Five things to know about Gerhard Richter

 

For Gerhard Richter, history, painting and photography are intimately linked. We therefore asked David Burnett, Curator, International Art, QAGOMA to list five things that help understand one of the world’s leading and most influential living artists. See ‘Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images‘ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) before it must close on 4 February 2018.

Five things to know about Gerhard Richter

1. History

Born in 1932, Gerhard Richter has been making art for as long as many of us have been alive. He was 12 years old when his city of birth, Dresden, was bombed by allied forces during World War Two. He and his mother were living in a rural town outside of Dresden at the time. When he returned to Dresden in 1951 to study at the Dresden Art Academy, more than five years after the end of the war, the city was still in ruins.

‘There were only piles of rubble to the left and right of what had been streets’. Every day we walked from the academy to the cafeteria through rubble, about two kilometres there and back’

Such events formed part of Richter’s early life and were to inform his art throughout his career. The two paintings, Uncle Rudi 1965 and Aunt Marianne 1965 are based on photographs from a family album that Richter took with him when he fled East Germany in 1961. They relate to his own family during the war years and their tragic history.

Gerhard Richter, 1950 / © Gerhard Richter 2017
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Aunt Marianne (87) 1965 / Oil on canvas / Collection: Yageo Foundation, Taiwan / © Gerhard Richter 2017

2. Freedom

Freedom can often require leaving something or someone behind. It comes at a price.

When Gerhard Richter left East Germany in March 1961 he had to do it covertly. He travelled as a tourist alone, first to Moscow and then to Leningrad. On the return the train stopped at West Berlin where Richter stashed additional suitcases he had brought with him, before returning to Dresden to collect his wife, Marianne Eufinger, known as ‘Ema’.

The borders between the Communist, German Democratic Republic and West Germany were being sealed — just months away from the erection of the Berlin Wall that was to divide the two Germanys for 28 years until its demolition in 1989. Trains and subways were still operating between the Soviet-occupied East and West Berlin making it the last remaining link to the free west.

Richter had a friend drive himself and Ema from Dresden to East Berlin where they boarded a train (without suitcases, which drew suspicion) for the western sector of Berlin where they registered as refugees. Between 1958 and 1961, 700,000 people fled East Germany for the West. Richter’s parents were never allowed to leave East Germany or to visit their son. They died in 1967 and 1968.

Richter was nearly thirty years old when he left East Germany. In Dusseldorf, where he studied and eventually taught, he began to number his works and reject almost everything he had done that was associated with his previous life. But your past never leaves you.

Richter has never been defined by a specific style and has used a variety of materials, techniques and methodologies during his career, like many young artists today. This represented a creative freedom for Richter who had spent more than a decade as a student and young apprentice in East Germany painting murals and making art within the narrow socialist confines of the German Democratic Republic. His academic training in Dresden did however, equip him with skills and technical facility that found expression later in still life paintings, portraits and landscapes.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Seascape (377) 1975
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Seascape (377) 1975 / Oil on canvas / 200 x 300cm / Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany / © Gerhard Richter 2017
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Grey (397) 1976 / Oil on canvas / Accessions Committee Fund purchase: Gift of Gerson and Barbara Bakar Philanthropic Fund, Jean and James E Douglas, Jr, Evelyn D Haas, Doris and Donald Fisher, Mimi and Peter Haas, Phyllis and Stuart G Moldaw, Christine and Michael Murray, Leanne B Roberts, Helen and Charles Schwab, Danielle and Brooks Walker, Jr, and Judy and John Webb Collection: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA / © Gerhard Richter 2017

3. Memory

The late writer, critic and essayist, John Berger once asked the question,

‘What served in place of the photograph; before the camera’s invention? The expected answer is the engraving, the drawing, the painting. The more revealing answer might be: memory’.

Photographs have been central to the art of Gerhard Richter. One of the few things he took with him to West Germany was a family album of photographs – some of which became the basis for later paintings. After arriving in West Germany, Richter began to systematically collect photographs, clippings from magazines and books and eventually took many thousands of his own photographs. This accumulation of photographic and reproduced images became the basis for his vast life-long project called Atlas. About half of the entire series of over 800 panels can be seen in ‘Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images. The original sheets are now too fragile for travel but ATLAS Übersicht (overview) has been created using the plates of a four volume book published by Museum Lenbachhaus. The panels that have been personally selected by Richter, and represents a compressed summary of this vast archive, and is considered an art work in its own right.

Richter’s Atlas includes an extraordinary range of imagery, from harrowing images of the Holocaust to tender images of his children. It was created at a time before digital photography became so common place — when photographs were understood to be a trace of something or some time. Like footprints, fossils, markings on a tree — traces of what has been. Digital technology has changed photography from something we once looked at and reflected upon to something we Send. Once they were an index of memory, now we distribute them in their millions, and forget them.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier

Watch our time-lapse as we install the ATLAS compendium comprising some 400 panels personally selected by the artist from thousands of clippings, photographs and source images.

4. Beauty

Gerhard Richter has stated that beauty is a ‘dangerous word’. He was thinking about how the Third Reich associated beauty with the notion of racial purity — which culminated in obscene evil and violence. He has also said that, ‘beauty is the opposite of destruction, disintegration and damage’. Today ‘beauty’ is a loaded term. It is often considered obsolete in relation to art. In some instances it is understood to be ‘discriminatory’. But the word is still used, often and sometimes carelessly. Beauty can be found in a song, a thankyou note from a friend, a reflection on still water. Beauty can still be dangerous and it often keeps company with sadness.

Richter finds beauty in nature — an exquisite orchid, the light on the side of his wife’s hair. He has also described his monochrome grey paintings as possessing beauty. Perhaps beauty is not something we can ‘possess’ but only recognise.

Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art, QAGOMA introduces you to her favourite work in ‘The Life of Images’.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Reader (804) 1994 / Oil on canvas / Collection: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA. Purchase through the gifts of Mimi and Peter Haas and Helen and Charles Schwab, and the Accessions Committee Fund: Barbara and Gerson Bakar, Collectors Forum, Evelyn D. Haas, Elaine McKeon, Byron R. Meyer, Modern Art Council, Christine and Michael Murray, Nancy and Steven Oliver, Leanne B. Roberts, Madeleine H. Russell, Danielle and Brooks Walker, Jr., Phyllis C. Wattis, and Pat and Bill Wilson / © Gerhard Richter 2017

5. Reality

A common response by many thousands of people following the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 was incomprehension. The ‘reality’ of the situation was almost impossible to accept or understand. The event was immediately and constantly compared to a movie. The French theorist, Jean Baudrillard commented that the repeated broadcasts of the footage served ‘to multiply it to infinity and, at the same time, they are a diversion and a neutralization”—the more we see the events, the less comprehensible they become.’

Baudrillard was interested in the way that photographic media affect our perception of reality and the world. He believed that the overwhelming amount of imagery that we consume in the forms of television, film and video, computer games and the internet results in a ‘hyperreality’, a simulation of the real.

Gerhard Richter said that, ‘Photography has almost no reality; it is almost a hundred per cent picture. And painting always has reality: you can touch the paint; it has presence; but it always yields a picture – no matter whether good or bad. … I once took some small photographs and then smeared them with paint. That partly resolved the problem, and it’s really good – better than anything I could ever say on the subject’.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / September (Ed. 139) 2009 / Print between glass / Lay Family Acquisition Fund Collection: Dallas Museum of Art, USA / © Gerhard Richter 2017
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Two candles (499-4) 1982 / Oil on canvas / Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea / © Gerhard Richter 2017

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David Burnett is Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Gerhard Richter, 1970 © Gerhard Richter 2017

The order of Memory: Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’

 

Gerhard Richter is one of the world’s leading and most influential living artists. Throughout his long career, he has responded to some of modern history’s pivotal events, among them World War Two, the horror of the Holocaust and the postwar division of Germany.

The exhibition ‘Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images‘ on show at GOMA until February 2018 includes a new version of his monumental ongoing archival project ATLAS, selected by the artist and on loan from the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich.

Watch our time-lapse as we install this compendium comprising some 400 panels personally selected from thousands of clippings, photographs and source images.

Watch our time-lapse as we install the ATLAS compendium comprising some 400 panels personally selected by the artist from thousands of clippings, photographs and source images.

The extraordinary breadth of Richter’s visual and emotional reach — from intimate, personal images of family, to large, digitally generated abstract works, together with experimental variations of technique and approach, mark him as an artist who has revitalised and reinvigorated the role of painting in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. ‘The Life of Images‘ introduces Richter’s practice to Australian audiences for the first time in a compelling profile of an artist who has both rejected and embraced tradition, while confirming painting’s mystery and durability as an art form.

ATLAS

My motivation was more a matter of wanting to create order — to keep track of things. All those boxes full of photographs and sketches weigh you down, because they have something unfinished, incomplete, about them.1 Gerhard Richter

Creative bodies of work are often derived from fragments. Glimpses of a particular light, an overheard conversation, a rhythm of ambient sound, or a simple postcard can give rise to entire suites, symphonies, novels or other ongoing works of enduring significance. Similarly, notes, sketches, jottings — even the most inconsequential ephemera can catalyse ideas and directions for an artist’s work.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Still Lifes (Candles) (400), 1982
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Still Lifes (Candles) (400), 1982 / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier

Gerhard Richter’s long and sustained career as a painter began at a time when photographic
reproductions in the daily press, illustrated journals and periodicals had become widely available and distributed, to the point of being referred to as a mass medium. As Benjamin Buchloh, who has written extensively on Richter’s work, has noted:

Having escaped from a country where advertising of any kind had been prohibited, where fashion photography (let alone soft- or hardcore pornography) was outlawed, and where images soliciting the desire for tourism would have been banned from the photographic public sphere of the Communist state, Richter could now, for the first time, endlessly pursue these images in abundance.2

Throughout the 1950s and 60s in Western Europe, North America and the United Kingdom, photography had become a commercial touchstone of the capitalist enterprise. While television was in its infancy, the illustrated press and magazines, such as Life, Stern and Der Spiegel, were the face of modernity and economic progress, a face Richter would have glimpsed only occasionally in the censorial atmosphere of what was then East Germany. The characteristic alliances of image and text, news and advertising, commodity and celebrity, in the press and in magazines, were the agents for the particular ideological, commercial and political structure of life in the West — what art historian John J Curley has described as ‘an explicit instrument of political power’.3

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Sabine (575), 1993
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Sabine (575), 1993 / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier

Richter’s ongoing, encyclopaedic and partially taxonomical project known as ATLAS now numbers more than 800 panels. It began as a collection, or perhaps more an accumulation of press cuttings, illustrations from magazines and books, and family photographs. From 1969, Richter systematically collated his collection of fragments onto standardised sheets of card, but this material was already playing a central role in his work from the early 1960s. The first panels have the character of a ‘scrapbook’, overlayed with the rigid grid of order that became the standard format for the entire opus. ‘Family album’ snapshots — the foundation images of ATLAS — are pasted alongside cuttings from newspapers and magazines. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richter’s own photographs appear more regularly, reflecting the increasing accessibility and availability of cameras and photography for personal means. Particular panels are less concerned with photography than they are with ‘appearances’ — flames, painted surfaces, swirling paint or colour samples. There are sheets of correlations and correspondences, such as those between clouds, sea and sky. Extensive serial sequences of landscapes appear frequently alongside aerial views of cities, mountains, flowers and forests. While drawings, sketches and collages appear throughout, photography is the central focus and spine of ATLAS.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Meadowland (427), 1984
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Meadowland (427), 1984 / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Landscapes (321), 1970
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Landscapes (321), 1970 / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier

Most of us are familiar with images as part of a continuum, whether they are family photos in an album (or perhaps a digital archive now) or the continuous and largely superfluous flow of media images we encounter on a daily basis. When isolated from that continuum, however, or placed into a specific order and arrangement as Richter has done, these images become strangely present again; their place in the flow is arrested. It is perhaps this characteristic that is most salient in ATLAS.

The imposition of order on the archival work is consistent with Richter’s decision in 1962–63, at the age of 30, to begin sequentially numbering his paintings and hence, the development of a catalogue raisonné that now contains over 2000 works. Some of the earliest works in the Gallery’s exhibition are derived directly from illustrations, cuttings and photographs from a few of the first panels produced between 1962 and 1964. A grid of pencil lines can be seen on several images, which have been clipped or torn from magazines and newspapers, indicating Richter’s then methodology of manually enlarging the image onto canvas. He later used an ‘episcope’, a kind of opaque projector, to bypass this process.

The overlay of order, chronology and sequence suggests a narrative intent, but that is not the intention behind it. The fusion of personal memory and biography, ATLAS is a broad incidental history of public events, specific thoughts, ideas and propositions that coexist, return and are reprised. It would be mayhem but for the stabilising convention of the grid. Helmut Friedel, former director of the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, has compared ATLAS to a text in the sense that, ‘a sentence consists of words, words of syllables and syllables of letters’.4

ATLAS is simultaneously linear and cyclic, ordered and labyrinthine, open to infinite interpretation and analysis — a kind of mnemonic alliteration. We find images collected or taken in the 1970s returned to in the 1980s. ATLAS’s Various Motifs (445), 1978, for example, includes a photograph of Richter’s daughter, Betty, turning away from the camera. The photograph was the basis for one of Richter’s best-known painted works, which he completed ten years later.5 Similarly, harrowing scenes from concentration camps are revisited in 1997–98, almost preposterously, as potential images for inclusion in a commissioned work for the atrium at the entrance of Berlin’s Reichstag (parliament) building. The picture of Richter’s wife, Sabine, with their son, Moritz, could be any tender image of a mother and child; while the dark, blurred images of Nazi death camps find echoes in more recent images of genocide, forced diaspora and refugee settlements. Unmoored, the images are fugitive and mutable.

Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Various Motifs (445), 1978
Gerhard Richter, Germany b.1932 / Atlas overview 1962-ongoing / Various Motifs (445), 1978 / © Gerhard Richter 2017 / Images courtesy: The artist and the Gerhard Richter Atelier

ATLAS has been exhibited numerous times, beginning in 1972, each time a different iteration and no two the same. Munich’s Lenbachhaus acquired the work in 1996 — the original sheets are now too fragile for travel or loan. For QAGOMA’s exhibition, Richter has created ATLAS overview using the plates of a four-volume book published by the Lenbachhaus. Comprising some 400 panels personally selected by the artist, ATLAS overview is a compressed summary of this vast archive. As with Richter’s practice of creating editioned versions of his works, this is considered an artwork in its own right.

Like the project itself, a view of ATLAS can only ever be partial. Its totality is too vast to be experienced singularly. Only in publication does it approach the status of a single entity, albeit a page at a time. Like a life, ATLAS is disjointed, interrupted and incomplete — standing apart from Richter’s painting oeuvre, this intricate web of association, return and recall is a significant project of memorialisation at a time when the meaning of images has changed so profoundly.

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Endnotes
1 ‘Interview with Stefan Koldehoff, 1999’, in Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds), Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, p.350.
2 Benjamin HD Buchloh, ‘Atlas: The anomic archive’, October, vol.88, Spring, 1999, p.140.
3 John J Curley, A Conspiracy of Images: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and the Art of the Cold War, Yale University, New Haven and London, 2013, p.136.
4 Helmut Friedel, Sumi Hayashi, Gerhard Richter: ATLAS [exhibition catalogue], Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Japan, 2001, p.26.
5 Later still is the edition work in the Gallery’s exhibition — Betty, 1991 Editions (CR 75).

David Burnett is Curator, International Art, QAGOMA

Aleks Danko: What time is it?

 

DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) 1991 by Aleks Danko has recently been installed in the reimagining of the Australian collection at the Queensland Art Gallery. This important and enduringly captivating work is for the first time, given a place in a ‘permanent hang’ of the Australian collection in a context which is both diverse and relevant. It has been included previously in various iterations and thematic displays, but its inclusion in the new perspective for the collection is both timely and as topical as ever as Australia confronts increasingly shrill debates about home affordability, border security and social division. The power of Danko’s work is in its understated, unadorned directness in addressing issues that we all share. This blog is an extract from David Burnett’s essay published in Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998.

Aleks Danko, Australia b.1950 / DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) 1991 / Cast aluminium and theatre light on metal support / 11 x 260 x 229cm / Purchased 1992 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Queensland Art Gallery / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

It was, in fact, the installation’s title that had immediate resonance for me. My mother (and I suspect many others) had used this very phrase often when I was child. I recalled that it was after she took on jobs, first as a cleaner in a nearby motel, and then later as a cook at a nursing home, that this chant-like phrase entered our domestic realm. I remember the pattern of life changing with both parents working. There were adjustments to new routines and schedules for myself, my brother and my sister. Evening meals moved from the kitchen table to the lounge room, in front of the television to catch Flipper or Bellbird before the news at seven. ‘Day in, day out’ was a phrase I came to associate with my mother’s tiredness and seemingly endless chores — cooking, lunch-making, washing, cleaning and ironing — which she performed at times she never seemed to before. I grew to resent this routine as it came to dominate our lives. For me, it was through this portal of memory that Danko’s installation of little houses with their long shadows took on particular significance, and prompted a kind of gentle, backyard melancholy.

DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) incorporates a revolving theatrical light – an electronic sun which introduces and implies the element of time in the work. It has an effect similar to time-lapse photography, where the movement of clouds, light and atmosphere is compressed into minutes and seconds. The diurnal cycle defined in this work is measured by a clock that spins rather than ticks. It is mechanical time, factory time, ‘no-time-to-dream’ time — a time that is alienated from experience, indifferent, relentless — day in, day out.

Aleks Danko’s career spans a defining period of Australia’s recent history.1 His childhood was spent in suburban Edwardstown in Adelaide. In the early 1970s, he studied sculpture at the South Australian School of Art. Feminism and gender politics, the anti-uranium and conservation movements; the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government; the volatile passage of the Hawke and Keating administrations; and, more recently, John Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ euphemism of ambient anxiety and fear, have provided the background noise for Danko’s critical aesthetic strategies. From an era of reformist hope and optimism to one of nervous, timid quiescence, his art has engaged with debates through a mordant wit and irony, simultaneously disarming and activating issues.

From the early 1970s, Danko’s work embraced a neo-dada, conceptual dimension, but with its roots in the local. His work engaged with Conceptual and Post-object art to the extent that it critiqued the formalist, institutional aesthetic of the previous generation. It did not follow, for example, the more austere forms of Conceptualism, where texts and photographic documentation became the residual ghosts of ideas. The arrangement of  DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) may reference the formalist grid of Modernism, however it does not assume the mute objectivity which characterised the minimalist aesthetic of artists such as Donald Judd or Carl Andre. Danko’s language of irony, Duchampian play and metaphor keeps the work circulating in an orbit of immanent possibilities and potential meanings. As a strategy, irony is open-ended — it has no end-game. It plays itself out by creating small ruptures in the fabric of language. It irritates, but never nullifies meaning, by having an alternative always at hand. It forces us to remain vigilant to the fact that reality is essentially provisional, equivocal and contestable.

Aleks Danko, Australia b.1950 / THE DANKO 1971 AESTHETIC WITHDRAWAL KIT 1971 / Steel and plastic / 12.5 x 18 x 80cm / Purchased 2001. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist
Aleks Danko, Australia b.1950 / HEAVY AESTHETIC QUALITY – MANTELPIECE EDITION 1971, cast 1995 / Cast bronze / 21.2 x 15.7 x 4.4cm / Purchased 2001. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) confounds notions of scale and time, the ordinary and the monumental. Its formality is deftly undermined by its installation at floor level — no enhancement, pedestal or plinth — just anonymous little houses resting on the indifferent floor and, by inference, the earth. While the work is composed of small, identical houses, it is less about ‘home’ than it is about time and a sense of alienation. The spaces between these houses are pregnant with the disconnectedness that characterises the Australian suburb. The irony of the work is amplified when we know that the multiple dwellings are cast from a house-shaped cake-tin mould. This dinky piece of domestic kitsch becomes the template for several of Danko’s important works and projects — works that take the idea of home into a wider political and philosophical arena. Its childlike facade is both cute and menacing. The suburban house on the quarter-acre block has traditionally been the primary foil against alienation and ‘not-at-home-ness’ for non-Indigenous Australians. It is here that we seek refuge and security.

Aleks Danko, Australia b.1950 / DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) 1991 / Cast aluminium and theatre light on metal support / 11 x 260 x 229cm / Purchased 1992 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Queensland Art Gallery / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

To drive into, or out of, any major city in Australia by freeway is to traverse the zones of housing that have come to define everyday life in Australia. The older suburbs of humble red brick bungalows and postwar weatherboard cottages contrast sharply with the new wave of eave-less, double storey ‘McMansions’ squatting on freshly cleared plots ‘landscaped’ with pine bark and palms. Our coastal hugging population’s love affair with home ownership has been a social, political and economic indicator for decades. Australia’s boom and bust cycle is driven as much by the movement and relocation of transient populations as it is by the buying and selling of real estate. In urban Australia in particular, the notion of home as a dwelling, an asset, as ‘bricks and mortar’, tends to supplant the idea of home as a place of belonging. ‘Being at home’ for white Australia is first and foremost about a sense of security underpinned by ownership, before it is about a sense of shared spirit of belonging. Highly geared mortgages keep the dream in place, but out of reach, for longer, while we work ever-increasing hours to close the gap between aspiration and acquisition.

For some artists and writers, however, suburbia has been a site for nostalgia, fondly remembered childhood events, and the source of Dame Edna’s satire. Tim Winton’s vignettes of seaside country towns or David Malouf’s evocations of Brisbane in the 1950s are sometimes haunting in their imaginative descriptions and ability to extract mystery from the achingly familiar. This represents the duality and the ambivalence that filters the experience of Australian suburbia. Australian films and television soap dramas, such as Neighbours ,have created a particular image of the suburbs that can be seen as both reflection and artifice. The summer heat and ennui of Porpoise Spit in Muriel’s Wedding (1994) or the folksy heroism and shed humour of The Castle (1997) are further examples of how we reflect on our status as largely suburban dwellers.

The meaning of suburbia is constantly being negotiated. It swings from the celebratory image of backyard barbecues and pools to outlying badlands of unemployment, disadvantage and violence.

Danko has attributed a statement to his father which perfectly encapsulates the ongoing ambiguity of prevailing attitudes to suburbia: ‘As you know, we are pensioners, day in day out, twenty-four hours closer to death’. The artist cites the phrase as an example of Russian black humour — a dark and self-deprecating humour — it can raise a smile and a shudder in the same instant. It is also one that finds affiliation in the more sardonic and mocking strains of Australian humour. It is a statement of both resignation and affirmation. It can be taken as a colloquial embrace of Henry David Thoreau’s statement, ‘The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’, and equally as a matter-of-fact description of life in which one is still free to love one’s wife, pat the dog and see the sun come up tomorrow.

For Aleks Danko’s father, the establishment of a ‘home’ in Adelaide in the 1950s most probably represented the pinnacle of hard work and security, as it was for many immigrants at the time. Emigration, whether by choice or necessity, was a central phenomenon of the twentieth century. Fundamental to it was the idea of loss — the loss of home as the centre of one’s world, where one is connected by blood to others, and to history by experience. The displacement of the migrant is never fully resolved. The experience of arriving and living among strangers creates conditions in which fragments, memories and longings are constantly being reconfigured in an effort to create a semblance of that which is lost.

DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) is a work whose meaning oscillates and like much of Danko’s work, is constantly slipping between language and image, past and present, metaphor and real life. Irony, paradox and humour are his companions and combatants in a society where history is abbreviated into ‘mini-series’ and human relations are replaced with the abberation of ‘reality television’– where short-term memory and long-term credit delivers us from responsibility – a society insensible to contradiction — where opinion polls and statistics are the pretence for democratic choice. Where fear is the new currency.

This work retains its power to provoke, it remains a potent indice of the ambiguous ‘values’ and politics of a strangely retro climate of social division, distrust and conservatism, masquerading as a new prosperity.  On a good day, we might see rows of cosy homes, secure in their routine constancy, untroubled by maverick otherness, rising interest rates or foreign threats. On a bad day . . . why can I not help thinking that it looks like a mordant monument to a phenomenon that once represented a new life, a tiled roof utopia for many who were driven from their countries of birth by war, famine and internecine strife? The modest home that Danko’s parents established in the 1950s in the suburbs of Adelaide — optimistic, proud and comfortable — is difficult to identify in their son’s tableau of terminal emptiness.

There is no argument that a majority of Australians enjoy a standard of living that rates among the highest in the world. For that majority, this life of the workplace, the home, the mortgage, sunny leisure and lifestyle channels, celebrity gossip and next weekend’s barbecue or backyard makeover, is enough to keep us in an attenuated state of distraction.

What time is it in suburbia?

Endnote
1 Aleks Danko was born in 1950 to Ukranian parents who fled Stalin’s paranoid and oppressive regime of collectivisation. They married in Germany and joined the first of successive waves of dispossessed refugees, immigrating to Australia and arriving in Adelaide in 1949.

Aleks Danko, Australia b.1950 / DAY IN DAY OUT (second version) 1991 / Cast aluminium and theatre light on metal support / 11 x 260 x 229cm / Purchased 1992 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Queensland Art Gallery / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

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David Burnett is Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
Extract from Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998
Feature image detail: xxx

They’re back

 
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Blandford Fletcher, England 1858-1936 / Evicted 1887 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1896 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

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.

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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.

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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.

The Founding Years 1895–1915: A Collection for Queensland

 
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R Godfrey Rivers, England/Australia 1858-1925 / Woolshed, New South Wales 1890 / Oil on canvas / Gift of the artist 1895 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

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.

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Blandford Fletcher, England 1858-1936 / Evicted 1887 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1896 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

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 Edward IV, parting with her younger son, the Duke of York when Elizabeth learned that the Prince of Wales had fallen into the power of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester 1893; the Shakespearean vignette of Hamlet – the churchyard scene 1902 by Frank Cadogan Cowper; and Frederic Goodall’s contemporised religious subject, The Holy Mother 1875.

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Hamilton MacCallum, Scotland/England 1841-1896 / Sunday afternoon parade 1896 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1899 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
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Conservation of the frame of Hamilton MacCallum’s Sunday afternoon parade 1896 in progress
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Thomas W Couldery, England a.1880-93 / The legitimate drama c.1880–93 / Watercolour and gouache over pencil on wove paper mounted on wood / Gift of WH Couldery 1896 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
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Conservation of the frame of Thomas W Couldery’s The legitimate drama c.1880–93 in progress

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

Highlight: Saul Leiter

 
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Saul Leiter, United States 1923-2013 / Phone call 1957, printed later / Chromogenic print on paper / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery /© Saul Leiter Estate

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

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Saul Leiter / Walking 1957, printed later / Chromogenic print on paper / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery /© Saul Leiter Estate

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