As exhibitions, collection priorities, directors, and curators are constantly changing, in an art gallery it is difficult sometimes to decide what should remain on more-or-less ‘permanent’ display. One of the Gallery’s most popular works with visitors is the 1887 painting by Blandford Fletcher, Evicted. Last September it was taken off display to accommodate a rehang of the International and Asian collections. None of the Gallery’s Victorian paintings were included in that reconfiguration because of the specific focus and historical context framing the European and Asian works. It was only a matter of weeks before comments started to appear and gallery staff were regularly questioned as to the painting’s whereabouts. We were able to assuage this sense of loss by pointing to the exhibition planned for March this year, The Founding Years 1895-1915: A Collection for Queensland. But that exhibition finished in June this year and Evicted along with other Victorian narrative paintings were returned to storage. By the time another rotation of works was scheduled for this year we had received more requests and enquiries about the painting.
Well …our favourite mother and daughter and their nosey neighbours have returned! The curatorial challenge was to provide some kind of context for its inclusion in the collection hang. As so often happens, the solution to the problem was found in the work itself. With some lateral thinking, knowledge of what languishes in storage and of course, an urgent deadline – we have brought a favourite back to the fold.
Paintings such as Evicted fell out of favour in the early years of the twentieth century. With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the emerging prosperity and relative peace of the Edwardian era, images of childhood, poverty, old age and religious piety suddenly seemed out of step and were seen as sentimental and overly-laden with emotion. We should remember however that the Victorian era was an age of storytelling in both words and pictures. Children’s books, the novel and the illustrated periodicals of the time were basically what films, television and magazines are to the current age. Artists and writers appealed directly and emotively to their audiences through novels, serialised periodical stories, plays, paintings and illustrations. Novels and paintings provided models of behaviour – both good and bad. Moralistic intent was often at the heart of artistic endeavour. Charles Dickens is widely acknowledged as a master of the realist novel form – perfectly suited to portraying the new industrialised, teeming urban masses where inequality, disease, class antagonism and all manner of moral evil provided unprecedented narrative drama for the writer.
It is within the period of nineteenth-century industrialisation that Evicted has been contextualised in its new configuration in Gallery 7. The plight of the woman and her daughter in the painting is not explicitly connected to the industrial age but the narrative potential of the work is open-ended enough for a viewer to interpret, surmise and guess at the reasons for the eviction of this small family. An unprecedented increase in population in Britain during Queen Victoria’s reign was concurrent with industrialisation and urbanisation. Overcrowding of towns and cities resulted in critical shortages of housing for anyone unfortunate enough to be unemployed or disenfranchised of a family life. For a woman to be widowed or worse, unmarried with a child, was at the time tantamount to a life of destitution.
By the time Fletcher painted this work, very few children were still working in factories or coal mines as they had in the early nineteenth-century although many women still laboured as domestic servants in upper middle-class homes. A series of reforms and acts from the 1870s and 80s had gradually improved the conditions for women to divorce, gain work and obtain custody of children. By the end of the nineteenth century it was increasingly recognised that children needed the protection of a safe family environment. A flourishing industry in children’s publications, toys and reforms in the schooling of children reflected this changing perception of childhood in society.
Sentimentality in Victorian genre painting came to be maligned by critics by the end of the nineteenth century and indeed many artists traded on clichés and trite appeal to the viewer’s emotions. However, many Victorian subjects presented contemporary issues that ran parallel with people’s lives – narratives that were recognisable and invited viewers to participate in them – a phenomenon that is now catered to through television soap-operas. Paintings such as Fletcher’s Evicted provided Victorian viewers with a reflection of their world and immediate past. That they still appeal to contemporary audiences is testimony to their enduring attraction as pictorial expressions of human emotions.
So, we hope you will enjoy reacquainting yourself with this gallery favourite.
To celebrate the 120 years of the Queensland Art Gallery, we present an exhibition of the state collection’s earliest works. Not only is the exhibition an opportunity to learn about the Collection and about this slice of Queensland’s cultural history, but also it has resulted in the conservation of many of our oldest works, preserving them for the enjoyment of future generations. Here, we elaborate on the ‘humble beginnings’ of what is now a collection of more than 16 000 works.
Thirty-four years behind the colony of Victoria, and a decade on from New South Wales, the establishment of the Queensland National Art Gallery in Brisbane was an event of significance when it opened in March 1895. While earlier moves had been initiated by individuals and art societies as early as 1883 (Isaac Walter Jenner), the Queensland Governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave (1884) and the Queensland Art Society (founded in 1887), real progress was made by the end of 1894 when Richard Godfrey Rivers, graduate of the Slade School, London, and then President of the Queensland Art Society and Art Master at the Technical College, proposed in September of that year that a group of engravings and a bequest to the Government of 11 Netherlandish and Italian paintings — gifts from pastoralist and Legislative Councillor Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior — might form the basis of a state gallery, together with a loan collection in the possession of certain individuals in the colony.
Rivers was informed that an expenditure of £20 would be granted to mount and frame a selection of the engravings, and that a room in the Parliament building would be made available on weekdays only as a temporary gallery space, with admittance by order of the Speaker. This complicated and inconvenient arrangement which limited access for working people met with resistance and criticism from the public. In response, Rivers persuaded Brisbane’s mayor, Alderman Robert Fraser, to provide a room in the Town Hall that could be fitted out appropriately to accommodate the fledgling collection.
The Governor of Queensland at the time, Sir Henry Wylie Norman, officially opened the Queensland National Art Gallery on 29 March 1895, with a Board of Trustees under the chairmanship of Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Queensland, with Godfrey Rivers as Honorary Curator. In the spirit of philanthropy that accompanied the occasion, gifts of works by Godfrey Rivers (Woolshed, New South Wales 1890), Oscar Fristrom (Duramboi 1893) and Isaac Walter Jenner (Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893, re‑worked 1895), added to the ‘humble beginning’ of the Collection. An estimated 20 000 people took the opportunity to view the collected paintings, prints, decorative arts and sculptures within the first 15 months of their display, at a time when the population of Brisbane was less than 60 000.1
One of the objectives of the Queensland National Art Gallery — and an aim in keeping with many nineteenth-century public galleries, both in Australia and overseas — was to educate and elevate public taste. The inclusion of painted copies of works by Raphael and Botticelli, and engravings after Rubens and Poussin, indicated the intention on the part of Rivers as curator to present works that reflected the idealised traditions of Renaissance art and taste. An article in the Queenslander of 13 April 1895 opened with the observation that the Gallery’s Collection, ‘bids fair to become a favourite Saturday afternoon resort for our citizens’.2 The article was, however, accompanied by an illustration by Gasking, the newspaper’s cartoonist, depicting a classically attired woman standing in a decorative and decidedly unpopulated portal of an imagined gallery space. She gazes at the city’s crowds thronging to buy lottery tickets, oblivious to the higher calling on offer.
While funds for the purchase of works were limited, a number of large pictures by British artists — of subjects that reflected the Victorian taste and fashion of the time — were secured in the first years of the Gallery’s establishment. For 300 guineas, Blandford Fletcher’s Evicted 1887 was our first purchase, from the Hobart International Exhibition of 1895. The painting, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, presents a Dickensian narrative of hardship in the wake of industrialisation. Other works with popular Victorian themes include the history painting of Elizabeth Woodville, widow of EdwardIV, parting with her younger son, the Duke of York when Elizabeth learnedthat the Prince of Wales had fallen into the power of his uncle, the Duke ofGloucester 1893; the Shakespearean vignette of Hamlet – the churchyardscene 1902 by Frank Cadogan Cowper; and Frederic Goodall’s contemporised religious subject, The Holy Mother 1875.
While ‘The Founding Years’ exhibition, presented in QAG’s Gallery 14 from 28 March to 14 June 2015, does not attempt to emulate the founding collection, it does, however, include many of the works that constituted it. Significant works from the Murray-Prior bequest are also available for viewing in the newly installed international and Asian collections in QAG’s Philip Bacon Galleries (7, 8 and 9). Presenting the exhibition has also prompted significant conservation treatment of works that have been in the Collection since the early 1900s. The frames for Hamilton MacCallum’s Sunday afternoon parade 1896 and Giacomo Maes’s undated View in the Campagna, Rome have been cleaned and re-gilded, while the conservation and stabilisation of works on paper, such as the large watercolour The legitimate drama c.1880–93 by Thomas W Couldery, has enabled these works to be displayed in an appropriate context after many years in storage.
Endnotes 1 Bettina MacAuley, ‘A humble beginning for Queensland’s National Art Gallery’, Brisbane History Group, Papers no.3, 1985, p.115. 2 ‘New pictures at the National Gallery’, Queenslander, 13 April 1895
Three painterly prints by photographer Saul Leiter add strength to the Gallery’s collection of modern photography.
Saul Leiter (1923–2013) was born in Pittsburgh and later moved to Cleveland, where he studied briefly to become a rabbi. He arrived in New York City in 1946 — the same year that Piet Mondrian completed Broadway Boogie Woogie, a painting that responded directly to the colour and rhythm of the city. In a similar manner, Leiter explored the potential of photography — black-and‑white and colour — to create a body of work that improvised and riffed on incidental details and fragments of that same vibrant metropolis, which became his home until his recent passing. Imbued with a painter’s sense of light, colour and composition, Leiter’s work is increasingly recognised as a unique contribution to the history of twentieth-century photography.1
While Leiter initially studied and continued to practise as a painter, it was photography that came to preoccupy and provide him with a living through his work for fashion magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar during the 1950s and 60s. Shortly after arriving in New York, Leiter met painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–92) who offered to lend him a Leica camera, which Leiter credits as initiating his interest in photography. Pousette-Dart was himself experimenting with photography at the time, making large scale, softly printed images in the style of British pictorialist photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.2
In 1953, a selection of 23 black-and-white photographs by Leiter were included in the exhibition ‘Always the Young Strangers’, curated by Edward Steichen — then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. As a photographer, Leiter worked both within and against the photographic traditions and conventions of the time. He admired the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and W Eugene Smith, and recognised the importance of the social documentary styles of Walker Evans and Lewis Hine as predecessors. However, Leiter forged an individual approach to photography that was informed more by a ‘painter’s eye’ than a photojournalist’s. He experimented with colour photography — shooting primarily transparency film (colour slides) — during the 1950s, when it was considered more suited to mainstream advertising and largely shunned by most photographers.
In her book The New York School: Photographs 1936–1963, curator and writer Jane Livingston locates Leiter and his work within a context of New York photographers that includes figures such as Robert Frank, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. While acknowledging the individual visions of 16 photographers and that few of them actually identified with a movement or group as such, Livingston cites ‘a conscious breaking of the rules of photography’ and a ‘passionate belief in certain humanistic values’ as characterising their work while adding that ‘the physical and emotional reality of [New York]’ was a fundamental underpinning of their identity.3
Leiter’s New York is found in details, moods — fleeting, peripheral images that, for the most part, go unnoticed — rather than the human drama of faces in the crowd. He used a repertoire of techniques such as close focus, off-kilter framing, blur, reflection and refraction through glass and strong contrast to create poetic, lyrical images in which ambiguity and contingency are in constant play. Livingston writes that ‘Leiter has forged an entire visual language for himself out of tentativeness, delicacy of expression, a habitual recognition of the ambiguousness of things’ and his awareness ‘of the provisional character of everything in relation to everything else’.4 The recent acquisition of three prints by Saul Leiter is a significant addition to the Gallery’s collection of modern photography and recognises the ongoing re-evaluation of the medium in the light of rapid technological change.
Endnotes 1 Saul Leiter, Saul Leiter: Early Colour, Steidel, Göttingen, Germany, 4th ed., 2013. 2 Pictorialism was a style and method of photography advocated in New York by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen during the early years of the twentieth century. It consciously embraced an aesthetic and fine art approach to making photographs through the use of handmade emulsions of platinum, albumen and gum-bichromate which rendered subtle tonal variations in prints in emulation of a painted surface. 3 Jane Livingston, The New York School: Photographs 1936–1963, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Inc., New York, 1992, p.259. 4 Livingston, p.324
The Gallery holds a number of artworks in which sound or music are significant. Recent gifts of music and pop culture ephemera, along with important multimedia Collection works, are the inspiration behind the new exhibition ‘Seen + Heard: Works and Multiples from the Collection’.
‘Seen + Heard: Works and Multiples from the Collection’ considers some of the interactions and crossovers between popular culture, music, sound and visual art. This fertile and inherently popular area of research, writing and cultural inquiry has been the subject of a number of museum exhibitions in recent years. ‘Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound’ (Hayward Gallery, London, 2000), ‘Rock My World’ (CCA Wattis Institute San Francisco, 2002), ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967’ (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2007), ‘The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl’ (Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 2010–11), and most recently, ‘Soundings: A Contemporary Score’ (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013), have all explored the cultural, sonic and visual dimensions of sound art, pop culture and music.
It is a given that as museum collections develop and evolve, particular themes and perspectives emerge. This is usually a mixture of strategic planning on one hand and serendipity on the other. The Gallery’s Collection certainly reflects both of these factors. In recent decades, a number of works acquired either directly incorporate sound as a component or indirectly refer to sound and music.
Some of the Collection’s first major works to address the nexus of image-sound-object were videos, prints, photographs and sculptural objects by Korean artist Nam June Paik. His pioneering work in the field of sculptural sound installations, video works, performance and multimedia crossovers position him as one of the most significant and influential innovators of the twentieth century.
John Cage, who was one of Paik’s mentors and collaborators, is also represented in the Collection by one of the first-ever sound ‘multiples’: Mozart Mix was published in 1991 by German curator, publisher and museum director René Block in an edition of 35 and consists of 25 cassette tapes of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, any five of which may be played simultaneously on five cassette players. The work relies on the chance configuration of Mozart’s works as they merge and overlap to form a new composition.
Gifts of Fluxus multiples and works from the late Veronese publisher Francesco Conz in 1995 and 1997 added a unique dimension to the Collection. The largest gathering of such material in an Australian art museum, these gifts included sound-related multiples and works by Nam June Paik, Philip Corner, Emmett Williams and Milan Knizak. Prompted in part by our holdings of Fluxus works, Gold Coast-based artist and private collector Scott Redford has added to these, generously gifting vinyl records, multiples and pop culture ephemera to both the Gallery’s Collection and the Research Library.
More recently, acquisitions of major sound, sculpture and video installations by Martin Creed (Work no.189 1998), Candice Breitz (King: A portrait of Michael Jackson 2005), Céleste Boursier- Mougenot (from here to ear (v.13) 2010) and Angelica Mesiti (Citizens Band 2012) have greatly enhanced the Gallery’s holdings.
A significant component of ‘Seen + Heard’ will be the inclusion of over 120 vinyl LP record covers, addressing the 12-inch (31.5 x 31.5cm) square format as a canvas for artists and designers, most notably in the case of Andy Warhol’s cover designs for 1950s jazz artists, his celebrated Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground covers, and the celebrity-style portrait sleeves he created for John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and Debbie Harry. The vinyl LP — while largely associated with a certain demographic and its ‘golden age’ of the 1960s, 70s and 80s — has assumed the status of a cultural and historical artefact. In recent years it has seen a resurgence of popularity despite the ease of access to digital music downloads and the dematerialisation of both sound and image. The very physicality of the vinyl LP and its cover is now its defining characteristic.
While a definitive album cover art collection would be almost impossible to agree upon, a gesture to the variety and diversity of tastes has been made by inviting four vinyl collectors and music enthusiasts to contribute selections of their favourite cover designs. Collectors Sean Sennett, Paul Curtis, Ed Kuepper and John Willsteed have each contributed nine covers to be displayed during the exhibition. Covers are also available to visitors through interactive screens, along with sleeve notes and inserts, providing a more complete experience of the actual covers displayed in the exhibition space.
Reasons for collecting records vary between individuals, but in most cases the musical content and the cover have provided markers or signposts in their personal histories. As designer Richard Evans has stated, ‘They remind us of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with; they mark our student days, our holidays, our growing up and our coming of age’.1 John Willsteed, former member of Brisbane band The Go Betweens and currently Coordinator (Music and Sound) in the QUT Creative Industries Faculty, echoes this sentiment regarding his selection, saying that it was
. . . a difficult task to try and make the album cover the focus, and separate (a little) from the content . . . the innocence of the folk covers still fills me with hope and a sense of possibility, just as the songs on these albums did.2
Sound and music are fundamental human experiences. New technologies have transformed their production dramatically and, in the hands of artists, they continue to represent a rich and ever-evolving field of creative practice, in which the experimental and the popular increasingly merge and blur.
1 Richard Evans, The Art of the Album Cover: A History and a How To, Compendium, London, 2010, p.9.
2 John Willsteed, email to author, 16 December 2013.
During ‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’, complementary works by two Collection artists are on display in the Watermall, at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG). Despite being separated by a generation, and by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the works of Scott Redford and Ed Ruscha echo similar sentiments about the culture and architecture of their coastal homes.
As Ed Ruscha arrived in Los Angeles, California, in 1956, Queensland’s Surfer’s Paradise was beginning its rise to national pre-eminence as the holiday destination of choice for Australians who could afford it. In emulation of the North American model in Florida, its first canal subdivisions were being approved by the Albert Shire Council, and multistorey motels were under construction, designed to entice Australian holidaymakers to the strip of beachfront that became known, in 1958, as the ‘Gold Coast’. The Queensland Government officially proclaimed the Gold Coast a city the following year.
The arrangement of works by Ruscha (b.1937) and Queensland artist Scott Redford (b.1962) in QAG’s Watermall during ‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ illustrates the similarities in their choice of motifs (signs, surf culture, vernacular architecture) as well as to their responses to particular urban milieus, resonant with local histories and anecdotes. Both artists make the prosaic into the iconic in response to their particular environments.
In 1956, Ruscha journeyed west via Route 66 from Oklahoma — where his family had moved in 1942 — to Los Angeles. There he attended the Chouinard Art Institute until 1960, before it changed its name to the California Institute of Arts. He found employment at an advertising agency for a short period, but saw the creative freedom of an artist as more rewarding and held his first solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1963.
Much of Ruscha’s art is about being ‘on the road’ in America. The graphic visual environment of Los Angeles and southern California, with its advertising hoardings and neon signage was a constant source of interest for Ruscha. This culture of cars, highways, gas stations and road signs nourished his painting as well as his important photographic book works of the 1960s, such as Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963), Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965), Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967), and perhaps his best known, Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).
Two suites of gelatin silver prints included in the Watermall display, Some Los Angeles apartments 1965/2003 and Vacant lots 1970/2003 (Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Art, Brisbane), derive from Ruscha’s book works of the 1960s. The first numbered editions of these photographs were issued in 1989 and Ruscha has referred to the production of these limited‑edition prints as ‘raiding the ice-box’.
Vine intersects four other streets 2003 encapsulates much that is typical of Ruscha’s oeuvre. Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards, Vine Street and Sunset Strip are names that have been mythologised through films, novels, TV series, songs and products. The intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, for example, is steeped in LA folklore: ‘Hollywood and Vine’ is where the radio, movie and music industries established their offices and studios in the 1920s and 30s. Landmark sites, such as the city’s first high‑rise office (the Taft Building) and Capitol Records, are also located here. The art scene seamlessly merged with the world of night clubs, surfing, music, cars and street culture. Neither the Gold Coast nor Los Angeles were ever celebrated as bastions of high culture: both were vaguely seedy and dismissive of convention and authority, and both represented an opportunity for greater freedom. They were rock ‘n’ roll towns.
The Gold Coast that Scott Redford grew up in was, by the mid 1970s, a freestyle fusion of Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where a derivative modernist aesthetic had been shoe-horned into an ocean-side strip of high rises, hedonism and surf culture. Redford’s Miami High School song emulated the jaunty cadence of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, and the school’s sign referenced the free-standing letters of the iconic Hollywood sign. The canary yellow of Redford’s Automatic for the people(SURF) 1997 is a kind of third-tier reference to both the Hollywood sign and to the reflective pool of imitation and derivation; this hybridisation continues in his Surf painting/Modernist house 2000, which draws on the styles of celebrated Californian émigré architects Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler, whose works merge for Redford with the 1950s and early 1960s houses on Broadbeach’s Old Burleigh Road. Proposal for aSurfer’s Paradise Public Sculpture/GC Cinemas 2006 is perhaps his most emphatic nod to the culture and architecture of mid-century California, meshed with private nostalgia and an homage to his hometown.
Despite being an ocean apart, the geographies and cultural identities of southern California and Queensland’s Gold Coast share much vibrant, ‘un-stuffy’ and fertile ground, especially for these two artists, who each embraced the contradictions and peculiarities of their time and place.
‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ introduces Australian audiences to a spectrum of industrial, architectural, commercial fashion and craft design from California for the first time. While previous exhibitions, such as ‘Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modernism in Australia’, organised by Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum in 2008–09, have considered the influence of American culture on Australia, it is perhaps a little surprising that a comprehensive exhibition has not yet been seen in this country, given the substantial influence of the Californian lifestyle on Australian culture since the 1950s. What is more surprising is that this exhibition from Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which surveys the extraordinary postwar innovations in housing, domestic furniture and industrial design that emerged on the west coast from the 1930s onwards, was only recently developed.
The exhibition and its accompanying publication tell the fascinating story of how wartime technologies used to create materials such as plywood, fibreglass and synthetic fabric, went on to play a big role in postwar Californian design of cars, caravans, swimwear, surfboards and seat furniture. The 1936 ‘Clipper’, made by the Airstream Trailer Company of Los Angeles (1932–79), was the first commercially produced caravan made with the same riveted aluminium that featured on aircraft fuselage.
The Clipper was the vision of Wallace Byam (1896–1962) based on designs by William Hawley Bowlus (1896–1967), an aircraft designer who had supervised the construction of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis. Byam’s backyard building hobby grew into an enduring business enterprise as Americans began to turn the camping road trip into a national pastime. By 1934, the Airstream Trailer Company was flourishing and in 1936 the aerodynamic Clipper was introduced. Despite its cost and the austerity of the Depression years, the company could barely satisfy demand for what became an American legend.
The Studebaker Avanti was a revolutionary sports car when it appeared in 1962. Also borrowing from aerospace design principles, the Avanti was uniquely styled to evoke flight, lightness and speed. The design team responsible for the car was led by the well-known industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who had worked as a designer for the Studebaker Corporation since the early 1930s. Despite its appeal, and the demand for this innovative car, the Studebaker Corporation experienced problems and production delays in the manufacture of the fibreglass bodies, resulting in failed delivery to dealers and loss of sales. The Studebaker Corporation ceased production of the Avanti in 1963 but it remains one of America’s classic automobiles.
In a recent interview, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator Bobbye Tigerman, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, and Wendy Kaplan, Head of the Decorative Arts and Design Department discussed the origins of LACMA’s design collections and the development of the exhibition ‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ with David Burnett, Curator, International Art, QAGOMA.
David Burnett | I’m interested in how and when LACMA’s design collections were first developed.
Bobbye Tigerman | Design is a relatively new focus for our department and the museum. Up until the 1990s there was little interest in it as a collection area for the museum. Our department includes both industrial design and studio craft. The first major item to enter that collection was a group of ceramic works in 1973, by potters Gertrude and Otto Natzler, who fled Vienna after the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938. In the 1980s and 90s an effort was made to consolidate a collection of contemporary studio ceramics and there was a substantial gift of studio glass in the 1980s. When I joined the museum in 2006, Wendy Kaplan, who had been here since 2000, discussed the idea of an exhibition that addressed Californian design. We felt that it was an underestimated field — it was appealing, it was affordable, many of the artists and designers were still living and no other institution in California, or the country generally, had a dedicated Californian design section.
David Burnett | That is quite remarkable. I’m very surprised, given the important developments in the field that took place here in California.
Bobbye Tigerman | Yes, the fact that a show hadn’t been done was unbelievable. We kept looking for the book or catalogue that was some kind of precedent but it wasn’t there. So the collecting started in earnest in 2006. We collected around 150 pieces. It’s not that there was nothing before, but this was really the beginning of a more formalised and systematic collecting strategy.
Wendy Kaplan | The show itself really was a surprise success. It was never intended as a touring exhibition . . . in fact we had to renegotiate loans and storage for nine months before the tour. The exhibition was initially part of ‘Pacific Standard Time’, a broader collaborative project with the Getty Research Institute in 2011, which brought a number of cultural institutions together to present a comprehensive story of the postwar Los Angeles art scene. In terms of the collection, the museum had a decorative arts department and strong holdings of the arts and crafts movement, but the decision to collect modern and contemporary design is a recent development. We have tried to map key moments in Californian and international design, particularly from the Netherlands and Japan.
David Burnett | It’s interesting that the kernel of the collection grew out of collecting individual pieces by designer craftspeople, followed by the realisation that the design parameters in California were much broader. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition plays out this idea that, at a certain time, California offered enormous opportunity and potential for both American and émigré designers.
Bobbye Tigerman | Yes, and then there is also that ‘myth’ of California — that in California, anything is possible, all you have to do is imagine your dream and you can realise it. That played into our planning of the show which made it more appealing because it took the inspiration from the designers themselves. In the beginning there was a lot of debate about the criteria and parameters of the show and in the end we decided that the show would fundamentally address domestic design — design for the home. But at the same time we realised that we couldn’t exclude fashion design and graphics because so many of the designers were connected in many ways — they shared office space or exhibited together, so we made a lot of exceptions to our rule and explored the role that design played in people’s broader lives, outside of the home.
David Burnett | When I arrived at San Francisco airport, I noticed a store selling ceramics, textiles and other goods, called ‘Calstyle’. Is there still a perception that Californian design is somehow separate or a kind of quintessential expression of America generally?
Bobbye Tigerman | I think that when you compare California to the east coast, where there is a tradition and a way to do things — a sort of pecking order — then in California you have the opposite of that: there is that freedom and a drive . . . you can break or bend the rules. There is the quote from author Wallace Stegner that says, ‘California is America, only more so’.
David Burnett | The exciting thing about this exhibition for Australian audiences is the many cross-overs and reflections that can be seen in Australian material culture, from housing and surf culture to the centrality of the car and the notion of an outdoor lifestyle. How did your audiences react after seeing so much of what many would have grown up with, in a museum context?
Bobbye Tigerman | Our installation of the exhibition was quite intense. There was a lot going on, but as we walked through the show every day and kind of ‘eavesdropped’ on comments and conversations, we could sense the familiarity. People were saying, ‘I had that’, ‘my grandmother had those’ or ‘I worked for that designer in the 40s’ — it was amazing and I suspect you will have a similar experience in Australia.
David Burnett | It seems that now, design generally is so much more a part of everybody’s daily life — more so than for those in the 1940s and 50s. Where do you think contemporary Californian design is now?
Bobbye Tigerman | The particular historical ‘moment’ of Californian design, which was characterised by this sense of connectedness and community, I think is over. California’s contribution to design in the second half of the twentieth century has undoubtedly come out of Silicon Valley in the area of computers and software. Beginning with Apple but also now many other companies who have shaped the way we live and interact with each other and the world. I think that when we look back at what California has contributed to the global community, it will be through computers and interface design.
Wendy Kaplan | In fact, one of our major patrons for the collection and the exhibition was Max Palevsky, the co-founder of Intel.
‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ is at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) until 9 February 2014. An exhibition publication is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store. When you visit the exhibition, take your picture in our relaxed California Design setting next to the Airstream ‘Clipper’, upload it to Instagram & you could win a Herman Miller Eames® Lounge & Ottoman supplied by Living Edge, Brisbane featured in the ‘California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ Resource Lounge.