C Soutine, Madeleine Castaing, 1929, Metrop NY
It was not until Joseph Goebbels ordered a total purging be done of all of Germany’s public art collections, that people in Australia started to take notice of modern art, other than British. The art that had been selected out for destruction was to be shown to the German people for the last time. And as we saw, millions turned up for a special Exhibition of Entartete Kunst, held in 1937 in Munich as a farewell tour.
Then a similar show was brought to Australia in August 1939. How did Australians react to modernist European art, just weeks days before WW2 broke out?
In 1938 newspaper baron Keith Murdoch, a NGV trustee and avid art collector himself, sponsored the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. Murdoch told the Herald board ‘Gallipoli has given us one kind of maturity. This exhibition will give us another’. Murdoch’s personal taste in art was actually traditional in that he generally preferred understandable art. But he was brave.
Exhibition curator Basil Burdett, the Melbourne Herald’s art critic and a former gallery owner, assembled the show during a whirlwind 5-month visit to Europe in 1938. The choice of Burdett was a good one since his overseas contacts were astonishing. He counted Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein among his friends. He was able to secure loans from curators and scholars, artists and dealers.
Burdett selected the 217 paintings and a few sculptures, negotiated with British and European galleries and organised transport of the collection, which arrived in Australia just before WW2. His assumption was that modern art may have been rejected as not conforming to the political/ideological needs of Nazi Germany, but that Australian art critics would not influenced by German politics.
However two Australian art critics DID influence the outcome for the Herald Exhibition across Australia and negatively. The first was the director of Australia’s biggest state gallery, the NGV, James S McDonald. He feared the exhibition had a corrupting influence: "There is no doubt that the great majority of the work called Modern is the product of degenerates and perverts. If we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth, we shall render a service to Art. As owners of a great Van Eyck, if we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth we shall render a service to Art." He resented the deluge of publicity Murdoch organised "to urge us to swallow this putrid meat".
Fernand Léger, La Femme au chat, 1921, Kunsthalle Hambourg
Modern art and leftist politics went together, he believed, and neither should be supported by state patronage. McDonald contrasted the decadence of modern tendencies with the “timeless virtues and verities which appeared to be found for all time in the canvases of Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen”. Modernism was ‘gangrened stuff which attracts the human blowflies of the world who thrive on putrid fare”.
McDonald believed that the success of Australian art relied in the fact that our artists come from stout British Protestant stock. Yet some of Australia's most prominent painters were neither British nor Protestant eg Girolamo Nerli, Datillo Rubbo, Louis Abrahams, Emmanuel Phillips Fox, Elioth Gruner, Hans Heysen, Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner. JS McDonald's moral outrage against modern art seems ridiculous to us now. The cubist paintings of a Fernand Leger may have been modernist and challenging, but they were hardly a Total Insult to a Decent Christian Nation. Yet his views carried power.
The second attacker was Lionel Lindsay, trustee of Australia’s second biggest state gallery, the Art Gallery of NSW. Plus he was a member of one of Australia’s most famous families in art & literature. He wrote about the Australian Public being duped by Jew dealers in Paris, as I have cited before in this blog.
Works by Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Chagall, Dali, Modigliani etc may have been not to everyone’s taste, but could modern art have brought down Australian civilisation? Of course not. Yet in 1937, the Attorney-General Robert Menzies had proposed the establishment of a Federal Art Society to arbitrate healthy taste and promote sound, realistic painters.
Robert Menzies’ vision for an Australian Academy of Art eventually failed. The academy proposal caused such division among the Australian arts community that the organisers disbanded in 1946 from lack of support. Still, the ideas espoused by Menzies and the hard-core advocates of the academy continued to influence views concerning the nature of an Australian art tradition. The anti-modernism stance of Lionel Lindsay in NSW and JS McDonald in Victoria attracted significant support from advocates of the Australian Academy of Art.
Menzies later wrote to Lindsay that he had recently read the latter’s book Addled Art with supreme joy. Menzies regarded 90% of the artists as rank impostors: refugees had discovered an art racket SINCE their arrival in Australia as “victims of oppression in Europe”.
Duncan Grant, The Dancers, c1911, The Tate
You might have thought that artists are paid to innovate, investigate, push boundaries & challenge traditions. You also might have thought that the director of a national gallery would have been interested in the aesthetic & intellectual developments of modern art. Apparently not. I would not have minded had the Australian critics said they did not enjoy the modern art, or they thought it was untalented. I object to the language that they had borrowed straight from Goebbels, language of disease, degeneracy, anti Semitism, racism and perversion.
Note that McDonald and Lindsay WERE successful. They prevented the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art from being shown in state galleries; they cut off normal advertising revenue and they blocked almost all the paintings from being sold to Australian collections.
Anyhow 217 art objects went into the Herald exhibition. While art patrons in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Berlin and other major cities had ready access to these modernist works, a show of this artistic range and size had never been held in Australia before.
As well as leading British painters Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Walter Sickert, SJ Peploe and Edward Wadsworth, it included post-impressionists Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne; early moderns Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall; and other contemporary pioneers like Fernand Léger. Despite the title of the exhibition, French and British Contemporary Art, a minority of included artists were neither French nor British: Amedeo Modigliani, Kees van Dongen and Vincent van Gogh, Osip Zadkine, Adolph Milich, Georges Kars, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.
The exhibition premiered at the Adelaide State Gallery in Aug 1939 and ran for 3 weeks, attracting 7,000+ people and making a reasonable profit. Note, dear reader, that the South Australian gallery was the only major state-funded art museum to host the show and they presented the art objects very nicely.
When the Exhibition moved on to Victoria and New South Wales, the Directors of the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW forbade the exhibition from being shown in THEIR state galleries.
Instead the exhibition was held in Melbourne’s Lower Town Hall. Crowds were so large that on the first day 2,000 people were turned away, even though opening hours were until 10 PM. Such was its popularity that it had to be extended for another week. In total 48,000 Melbournians saw the show, an extremely large number that further infuriated MacDonald.
In Sydney, a floor of the giant retail shop David Jones was used for the exhibition, attracting 15,000 people. The public was clearly excited to view major works by modern masters, despite the fact that leading representatives of the local art world vehemently denounced the show and worked to undermine it. While the Sydney attendances were not as high as those in Melbourne, the exhibition produced heated debate on modernism.
Of course Murdoch’s Sun News Pictorial newspaper gave great coverage to the event. A record total 70,000+ people saw the exhibition in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, when Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million.
When the Sydney exhibition ended, the paintings were loaned to the AGNSW, which agreed to take them for 5 months. But instead of displaying them, the trustees put the paintings in storage. Despite letters from hundreds of artists and gallery patrons, who begged to see the works, the trustees claimed that there was not enough space to display them. Such was the hostility to the AGNSW trustees that when one of them turned up at a public meeting, he was heckled by 200 artists. The gallery board was gobsmacked.
The outbreak of WW2 meant that the collection, instead of being returned to its owners in Europe, remained in Australia for the duration of the war. Writing about the Herald exhibition in his book The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes noted: "A door had opened briefly. But then it shut; the war broke out and, although the paintings could not be returned to Europe, they were kept in their crates until 1946." This wasn’t quite so. Most of the pictures from the exhibition remained available throughout the 7 years, 1939-46. Smaller versions of the show were mounted in Brisbane, Hobart and Launceston. And many of the works were eventually included in separate exhibitions at the NGV and AGNSW, in 1942 and 1943.
Perhaps the most revealing example of the narrow-mindedness of those dominating the local art scene was their failure to purchase any of the exhibition’s most important works. The majority of the paintings were for sale and with the war starting in Europe, they were being offered at fire-sale prices. There was the possibility of buying major works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Bonnard and others. Yet the NGV, with the vast Felton Bequest resources (an annual income of £23,000 in 1939), managed to acquire only one Van Gogh and one small Derain.
The anti-modernists had won the battle. But the tide was definitely turning. Art 21 showed how Dali's Memory of the Child-Woman remained in Australia for several years, giving the continent an extended viewing of Dali’s brand of Surrealism. No viewer fainted; no critic foamed at the mouth.
For a wonderful analysis of the entire exhibition, read Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art by Eileen Chanin, Steven Miller and Judith Pugh, Miegunyah Press, 2005 (see front cover above).