Newsletter 340

Published June 1, 2020
Richard Larter's 2002 portrait of Frank Watters

As the COVID-19 lockdown continues to dissolve it doesn’t look as if the world is headed towards a new era of peace, love and understanding. Death tolls in South America and many parts of the USA are still rising, while people begin to weigh the slow doom of unemployment and poverty against the quick hit of the epidemic. Populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have encouraged their supporters to get back to work in defiance of all health guidelines. Never has there been a starker illustration of the feeling such leaders harbour for their constituents: they simply don’t care. The only thing of importance is their own status and success – and maybe survival.

This is the true legacy of electing leaders who are hardly better than strutting sociopaths. Trump, in particular, is becoming ever more extreme in his threats and flailings as he sinks in the polls and can’t access the security blanket of a rally in which he can ramble spitefully in front of an audience of rusted-on supporters. One of the big dangers is that US foreign policy is coming to be viewed as another part of the Trump re-election campaign. As the crisis in Hong Kong escalates the US seems willing to pour petrol on the flames rather than encourage dialogue and mediation. It keys in with the demonisation of China, now being made to absorb all the heat for Trump’s incompetent response to the coronavirus.

Meanwhile in Australia, Scummo and the gang are congratulating themselves for ‘standing up’ to China, even as our trade links look increasingly shaky. If Australia had simply gone with the flow instead of trying to lead we could have got the same commitments from the Chinese leadership and saved ourselves a lot of economic pain. The barley farmers won’t be sending their congratulations to the government for this act of boofhead diplomacy.

China, admittedly, is not doing itself any public relations favours with its increasingly hard line in Hong Kong. When people can be arrested and imprisoned for insulting the Chinese national anthem we’ve entered the realm where reactionary nationalism has infected any reasonable call to control civic unrest. One can’t look at Hong Kong today and imagine that any of this is going to end well. All those leading commercial galleries that have opened branches in Hong Kong must be wondering whether there will be any art market in the forseeable future.

This week’s postings have a rather elegaic character. I’ll soon be back to the review format but in the meantime I’ve written an essay-style piece on John Berger, who died in 2017. I was prompted to look at Berger again after reading Joshua Sperling’s book, that arrived in my mailbox unexpectedly as a gift from a local artist. This study sent me back to my bookshelves, where there are almost 40 volumes by Berger, even though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him. Ultimately, this emerged as a reason for appreciating the achievements of a writer who never took the straight & narrow path.

Closer to home I’ve written a tribute to Frank Watters, the legendary Sydney art dealer who died last Friday. I met Frank within the first weeks of my taking up a junior art critic’s role at the Sydney Morning Herald, as an apprentice to Terence Maloon. Frank was incredibly encouraging and friendly, as he would be later on to Sebastian Smee when he started on a career as an art writer.

Over the years Watters would occupy a larger or smaller place in the hierarchy of Sydney galleries, but it retained the same philosophies and principles. Frank saw his artists as friends, not commodities, and they responded in kind. No gallery has demonstrated greater loyalty to artists and clients, nor inspired a similar loyalty in return. No dealer could have been less egocentric, or so ready to put people before profit. I doubt we’ll ever see another gallery like Watters, which finally closed in November 2018; nor another set of dealers like Frank, along wth his partners, Alex and Geoffrey Legge.

With Frank’s death one thinks of all those artists who were mainstays of the gallery that have also passed on – from Bob Klippel to James Gleeson to John Peart. It’s a very different artistic landscape to the early 1980s but I’m not sure it represents an improvement.

The film column abandons the melancholy mood and looks at an out-and-out romp – Tony McNamara’s 10-part series, The Great, streaming on Stan. This heavily fictonalised look at the life of Catherine the Great takes comedy to the most bizarre extremes. The good news is that it’s also extremely watchable, if you can forget anything you might already know about Russian history. I’d read Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine a few years ago, but it wasn’t much help with this series. Watch it and weep – or more likely, laugh.