The Hang and Art History

By De Lorenzo, Catherine | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

The Hang and Art History


De Lorenzo, Catherine, Journal of Art Historiography


When the Royal Academy showed the exhibition Australia late in 2013, promotional and critical discourse revolved around two ideas that lay at the heart of the enterprise. One was that artists' responses to the landscape, coming to know its colours, forms, textures and moods, underpins most Australian art - a concept familiar to those who may know of Bryan Robertson's Recent Australian painting at Whitechapel in mid 1961 or the Australian Painting exhibition at the Tate in January 1963 and in any case requested by the Royal Academy for 2013.1 A second, less familiar, idea is the way in which Australians have come to understand the land, not as a motif for naturalistic, expressionistic or abstract landscapes, but as places that harbour stories and cultural attributes not always evident to the Western eye yet sensed by the mind. In August 1957 anthropologist, photographer and curator Charles Mountford had shown his collection of Aboriginal art at the ICA, London.2 A few months later in Perth, Western Australia, Ronald and Catherine Berndt curated The art of Arnhem Land at the Art Gallery of Western Australia where they noted in passing that Magani, an Eastern Arnhem Land artist, was accepted that year as a member of the New South Wales Contemporary Art Society-a detail that reinforced their central argument that 'Aboriginal art is contemporary, and not primitive'.3 Despite the coupling of Aboriginal art with contemporaneity in 1957, the idea took time to catch on. Today both Australian artists and the wider public have become accustomed to integrated exhibitions and museum hangs that give pride of place to Aboriginal art. Within Australia there is no questioning of the authenticity of Aboriginal art that is conceptually and materially innovative, and it is certainly not regarded as 'tourist tat' dependent on 'stale rejiggings of a half remembered heritage', simply because the materials are more 'whitefella' than traditional.4

My paper stems from a nationally-funded research project being conducted by a team of academics and art museum personnel on key curated Australian art exhibitions over the last 50 years, with the aim of investigating the impact of government, corporate and philanthropic funding on exhibitions, the changing nature of curatorship, and new models of writing art histories in Australia. Its objective is to enable art curators, art historians and the wider public to better understand the nature and impact of curatorial interventions.5 One line of inquiry is the incremental recognition of Aboriginal art, and the promotion of it as quintessentially Australian.

While there is now a substantial history on the reception of Aboriginal art within the art museum,6 there has been little analysis on the implications for art history. This paper looks carefully at cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional curatorial strategies behind Tony Tuckson's Australian Aboriginal art (1960-61).7 It introduces the exhibition, examines concepts of style informing both the hang and the critical discourse, looks at why the cross-disciplinary dialogues soon unravelled, and considers the legacy of the exhibition within Australian curatorship and art history.

The curated exhibition Australian Aboriginal Art

Tony Tuckson, Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales [AGNSW], curated Australian Aboriginal art on behalf of the state directors of art museums. He attracted the admiration of anthropologists, art curators and specialists around the country. His aim, simply summarised in a letter to Ronald Berndt four months before the exhibition opened in Sydney, was 'to show the changes in style over the years and also to represent different subject matter, which...to the general public will make the exhibition more interesting'.8 He knew what he wanted and what he didn't. He wanted real objects, in this case painted barks, carved wooden figures and other objects.9 He was not interested in emulating earlier museum exhibitions that showcased a wider repertoire of media - rock paintings, rock engravings and carved trees - via photographic records and various forms of replicas. …

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