Sunday, 15 June 2014


“Obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.” - Henry Miller

For Art Sunday today I am featuring three works by different artists that have fuelled great controversy in Australia. This once again demonstrates the power of art to challenge our comfort zone, to makes us ponder as to what constitutes art and what the meaning of art is.

Melbourne’s drunks have leered at a particular painting for over a hundred years, and this painting is one of Australia’s most famous. This is because “Chloe” hangs not in the Victorian Arts Centre, nor does it grace the walls of a museum, but because it is on the wall of the little pub known as Young and Jackson’s, which occupies one of the nation’s prime real estate sites in Melbourne, directly opposite Flinders Street Station.

“Chloe” was painted by the Frenchman Chevalier Jules Lefebvre (1836-1911) in Paris in 1875. Legend has it that he used as his model a beautiful Parisienne named Marie. One evening she gathered her friends about her, and treated them to a magnificent dinner. When all of her guests had gone she spent her last remaining sou on a box of matches, boiled the heads, drank the poisonous water and died in terrible pain. 

The painting was brought to Melbourne for the Great Exhibition of 1880. It was purchased by one of the city’s best-known surgeons, Thomas Fitzgerald, who on one occasion, loaned it to the Melbourne Art Gallery for a public showing. There, it created such a storm of controversy over allegations of ‘indecency’ that its fame was well established. When its owner died in 1908, the picture was bought by Mr Norman Young of the team of Young and Jackson, hoteliers, for 800 guineas and was put on display in the saloon bar where it may still be seen.

Sir William Dobell’s (1899-1970) portrait of Joshua Smith sadly no longer exists. The original was almost destroyed by fire and only a clumsy restoration survives. The destruction of this masterpiece was the last of a long line of humiliations suffered by one of Australia’s most amazing works of art. The vigorous, uncompromising study of Dobell's fellow artist, Joshua Smith, won the 1943 Archibald Prize.

The trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW were impressed by its dramatic style, and the likeness. However, two unsuccessful exhibitors were so outraged that they decided to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court. The painting, they claimed, was not a portrait but a caricature.  The case involved some of the best legal brains in the country. Some of the press mocked the painting mercilessly. It was alleged in court that the portrait was a pictorial defamation, “a stricken creature”. At one stage even a Macquarie Street doctor was brought in to declare that the painting looked like a corpse with ten vertebrae in the neck rather than seven.

Dobell said that he painted his friend, with whom he had shared a tent while working for the Army, as he saw him. The case was dismissed and Dobell kept the prize but he suffered a nervous breakdown and the word “caricature” would plague him forever.  Joshua Smith also suffered deeply and at one stage he and his father arrived on Dobel’s doorstep in tears to try to buy the painting. But the artist, fearing they might be compelled to destroy his work, refused to sell.

Many years later, when the painting was burnt in a fire, Joshua Smith thought fate had intervened to end his pain. However, the wealthy owner had the painting restored and now the clumsy rendition survives, reminding us that art can cross swords with the law to the detriment of better judgment and common sense.

Norman Lindsay’s (1879-1969) paintings were not to everyone’s taste. In his ninety years he painted, drew and sculpted acres of naked bodies and in so doing scandalised what he called the “wowsers”.  Lindsay was the ultimate artist, with a head full of fairytales, dreams and inspirations of castles, legends - and yes - full-breasted women.

Critics and public alike mistook his ingenuousness for Satanism, failed to detect the carefully staged decadence, and shouted out accusations of pornography. However, he was far from radical but rather, a quaint anachronism in the permissive age he had helped pioneer. He was born in the small country town of Creswick, Victoria, the son of a doctor and a missionary’s daughter and maybe this was part of the problem: “My mother used to try to instruct us in the story of Jesus, how Jesus died on the cross for us. I loathed the story. My whole being rose in revolt against this pestilent notion that anyone should die for me... my concept of life is a gay one you see.” The whole family was enormously talented, as were Lindsay’s own children, but he was clearly the prodigy.

As a young man his reputation grew as an illustrator and he moved to bohemian Sydney to join the political magazine ‘The Bulletin’. In fact, his political cartoons were often extremely reactionary. In 1907, however, his stylish drawing 'Police Verso' (Latin for “thumbs down”) caused outrage when it was purchased by the Gallery of Victoria for 150 pounds. Another Lindsay etching depicting nudity in a religious setting, “The Crucified Venus”, caused a similar scandal. Julian Ashton refused to remove it from public gaze and compromised by hanging it face to the wall. In 1931 the police launched a prosecution against the journal Art In Australia when it published a special edition devoted to Lindsay’s work.

At one stage Lindsay left the country, swearing never to return, but, of course, he did, muttering and spluttering.  Although he was a master etcher, Lindsay was far less successful with oils and sculpture where he had problems of structure and scale. Perhaps he was just too prolific. He produced for example the classic children’s book ‘The Magic Pudding’ and a string of interesting novels such as ‘Saturdee’, ‘Redheap’, ‘The Age of Consent’, ‘A Curate In Bohemia’. His preoccupation with wine, women and song didn’t seem to do him any harm and he was ninety and still working when he died in 1969.

The 1994 film “Sirens” looks at Normal Lindsay’s household and how a minister and his wife are challenged by Lindsay’s progressive lifestyle and confronting art.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting post! Art through the ages has often had to defend itself against "wowsers"