20 October 2018

David Goldblatt: anti-apartheid photographer in South Africa

David Goldblatt (1930-2018) was born in South Africa, the grandson of Lithuanian refugees who fled their homeland in 1893. Goldblatt worked in his father's men's wear shop and graduated from the Uni­versity of the Witwatersrand with a commerce degree. He lived in Johannesburg where he began photographing in 1948 and documenting devel­op­ments in Apartheid South Africa.

Goldblatt grew up during the rise of the National Party. When the Party came to power in 1948, the Nationals began implementing Apartheid policies that marginalised non-white South Africans.

In this difficult political environment, young Goldblatt dev­eloped an interest in photography-focused magazines like Life and wanted to become a magazine photographer. Then, when the African National Congress became active in their struggle against Apart­heid, the editor of Picture Post asked him to photograph ANC meetings.

Young men with dompas
the identity document that every black South African had to carry, 1972.

A white farmer’s son with his young black nursemaid,  
Western Transvaal 1964. 

Goldblatt wanted to show how immoral the Apartheid regime was. But he did not automatically attend violent rallies or prot­ests; rather he ran away from violence. He was interested in the causes of events, so his photos captured the understated unease of living an ordinary life under an Apartheid regime. Clearly there was no explicit violence in Goldblatt’s photos, no bodies in Soweto streets or after Sharpeville. Just everyday life! But violence permeated life in South Africa and fear was a constant.

In the 1964 photograph, a white farmer’s son stood next to his black nursemaid, Heimweeberg, his hands resting gently on her shoulders. Behind them was a barbed wire fence.

Goldblatt said he was a photographer, capturing things that were important to him and to ­society. But he was not an artist; instead he saw himself as a documentarian. He asked how it was possible to be so apparently normal, moral and upright, as most citizens were, in such an appallingly abnormal and immoral situation.

Saturday morning at the hypermarket, 1980

See the photograph Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Miss Lovely Legs Competition 1980 with white teenagers parading in bathers, and black and white shoppers looking on. Like many of his photos, it wasn’t dramatic and the subjects weren't named. But its very ordinariness showed the casual­ness of a society marked by Apartheid, a separateness that most children were aware of growing up in South Africa back then. 

Another photo was taken just after 2 AM. It showed a never-ending queue of black South African commuters travelling on a bus that took them from the segreg­at­ed areas where they were forced to live, to work in Pretoria. Many carried blankets in the hopes of getting some much-needed rest while on the 3 hour journey. In this Blacks Only bus in 1983, not all enjoyed the luxury of seating as the bus travelled on its daily commute. Goldblatt had found the human, in the inhuman social landscape.

For much of his career, Goldblatt had worked with black-and-white photos; he believed that colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that Apartheid inspired. How ironic, since race was almost entirely decided by colour alone.

In the 1990s, he began experimenting with colour, but his mission to photograph South Africa through a lens of integrity and morality remained the same. He was looking critically at the processes taking place in his country. 
Exhausted workers on a Blacks Only Bus into Pretoria,
each morning at 3 am 

These images will be among many in the exhibition David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948–2018 at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this southern summer (Oct 2018-Mar 2019). Planned and curated before the late South African photographer died this June, the programme includes his earliest work, his later port­raits of miners, Afrik­aners, exhausted early morning commut­ers, AIDS sufferers, blacks’ shacks and the lumbering mines that built the fortunes of the white ruling class on the backs of black labourers.

In 1987, David Goldblatt gave 115 of his prints to the V&A in Lond­on. The photographs had toured several British venues during the 1980s, organised by Newcastle’s Side Gallery. With majority rule not coming to South Africa until 1994 and the polit­ic­al situation worsening in the meantime, Goldblatt needed to sec­ure his work in a publicly accessible, safe place outside South Africa.

Originally Goldblatt promised the rest of his negatives to Cape Town Univ­ers­ity, but withdrew his collection after student protest­ors began burning campus artworks that they deemed to be colonial symbols. He believed that the actions of the students were the antithesis of democratic action. Before he died, Goldblatt instead bequeathed his archive of negatives to Yale University.

Goldblatt’s work has been exhibited in museums throughout the world. In 1989, he founded the Market Photography Workshop at home and in 1998 he was the first South African to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He exhibited in Kassel, Germany in 2002 and 2007, and held solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and the New Museum in New York, and in the Venice Biennale in 2011. Most recently he held exhibit­ions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Barbican Centre in London and Paris’ Centre Pompidou.

And now Sydney. As the opening of David Goldblatt's retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Aust­ralia, the museum’s Chief Cur­ator Rachel Kent, and South African photographer, archivist and curator Paul Weinberg, spoke on the life and legacy of the late art­ist.

Even those of my close friends in Australia who haven’t been back to South Af­rica since 1990 will be stirred by the Sydney exhibit­ion. South Africa has great­ly changed, but its racist history was frozen in Goldblatt’s pict­ures. Thus his photos are a powerful reminder that while ordinary people went about their daily lives, horrors were committed and excused in their name. Perhaps the images are a warning to Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump.

16 October 2018

Christian Dior designed beauty, ending wartime ugliness

By the time we were selecting our own clothes in the 1960s, the times were too hippy for my generation to tolerate Christian Dior (1905–1957)’s post-war fashions. But now it is time for us to re-examine our old views.

Born in Normandy and moved to Paris when he was a child, the Dior family name was known for his father’s successful fertiliser comp­any. As an adult, Dior immersed himself in the capital’s creative scene, under the care of Robert Piguet, fashion designer who trained Hubert de Givenchy.

Following France's surrender to Germany in 1940, Dior returned to Paris, where he was soon hired by couturier Lucien Lelong. Through­out the remaining years of the war, including when Dior was serving in the French army, Lelong's design house dressed the women of the Nazis and of French collab­orat­ors. During this same time, Dior's younger sister, Catherine, was working for the French Resistance.

Dior, bar suit, 1947
silk jacket and wool crêpe skirt

How did Christian Dior help to restore an embattled post-war Paris as the capital of fashion?  Louise Quick says it was Feb 1947 when the designer’s scandalous range shocked post-WW2 society and rev­olut­ionised the fashion industry forever. Taking place just two years after Victory in Europe Day, Dior stunned his world with his first fashion collection in Paris. Models wore swathes of rich fabric, long, heavy skirts and dres­ses synched at the waist.

Dior’s designs were about creating an overtly hourglass silhouette. Of 90 impressive pieces in Dior’s collection that day, the most iconic was the Bar Suit- a large, dark, feminine skirt, padded at the hips, teamed with a silk cream blazer synched at the waist. It was a figure that set the standard for fashion and femininity for the next decade, reflected in the famous styles of 1950s. Hollywood stars like Marilyn MonroeAva Gardner and Rita Hayworth loved his style, as did the fashionable young royal, Princess Margaret. She chose one of Dior’s designs for her 21st birthday, immortalised later by Cecil Beaton.

Warmly received everywhere, the designs spread across Europe and made their way over to New York. While the Dior designs may have seemed shocking back then , they don’t necessarily seem shocking today. So it’s important to remember the huge effect WW2 had had on everyday clothes. The fashion industry was hit by war-rationing and austerity measures, and there was a significant war time reduction in mat­erials, skilled workers and factory space.

New Look evening dress, 1947
using metres of lush material.

With the introduction of rationing in Britain (and Australia) in 1941, simpler, slimmer outfits were made as more coupons were need­ed for the fabric and skilled handiwork. So early 1940s clothes were dominated by simple suits and knee-length dresses with boxy, manly shoulders. Decorative elements like pleats, ruching, embroid­ery and even pockets were restricted under austerity meas­ures, while luxury additions like hats and lace were heavily taxed.

After food, clothing was the hardest hit by the demands of the war effort, which explains the government’s Make-do And Mend pamphlets; they provided housewives with useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish in times of harsh clothes rationing. A band of London designers even came together to Incorporated Society of Lon­don Fashion Designers/Incsoc, to popularise austerity-era designs.

In 1942, Incsoc created 32 designs of utility styles, fashionable outfits that used to limited resources, that they then presented to the public. Restricted to tight fabric rations, Incsoc coats, dresses and suits had no pleats, tucks, frills and no unnec­essary buttons. They were intended for all seasons, with paper patterns made available for those wishing make them at home.

While many of the leading fashion houses and magazines were happy with the war-time designs, fashion-conscious citizens were unsure about mass-produced styles. And some critics thought these Mayfair designs were actually too fashion-oriented for women in the war factory. Nonetheless these simpler, utility-style designs became the general trend, represent­ing both fashion and dedication to the war effort. And it carried on, because clothes rationing didn’t end until 1954!

So it was shocking post-war to see visions of Dior’s models covered in lavish materials, fine details and accessor­ies. While Incsoc’s utility-style dresses had been rest­ric­ted to 1.8 metres of fabric, Dior’s more elaborate pieces often used 18+ metres each. His glamorous, fem­in­ine style was a comp­l­ete rejection of the wartime austerity that covered Eur­ope.

Fashionistas mostly approved of the lavish designs and the move away from boring wartime trends. The bulky coats and capes to cover the large skirts were surp­rising. As were the pockets, synched waists, exaggerated bosoms and classy acc­essories; but it was the long skirts that were the most controv­ersial. While 1940s fashion generally had knee-length skirts and dresses, the New Look wasn’t concerned with fabric rationing .... so hems could fall to mid-shin.

Christian Dior's Cyclone design, 1948.

There was another, more sexist explanation. Post-war women were encour­aged to become homemakers again, moving out of the work-place so men would have jobs. The feminine, flowery and imp­r­actical Dior fashions were therefore actively encouraged in Western countries.

In 1950 Dior licensed his name on luxury accessories eg neck-ties, hosiery, furs and handbags, the first designer to do so. Dior died of a heart attack in 1957 while holidaying in Italy at 52.  He had single-handedly revived Paris’ struggling post-war fashion industry, particularly among society’s glamorous upper class. But then the role of artistic director moved to a young assistant, Yves Laurent.

To celebrate the anniversary of the House of Dior,  the National Gallery of Victoria pres­ented The House of Dior: Seventy Years of Haute Couture in 2017. It included a lavish display of 140+ garments designed by Christian Dior from his iconic 1947 New Look Collection and on. The exhibition narr­at­ed the fashion house’s rich history, Christian Dior’s early influences, his design codes, insights into the Dior atelier workrooms, accessories that played a role in the complete Dior look and the six successive designers after Christian Dior died in 1957. The signature ballgowns and evening dresses wowed the NGV audience.

Dior’s longstanding relationship with Aust­ralia was also examined, including the historic Spring 1948 fashion parade at David Jones in Sydney, where models wore 50 original outfits.

13 October 2018

Queen Mary of Teck's biography and author James Pope-Hennessy's murder

Queen Victoria’s unsatisfactory grandson, Prince Albert Duke of Clarence, second in line to the British throne, desperately needed a bride. Earlier attempts to marry this useless duke off to foreign princesses had failed, so Queen Victoria was relieved when, in 1891, Mary of Teck (1867-1953) loved the prospect of becoming Britain’s queen and immediately accepted the duke’s hand. But this plan had to be abandoned when the duke died of pneumonia soon after the engagement. Instead Mary became engaged to his brother, the Duke of York, who in 1910 was crowned King George V and she his queen consort.

King George V and Queen Mary
at their coronation, 1911

Queen Mary of Teck and King George V had 6 children, of whom 5 survived to adulthood. Mary lived through the reigns of her sons, King Edward VIII and King George VI. In 1952, her eldest grandchild became Queen Elizabeth II and in 1953 Queen Mary died at Marlborough House, aged 85.

Royal librarian Owen Morshead asked James Pope-Hennessy (1916–1974) to write a biography about the late Queen Mary. Pope-Hennessy had been the editor of The Spectator, author and biograph­er. He was the brother of Sir John Pope-Hennessy, director of both the V&A and British Museums.

James was very well connected. He had formerly shared a flat with the spy Guy Burgess in Ladbroke Grove, London and in 1960 was invested with the Insignia of Commanders of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen. He had previously been in a relationship with Harold Nicolson, a former diplomat, writer and MP. Author James Lees-Milne was also a former lover of Pope-Hennessy.

James Pope-Hennessy began his 3 year project in 1955, two years after Mary died. It took him to many royal courts in Britain and Europe, meetings old royals, current and retired courtiers and Queen Mary’s staff. He included sharply observed encounters with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Duke of Gloucester and a young Queen Eliz­ab­eth. Plus he had access to many private documents. His book, Queen Mary, was set to be a classic of royal publishing.

The interviews revealed as much about the interviewer as about the late queen. At Sandringham, Pope-Hennessy was a bit arrogant about the suburb­an, middle-class York Cottage into which George V and Queen Mary lived for most of their reign. And some reviewers sugg­ested that Pope-Hennessy’s judgment was not always to be trusted eg he thought the Duke of Windsor was very intelligent and liberal-minded.

The interviews were fascinating. Pope-Hennessy spent a weekend with Prince Henry Duke of Gloucester at Barnwell Manor. The Duke was very kind and entertaining, and he sat with the author until the wee small hours of the morning, gossiping about family. Queen Mary spent the war at Badminton so the Duchess of Beaufort interview was also important. She described the queen sitting in the air-raid shelter at midnight, fully dressed in pearls, with her Lady.

Inevitably the picture that emerged was not altogether favourable. The Duchess of Devonshire, who was Mistress of the Robes for 40+ years, claimed that in all that time she only once had a relaxed conversation with the queen. Maggie Wyndham, a Woman of the Bed­chamber, was sometimes made to read aloud to the queen for 7 hours non-stop. Lord Claud Hamilton said that Queen Mary was ‘one of the most selfish human beings I have ever known’.

The cold, proud queen dressed up in diamonds for dinner at Sandringham every night, even when alone with the king. And her staff knew when she admired something in other peoples’ homes, the hosts had to give it to her.

The author soon realised that these interviews in themselves formed the mat­erial for another book. But because of the awful secrets they contained, Pope-Henn­essy wrote: I kept a private and confid­en­t­ial file recording in considerable detail the convers­ations I had both with Queen Mary’s immediate descend­ants, related German, Dan­ish and Norwegian royalty and with sur­v­iving members of the Court of King George V and Queen Mary. None of these strictly confid­ential interviews could be published until a lapse of 50 years.

In the end James' very informative book biography was released in 1959, six years after the queen’s death.

Pope-Hennessy’s brutal death
In Jan 1974 thieves ransacked the home of James Pope-Hennessy, 57, following newspaper reports that he had been offered $150,000 to write a book about Sir Noel Coward. He was bound and stabbed by three men. During the attack, James’ young valet Leslie Smith entered the house and was immediately set upon, before the assailants fled the scene. Smith staggered into the street and shouted for help from local labour­ers. He was taken to hospital with a serious head wound and surv­ived. Pope-Hennessy was also taken to hospital but immediately died from multiple stab wounds. Queen Elizabeth II was informed and sent a condolence message to James’ brother, Sir John.

James Pope Hennessy
photo credit: scepticpeg

The three men, all rent boys, were arrested and charged with the mur­d­er. One of them, John O’Brien, had been living at Pope-Hennessy’s flat for a few months prior to the incident. Since both Pope-Hennessy and his valet were users of the rent boys in Picc­ad­illy, they had both been in a sexual relationship with O’Brien.

In the July 1974 trial, a deal was struck and the three defendants pleaded guilty only to manslaughter. They men received further sentences for robbery, G.B.H and burglary.

New Release of Queen Mary’s biography
Remember that Pope-Hennessy had kept notes about the interviews he had done. Pope-Hennessy had not intended the notes of his royal interviews to be published for 50 years i.e until 2009. In fact very few of Pope-Hennessy’s interviews were published (by Peter Quen­nell in 1980).

Mostly the candid observations, secrets and ind­iscretions in Pope-Hennessy’s notes were indeed kept private. Now published in full for the first time and edited by royal bio­grapher Hugo Vick­ers, this is a fascinating portrait of the eccen­tric ar­istocracy. Hugo Vickers published the interviews, along with his well edited text.

09 October 2018

A private palace of art - Leighton House in London

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) built the Kensington studio-house from 1865 on. With the Victorian art market booming, and domestic taste fascin­ating the middle classes, Leight­on needed to demonstrate his importance. After all, he was both president of the Royal Academy and chief exponent of the new Aesth­eticism.

Leighton House was to be his link to a special society, so #2 Holland Park Rd needed to be special. Fortunately Leighton was enjoying increasingly high fees for his paint­ings, and he also had family money. Leighton and his arch­itect, George Ait­ch­ison, chose the decorat­ive elements for their aesthetic effect, wherever they came from. The result incorp­or­at­ed styles from Arts and Crafts, Orientalism and Baroque.

Adding to the building for years, he end­ed up with one of the most talked-about houses in the country. Around the dome was a super frieze made up of tiny tiles, commis­sioned from artist Walter Crane (1845-1915), who did the work in Venice and then trans­port­ed the finish­ed product to London. William Morris curtains were loved. Orientalist Iznik wall tiles and the fin­est Arabian and Persian artwork were coll­ected on his regular trips to Turkey and Syria. Sometimes he comm­iss­ioned friends to buy the art objects abroad, including the Japanese and Chin­ese porcelain.

Leighton was a leading painter. His main interest lay in history painting and neo-classicism, and his most instantly re­cognisable work is Flaming June. Viewers also value his plein air oil sketches, made on his North Africa and Middle Eastern travels.

Flaming June,
by Lord Frederick Leighton, c1895
Tate Britain

On Sundays, visitors gazed at the spectacular 1877 Arab Hall, with its golden dome, intricate mosaics, walls lined with beaut­iful Islamic tiles and indoor fountain. Colleagues attended one of Leighton's famous musical soirées, complete with its minst­rels' gallery. Intimate friends were invited to spend the evening in the red dining room with glittering Middle-Eastern ceram­ics.

Or they lounged in the private and relaxed Silk Room, with its paintings by Tintoretto and Millais. Certainly it was homo-social; he filled this cosy room with pieces by friends such as Millais, George Frederic Watts, Singer Sargent and LawrenceAlma-Tadema.

Was Leighton a dandy? Presumably yes. But note three things. Firstly his young women were expected to access the studio through a separate Model's Entrance in the back. Leighton House may have been de­signed to showcase the artistic avant garde, but his class relat­ionships were still Vic­t­orian. Secondly for all his generous support of fellow artists, Leighton seemed to have had little interest in women painters or their work. Finally Leighton lived alone in his palace, occupying the house’s one, very stark bed­room on the first floor. Thus he was showy, public and extra­vagant, but private and a bit grim as well.

 de Morgan tiles

Arab Hall and sculpture

After Leighton's death in 1896, his one-bedroom house didn’t sell. So his sisters had to focus on the house's vast art coll­ection, in order to carry out the bequests in their brother's will. Following the Christie's sale, his works by Constable, Delacroix and Corot were bought around the world. During this empty time, the house’s ceilings were covered in lining paper and painted dull bronze emulsion. The wooden flooring was covered with protective layers.

After WW2, Leighton House underwent well-meaning but sloppy rest­or­ation. That changed in 2008-10, with a £1.6m fund from the Roy­al Borough of Kensington & Chel­sea; a team of curators, crafts­men and architects did a very careful restor­at­ion. Working with old photographs, they strip­ped the house back to Leighton’s original vision. It is now a testimony to a particular moment in British cultural history.
Many of the key paintings which were sold were loaned back, and now occupy their original positions. Where furniture, tiles, wallpaper and fabrics were missing, facsimiles have been commissioned from traditional craftsmen.

Enter via the splendid Arab Hall and see the central dome, newly restored with gold leaf. There are ottoman seats which have been re-upholstered in a William Morris Willow fabric, clearly ident­ifiable in photographs of 1895. And from those photos, historians set about re-creating the wallpaper that Leighton had himself commissioned. Other highlights include the reproduction of finely embroid­ered upholstery, designed by Gertrude Jekyll. It is a place of tactile luxury!

Leighton House Museum is surrounded by a group of other studio-houses, all built during the later C19th. Today the museum has a collection of 76 oil paintings by Leighton, includ­ing large-scale finished works produced for exhibition at the Royal Academy.

There are only 3 extant Leighton sculptures, but their influence over younger British sculptors was profound. The examples at the museum were pres­ented in 1900 by Leighton's friend and close neighbour, artist G F Watts.

700 of Leighton's sketches were assembled in the early years of the C20th, shortly after the establishment of the museum. The collection demonstrated his skills as a draughtsman.

The museum also has a small but significant collection of paint­ings, drawings and sculpture by contemporaries: John Everett Millais (1829-96), George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) and Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927). See drawings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and J A M Whistler. The entire collection was catalogued, conserved and toured in 2005-2007.

Leighton collected paintings by his friends and colleagues

During the High Victorian period an informal group of C19th art­ists based in West London was called The Holland Park Circle. As well as Frederic Leighton, it included George Frederick Watts, Luke Fildes, Marcus Stone, Val Prinsep and William Burges. See the group’s archives, plans, photographs and drawings. And see the group of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron whose family had close associations with the Holland Park artists.

The museum holds a collection of c100 pieces of pottery by Wil­l­iam De Morgan and his later associates. Following De Morgan's death in 1917, this collection was presented by Ida Per­r­in who paid in the 1920s to build the Perrin Gall­ery (at the east end of Leighton House). His wife,  Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)'s watercolours on paper, remain.

The House Museum shows Leighton's life as a gentleman, art­ist and collector. The fascinating coll­ect­ion of the arts by Leighton and his generation is still growing.