexham (swamp). This is an unusual venture for Gardiner who often favours the most dramatic scenes. The swamp is almost featureless but possessed of a strange, crackling vitality. The artist has filled the sheet with small, staccato dabs of charcoal that extract a glimmer of individuality from the uniformity of the landscape. It is a much better candidate for an Arvo Pärt soundtrack.
Among other stand-outs are Jennifer Keeler Milne’s Shibuya lights, although her charcoal technique is just a little too slick for comfort. This piece straddles the divide between abstraction and figuration, as does Charles Cooper’s impressive Lower George, a densely worked conté crayon drawing of the markings on a piece of asphalt.
Allan Mitelman’s Untitled plays on the element of time involved in a drawing, by using a collage of timetables as a support for a school of tadpole-shaped ink blots and grey smudges. This is not simply an abstract picture it is also a reflection on the process of making such a picture, or even the process of drawing in general.
Among the figurative works Dagmar Cyrulla’s Fleeting stays in the mind, partly because it contains a niggling ambiguity; partly because the pose of the girl holding up the front of her dress is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s famous picture of his wife, Hendrickje, bathing in a river.
Is it the girl’s youth that is fleeting? Is it simply the moment? Cyrulla’s drawing gives no clues, but it sustains one’s interest as much through the psychological puzzle as through her immaculate charcoal technique.
Turning to the Picasso exhibition at Annandale Galleries, one is struck immediately by the boldness and confidence of the draughtsmanship. Whereas the entrants in the Dobell Prize span the entire spectrum of approaches, from the in-your-face directness of Chris O’Doherty to the studied hesitancy of Anne Judell, with Picasso, from the first to the last, we find an artist who is always the master of his medium.
This exhibition is a retrospective in miniature, starting with some of Picasso’s earliest etchings, including The Frugal Meal (1904) and Salome (1905), and finishing with pieces from 1971, two years before the artist’s death. Most artists learn the etching process in a formal, deliberate manner and progress to a greater freedom over time, and here Picasso is no exception. Where he departs from the norm is his tendency to begin in a simple, sparing style that evolves into a tempest of overlapping lines in his later years. The more conventional path is for an artist to leave out a greater amount as they grow more familiar with the medium.
Compare the minimal image of Salome dancing in front of a semi-invisible Herod with some of the late etchings of musketeers which appear to have been created in a rage. The marks in these final etchings are so dense and mechanical it is as if Picasso is marshalling his fading powers for the most ferocious assault on the plate, just to show that he still has what it takes. A work such as Painter, model with a straw hat, and gentleman (1968), is almost an exercise in obliterating the picture plane. One imagines the etching needle held in the old man’s fist.
These late etchings may never be seen as major works, but Picasso’s emotional investment is undeniable. He can’t bear growing old, and his anger at the ravages of time is expended on the etching plate. In the 1955 acquatint, Painter on the beach, he was still in a playful frame of mind, stippling in a gallery of figures including a very tall woman; a short, squat man; a horse, and a model seated in an upright pose. The painter, whom we always assume to be a Picasso surrogate, sits wrapped in a robe like a Zen monk. The picture has been put together with only a few spontaneous flicks of the brush, but it is perfect in its way, right down to a single line that ushers us in from the top left-hand corner and curls to a halt at the bottom right.
The show also contains a number of rare, early drawings, and a small selection of ceramics. The gallery has been transformed for the occasion into a salon, and for extra measure one may also view a show of new photographs by Murray Fredericks, who has moved on from his minimalist views of Lake Eyre, to the most extraordinary images of cyclonic cloud formations in northern Australia. It’s an appropriate juxtaposition that puts the power of the natural world alongside the single most dynamic force in modern art.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 10, 2011
Dobell Prize for Drawing 2011, Art Gallery of NSW, until 5 February 2012
Pablo Picasso, Annandale Galleries, until 17 December