Blackpaint 420 – Australia at the RA; Whiteley’s Murder Pictures


Australia at the Royal Academy

This exhibition has had an astonishingly savage reception in some quarters, notably from Waldemar Januszczak and from Brian Sewell, who slates the aboriginal painters as ravaged by alcohol and trotting out pictures that are meaningless, when divorced from their ritual tribal functions.  Adrian Searle is also exercised by the omissions and patchiness of the show.  Clearly, it has bitten off too much to chew – impossible to do a whole continent thoroughly, with the rich and complex aboriginal cultures and the European tradition.  Still, there’s some great stuff to see, so you can go and be stimulated and entertained AND pontificate about how sketchy and incomplete the exhibition is…

To start with the aboriginal paintings; they are segregated from the others for the most part.  They are surprisingly huge and striking; there is one that is just like a Per Kirkeby, red, pink and white in a tower- or hill- like structure.  Another in this first room is a huge white square with pink and blue borders, with a wave-like swoosh in the centre; it looks like a tapestry.  Everywhere there are concentric circles, stars, giant figures built from blobs and stars of paint; “Cyclone Tracy” by Rover Thomas, a black funnel-shaped swathe through a striped landscape; another showing the story of a cannibal old woman who lived in a cave and ate kidnapped children.  It’s like a map – a blob in the middle is the woman’s cave.

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Cyclone Tracy by Rover Thomas

There are paintings from the early days of European settlement; a couple that look almost like Caspar David Friedrich.  the early Euros obviously had difficulty seeing with “Australian” eyes.  Later, there are the Australian Impressionists, Roberts and Streeton etc. ; diggings, camps, sheep shearing; a great picture, “Lost”, a girl adrift in a eucalyptus forest; a radiant moonrise, a pink/grey dawn.  if you stand in the centre of the room, you can see there is an Australian colour set – dusty, tawny, orange but bleached out.

Then, we are at the modernist section; Sidney Harbour Bridge, painted by Grace Cossington Smith , who also painted the beautiful screen, like something Duncan Grant might have painted at Charleston.  Flesh hunks roasting on a beach, the sand and sea represented by blazing bands of yellow and blue; a collection of athletic, Lempicka-like figures tossing balls to each other, showing off.

Now the Nolans; several Ned Kellys – police at a burning beacon, Ned’s sister quilting the inside of his helmet, the shootout at Glenrowan.  And an odd one with a parrot (see below).

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Now the 60s 0n – a Brett Whiteley of a bay, orange with small boats –

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Olsen’s “Sydney Sun”, which hangs above you like a mirror over a bed – so I’m told – a bilious yellow, and compared by Januszczak to diarrhoea; two pictures by Fred Williams, small fragments and twists of paint in flat landscapes of grey and brown; a black and white Fairweather, a lot like Bryan Wynter and an enormous Arthur Boyd – a roughly drawn white figure, like a Bacon, on a black background, with a window looking out on a blazing white yard.

In the later galleries, two things of note – Fiona Hall’s set of opened sardine tins, with silver trees growing from the tops, containing not sardines, but penises, vaginas, and other “artefacts of a sexual nature”.  And a great abstract landscape, brown, grey, splattered, brushwork rather like Rose Wylie, with a bright, cream channel down the middle.  I think it was by Elizabeth Cummings but I can’t find it on the net.  Anyway, great exhibition, despite the savaging.

Brett Whiteley

I was so impressed by this painter that I bought the Thames and Hudson “Art and Life” catalogue at the RA.  The influences on him are quite obvious;  Diebenkorn in the early abstracts, maybe a little Adrian Heath too; William Scott – there’s a frying pan – and Roger Hilton, in the drawn line.  In both the drawings and the paintings, line and colour, Francis Bacon.  But he’s so good that he’s much more than the sum of these influences.  I prefer the earlier stuff, but fantastic.

The Christie Pictures

In the mid 60s, Whiteley was living in London and he became interested in the sex murders carried out in Notting Hill by John Christie in the 40s and 50s at 10 Rillington Place.  Whiteley did a series of paintings and drawings relating to the murders, some depicting Christie actually carrying out the killings.  The paintings are indistinct; they show naked bodies (Christie and the victim) fragmented and entwined and several show the penis-like nozzle of the gas pipe he used to gas the women.

When you flick through the book, you are struck first by how great the drawings and paintings are and you derive pleasure from them.  Then you read the titles, and you are repelled by the subject matter.  Still great art though?  see what you think.

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I suppose there is a precedent for this; Sickert’s depiction of the Camden Town murder, say – or the Goya Disasters of War.  The sexual content in the Whiteleys adds another disturbing layer, though.  I wonder where they are – it’s hard to imagine anyone having them on the living room wall.  I bet they’re in storage in a gallery archive.

116

The Stadium

Blackpaint

7/11/13

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