Newsletter 411

Published October 18, 2021
Always more books needing to be read...

Things are opening up in Sydney! The streets are full of unmasked people, and the local pub is raging again, restoring our street’s familiar parking problem. I’ve spent half of my week sorting out Medicare and MyGov apps, and cursing the bureaucrats that have given us such a complicated tangled system swarming with bugs.

The Herald has finally decided to run the piece on Richard Bell’s show at the MCA that I wrote in July… or was it June? Anyway, the exhibition was extended so the review still has a little life in it. The movies are opening up with a lot of films that have been viewable for months in other states, but hardly anything new – except for a strange, little Icelandic feature called Lamb, which I’ve dutifully written up. Not one for everyone, I suspect, but it has its qualities. I’m also including a blog piece on Banksy’s Love is in the Bin, which has since been sold for £18.5 million (AUD $34 million), bearing out my conclusion that the decadent excesses of the art market know no limits.

Although a lot of people (with similar prejudices) seem to approve of my political ravings, I think it’s best to give it a break from time to time. Instead, I’m going to mention some of the books that keep arriving in my mailbox that I don’t have an immediate opportunity to review. That list is now very long indeed, so I’ll limit myself to four titles.

The first, and most significant, is John Clarke’s The Asian Modern, published by the National Gallery of Singapore. This is a monumental work, which I can’t pretend to have read it from cover to cover, partly because I’ve been  caught up with the more immediate reading required to keep up a weekly output, and partly because this is not what might be called ‘an easy read’. Scholarship, like life, wasn’t necessarily meant to be easy.

One of the noteworthy aspects of the book is the publisher. The National Gallery of Singapore deserves a lot of credit here, as most art museums are hesitant to get behind anything except exhibition catalogues. There’s a need for such institutions to support art historical and theoretical writing, and the NGS takes this role more seriously than most, positioning itself as a vital repositary of art knowledge in the region.

Clarke sets out to rearrange the way we define modernity, concentrating on place more than period, in a time span that reaches from 1850 to the present. His next refinement is to try and transcend the nationalist art histories that have grown up all over Asia, discussing developments that are truly transnational. It leads to a good deal of compare-and-contrast analysis that may be the most original feature of this study.

There’s no way I could even begin to discuss this book in a meaningful way in a few paragraphs, so I’ll settle for recommending it to those with an interest in the evolution of art in Asia. To my mind, this has been easily the most exciting arena for contemporary art for the past two decades. The Asian Modern lays the historical groundwork for the present-day boom.

Three other books that I’ve managed to complete are all relatively small-scale fictions and belles-lettres. First up is Stephanie Radok’s Becoming a Bird: Untold Stories About Art (Wakefield Press) an unclassifiable blend of memoir and travel book, with a focus on art history. This is a light, fluent collection of pieces that rang a lot of bells when Radok discussed her experiences of museums and works of art. It’s not what one might call a ‘necessary’ book, but it’s well-written and diverting.

There’s a maturity to Radok’s style that I missed in Angela O’Keeffe’s Night Blue(Transit Lounge), a small but ambitious debut novel, mostly narrated by Jackson Pollock’s famous painting, Blue Poles. It’s a device almost calculated to bring forth the adjective “ingenious”, but it’s also a difficult act to sustain. If Blue Poleshad a voice I doubt it would be the voice O’Keeffe imagines. What one hears, in fact, is the author’s voice, a voice that strives for a profundity not easily achieved. This is a book by a young person trying to sound older than she is. There’s a lot of promise and commitment but for O’Keeffe it’s still early days. I was reminded of what Berlioz once wrote about Saint-Saëns: “He lacks inexperience”.

This brings me to Michael Fitzgerald’s Pietà (Transit Lounge) – a more well-rounded piece of fiction, in which Fitzgerald continues his transition from art writer to novelist. His most daring conceit is to make his main character a young woman tracing her mother’s footsteps to Rome via a stint as an au pair in Paris. It’s notoriously difficult to cross genders and generations as a writer. Jane Austen, for instance, only ever wrote about things of which she had first-hand experience (and made a pretty good fist of it!).

Lucy, the protagonist in Fitzgerald’s story, is actually a bit colourless – a vegan, a new generation hippy, a young woman in search of herself in a confused kind of way. Neither did the discussions of her mother’s life in a convent feel especially vivid, perhaps because my immediate point of comparison is Karen Armstrong’s powerful memoir, Through the Narrow Gate.

Fitzgerald’s strengths lie in the intricate, layered arrangement of his storylines, and the polished nature of his prose. The integration of the art content, revolving around Laszlo Toth’s attack on Michelangelo’s Pietà, is handled with great skill.

Judged by the parameters Fitzgerald has set for himself the book is an accomplished piece of work. My subjective caveat is that I find I’m increasingly drawn to novels in which there is a clear, progressive storyline rather than an interiorised narrative that keeps doubling back on itself. I can sympathise with the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, who says: “I’m saving Virginia Woolf for when I’m dead.”.