Highlight: Saul Leiter

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

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.

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

Sounding out the Collection

Tim Johnson, Australia b.1947 / Two punks 1979 / Screenprint, printed in colour, from multiple stencils / Purchased 2001. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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.

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Nam June Paik, South Korea/United States 1932-2006 / TV cello 2000 / DVDs, video monitors, perspex, wooden cello neck with coloured plastic strings and wooden tail piece, marble base / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2002 with funds from The Myer Foundation, a project of the Sidney Myer Centenary Celebration 1899-1999, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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.

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Rudi Mantofani, Indonesia b.1973 / Nada yang hilang (The lost note) 2008 / Wood, metal, leather and oil / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2010 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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.

Big Brother and the Holding Company / Cheap Thrills 1968 / Vinyl LP record: cardboard cover / Purchased 2013 / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Collection / Reproduced with the permission of rcrumb.com
Joy Division / Unknown Pleasures 1979 / Vinyl LP record: cardboard cover / Purchased 2013 / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Collection / Reproduced with the permission of Peter Saville Studio
Nicoluas Ott and Bernard Stein (designers) / Emmett Williams (artist) / Poems 1950–2003 2004 / Edition RZ, Germany, 2003 / Vinyl LP record: picture disc in paper sleeve/cardboard cover / Purchased 2013 / Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Collection / © The artist
Album cover Scott Redford gift Qld Art Gallery Research Library Collection
James Marshall (aka Dalek) / CREL – Experiments in Colour 2009 / Ai Records, United Kingdom / Vinyl LP record: picture disc in plastic sleeve/cardboard cover / Gift of Scott Redford 2012–13 /Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Research Library Collection / © The artist

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.

Redford and Ruscha: Gold Coast meets West Coast

Scott Redford, Australia b.1962 / Surf painting/Modernist house 2000 / Fibreglass, polyester resin and acrylic lacquer on on urethane foam / Purchased 2001. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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.

Edward Ruscha, United States b.1937 / Every building on the Sunset Strip (detail) 1966 / Book comprising offset lithographs, glued and accordion-folded with 27 pleats / Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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.

Edward Ruscha, United States b.1937 / Vine intersects four other streets 2003 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

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 a Surfer’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.

Scott Redford, Australia b.1962 / Automatic for the people (SURF) 1997 / Epoxy-coated custom wood on powder-coat enamelled base / Purchased 1998 under the Contemporary Art Acquisition Program with funds from Frank and Shelley Manning through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

An Unexpected Success: California Design

Richard Neutra (architect) | Julius Shulman (photographer) | Kaufmann House, Palm Springs 1946, photographed 1947 | Getty Research Institute | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

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.

California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way

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Raymond Loewy for Studebaker Corporation | ‘Avanti’ automobile (image from company brochure) designed 1961, manufactured 1963–64 | Courtesy: Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana

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 BurnettThat 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 KaplanThe 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.

California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way Queensland Art Gallery

Greta Magnusson Grossman | Ralph O. Smith Manufacturing Company | Lamp c.1949, manufactured c.1949–54 | Iron, aluminium | Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Decorative Arts and Design Council Fund | © Great Magnusson Grossman Estate | Photograph: © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

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’.

California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way Queensland Art Gallery

Photographer: Yosi A. R-Pozeilov Editor: Yosi A. R-Pozeilov Department: Conservation Photo Studio
Mary Ann DeWeese | Woman’s swimsuit 1961 | Spandex, Lycra | Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mary Ann DeWeese, DeWeese Designs | © 2011 The Warnaco Group, Inc. All rights reserved. For Authentic Fitness Corp., Cole of California | Photograph: © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

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.

Buff, Straub & Hensman (1955–1961, later Buff, Hensman and Associates) | Recreation pavilion, Mirman House, Arcadia, 1958 | Photograph: Julius Shulman, 1959 | Getty Research Institute | © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

A board, a bar of wax and a pair of shorts

Greg Noll (b.1937, active Hermosa Beach, near Los Angeles) | Surfboard (and detail) c.1960 | Polyurethane foam, fibreglass cloth, polyester resin, wood | LACMA, Gift of Matt Jacobson | Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Within the culture and honour-roll of surfing, Greg Noll is one of its ‘legends’. Born in San Diego, Noll moved with his family to Manhattan Beach, California at the age of 3 years. He began to surf at around eleven, joining surf clubs and later, the Los Angeles County Lifeguards. He was introduced to surfboard shaping by another legend of the surfing world, Dale Velzy – credited with being the first commercial board shaper who opened a professional surf shop in Manhattan Beach in 1950. Noll was part of the United States Lifeguard team who competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games which had a considerable impact on the Australian surfing scene.

In 1954, Noll moved to Hawaii, finishing high school and continuing to surf. He gained notoriety in 1957 when he became one of a group of surfers who took on big waves at Waimea Bay, Hawaii. The seasonal wave breaks at Waimea can be anything between nine to fifteen metres and is still recognised as an important destination for big wave surfing. Watch the short film on this famous surf spot.

Greg Noll surfing in Waimea Bay, Hawaii 1957

The board-shaping skills that Noll learned in California evolved into his own very successful  business in the 1950s at Hermosa Beach, California. He also made a series of short surf films in the late 1950s before giving up surfing in 1969 after riding what is reputed to be the largest wave ever ridden at Makaha, Hawaii. Having secured his reputation as the most fearless surfer known, he turned to commercial fishing in Alaska. With resurgence in longboards in the 1990s, he resumed board shaping and organising longboard surf events. He continues to make a limited number of boards and replicas for collectors from his home in Crescent City, California.

The surf board included in ‘California Design: Living in a Modern Way’ is representative of this great ‘classic’ era of surfing when finding and catching waves and breaks was all that mattered to a generation of young men for whom jobs, marriage and mortgages meant little by comparison. As Greg Noll has said, ‘I’m not sorry for being a fun hog for all of my life’.

The longboard was the original form for surfboards when they were first manufactured in the United States in the 1920s. They evolved from the Polynesian and Hawaiian boards made of solid wood used in the ancient practice of Hoe he’e nalu,­ a kind of stand-up paddle boarding. Construction materials for longboards evolved from plywood and balsawood through to fibreglass and polyurethane foam. The longboard or ‘Malibu’, typically 4 to 6 metres in length, dominated the surf scene up to the late 1960s and 1970s when short ‘performance’ boards (made famous by renowned Australian surfer, Nat Young) introduced a revolution in style and board manufacture. Vintage longboards now attract high prices on the collectors market and have assumed iconic status in the history of surf culture.

California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way‘ which opens at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) on 2 November 2013 with talks, tours, and special events will introduce Australian audiences to a broad spectrum of industrial, architectural, commercial, fashion and craft design from California. Organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) the exhibition presents over 250 objects. The publication California Design 1930-1965: Living In A Modern Way is the first comprehensive study of mid-century modern California design which offers new research and ideas about the furniture, ceramics, graphic and industrial design, architecture, metalwork, textiles and fashion produced in the Golden State.


Suffering, penance and martyrdom

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1618–82 Seville | The Immaculate Conception of Aranjuez (La Inmaculada Concepción de Aranjuez) (detail) c.1675–80 | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The recent, widely reported example of an attempt by an elderly amateur artist to restore a fresco painting in the church of the Santuario de la Misericordia in the Spanish city of Borja, is an example of the continuing significance of local traditions and religious imagery in Spain.

The ocean of imagery in which we are all immersed makes it difficult to appreciate the power that resided (and continues to) in the painted (and sculpted) image during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Catholic Spain. In churches, chapels, convents, monasteries and cathedrals throughout the country, numerous altarpieces, murals, sculptures, and individual paintings depicted — in addition to the Holy Mother and Christ — the lives of the saints and martyrs as told by the Gospels. These images had both a devotional and didactic purpose. For the largely illiterate congregation, images of the saints were often intercessors through which the lessons of the Gospel could be learnt and communion with the divine sought. They also offered solace in what was, for the majority of Spain’s rural population, a life of trials and hardships.

It is also difficult to appreciate these images as powerful devotional icons outside of their original cultural and architectural context. When displayed in a museum, they often seem drained of their particular aura and local significance. In their original context, many images — particularly those portraying the saints and the Virgin — took on the status of holy relics, sometimes with a supernatural dimension. While much of Protestant Europe, and particularly the Netherlands and England, debunked and discouraged what was considered idolatry, the Counter-Reformation spirit seemed to actively promote the miracles of statues and images sweating droplets of blood or crying tears. Such phenomena were regularly reported in many towns and principalities and would attract believers to those centres in the hope of divine cures, or just to share in the witnessing of the mysterious activations. The majority of occurrences were usually revealed as bogus or an active deception on the part of Church authorities, but many superstitions continued to thrive in villages and townships where the constant search for guidance, help and solace in a difficult life nourished a spiritual climate receptive to the miraculous.

In the exhibition ‘Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado’, a number of paintings address the suffering and penance of saints and martyrs, such as Francisco de Zurbarán’s The martyrdom of Saint James c.1640 and Jusepe de Ribera’s Penitent Saint Jerome 1652. Others present images of the miraculous, such as El Greco’s The veil of St Veronica c.1586–95 and Bartolomé Murillo’s representation of the most profound mystery of Spanish Catholic faith, The immaculate conception of Aranjuez c.1675–80.

Perhaps a residue of such belief and attachment to images survives today in our treasuring of photographs of family, friends and loved ones. The domestic context for these images is often similar to a shrine or a small altar where photographs are framed and lovingly arranged in celebration of the living and memorial of those past.

Francisco de Zurbarán, 1598 Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz – 1664 Madrid | The martyrdom of Saint James (Martirio de Santiago) c.1640 | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Jusepe de Ribera, 1591 Játiva, Valencia – 1652 Naples | Penitent Saint Jerome (San Jeronimo penitente) 1652 | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
El Greco, 1541 Crete – 1614 Toledo | The Veil of Saint Veronica (La Santa Faz) c.1586–95 | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1618–82 Seville | The Immaculate Conception of Aranjuez (La Inmaculada Concepción de Aranjuez) c.1675–80 | Oil on canvas | Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid | © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado‘ is at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) until 4 November. This extraordinary exhibition is supported by a richly illustrated catalogue and a kids book introducing the Prado’s collection through ten selected art works, information about the artists, fun facts about Spanish history and culture, as well as instructions for at-home activities such as Spanish recipes.

Visitors to ‘Portrait of Spain’ are also invited to experience the vibrancy of Spanish history and contemporary design, food and culture in La Sala del Prado — our large-scale lounge environment complementing the exhibition. La Sala del Prado features an integrated cafe and interactive spaces that reflect cutting edge contemporary Spanish design and includes fun multimedia interactives and drawing activities, as well as programs and events for all ages.