Journal

A Real Artist Murdered By A Failed One by Geoff Harrison

The failed artist is, of course, Adolf Hitler who showed his contempt for the arts establishment by holding his “Exhibition of Degenerate Art” in 1937.  This was payback time, his revenge on all those who had the temerity to reject him as an art student.

Friedl Dicker devoted her life to art and art education – even in a Nazi concentration camp she used art to offer the children “a little bit of normality.”

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She was born in Vienna in 1898 and her mother died when she was four.  She was raised alone by her father who was an assistant in a stationary store and it was in here she found all the material she needed to give full reign to her imagination.  When she was in her mid-teens she studied at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts and earned money on the side at the theatre, where she organised props, made costumes, performed on stage and wrote plays.

Dicker eventually studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar and found like minded students who shared her interest in the functions of objects.  She produced marionettes for a state fair in Weimar which drew and captivated children.  She also studied textiles and the lithographic process and when her favourite painter Paul Klee arrived at the Bauhaus, she attended his lectures on the nature of art and the childlike imagination.

Friedl Dicker, Design for a recital evening at the Bauhaus

Friedl Dicker, Design for a recital evening at the Bauhaus

Dicker became involved in a theatre troupe along with Franz Singer with whom she had a long-standing relationship which continued even after Singer got married.  She fell pregnant to him several times, but at Singer’s insistence, she had several abortions. 

In 1923 the two of them founded the 'Werkstätten Bildender Kunst' (Workshops for visual art), which produced toys, jewellery, textiles and bookbindings, graphic designs and theatre sets.  Thus they travelled regularly between several European cities.  They later set up an architecture office and won several awards.  Their relationship ended when Singer’s son died.

Friedl Brandeis, Begonias At The Window, 1936, Tempera on paper

Friedl Brandeis, Begonias At The Window, 1936, Tempera on paper

In 1931 Friedl Dicker opened up a new chapter in her life when she ran courses for kindergarten teachers.  The focus was on art and sensitizing adults to recognise the children’s personalities and artistic abilities, and to encourage the children to concentrate on a creative process.

Dicker became an active member of the Communist Party and when Hitler came to power in 1933, the party went underground.  Dicker’s studio was searched and when forged identity papers were found, she was jailed.  On the testimony of Singer, she was later released and then fled to Prague.  It was here where she married Pavel Brandeis in 1936 whilst working on renovating homes and developing textile designs.

Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, and Friedl’s friends pleaded with her to emigrate but she refused to leave her husband who by now could not get a visa.  Meanwhile the art dealer Paul Weingraf was exhibiting some of Friedl’s paintings in the Arcadia Gallery in London.

Friedl Brandeis, View Of Theresienstadt, 1944 , Pastel

Friedl Brandeis, View Of Theresienstadt, 1944 , Pastel

In 1942 she and Pavel were transported to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt where she became a carer in one of the girls’ homes.  She taught them painting and drawing with the intention of publishing (after the war) her own study on art therapy for children.  Theatre became part of the lessons and the students painted stage sets and dressed up in costumes.  With her work as a carer and Pavel’s work as a carpenter, they began to decorate the children’s’ homes thus making life a little more bearable in a bleak environment.

Display at the Museum Of Tolerance, Los Angeles, 2004

Display at the Museum Of Tolerance, Los Angeles, 2004

In the autumn of 1944, Friedl and Pavel Brandeis were transported by rail to Auschwitz concentration camp.  Shortly before leaving, Friedl packed a suitcase full of the children’s drawings and they were hidden before being delivered to the Jewish community in Prague in August 1945.  Pavel survived Auschwitz.  Friedl didn’t.  She died on 9th October 1944, childless and just one day after arriving at Auschwitz.

Source: American PBS

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The Highs And Lows Of The Archibald by Geoff Harrison

Visiting the Archibald Prize is akin to viewing a weather map.  But if droughts are caused by an excess of ‘Highs’ and not enough ‘Lows’, some recent Archibald’s would have had me reaching for the life jackets.  This most prestigious of art awards has been courting controversy since at least 1943 with William Dobell’s winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith.  So incensed were 2 Sydney artists with the decision, they took the matter to the Supreme Court alleging the portrait was a caricature. 

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Dobell has been described by some art historians as a timid rabbit who suddenly found the spotlight rudely thrust upon him.  Interviewed many years later, Dobell said he became so distressed over the episode that he developed severe dermatitis as well as temporarily losing the sight of one eye and the use of one leg.  He said he could never forgive those responsible.  Dobell won the case, but he shied away from portraiture for a while before making a triumphant return to the Archibald in 1948 with his winning a portrait of Margaret Ollie.  He won again in 1959.  The Smith portrait was later almost totally destroyed by fire before being sent to the UK for the “less-than-successful” restoration seen above.


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Dobell died in 1970 and given the events around the Smith painting, one wonders what he would have made of Adam Cullen’s winning portrait of actor David Wenham in 2000. About all that can be said of it is that it meets the three key criteria for winning the Archibald these days; it’s big, the subject is well known and it’s topical as Wenham was starring alongside Sigrid Thornton in the ABC TV series Seachange at the time.

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To me, one of the more memorable recent winners was Craig Ruddy’s 2004 portrait of actor David Gulpilil.  This image does the work no favours at all.  I saw it in the flesh and it was a stunner. 

And so to the 2019 prize currently on show at Tarrawarra and Anh Do’s entry left me even more convinced he would make a very good plasterer of feature walls.  In recent years I have found the Archibald a rather cold and alienating experience.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and some of the works in this award fit that description, but not all.

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There’s Tsering Hannaford’s studied portrait of Adelaide philanthropist Mrs. Singh, superbly executed but perhaps too conventional?

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Jude Rae’s portrait of actor Sarah Peirse performing the role of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s “A Cheery Soul” is emotive and powerful.

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There’s Katherine Edney’s exquisite little “Self Portrait With Ariel”.  She was 37 weeks pregnant with her first child at the time.

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Last year, Jun Chen was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Li Cunxin, the Chinese-Australian former ballet dancer who is now artistic director of Queensland Ballet.  The title ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ is also the title of Cunxin’s autobiography that was later made into a film.  There is something ethereal about this painting, almost as if the figure is not really there.

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And the winner is………..Tony Costa with his portrait of fellow artist Lindy Lee.  Viewed at close range this work is unconvincing, but step back at least 10 metres and there is a real presence about it.  The figure appears to be floating in space.

The Archibald continues at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art until 5th November.

Death By A Thousand Brushes by Geoff Harrison

If the creators of Midsomer Murders ever run out of ideas (and after 20 seasons they surely have), they could do a lot worse than attend an arts fair.  DCI Barnaby would have been kept very busy at the Affordable Arts Fair in Melbourne where the death rate, in artistic terms, was phenomenal.  I saw illustration, décor and crass commercialism but very little art.  Have a good look at the logo…..is it any wonder the artist has hidden her face?

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One of the more appalling stands was the online gallery, Bluethumb.  It had me realizing that I’m mixing with the wrong crowd.  Yes, I have sold 2 paintings on that site, but none recently and clearly I am out of step with their main focus – colour, surface, texture.  Interestingly, the Bluethumb people gave me a wide berth whilst I was there – was it the expression on my face?  Or did they recognise me from a few months ago when they sent me false sale notifications on 2 consecutive days and I spread the word far and wide?

There were some gems in the ocean of detritus, if you were prepared to look hard enough, and I have included images of them below.  There may have been others but after an hour or so I’d had enough.  So it was off to the Hophaus Restaurant in Southbank to detox.


Shannon Smiley,  Near The Harbour Bridge,  oil on canvas

Shannon Smiley, Near The Harbour Bridge, oil on canvas

Katsutoshi Yuasa,  Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams,  Oil-based Woodcut

Katsutoshi Yuasa, Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams, Oil-based Woodcut

Wayne Fogden,  Le Venaria Reale,  Inkjet Print

Wayne Fogden, Le Venaria Reale, Inkjet Print

Luis Fuentes,   Home,   Oil On Canvas

Luis Fuentes, Home, Oil On Canvas



Living With Art by Geoff Harrison

How are we supposed to appreciate art?  It may seem a dumb question, but art historians and critics tend to tie themselves into knots sometimes when answering it.  It is the belief of many commentators that society has got it wrong by focusing on the technical elements of a work of art, or its provenance or its historical context.

Sure, these issues are important, but what we are not encouraged to do is to connect up works of art with the trials and aspirations of our daily lives.  “It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture” ALAIN De BOTTON. To put it simply, we are not encouraged to appreciate art as a means of instruction on how to live and die well.

The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon remarked that the paintings of Howard Hodgkin were a rebuttal to the dry academic puritanism of much art criticism these days that can’t relate to a work of art until it’s been reduced to a set of abstract concepts.  I recall having an art teacher at RMIT who was embarrassed by the display of emotion in art.

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Photographer Elliott Erwitt was born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and as the war clouds loomed, his family emigrated to America.  He felt being an émigré helped him in his job – being an outsider looking in.  He is regarded as a humanist and humourist.

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold’s photograph could be considered a modern day version of those moralizing images that characterised Christian paintings of the past.  In a secular world and with considerable skill, Arnold brings us face to face with the consequences of letting ourselves and others down.

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

This photo was specifically commissioned for the book Art As Therapy, written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong.  The rationale of this exercise is that art should start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served theological and state needs for centuries.  We are asked here to consider what impact viewing this image might have on a couple whose own relationship is going through some difficulties.  They may realise that other people have the same sorrows and troubles as they have.  They may connect with something that is universal and unashamed.  They are not robbed of their dignity but are learning the deepest truths about being human.

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Even in a secular world it is still possible to feel the emotion pouring out of this painting.  It transcends the perhaps narrow Christian context to touch the viewer in ways many other paintings of that era can’t.  It is a technical masterpiece for sure, but its psychological power goes far beyond.



The Hard Hitting But Entertaining Critic by Geoff Harrison

If you are looking for an art critic who can make art understandable and accessible, then English born Waldemar Januszczak could be your man.  He has an easy, conversational style of presentation that I have always enjoyed.  Often humorous and witty, he is credited with doing for the arts what David Attenborough has done for the natural world.

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He began his career as an art critic with the Guardian in the 1980’s before switching to the Sunday Times in 1992.  In 1997 he founded a company called ZCZ Films which has produced over 30 films covering travel, the arts and even dogs.  In his program Puppy Love from 2000, Januszczak takes a swipe at dogs and particularly their owners who he can’t stand.  From the snippet I’ve seen on Youtube, it looks hilarious.

His 2009 series “Baroque! From St Peters to St Pauls” reinvigorated my passion for the arts after a disastrous return to the workforce.  It was dark and brooding in segments, but highly entertaining and informative.  His self-deprecation is something I appreciate yet at the same time his profound knowledge of and passion for art history is clear.

But he has an acerbic tongue, or should that be pen?  His hatred of the Turner Prize is legendary dating all the way back to 1984.  “The British art establishment, having already shown unforgivable ignorance and wickedness in its dealings with Turner's own Bequest to the nation, is now bandying his name about in the hope of giving some spurious historical credibility to a new prize cynically concocted to promote the interest of a small group of dealers, gallery directors and critics.”

One year on and things hadn’t improved, ‘The Turner Prize, like the rot of the Arts Council, the rise of business sponsorship with strings attached, the growing importance of the PR man in art, the mess at the V&A, and the emergence of the ignorant "art consultant" is the direct result of inadequate government support for the arts. Forced out into the business circus, art has had to start clowning around.’  Both quotes are from The Guardian.  Of the 2014 prize Januszczak described it as “yawn-forcingly, heart-crushingly, buttock-clenchingly bad” and urged people not to go.

Unfortunately, Januszczak’s invective has also been directed towards Australian art, in particular the exhibition “Australia” mounted at the Royal Academy in 2013.  The Times seemed impressed with it, describing the exhibition as long overdue.  But over at the Sunday Times, Januszczak disagreed and described it as light weight, provincial and dull.  Yet in his most recent TV series “Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art – Made In The USA” he seemed to be championing exactly that kind of art – at least in the snippet I uncovered on the Net.


John Olsen                                                  Sydney Sun

John Olsen Sydney Sun

Januszczak describes McCubbin’s famous Pioneers triptych as “poverty porn” (work that one out), Fred Williams desert landscape as “thick cowpats of minimalism”, and most indigenous art as “tourist tat”.  He reserved his most fierce attack for John Olsen’s Sydney Sun describing as “a cascade of diarrhoea”.   Olsen responded by describing the comments as foolish and an attempt to put the colonials in their place.

Januszczak’s website ZCZ Films includes a shop that, strangely, contains very few of his most recent programs.  The ABC informed me they were frozen out of negotiations to screen his 2016 series The Renaissance Unchained by the BBC agreeing to an exclusive rights deal with Foxtel Arts. One assumes this also applies to his other recent films.  The Renaissance Unchained is still not available on the website.  This tends to make one feel very lonely in OZ, unless one can afford pay-tv.



Art In Post Industrial Towns by Geoff Harrison

The town of North Adams Massachusetts was on its knees following the closure of the local electronics industry in 1985.  At its height, the Sprague Electric Company employed over 4000 people in a community of 18000 but cheap imports from Asia killed it.  The factories themselves date back to the late 19th century when it started out as a print works.

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The BBC screened a series called Relative Values many years ago and one episode focused on plans to turn the huge factory complex into a contemporary art museum.  I wanted to find out if it had become a reality.

Plans to transform the factory complex date back to the year after Sprague closed, 1986, when staff from the nearby Williams College Museum of Art were inspecting the facility as a suitable venue to exhibit large contemporary art that were not able to be displayed in a more traditional gallery setting.  They realised the buildings had much more potential than as an offshoot gallery.  Several years of fundraising followed and petitioning of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts resulted in an $18.6 million grant.

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The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened in 1999 with 19 galleries and 9,300 m2 of exhibition space which has since more than doubled with subsequent expansions. In addition to housing galleries and performance art spaces, it also rents spaces to commercial tenants. Music festivals are also held there.



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According to a NPR (National Public Radio) article from 2012, you could pick up a live/work loft space for under $40,000.  Sounds attractive, but Mass MoCA has not been the employment generator that was first envisioned.  Original estimates that the development would create 600 jobs proved off the mark.  The real number is less than 300, although with subsequent expansions this figure may have increased.  There is some skepticism these days that a post-industrial town can turn things around entirely by building art galleries and developing economies based on the so-called creative industries.  It would appear that Mass MoCA is a work in progress.

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn

Part of an installation by Liz Glynn

Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.

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A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 

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Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.

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Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.

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The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.



Oasis In The City by Geoff Harrison

In my exhibition scheduled for June 2020 at Tacit Galleries in Collingwood, I will be exploring the recuperative and consoling powers nature has to offer to all of us. The exhibition will be based around Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which I have visited many times for psychological recovery from the challenges of modern existence, such as losing one’s job, difficulties in relationships or even working one’s way through art school. It’s the responsibility of art to make us appreciate the importance of modest moments in our lives, such as the play of shadows cast by a tree on a path.

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Modern advertising often specialises in glamourizing the unattainable; that is, places that are rare, remote, costly or famous.  Yet here we have an exotic location right under our noses that we can visit at any time.  And the sun need not be shining to appreciate the mysteries of these gardens.   A visit on a quiet and drizzly day can be an oddly therapeutic experience as you get the feeling that you have the whole gardens to yourself – tearooms and all.  Without the perpetual buzz of sight-seeing aircraft overhead, one can absorb the almost surreal beauty of the gardens, the thought that has gone into the landscaping and the far flung vistas.

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Thanks to the barrage of advertising that constantly assails us, we lose the value of things that are close to hand, such as a quiet secluded area that allows time for contemplation. We become ungrateful for things that are free or don’t cost very much and we lose the value of ideas and feelings.

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

In this series I have not bothered with depicting precise species of plants as this is not meant to be an exact botanical record.  It’s a mood, a feeling that I’m intending to convey.