Artists: Jenn Brazier, Maude Gum, Simone Kennedy, Mary Packer Harris and Edwin Newsham, John MacAskill, Jessie MacDonald, Avis Smith, Lee Salomone, Beverley Southcott, PH Williams
Curated by Beverley Southcott
Catalogue essay by Adam Dutkiewicz
Exhibition runs through February until 26 March 2017
Three lifetimes, and six generations. That’s the total amount of time since Western art traditions have been established in the colonial city of Adelaide, a British settlement founded on egalitarianism and sectarian differences rather than penal servitude, as were most of the cities in Australia. The colonial project, despite the best intentions of some of the early settlers, administrators and politicians, inevitably affected the Indigenous people through illness and confrontation, and later sought to assimilate individuals, denying and destroying traditional culture. Nine hundred lifetimes, and up to two thousand generations.
I kept thinking about the scale of these cultural time-frames while working on the recently published first volume of A Visual History: the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, 1856-2016. Western art was exhibited first in Adelaide in 1847. The Society was formed in 1856, and most of the first European-origin artists had connections with the Society, which existed a generation before the Art Gallery of South Australia and a handful of years before the School of Art. Artists of the Federation era were quite different from those of the Colonial era, and quite different again from the artists after both world wars; and now there are still similarities in genres and approaches, but there is a lot more besides. A continuing theme has been tradition and resistance to change, on the one hand, and on the other, progress and modernisation. The latter stemmed from a knowledge of what was happening elsewhere, an inclination to new ideas and new ideas that borrowed on folk art and indigenous cultures as much as it was interested in being perceived to be new.
This essay focuses on the historical artists within the time period of the 1920s until the 1940s in Adelaide, a time when the Arts and Crafts movement had secured such a prominent position, through earlier agents who had mostly migrated from London and other cities in the United Kingdom and Germany in the 19th century: people such as Charles Hill (1824−1916), the founder of the South Australian Society of Arts, as it was then known, and first master of the School of Design (as it was first known) as well as St Peter’s College; the German-origin Louis Tannert (c.1833-after 1909), second Master of the School of Design; Harry Pelling Gill (1855−1916), its third Master and influential curator of the National Gallery (now Art Gallery) of South Australia; Archibald Collins (1853−1922), a painter with Pre-Raphaelite roots and Master of Life and Antique Drawing at the School of Art and Design and private instructor.1 All of these 19th century artists, and a few others, had a profound influence on students who secured positions at the art school in the early decades of the 20th century and who mentored their students, in turn, in the traditions and skills they learned in drawing, carving, printmaking and decorative arts.
Another medium that was not taught at the art school but was lectured upon and developed through apprenticeships and professional studios, as much as Societies similar and often affiliated with the South Australian Society of Arts, as it was then known, was photography. The handing over of knowledge was not only generational, but also between peers—and in photography this was especially apparent, with multiple photographic studios in Adelaide producing formidable and impressive work in this new medium, and employing painters to hand-colour works for commission: photographers like the New Yorker Townsend Duryea (1823−1888) and his brother Sanford had a prominent studio in King William Street, unfortunately burned down in 1875, in the process destroying some 60,000 glass plates and negatives and resulting in Duryea leaving South Australia. Saul Solomon (1836−1929) ran one of the studios that employed colourists like Mortimer Menpes (1855−1938) and Helen Hambidge (1857−1938), who worked with John Hood and Hammer’s.2 After Duryea’s departure, the South Australian Photographic Society was formed, in 1885, and it participated in exhibitions and held independent displays of their work in the Institute Building and built a relationship with the Society of Arts that endured well into the 20th century, and was ultimately absorbed, with its formal demise around World War One, by the expanding Adelaide Camera Club, which was founded, originally as the Malvern Camera Club, in 1902 and is still operating today.3
The photographers included here have direct links to Australia’s earliest “art photographer”, John Kauffmann, who returned from Europe as a pictorialist and exhibited with both the aforementioned photographic societies as well as the Kapunda Photographic Society, where he circulated and undertook field trips, mentoring others.4 Kauffmann also worked for Hammer’s, but moved to Melbourne in 1909, and his ideas can be discerned in this exhibition by the presence of work by Percy Howard Williams (1881−1934) and John MacAskill (c.1890−1974). Williams was active in the Adelaide Camera Club from c.1906, and was instrumental in persuading the state gallery to collect photography. His own poetic work was well reviewed, and was purchased by the gallery in 1926. MacAskill was a leading amateur photographer of the 1920s, whose aesthetic ideals to some degree overlapped with tonalist painters in Melbourne, of whom now Clarice Beckett (1887–1935) is most celebrated, and whose forms move towards the abstract through diffuse light, soft tones, and simplicity. MacAskill was a member of the ACC from 1927, and his sister Katrine was also a member.5
These traditions, to some extent, are alive and well in the work of Beverley Southcott, whose Conduit Space series is not concerned with capturing subjects, either documentarily or fleetingly, but light itself. The works are conceptual and abstract, a logical formal conclusion to the inclinations of pictorial photographers and tonalist painters before her; but the luminous images of shimmering light suggest the hidden, interior, or mental states of meditation and illumination as much as the liminal spaces from which they derive.6
At the School of Art, the influence of Laurence Howie (1876−1963) cannot be understated—as a carver in wood,7 designer, and painter in oils, watercolour and on porcelain, he reintroduced china painting, a skill that had been first taught there by Rosa Fiveash (1854−1938), but classes had ceased during a drought and an economic downturn in 1896.8 Gladys Good (1890−1979) and Margaret Kelly (later Mrs Walloscheck), were both instated as instructors in 1911 and the subject continued until the late 1950s. Avis Smith has meticulously collected and documented this artistic pursuit in late 19th and early to mid 20th century Adelaide. She has direct links to this era, having been trained at Wilderness School the School of Art in the 1940s, the back end of an era when the genre had superb practitioners in Adelaide like Rosa Fiveash, Howie, Maida Wright (active 1910−30), Mamie Venner (1881−1974), Maude Wynes (active 1920s−30s), Jessie MacDonald (active 1920s−30s) and Maude Gum (1885−1973). The latter was skilled as a painter (trained under both James and Will Ashton, father and son artists) and china painter, and was an art teacher at well, not at tertiary but secondary level, at Wilderness school, where she taught Avis Chapman (née Smith), some of whose graphics included in this exhibition were submitted for her Intermediate examination in 1944. In retirement Gum continued to teach privately.9 Her china paintings were often executed as strong geometric designs. Geometric form was not yet recognised as valid in painting on canvas in Adelaide but had emerged in Sydney among the Constructivists Ralph Balson and Grace Crowley from around 1940. In Adelaide this work on porcelain predated the rise of hard-edge painting at the School of Art in the early 1960s, which became mainstream in Australian art by 1968. The connection of this decorative work, which stemmed from the carvings and paintings inspired by Howie and others influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and manifested in more modernised form in the Art Deco era, is an interesting one to contemplate, as much geometric form is implicit in the surrealist approaches adopted by Ivor Francis, Douglas Roberts and Jeffrey Smart and others from the 1940s, before abstraction was de rigeur, from the mid-1950s.
The geometric approach was adopted since her time of instruction under Gum by Avis Chapman in her own diverse practice as a china painter, which has also included landscape, still life, botanical, animal and historical themes, some of it while resident in the mining town of Broken Hill in the 1970s and ’80s. She has undertaken numerous workshops and courses in Adelaide and beyond to develop her skills and to learn about the medium that has maintained her fascination for several decades. Although she is still learning, she has become a specialist, with a breadth of knowledge across the field and an especial interest in the historical practitioners from Adelaide.
Within this discussion about handing on traditions and being curious rather than incurious about new things, the figure of Scottish origin Mary Packer Harris10 looms large, as she was pivotal in the development and dissemination of new ideas in Adelaide, and her inspiration and mentoring provided the impulse for her students such as Ivor Francis, Douglas Roberts, Ruth Tuck and Jacqueline Hick—each of them to become reputable educators themselves—to seek new ideas during World War Two. Her Quakerism, pacifism and rejection of conformism sparked an attitude of rebellion among younger art students who had seen that art had moved beyond the neo-classical influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, the influence of Pre-Raphaelites and 19th century realism, and well beyond the call of late Impressionists in Australia such as the Heidelberg School, and other forms of imitative art, to pose different questions about the nature of art, to present other ideas and methods in art, sometimes political and philosophical.11 This did not sit well with a provincial culture in Adelaide that had been comfortable and cut off from developments elsewhere—even, to some degree, in the larger cities in Australia. The anti-fascist group the Angry Penguins and its spin-off, the Contemporary Art Society, brought Adelaide into the cultural mainstream active in Sydney and Melbourne, as much as it was possible to be so while working out on the edge of the world and in the grips of an inevitable time-lag until artists repatriated and American soldiers, Jewish and other European migrants arrived on our shores and brought with them their keener interest in new forms, and high art and avant-garde culture.
We see the influences of migrants’ ideas, notably Dadaistic and Art Povera impulses, in the art of Lee Salomone, a man of Italian origin whose sculptures speak of thrift, recycling and environmentalism, and minimalism as much as it connects to his European traditions in art-traditions of folk and modern art. Lee is a gardener and works with nature and knowledge passed down to him by his grandparents to survive and make a living, and he pays homage to this reality in his image of the moon, a representation acknowledging the lunar cycle in relation to planting and harvesting of crops.12
Jenn Brazier too, refers to gardens, but hers are the gardens of the soul, the hidden dimensions of the unconscious mind, a concept important in the imagination of mid-20th century surrealists. Her photography does not document reality but attempts to estrange it and contextualize it differently as states of mind.13 Her images are often framed with carved frames, a vestige of the Arts and Crafts movement that was so popular in Adelaide in the Federation era; and her treatment of imagery suggests early photographic portraiture, the silhouettes of paper-cut, and older decorative art-forms such as the painted brooches and miniatures, on ivory or in enamel, of artists included here like Jessie MacDonald and Gum.
Simone Kennedy has always been attracted to painting large surrealistic canvases in the tradition sparked by Hieronymus Bosch in the Northern Renaissance but with a brighter, contemporary twist that tends to converge with inclinations of Neo-Pop and the worlds of anime filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki. In Hand Over, she explores the role of memory in the cyclical transmission of knowledge. In this exhibition she presents two paintings, the large Failure to thrive, which focuses on the “emotional fragmentation of memory” and a support work that hones in on the hand over moment.14
Through the conceptual, poetic and formal links explored in this exhibition, curator Beverley Southcott, in her selection of artists, has opened up new vistas from the old, and found connections among contemporary practitioners that suggest that a hundred years or so is not long between friends and peers, even beyond the grave. The object is to make sure that art is still meaningful to us in another one hundred years’ time, for, without art, why have we fought wars and striven for our freedoms and ideas? A life of servitude, failed hopes and cynicism is not enough for the human spirit.
1 In 1882 it became the School of Painting and the School of Design; c.1892−93 it was renamed the School of Design, Painting and Technical Art; c.1916 it was referred to in government circles as the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts; and in 1956 the South Australian School of Art. See Jenny Aland, Through the lens of time: 155 Years at the South Australian School of Art, 1861-2016, work-in-progress, to be published 2017.
2 Adam Dutkiewicz (ed.), A Visual History: The Royal South Australian Society of Arts 1856−2016, vol. one (Adelaide, RSASA, 2016), pp. 79, 131, 135.
3 ibid, pp. 75−77, 169−171.
4 ibid, pp. 74, 171.
5 Carolyn Lovitt, A Century In Focus, pp. 160−62.
6 Chistopher Williams-Wynn, “Liminal Vision”, catalogue essay, Beverly Southcott: Conduit Space, Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne, 2013, accessed 12 November 2016, http://edmundpearce.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/EP_BSouthcott_catalogue_fnl.pdf.
7 An example of that style here is the 1929 Packer/Newsham The Indian upon God fire screen.
8 Avis C Smith, “Changing fortunes: the history of China Painting in South Australia”, PhD thesis, Adelaide, University of Adelaide, 2008, p. 144.
9 Gwen Num, “Maude Gum (1885−1973)”, Gwen Num, “Maude Gum (1885−1973)”, A Visual History, op. cit, p. 355.
10 Rachel Biven, “Mary P. Harris, 1891−1978”, A Visual History, op. cit, p. 365.
11 A Visual History, op. cit, pp. 199−203, 365.
12 Lee Salomone, Artist’s Statement, Hand Over.
13 Jenn Brazier, Artist’s Statement, Hand Over.
14 Simone Kennedy, Artist’s Statement, Hand Over.