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Newsletter 286

Published May 13, 2019
Lenin out for a drive with the kids, as captured by Alexandr Alexandrovich Deineke in 1938

As I write this, the Archibald Prize is yet to be decided, so I won’t venture any thoughts on that annual hoop-la. There’ll be plenty of opportunities in the weeks ahead. In the meantime my travels have taken me from Paris to Le Havre, and now to Milan. On the way I’ve seen another group of memorable exhibitions: foremost was Calder – Picasso at the Musée Picasso on Paris, an exhibition selected by the grandsons of the respective artists. Everything in this show was so artfully aligned it gave the impression that Calder and Picasso were looking over each other’s shoulders while working in the studio. They were actually on different continents for most of the time, but the parallels were uncanny.

And then there was Rouge at the Grand Palais – not a celebration of face powder, but a survey of the arts under the Bolsheviks, and then under Stalin. As well as some old favourites from Malevich, Tatlin and Rodchenko, there were a few startling things to be seen in the latter part of the exhibition, including propaganda films with an actor playing Stalin holding genial conversations with the peasants, and the monumental paintings of Alexandr Deineka, who got away with a lot more than his Chinese Social Realist counterparts would 20 years later. For instance, a full-frontal blonde nude which celebrated the healthy Soviet lifestyle.

Finally there was The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse, at the Musée d’Orsay, a show that revealed a great deal about social attitudes towards race from the end of the 18th century to the late 20th century. It was vaguely pleasing to find that artists seemed to have more liberal attitudes than the general public, although that shouldn’t come as a surprise. One curiosity was Gauguin’s full-scale copy of Manet’s Olympia– confirming what a huge influence Manet had on everyone at the time.

In Le Havre, Étretat and Honfleur I trailed around in Claude Monet’s footsteps, feeling as if I was expanding my understanding of the great Impressionist. I’ll have more to say about Monet in the weeks ahead.

The art column is yet to join me in Europe, having been detained by Asad Raza’s Absorptionat the old Clothing Store at Carriageworks. This is the 34th Kaldor Public Art Project, and another full-scale collaboration. It may not be on the scale of Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping Little Bay with an army of local volunteers in 1969, but it does bring together a large group of artists and scientists, all cheerfully interacting with 300 tonnes of soil.

The film column looks at Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, which documents one of the blackest moments in British history, when the government sent armed cavalry to attack 60,000 unarmed protestors in 1819. It’s a movie of serial speeches that culminates in ten minutes of chaotic violence.

I suspect you’ve got to be seriously interested in history and politics to get the most out of this tale – which probably disqualifies that large percentage of Australians who told a pollster last year they’d be happy to live under a dictatorship. Peterloo is a message to those who have never had their basic freedoms challenged, that life and liberty are not to be taken lightly. Perhaps it should be compulsory viewing for those who expect to be elected to Parliament next week.