Imaging a Nation: Australia's Representation at the Venice Biennale, 1958

Article excerpt

In 1937 Robert Menzies, then Australian attorney-general,(1) declared that he found 'nothing but absurdity in much so-called modern art with its evasion of real problems and its cross eyed drawing'. (2) He believed that art 'ought to be understood by reasonably cultivated people who are not themselves artists'. (3) These views were expressed during the much publicised disputes generated by his proposal to establish an Australian Academy of Art in 1937. Historians have argued that once this academy collapsed in 1946, the 'conservative old guard' of which Menzies was a part 'lost all power and influence'. (4) However, due to the government's monopoly over artwork selection for official overseas exhibtions, (5) Menzies's views on art continued to have a profound impact upon Australia's modernist artists following his second appointment as prime minister in 1949. In 1958, twenty years after the initial academy disputes, the issue of Australia's first official representation at the Venice Biennale caused a second split between modernists and conservatives. (6) The consequences of the conflict were so profound that Australia rejected an invitation to exhibit at the 1960 biennale and did not show in Venice again until 1978. Australia's twenty-year absence from the world's premier exhibition of international art had deep ramifications for the nation's artists: divisions emerged between the values espoused by art of the nationally based Heidelberg school and art more closely aligned with European modernism. Ultimately, the debate centred on the cultural presentation of the nation through art.

The Menzies art regime

The Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board (hereafter abbreviated to the CAAB) was a committee formed in 1911 to advise the then Prime Minister Andrew Fisher concerning 'Votes for Historical memorials for representative men'. (7) In 1912 it began to advise the government concerning suitable artists for portrait commissions of prime ministers and other outstanding Australians, as well as artworks recording national events such as the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament in Canberra in 1927. (8) Later, the board assumed responsibility for choosing works for the National Collection. (9) It was disbanded in 1972 when the Whitlam Government came to power. (10)

The CAAB consisted of members drawn from a narrow range of aesthetic backgrounds, the majority of whom held or had held powerful and influential positions as artistic directors and/or teachers. They included social portraitist and art teacher William Dargie; watercolourist Douglas Pratt; former director of the National Gallery of Victoria and watercolourist Daryl Lindsay; director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and watercolourist Robert Campbell; and, finally, the chairman of the board, Sir William Ashton. (11) Ashton first became a member in 1918, inheriting the position his father held before him. By 1958 he was still, as Bernard Smith observes in Australian Painting, 'a sturdy and influential opponent of post-Cezannist movements in this country'. (12) Menzies personally appointed the majority of the members of the CAAB to their honorary positions in 1953. He also had power of veto over the board's decisions. His influence became particularly significant during the late 1950s, when the expanded powers of the CAAB gave the body complete monopoly over the official selection of Australian art for export: from 1955 it was responsible for choosing works for embassies as well as for the export of artworks for official exhibitions of Australian art overseas. (13) The influence of Menzies's artistic preferences and conception of a national aesthetic had a profound effect upon the construction of nation within overseas exhibitions of Australian art as well as limiting the opportunities available for contemporary Australian artists to exhibit abroad.

However, Menzies's vision for an Australian Academy of Art was not fully realised. …