The triumph of modernism

Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, Gymea; TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville
28 March - 24 May 2015; 20 June - 16 August 2015 respectively

‘Having so many imaginations in one room at one time is so exciting’, enthused Belinda Hanrahan, Director of the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery on the southern fringes of Sydney. ‘These artists have really stood the test of time—so it’s very special to have this quality of art in this unlikely place; much more moving than going to see it in the city.’

How did this selection of sixty-three serious post-War works of Australian Modernism find their way to this unlikely resting place in the Sutherland Shire? It began with Hazelhurst Gallery’s recently appointed Patron, Edmund Capon—newly freed from responsibilities at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW)—asking Hanrahan how he could help. Her immediate response was, ‘We want a cracker of a show’. Hanrahan expanded: ‘We have no collection here, but feel responsible for trying to introduce a lot of people to art. So we need an occasional exhibition of significance. And, going by fifteen pages of enthusiasm in the Visitor’s Book, we’ve hit the jackpot with this’.

‘It was Edmund who thought of the Besens. And I think they appreciated the exposure in Sydney—outside their base in the Yarra Valley. But Hazelhurst is also appropriate for them in that we’re the product of benefaction too. Ben and Hazel Broadhurst left their house and land for the community—Hazel + Hurst! Now that house is a base for artists’ residencies, and Sutherland Shire built the Gallery next door as a place for local artists—professionals like Gary Shead and George Gittoes at Bundeena or ceramicist Claudia Citton, showing with Modernism; then there are seven studios for less-professional artists to develop their practice’.

Enter Edmund Capon. Immediately he admitted that ‘The Triumph of Modernism’ was firstly ‘an imperious title and a slight exaggeration’, and secondly ‘It’s hardly a comprehensive survey of Australian Modernism. But I decided that Modernism was my way into the treasure trove of the Besen Collection, taking a journey through its resources’. So, not only did he concentrate on those artists whose works are crucial to the story of Australian Modernism, but also preferred those artists represented in depth by the Besen Collection.

That Collection arose from a 1951 honeymoon visit by Marc and Eva Besen to Europe, from which they’d been pre-War migrants. Many art galleries and museums were visited, and in the Rijksmuseum, they were so moved by Rembrandt’s The Jewish Couple, they bought a postcard, which they still have, framed. ‘It was all we could afford’, says Marc. ‘We’d seen so much wonderful art in Europe, we thought, “Why not try collecting local art, and getting to know the artists?”’

‘And that decision gave leadership in the valuing of contemporary Australian art’, assesses Maudie Palmer, curator and founding Director of the TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA), in the film that accompanies the exhibition.

‘They also gave leadership’, believes Capon, ‘by maintaining the personality of the collection through never relying on a curator or selecting art by committee. They simply looked at pictures, responding personally to the art and the artists.’

In the Yarra Valley, a mouth-watering list of Australian Modernists was available in the TWMA basement—Boyd and Blackman, Dobell and Drysdale, Tuckson and Fairweather, Olsen and Whiteley, Brack and Williams. All made the Capon cut—multiply, as he decided against simply including one work by every famous name, but rather to respect the Besens’ enthusiasm for particular artists with three or four works by each. Three Godfrey Millers, for instance made the cut, ‘for the simple reason that they had a lot of them, so I argued that they must have loved him. He was part of their journey, which I’d call primarily cosmopolitan; I don’t feel it has a specifically Australian identity’.

It is hard to take that assessment at face value when you come to the Hazelhurst space where Capon has hung a selection that goes from Russell Drysdale’s sublime Evening (c.1945), through unpeopled landscapes by Fred Williams, Boyd and Nolan, then to a ‘Ned Kelly’, two Boyd ‘Brides’ (which must have somehow escaped from the recent Heide complete ‘Brides’ show) and two crowded Percevals.

Quintessential Australia, one might say, enshrining ‘the second-coming of national identity in the story of the art of Australia’, as the catalogue puts it, until you reach the rear of the gallery where Brett Whiteley’s two by three and a quarter metre Australia (1970-74) throws dust in your throat, and, incidentally, allows you to realise how generous this very Melbourne couple were to the artists of Sydney.

For this relatively unknown work by Whiteley—created at the same time as his more notorious Alchemy and American Dream—is a marvellous juxtaposition of a graphically sketched Sydney, perched precariously on the periphery of a featureless wide brown land containing only a twisted angophora, its real branches coiling out of the canvas. As Alan McCulloch commentated at the time in Art International, ‘The constant in Whiteley’s work (is) the all-embracing rhythm. It leapt across oceans in a succession of writhing, twisting, alternately taut and relaxed delineations of organic forms that pulsated with individual life and character’. As Paracelsus crept into Alchemy and Bosch into The American Dream, one wonders what literary spark lay behind this precipitous portrait of his homeland.

Two other mega-works dominate the show. That other Sydneysider, John Olsen’s Salute to Cerberus (1965) and Victorian Fred Williams’s Guthega 1 from a decade later. The Olsen is hung to hit you in the eye as you enter the gallery—a provocation perhaps to Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times ‘art’ critic who felt threatened by the ‘cascade of diarrhoea’ he saw on an Olsen at the Royal Academy in London recently! Cerberus is similarly colourful and explosive, evoking the three-headed dog of mythology—‘snake heads on his back, a serpent’s tail and lion’s claws’—with a top-heavy mass of tentacles and entanglements, though no obvious canine.

The Williams, on the other hand, is a quieter masterpiece of mottled mountain. The glacial gorge at Guthega in the Snowy Mountains emerges as the spine of a turquoise landscape, as though the sea was still covering this land. Close-up, strangely, there is almost as much detail as in the Olsen; but from a distance it achieves the serene solidity that epitomised late Williams. Such contrasting artists—yet Capon has also managed to reveal similarities with his selection of Olsen’s Clarendon Bedtime Story (1981). There is a real feel of early Williams’s sparseness to it.

So, there are blockbusters, and there are exquisite personal touches—both the Besens’ and Capon’s. Turn your back on the eye-catching Cerberus and the subtler tones of two Roger Kemp Movements sooth the retinas. I wonder why an essay on Kemp is missing from the otherwise helpful little catalogue? For me, the abstract Kemps also spoke to the realism of Jeffrey Smart’s Construction Fence, and, could it be that they whispered of its triteness? But such a ‘meticulous orchestration of the real, modern world’ (in Capon’s words) obviously appealed to the Besens. For as well as Smart, they have works by Tim Storrier, John Brack, William Delafield Cook and Edwin Tanner. And their Smarts are invariably accompanied by studies and sketches—particularly valuable when his iconic The Dome is shown in development.

The Delafield Cook ‘Haystack’ brought every one of the Gallery’s visitors to close-up examination while I was there. How could anyone go to such lengths to reproduce a million stalks of straw in both stack and stubbled field? And why are his efforts so little known in Australia compared to Smart’s? Edmund Capon put the last problem down to the artist’s exclusive handling by Joseph Brown in Melbourne. ‘His was a very private journey’, assessed the curator, ‘undertaken from England. Which sadly means that hardly anyone’s taken the opportunity to bring his paintings out after his recent death. I guess that’s always a danger with a collection like the Besens’ containing artists outside the objective, “official” curatorial roll-call’.

Capon’s most obvious personal touch was the sneaked-in inclusion of a small Dobell sketch for his 1948 portrait of Margaret Olley. On a par with the Olley was a sensual Joy Hester, Love, the bodies of her protagonists melting into each other; the darker male oozing satisfaction, the lighter female with a questioning look in her eye. As fleshly, a George Baldessin Bather (1978—the year of his untimely death) reflected something of the artist’s lothario reputation. Absolutely devoid of sex, even life, Joanna Lamb’s quartet of vari-coloured Flatland Tennis Clubs (2006)—arguably post-Modernist rather than Modernist—stood quiet but strong beside a saturated Howard Arkley, representing both the Besens’ continuing pursuit of ‘wonderful’ local art.

And then there was the final delight derived from Capon’s enthusiasm for the man—William Wright’s blue/green Bay (1966). Like Tony Tuckson before him, this consummate curator and Deputy Director of the AGNSW also painted every day, but felt duty-bound to keep his work from the public gaze. Unshown, Bay was apparently bought on spec by the Besens and happily brought to light by his friend, ‘A delicate Minimalism to his art from a man who was a full-scale Expressionist in his taste’, marvelled Capon. I hear that far from disappearing again from the public gaze, the late Bill Wright will get a decent retrospective next year at the National Art School where he both studied and, in recent years, taught.

I tested Edmund Capon on what he’d concluded about Modernism from making his selection. ‘I reckon there are as many interpretations as there are tiresome pundits’. ‘For me it represents the release from classicism and realism—that shift from representation to the art of interpretation, expression, analysis. Which means Modernism is alive and well today—and that the origins of “Modernism” lie in the early 19th century…from Turner onwards’.

And surely Drysdale’s moving Evening is the epitome of that definition. A solid, strong woman, hand on hip, alone on the verandah of her bare cottage, looks out across the lifeless, drought-stricken landscape, which Drysdale had been commissioned to ‘report’ on by the Sydney Morning Herald, awaiting her returning spouse. This is no mere report; it is as expressive in its still simplicity as any tear-jerking film. A triumph of Modernism.

John Olsen, Salute to Cerberus, 1965. Oil on plywood. Collection TarraWarra Museum of Art. Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO 2001.

Howard Arkley, The bay window, 1988. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection TarraWarra Museum of Art. Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO 2001. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2008. © The Estate of Howard Arkley. Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art. 

Joanna Lamb, Flatland tennis club figure (b), 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 122cm. Acquired 2006, Collection TarraWarra Museum of Art.