photography + abstraction

Some of my rock studies of the rockfaces of the granite  coastline west of Victor Harbor move towards abstraction have as their reference point the pictures taken by  Charles Bayliss of the Jenolan Caves in NSW in the 1880s. 

I know very little about  the avant garde and modernist abstraction in mid-20th century Adelaide in both photography and painting. It has been widely assumed that photography was about representation; no matter how off-register, its subject matter was shaped by our sense of objective reality.Yet abstraction has been intrinsic to photograph from  its  beginning with Henry Fox Talbot--eg., the direct capture of light without a camera (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy photograms), digital sampling found images, radical cropping, and various deliberate destablizations of photographic reference.

However, Helen Ennis in  the 'Introduction' to her Photography and Australia says that: 

The one constant in photographic practice in Australia is so striking it warrants identification at the start--the orientation towards realism. Those using photogrpahy in Australia have long been preoccupied with  the physical, material aspects of life rather than its metaphysical or spiritual dimension. Consequently, there is a weightiness to the great majority of Australian photographs---overwhelming they are of 'things', including actions and events, which have a concrete reality and verifiable independent existence. ...For most of the twentieth centry, inward looking-looking approaches, whether symbolist, surrealist, or abstract, never really took hold.

It is strange that Ennis equates abstraction with inward looking, spiritual, metaphsyical,  rather than objective form, light, tone, colour given the hegemony of modernist in the art insitution.   

My art history understanding is that  the modernist abstraction movement in painting  emeged in Sydney with Ralph Balson and Grace Cowley etc in the 1930s. Sydney was metropolitan, Adelaide was provincal whilst Melbourne rejected abstraction for figurative painting e.g., John Brack.

Bernard Smith  in his Australian Painting (I have the 2nd Edition)  does say that  the contemporary art movement in Adelaide in the 1950s included a strand of abstract expressionism due to the arrival of migrant artists from central Europe, such as  Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz and Ludwig Dutkiewicz, who lived and worked in Adelaide for the rest of their lives.  

But there are no images of their work in Smith's seminal text.  His argument is that good art does not arrive from the European messengers setting foot in the country, but from the provincal visual tradition being transformed by the innovations from overseas. 

It [the finest art] has arisen not as the immediate point of impact of the novel metropolitan style upon the slower moving provinvcal style, but latter, when the innovation  has found a creative point of accommodation with the sluggish provincal tradition which, though out of  date by the standards of its metropolitan sources, has put down its roots in the environment of the country. (p.334)

The inference is that nothing much happened in Adelaide that was of interest to the modern art movement in Australia. Sydney became metropolitan--it drew its creative energies and dynamism from within itself---whilst  Adelaide remained a cultural  province with its sluggish and conservative visual arts. Adelaide, as a cultural backwater, looked to Sydney for innovation and new styles.

So we have a black hole in art history of the art institution --we don't really know what kind of abstraction took  place in the visual arts --painting, printing  and photography---in the 1950s and 1960s in Adelaide. This other history has to be excauvated. 

13 responses
perhaps it was more to the point that he couldn't be bothered going there and doing the groundwork?

It says more about Smith's own attitudes and agendas in his book(s) than anything real about the art being produced in Adelaide. Of course, now they'd have to rewrite the histories to admit something amazing was going on here ... and it was, in fact influential on Sydney because the Dutkiewicz bros exhibited there, on their own and with others, in groups such as The Adelaide group and with the CAS. Interestingly, the first photograph accepted for exhibition by the CASSA was a photo of a rockface by John Walpole.... around 1960. At that time the Graphic Art Society started up, under the influence of later arrivals like Udo Sellbach and Karen Schepers (who later became Tamar Kempf). Among the first members of the GAS was Peter Medlen, who was a wonderful photographer in black and white, who mainly pursued a series of portraits of artists, some of which can be seen in the Moon Arrow series Modern Art in South Australia.... as well as a wonderful series on the nude form and another on coastal landscape (I recall seeing these when I stayed with him at 14 years). He printed quite large, and it was a shame he was so traumatised because he had enormous talent. He is almost completely forgotten now, and I have never seen his images, apart from portraits of my father, Francis Roy Thompson and Malcolm Carbins....

According to Helen Ennis in her Photography and Australia text the emergence of modernist photography in Australia in the late 1930's is Sydney (eg., Max Dupain) and Melbourne (Wolfgang Sievers) with a nod to Alxel Poignant in Perth.

Then we have the art photography movement in the 1970s that was informed by what was happening in the USA--eg., MoMA and John Szarkowski's conception of photographic modernism.

As usual nothing happened in Adelaide. Neither John Walpole or Peter Medlin are mentioned in the Ennis text. Very little comes up when googled.

There's mention of the Walpole incident in the CASSA history by Dean Bruton ... Recollections.
Official histories are often great reads but they inevitably miss out so much. Somewhere along the line someone with clout seems to arbitrarily decide what's worth including; at that stage Adelaide was Australia's third city and had found a fairly central place in the history of modernism in Oz through the role of Max Harris in the Angry Penguin scandal ... all the more strange that art history in the 50s and 60s became a battle ground in cultural superiority of the two big cities. Adelaide was guilty of enhancing its provincial status by not promoting its own modernist artists, who were anathema to the social elites, largely, because they were seen as subversives and outsiders and disturbances of the natural order. The AGSA here was more interested in the bohemian artists of Camden Town in London than its own. Culturally, Adelaide modernism is almost invisible because it had no advocates, apart from Ivor Francis and Harris, but they were respected but not central players or discredited and so their commentary was not given equal weight with their counterparts in the two big cities. That's one reason why I lobbied and eventually got Ron Radford to publish Ivor's autobiography - his parting gesture before he left Adelaide. But he has done precious little since to elevate Adelaide's modernist heroes. Of course, I lived through it, knew the people and have recall of a certain amount - but I'm not taken seriously and seem to be regarded as a maverick and nepotist. After all, what would I know? - I don't play the politics and business side of it well, so don't cut the mustard - but do know what happened.
Gary, Adam, you both raise some interesting points, about gatekeeping and official histories. From where I sit the trouble with these official histories is they rely on galleries, either government run/sponsored or successful commercial galleries to know who the contemporary players are. Commercial galleries come and go, and mainstream i.e., NGV and their ilk take very few chances on who they collect and show. So it is feasible to spend one's entire creative life attempting to make make meaningful and important creative work, out of the limelight and never be known by anymore than a handful of people.

For me one of the positives of the net and why I'm still engaging via it, is that people on the ground can help write history as it happens. For example Adam, if you can gather enough reference material you can write a wikipedia article about the scene or the players of Adelaide's art scene.

Thanks Stuart - I have added a biographic sketch about my late father to Wikipedia; and have also made several contributions to the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online.
I also found the exhibition catalogue "Cubism and Australian Art", which was at MOMA at Heide a couple of years ago informed me a great deal, offering new information and insights that really would require me to rewrite and edit my PhD thesis, completed in 2001, called "Raising Ghosts: Emigre and Migrant artists and the evolution of abstract painting in Australia, c.1950-1968." I tried to get interstate publishers interested in what I'd done, which was a shameless insertion of SA's modern art story into the national history, but to no avail; my strategy thereafter was to try and edit the book into shape, but found the prospect of dealing with permissions too overwhelming; so eventually I settled into producing my series Modern Art in South Australia, which now runs to six books/monographs, in which I have been able to pursue individual artists (and a couple of others I had not included in my thesis), in greater detail and beyond the time span and stylistic and media limits of my study.
you can find Adam's series on Modern Art in South Australia at Moon Arrow Press
Stuart you say:
" Commercial galleries come and go, and mainstream i.e., NGV and their ilk take very few chances on who they collect and show. So it is feasible to spend one's entire creative life attempting to make make meaningful and important creative work, out of the limelight and never be known by anymore than a handful of people."

It is pretty clear from Adam's work that this 'writing out' by the art institution is what to the Adelaide modernists, eg., painters such as the Dutkiewicz brothers and the two photographers that Adam mentions--Peter Medlen and John Walpole who were working in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gary.From where I sit, Post-modernism championed the idea that gatekeeping and notions of cultural aesthetic judgment were bunk.However nothing or no-one has seemed to step in to replace these cultural guardians.In fact what we see now is a plethora of creative people who are clamouring to be seen, yet may or may not acknowledge the large body of ideas that has gone before them. And not realising that their addition to the cultural output is not as new as they think.Who decides whose work is of value now, and in the future? The same people who have been doing so for the last 30 to 50 years I guess? As a consequence we are going to see a continuation of a denial of some people's output as being of any value? The sheer volume of work being made is creating a headache for curators and archivists alike, so much work to choose from but how to decide its worth? As an example, the 2 Melbourne Modernists you mention, I've heard it speculate were simply in the right place at the right time, and never set out to be anything other than good photographers.
you write:
Who decides whose work is of value now, and in the future? The same people who have been doing so for the last 30 to 50 years I guess? As a consequence we are going to see a continuation of a denial of some people's output as being of any value? The sheer volume of work being made is creating a headache for curators and archivists alike, so much work to choose from but how to decide its worth?

The art institution will make the judgments. They construct the histories. I've been digging into the history of the visual representation of the Fleurieu Peninsula to put this book into some historical visual context.

What I've come across is Jane Hylton's 'The Painted Coast: views of the Fleurieu Peninsula' from the 1840s to the 1980s. Its a catalogue of an exhibition at the Art gallery of South Australia of 200 images in the 1990s

Note 'painted'. Image has been reduced to painting and photography has been scrubbed out. The catalogue mentions dozens of contemporary artists currently representing the local landscape of the South Coast--all of them are painters.

Gary your research is going great guns and I hope you continue on. Your discovery however highlights my point.Having said that I feel that many creators and artists make work because they are driven, some choose to steal and some to borrow, none live in a vacuum, but few are concerned with history or significance, hell every one thinks their work is significant. Does the established art institution think this? Some people whether in concert or alone make decisions regarding the value and meaning of work made.To paraphrase Ed Ruscha, "it's [photography] just a dumb recording machine, meaning is the real problem"
a post on junk for code--by passing the art gallery that picks up on some of the themes discussed in this thread.
thanks Gary, I've responded over there.
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