Newsletter 292

Published June 24, 2019
Never Look Away - the Marcel Duchamp version, (by Richard Avedon)

This week’s workload is hardly less crazy than last week’s, but it feels a bit better. Perhaps it’s because the Sydney Film Festival has wound-up, meaning that I don’t feel the temptation to go watching movies rather than sit in front of the laptop, churning out words. As it is, I’m having a film festival at home, watching Australian films with indigenous themes in preparation for another lecture at the end of the month.

I thought this year’s SFF was a trifle dull compared to previous years, but the eventual winner of the main competition, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, was a stand-out, as was Never Look Away, the movie I’ve reviewed this week. The revelation on closing night was the announcement that this had been the most successful festival ever, with record attendances and the most sold-out sessions. As I still believe from a qualitative point of view that it wasn’t the most attractive selection of films, there are probably two explanations: Sydney’s perennial character as an ‘event’ city, in which people simply love any excuse to get out of the house and partake of some collective extravaganza; and a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the limited, repetitive nature of mainstream movies.

There must be many film-goers who can’t bear the thought of another super-hero movie or action franchise sequel, and are looking for something a bit more involving. This is the base for the SFF, and the various international film festivals that are running perpetually in this city. It’s a reason to be optimistic about the cinema, rather than succumb to gloom about the kind of big budget commodities that are coming out of Hollywood, and increasingly out of China.

To begin with, this week, I’m posting a large Monet piece intended as a preview of the National Gallery of Australia’s Monet: Impression Sunrise, but eventually published as a feature in the weekend supplement.

The weekly art column finally gets around to The Essential Duchamp at the Art Gallery of NSW. It’s another package show, like most travelling exhibitions in this gallery, in which the selection of works and the catalogue are entirely the responsibility of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Marcel Duchamp, however, there is no other venue that can compete with Philadelphia’s holdings.

I’ve held off reviewing this show for a while because I wanted to refresh my knowledge of Duchamp, which proved to be an engrossing task. The works themselves are all ‘classics’ in a way, but not because they are so skilfully made or full of meaning. To look at a survey of Duchamp’s career is like looking at a collection of familiar objects that have taken on a patina of nostalgia – surely the very last thing the artist (or anti-artist) would have intended. Duchamp himself remains one of the most enigmatic personalities in the history of art, and this was an important element in the success of his work. In comparison with Duchamp’s cool reserve and monk-like habits one groans to think of figures like Jeff Koons, spouting his insincere salesman’s pitch, while flogging kitsch objects for massive prices.

Speaking of cool reserve, the movie, Never Look Away, is based on the life of Gerhard Richter, an artist who has made strenuous efforts to control the way his own work is received and interpreted. The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, was surprised when he wrote to Richter and asked to talk to him for an hour about a movie he intended to make, and ended up with three weeks of conversations.

The next twist in the story was that Richter would dissociate himself from the movie when it was released, and talk about his dislike of the film and its director – even though he says he hasn’t watched it. One can only surmise that Richter has been keeping some secrets for so many years that he felt the need to talk freely for a change, then began to regret his decision when he thought about it afterwards.

If the portrait of Richter’s father-in-law in Never Look Away is only partially true, it’s an appalling indictment of the way Germany – both west and east – allowed such characters to stay in positions of power and influence in the post-war era. Today, with the lessons of the war being rapidly forgotten, and the resurgence of aggressive right-wing nationalism, it’s important that artists and filmmakers help keep us focused on the catastrophes of the past, and way the unthinkable quickly becomes business as usual.