Last week I had occasion to reflect at length on that strange beast, the art collector. The immediate stimulus was a talk at Artspace during a private view of the Michael Hobbs Collection. The late Michael Hobbs was a mainstay of the Sydney art scene for many decades, and his children are honouring his legacy by auctioning off works from his vast, idiosyncratic holdings to raise funds for Artspace and First Draft. For those who may be interested, the live auction begins at 4 pm today.
Prior to the Hobbs talk I’d been in Canberra where the Hassall Collection is being exhibited at the Drill Hall Gallery. Or perhaps I should say: a very small sliver of the collection is being exhibited. Geoff Hassall is known as one of Sydney’s the most discerning and dedicated collectors, but he is equally devoted to maintaining his privacy.
Hassall has loaned pieces for numerous museum exhibitions, but the Drill Hall show is a unique opportunity to see an overview of the collection. Curators, Terence Maloon and Tony Oates, were given a free hand and have chosen shrewdly. There’s no substitute for seeing the works at first-hand, but the catalogue maps out the thinking behind the show, putting pieces by leading indigenous artists alongside those by figures such as Tony Tuckson, Ian Fairweather, Ralph Balson, Jon Molvig, Robert Klippel, Ken Whisson, Roy Jackson and John Peart.
The affinities are exciting but it would be wrong to overstate the closeness of these relationships. There are points of convergence in the way artists such as Tuckson and Fairweather drew inspiration from bark painting, but it’s not a two-way street. Few artists from remote communities have taken anything from non-indigenous art apart from a different set of painting materials. Seeing large-scale pictures in international museums prompted John Mawurndjul to increase the size of his barks but he was never tempted to change style or subject.
In a gnomic conversation in the catalogue, Maloon and Quentin Sprague admit that the “dialogue” between works in the show is less real than apparent. This doesn’t stop them from teasing out the cultural and historical ramifications while admitting they can’t be resolved. Eventually everything trends back to the taste, judgement and personality of the collector.
Hassall has spent many years honing his instincts in this regard. He has acted like the “superior man” in Confucius’s teachings who knows that to achieve success one must never allow ego or fashion to disrupt one’s progress. For the true collector the education of the eye is a life-long activity while fads and theories are to be distrusted. The value of a work is to be discovered in serene contemplation, not in a price tag or a rave review. The golden rule is to only ever buy works, not names.
The “inferior man” buys whoever is “hot” (or cool!), he wants to be praised for his acumen and enjoy all the social perks. Hassall would sooner avoid the spotlight and approach artworks with a kind of ideal equilibrium, trying not to draw distinctions between indigenous or non-indigenous, male or female, old and new, famous or obscure.
This is not to say he is lacking in opinions. He once told me he’d like to see every Anglo-European place name in Australia replaced with an Aboriginal one.
What’s really impressive about Hassall’s approach is his determination to acquire only the very best pieces, whether they be large or small. There is, for instance, a tiny but stunning Klippel collage in this show.
Another distinguishing characteristic is a willingness to buy in depth once he has identified an artist he likes. As a consequence, Hassall doesn’t just have “Tucksons”, he has exceptionalTucksons such as the slate-board painting, TP 20(1962), and the large diptych, TP 72 [Pink/White Lines (Vertical) on Blue Green] (c.1970-73). He has been equally fastidious in his choice of works by indigenous artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Nonggirrnga Marawili, Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Janangoo Butcher Cherel. The latter is one of the stars of this show, with precise, symmetrical works such as Untitled – Dillybag(1990) holding their own against all comers.
Along with the famous names Hassall has pursued passions for lesser-known artists such as sculptor, Leo Loomans, represented by two works; and the daughter and mother duo, Rhonda and Susannah Hamlyn. The Hamlyns were among the hidden treasures in the long list of artists represented by the late, lamented Watters Gallery. Tortoise(1986), an abstract, woollen wall piece, is the revelation in this selection. It has a presence I’d never have anticipated.
It was just as startling to discover another knitted wall piece by the Hamlyns in the Hobbs collection at Artspace.
If there is one artist above all others in this exhibition that testifies to Hassall’s insight and determination as a collector, it’s Jon Molvig (1923-70) – one of the wild men of Australian art, who died prematurely of kidney failure after years of dissipation and occasional brilliance. The two Molvig paintings at the Drill Hall, are arguably his masterpieces. Lovers (1955) and The Bridesmaids (1956), show the artist at the peak of his powers, working with amazing vigour, while never allowing the flurry of brushstrokes to dissolve into chaos.
Terence Maloon ventures comparisons with modernist icons such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignonand Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No.2, but Expressionists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner also spring to mind.
We see Molvig as receptive to many different influences, but with an artistic personality that was big enough to throttle them into the shape of his distinctive vision. A similar Dionysian frenzy is evident in Tuckson’s work, although other artists who loom large in the collection are notable for their detached, analytical approach. This is the case with both Robert Klippel and Butcher Cherel, although it might difficult to find further points of contact.
What’s missing from the Hassall Collection are those works that deal with the pressing political and social issues of our times – the works that tend to dominate the big contemporary art surveys. For this collector it’s obvious that art begins with the solitary struggle in the studio, the leap into the void, not with Facebook. It’s the search, with all its uncertainties, that is all-important. Statements in art can seem very dull when what you want most of all, is to be surprised.
Hassall Collection: A Masterpiece Collection of Australian Art
Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra, 22 February – 14 April, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March, 2019