The Story of Blue and White Pottery

A blue and white ceramic bowl. (Credit: Pxfuel)

I’m always fascinated by patterns that are able to stand the test of time and space, that are able to transcend geographic and cultural borders as eras and fashions come and go. One example is the Dutch movement in visual arts named “De Stijl”, which I have already covered. It began after WW1 and is found all over the world to this day. An even more interesting case is that of blue and white pottery. Professor Anne Gerritsen of the University of Warick, author of The City of Blue and White (2020) calls it the “ultimate global commodity”. 

If you do an online search on blue and white ceramics, you will encounter similarity and variety. Many collections of plates, vases, bowls and more, show Chinese dragons and landscapes. Some have Central Asian Islamic geometric and floral designs. European styles are also available—Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese. There is a whole batch that is manufactured in the western Indian city of Jaipur. Examples are also available far away in Mexico. Which place and period does this craft ultimately come from? What were the migratory routes like? We can’t really guess by looking at it.

Rows of blue and white ceramics kept with other varieties in Bukhara, Uzbekistan by User “…your local connection”, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Flickr.

It turns out the origin lies in both China and modern-day Iraq. Chinese ceramics go back to the Palaeolithic era. Earliest pottery was earthenware and stoneware. “Qingbai ware”, a type of white glazed porcelain, became popular under the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Very basic blue floral motifs on white were found upon white pottery in Henan province during the Tang Dynasty in the mid-800s.

Later, as trade routes between China and other parts of Asia were opened, developments emerged. It is believed that the craftsmen of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517), especially in the city of Basra, inscribed palm trees, garlands and Arabic writing in cobalt blue pigment (mined in Persia) upon Chinese white porcelain. A form of craft was created that combined foreign technology with local taste. (A fascination with blue had existed throughout the region since ancient times. The metamorphic rock lapis lazuli was extracted as early as the 7th millennium BC at the Sar-i Sang mines in present-day Afghanistan. Deep, intense blue had also been used in the jewellery of Mesopotamia and Egypt.)

As China increased contact with the Islamic world, versions of pottery richer than the experiments at Henan became prominent. A centre emerged in the city of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province in the 14th century.

A 17th-century blue and white dish from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

With more commercial and colonial activities over the subsequent centuries, blue and white pottery spread to Europe, Japan, India, etc. The Jaipur branch was developed when the practice was passed on from Mongol artisans via Turkic conquests of India between 14th and 17th centuries. The Dutch East India Company (1602-1799) imported hundreds of thousands of pieces made in Japan and China, which led to a style known as “Delftware”. The pottery reached distant Mexico via Moorish influences in Spain. 

An article on Victoria and Albert Museum website mentions a phenomenon known as “Chinamania” in Britain in the 19th century: “In the 1850s and 60s, antique blue-and-white ceramics were discovered by a small group of artists and intellectuals linked to the Aestheticism movement, who valued ‘Art for Art’s sake’ (art that didn’t tell stories or make moral points, but was enjoyed purely for visual pleasure). Engaged in the ‘search for beauty’, influential Aesthetic artists such as James McNeill Whistler and the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti began eagerly collecting Chinese blue-and-white, sometimes known as ‘Nankin’ or ‘Old blue’, which was seen to embody true beauty in colour, material and form.”

Ewer of Medici porcelain, Italy, c. 1575–87, Met Museum, New York, Public Domain.

A blue and white pottery bathroom set from Jaipur, India on sale on kalakyari.com.

It is quite remarkable how easily blue and white ceramics were able to penetrate and permeate through lands following dissimilar belief systems, climates and lifestyles. Blue, symbolising peace and tranquillity, is the colour of the sky and sea, accessible to all. White, evoking purity and newness, is always acceptable everywhere.

The pattern is also democratic in its availability—found among antiques for royalty to mass-produced objects for the average citizen. Its ubiquity is proof of our common appetite for beauty, and also, to an extent, the same kind of beauty.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: A Major Name in Rococo Art

The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Wallace Collection, London.

The word “Rococo” immediately conjures for me 18th-century France and highly ornate architecture. Gilded, flowery design. Cream walls, pastel blue ceilings, trompe-l’œil scenes. Elaborate costumes. Marie Antoinette and her cakes. It’s a style that I have been aware of but barely paid attention to.

Until recently, that is—when the painting The Swing (1767) by French Rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) flashed before me multiple times on Instagram, and I was driven to search a bit more.

Rococo—with all its extravagance—it turns out, was a reaction against the more formal French classicism or Style Louis XIV. “The Swing”, which is a fitting representation of the movement, is believed to have disturbed the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who wanted art to be serious, dedicated to depicting reason and the nobility of man. When you look at the painting, the quality that is most perceptible is “frivolity”. It freezes a moment of frolic and carefreeness in a seemingly cultured and sophisticated garden setting. The figures, who look as though they belong to polite society of etiquette and ethics, appear to secretly indulge in what might be an impermissible act. The enduring appeal of the artwork lies precisely in this contrast. 

An elegantly dressed woman is swinging happily, one shoe thrown in the air. A young man is in the bushes on the bottom left, looking up at her, one hand reaching out. An older man is behind on the right, pulling the rope, perhaps unaware of the young man. A cupid-like sculpture does a shhhh.

Alina Cohen of Artsy explains: “Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien commissioned The Swing from Fragonard with salacious intentions. Saint-Julien wanted a picture of his mistress that also featured him looking up the lady’s skirt. Initially, the Baron tried to hire history painter Gabriel François Doyen to make the work. Given the sordid nature of the task, Doyen refused. Fragonard had no such qualms—and his career benefited from it. After all, austerity was hardly in vogue throughout Marie Antoinette’s France. With the success of The Swing, Fragonard was able to successfully transition from a history painter frustrated by royal bureaucracy to a favoured artist of the upper class—members of which, ostensibly, were more willing and able to pay on time.”

There are other paintings by Fragonard that are worth engaging with—a set, in fact, titled “The Progress of Love” (1771-73) that was commissioned by Madame du Barry, the mistress of King Louis XV, for her château. They were, strangely, rejected by her. They changed houses and owners and, in 1915, were purchased by American industrialist Henry Clay Frick for $750,000.

The four artworks are The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned and The Love Letters. They are definitely less famous than The Swing—because they are simply less mischievous and almost more moral. But they possess technical and thematic beauty of their own.

The flowers, the trees, the sky—everything is quite enchanting in these scenes. In the first artwork, we see a young man offering a woman a rose. Another female is present in the painting, a companion to the object of affection. Later, there is a tryst. Then, the crowning of the man by the woman with a wreath—signifying commitment. Lastly, the two are together in a bond, and look back fondly at their letters.

Romantic and sexual symbolism is hidden within the garden through the stages of courtship. For instance, in the opening image, the fountain might point at future consummation. In the tryst, the two characters meet below a statue of Venus, the goddess of love. The man’s red stands for passion, the woman’s white for purity. In the final image, they are seen before a personification of friendship, which implies their relationship has matured to a certain warmth and stability and ease.

The way in which the drama of the series unfolds, with depth and exuberance, is quite alien to our current age of superficial dating apps. What we hear of now is an abundance of options for a potential partner, rapid swiping and ghosting, disposability. Flippant, boring behaviours. Fragonard shows us a completely different and much more interesting world. A world of concentration in one person, effort in wooing. Better manners, higher standards, and therefore, more fun, more play.

The Progress of Love: The Pursuit (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Meeting (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Lover Crowned (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.
The Progress of Love: The Love Letters (1771-73) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Frick Collection, New York City.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Famous Examples of “Preliterate” Art

Cuevas de la Manos (Cave of the Hands), dating back to 11,000- 7000 BC, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Photo by User “Mariano”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.

The word “prehistoric” is very popular but when it comes to art made before the advent of settled life and writing systems, I try not to use it. Many believe that history officially begins with scripted records of human life and culture in the Ancient Near East around 6000-4000 years before the present. This somehow implies that the time prior to that period isn’t included in the grand narrative of the human race. But we have so much evidence available of human consciousness and creativity from the deep past…30,000 years ago, 10,000 years ago—not written accounts on tablets, certainly, but drawings and figurines, signs and symbols that speak volumes. All that cannot not be a part of history. That’s why I prefer the word “preliterate” over “prehistoric”.

Here I will examine five famous examples of preliterate art from different parts of the world and what they might tell us about our ancestors. Very little is known about the cultural context of these hunter-gatherer societies. The works may have had a ceremonial or merely decorative function. Despite the lack of clarity, we might deduce something precious about the human condition by exploring them.

The first artwork that comes to my mind is the “Cave of the Hands” from southern Argentina, about 13,000 years old. These stencilled paintings of dozens of hands (the pigments, it is believed, were sprayed through bone pipes) highlight our inherently social identity, how we must band together for safety and survival. They also indicate our desire to be remembered—as in “I was here”.

Another cave I think of is Lascaux in southwestern France, which has paintings of wild animals going back 17,000 years. Some observers have linked them to an idea known as “sympathetic magic”—the term was first used by Scottish social anthropologist and folklorist James George Frazer (1854-1941).

Depiction of horses, aurochs and deer in a painting at Lascaux caves in the village of Montignac in southwestern France, believed to be 17,000 years old. Photo by User “Prof saxx”, Public Domain, Wikipedia.

Sympathetic magic means a kind of procedure aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters. It could have been performed by shaman-like personalities in a state of trance believing that “ritual actions imitate the real ones you wish to bring about”, that by visualising and meditating on big game, a community will be able to encounter and capture them for real.

Venus of Willendorf as shown at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo by User “Bjørn Christian Tørrissen”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Next, I think of 25,000-year-old “Venus of Willendorf” (Willendorf being a village in northeastern Austria)—a 4.4-inch-tall statuette that was discovered during excavations by Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Josef Szombathy (1853-1943) and others in 1908. This female figurine with plaited hair or headdress and large body could be a mother goddess—that is, a personification of creative forces, fertility, the plenitude of nature found in many cultures, primitive and advanced.

Fourth example is that of the paintings found at the Bhimbetka rock shelters, located in the Raisen district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. About 10,000 years old, these depict animals like horses, bison and deer, weapons like arrows, shields and swords, scenes of hunting and also, interestingly, dancing. They give us a glimpse into a slightly more developed community. Here we understand that even with a harsh existence devoid of the comforts and luxuries of civilisation, our ancestors could make room for entertainment and take time out for fun.

Paintings in Rock Shelter 8, Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by User “Bernard Gagnon”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Dancers at Bhimbetka. Photo by User “Nandanupadhyay”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia.
Ain Sakhri Lovers, British Museum. Photo by User “Geni”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia.

Lastly, I have chosen the Ain Sakhri Lovers, a 102 mm high figurine—now at the British Museum—from a cave near Bethlehem, discovered in 1933 by René Neuville, a French consul in Jerusalem. This is the oldest known representation of a copulating couple. It is also a phallic symbol. Like the Venus of Willendorf, it can be said to denote fertility but within a relational framework.

When observed from different perspectives, it looks like different sexual organs—breasts (top), penis (side), vagina (bottom), also testicles. The artwork is about 11,000 years old and belongs to the Natufian culture of the Levant that was known for its semi-sedentary lifestyle even before the dawn of agriculture. Archaeologist Ian Hodder of Stanford University has interesting thoughts on the entwined figures:

The Natufian culture is really before fully domesticated plants and animals, but you already have a sedentary society. This particular object, because of its focus on humans and human sexuality in such a clear way, is part of that general shift towards a greater concern with domesticating the mind, domesticating humans, domesticating human society, being more concerned with human relationships, rather than with the relationships between humans and wild animals, and the relationships between wild animals themselves.

British art historian Neil MacGregor writes that to him the tenderness of the embracing figures suggests not so much reproductive vigour but love. People were beginning to settle and form more stable families and “perhaps this is the first moment in history when a mate could become a husband or a wife”. From this point onwards you must make an effort to continue the species, not in a purely animal way as did those before you, but within the structure of a more definite, committed interpersonal dynamic.

These are only five. Every example of preliterate art can lead to a contemplative or enlightening experience if we engage with it deeply enough.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Using our Shadow Side as Fuel for Creativity

The Self and its Shadow by Swedish artist Gabriel Isak (Fair Use)

One of my favourite contemporary thinkers is the American author Robert Greene (born 1959)—who has produced the bestsellers The 48 Laws of Power (1998), The Art of Seduction (2001), The 33 Strategies of War (2006), The 50th Law (2009)—this one written with the rapper 50 Cent–Mastery (2012) and The Laws of Human Nature (2018).

Given his subject matter, Greene is a controversial figure. Some people are quick to dismiss his ideas as manipulative and amoral. But that is not the impression I have formed of him after reading a good deal of his work and listening to dozens of his interviews. It’s a joy to engage with his vast knowledge of psychology, history, philosophy and literature­­.

Greene’s is an unusually wise voice in the realm of self-help and personal development. He is not one of those just-believe-it-and-you-will-achieve-it gurus. He also isn’t about just-work-hard-and-you-will-certainly-get-it. Sure, our optimistic mindsets and efforts are crucial factors behind our success. But hope and industriousness, no matter how potent, may not be enough to melt other people’s “resistances”. People have egos, they are the centres of their own universe. They have deeply held beliefs, prejudices and proclivities. If we want to win them over to our side—as romantic partners, as audiences, as customers, as collaborators, as supporters—we must be careful in what we say or do before them and how. We must learn up the art and science of persuasion.

Robert Greene’s books. The next will examine the concept of “the sublime”

Greene is passionate about equipping his readers with practical tools that can help them navigate a world the dominant forces of which might not always be in their favour. He doesn’t want us to go beyond good and evil or alter the essence of our identity. We don’t have to be wicked or fake, only skilful and strategic.

Of late, Greene has been talking a lot about the “dark side” and why it needs to be mastered if we wish to achieve great things in life. This dark side isn’t some dualistic evil half to your good half—it is much more complex than that. It is related to the concept of “the shadow self” proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961). Our shadow is that part of us that lurks beneath our polite and affable exterior. It could be composed of impulses that we may consider both immoral (say, a desire for extramarital affairs) and moral (indignation at the economic inequality of the world). It may be wayward, insecure, selfish, passionately righteous—whatever it is the best way to understand the shadow is that it is carefully concealed from public view.

If the shadow lies repressed or denied, isn’t confronted or disciplined, it leaks out in ways that we might regret later—during touchy moods, in offhand comments, as irrational and irresponsible behaviour…suddenly in your late 20s you get addicted to alcohol and you don’t know why or at the age of 45 you leave your steady job and family and elope with a 19-year-old, destroying everything you’ve worked so hard to build all along.

If the shadow is denied, it leaks out in destructive ways. (Credit: Pixabay)

Interestingly, because of its energetic nature, the shadow can act as fuel for extraordinary feats. Greene himself attributes his accomplishments to careful channelling of his dark side. Before becoming a writer, he’d tried 80 or so jobs across America and Europe—among them, a construction worker, translator, magazine editor and Hollywood writer. The Hollywood stint proved to be an important point in his life. Despite his excellent performance, he ended up getting fired on account of office politics. The experience left him bitter and frustrated.

It is easy for us to accept defeat and sink into self-pity after such incidents but that’s a waste. Dissatisfaction, disappointment, irritation, anger—such emotions have a hidden generative force. In fact, many times the impetus provided by these feelings is even stronger than the motivation that might arise from straightforward love or gratitude or bliss or contentment. Dark energy could be metamorphosed into something productive if it is dedicated to the service of a higher purpose, a bigger vision, a worthy cause or movement.

Instead of directing it inward and becoming a prisoner of it, Greene projected the massive hatred he felt towards the hypocrisy and sycophancy he witnessed in the film business outward into the craft of instructive non-fiction. He wrote The 48 Laws of Power to tell people that you do not have to be naïve, you do not have to suffer. You can protect yourself from harm and the machinations of others.

The shadow can be a real gift to those in the arts, whatever their medium. If a person feels aggression—because of a difficult childhood or professional rejection or failed relationships or something else—and if they have it in them to create and construct something new and beautiful, that ability will be magnified and sharpened manyfold if every time there’s a rush of dark energy through their mind and body, they choose to not give in to painful pondering but just courageously pick up a pen or brush or chisel or camera, diverting the power out of their system into the world.

Shots from “Blue” by Kevin Diallo (Fair Use)

An artist I would like to use as example here is Kevin Diallo (born 1987), a Senegal-born Ivorian-Australian media professional whom I interviewed recently. In his recent installation “Blue” exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, I believe he converts his deep-seated anger into a powerful expression for a greater cause—he lifts up an entire race.

Here’s the description of the project: “The ocean belongs to the semantics of black suffering, from the history of the Atlantic Slave trade to the recent tragedies of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea while seeking refuge on the shores of Europe; black bodies are intrinsically linked with the maritime.

“From May – September 2019 artist Kevin Diallo crossed the Pacific Ocean on a 40ft sailboat from San Diego USA, to Sydney, Australia accompanied by three friends. ‘Blue’ illustrates how the artist attempted to reclaim the ocean as a space to practice resistance and healing.

“The work utilises photography, moving image, installation and sound to situate black normative existence within a space that typically denies blackness—and how the trauma of blackness’ relationship to the ocean can be radically altered to express freedom, joy and opportunity.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Albrecht Durer and selfies

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait

Who are you, and what are you doing here? You, there in the mirror, there in the lens of your phone: What do you see? asks Lawrence Farago in the opening paragraph of an essay in the New York Times about self-portraits and Albrecht Dürer.

Selfies are everywhere. The Google arts and Culture page estimates that about 93 million selfies are taken and uploaded onto social media every day. Social platforms like Instagram were specifically designed for the iPhone in 2010. Selfies are the major means of self-expression in our times. Few realise that selfies have art royalty in its bloodlines in the form of Albrecht Dürer, who lived from 1471 to 1528.

Dürer was a genius, one of the most remarkable artists of all times. He is regarded as the father of self-portraits. Prior to Dürer, self-portraits were rare. Dürer changed that. He was obsessed with his image and painted numerous self-portraits. For artists like Dürer, self-portraits were a means of self- expression. Think of self-portraits by artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo, to mention but a few. Today, with the advent of the selfie, self-portraits are everywhere. They are the major means of self-expression.

Farago’s questions about portraits are similar to those asked by the foremost cultural critic of our times, the late John Berger. In his book Portraits, Berger writes pithy essays about 74 artists. Berger, looking at the same self-portraits of Dürer as Farago had, asks why people seek images that depict them? His first response is that any person who has a portrait painted about them, seeks to produce evidence that they lived. It is a voluntary existential act with a particular look that is unique to the subject of the portrait.

As always, Berger digs deeper and suggests that the appearance and look of the subject has a duality. First, it is an image of a particular person. Secondly the image interrogates the looker of the portrait, and asks what the looker thinks about the image. Any journalist will tell you that any story is about the “w’s”, “what, when, who and why”. The person who created the image (selfie included) asks the same question and seeks to answer the question by means of how the subject is presented in an image.

Selfies say a lot of things. They tell stories or can poke fun at us. I once saw a selfie where the maker of the image stands in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The caption of the image says one of these faces are worth $860 million dollars.

Farago who is no media hack, studied art history at Yale and won the acclaimed Rabkin Prize in 2018 for art criticism, is rather cynical about selfies. He writes “In the eyes of us poor moderns, it seems self-evident that a picture can capture who you are. That your posed image, your face and your clothing, express something essential about your personality. It’s the myth on which every selfie stands”.

Farago argues that Dürer is the principal perpetrator of the myth upon which selfies stands. In this respect he looks at Dürer’s self-portrait painted in Munich in 1500. It is a magnificent painting. More so because flat mirrors did not exist at the time. Farago writes that the detail in the portrait evokes divine inspiration. Just look at Dürer’s hair in the image. Dark and light intertwined, displaying immense skill. Study the eyes and ask whether you see a window in them. Dürer’s gaze is intense, so much so that it troubles lookers. One person even damaged those eyes by poking needles into them. Farago also writes that the myth about self-portraits, is not innate but manufactured. He sees arrogance in the portrait but also believes that it is the best portrait ever.

Berger in turn regarded Dürer as the first one man, avant-garde. Dürer did his first self-portrait, a drawing, when he was 13 years old. His talent, even at that age, was remarkable. Like Farago, Berger sees the divine in Dürer’s self-portrait of Munich 1500.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait at 13

Berger wrote that Dürer’s self-portraits were theatrical in the sense that they conveyed something more than what he actually was. In the Munich portrait, Berger suggests that Dürer presented himself as deity. It is not blasphemous because the artist was a devout and practicing Christian. Berger’s suggests that the divine is an awareness of the artist and of his creativity. At the very same time Dürer was aware that he was living in a world of suffering and that his magnificent creativity was impotent to do anything about human suffering.

Both critics conclude that self-portraits are designed to represent the ego in a flattering manner. In that sense the artist, whether it is the hand holding a telephone for a selfie, or a brush loaded with paint, is misrepresenting the self. Upon looking at the Dürer self-portrait two things stand out. One is that Dürer was truly a magnificent artist. His ability to do detail is genius. He was concerned with portraying himself exactly as he was. The missing part is, despite the self-portraits, we do not know who and what Dürer was like. That question hangs in the air, just like with most selfies.


Written by Luisa Blignaut.

Grit and passion in a successful art practice

David Palliser, Mining, 2020, 138 x 153 cm

We welcome artist and teacher, David Palliser to share his art knowledge in this MAC newsletter, beginning with his discussion of a Gareth Sansom painting from the 2017 NGV retrospective. David, who has won the respect of many of our students whilst teaching abstraction at MAC, has committed some of his observations into writing. The article gives some great insights into Sansom’s work.

Over time, I’ve had several conversations with David about the ‘under-appreciated’ quality of perseverance in art practice. David once used another word which I also like, calling this same quality, ‘doggedness’. For me ‘doggedness’ reflects the act of painting with determination while being blindly stuck, progressing slowly and sometimes painfully. Sometimes it seem that we only advance when we finally abandon the known, so as to move forward into the unknown. This is reflected in Edgar Degas’ comment, “Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.” It takes grit to persist to a place where having exhausted what one knows, a door then opens to new possibilities. It’s a desperate act which we undertake as we seek to be a part of the creation of something entirely new. David has described it like this,

“Making something that has never existed before is exciting. We don’t often get it to feel right from the beginning- especially painting. Un-peeling the layers of what we have managed to put down, the picture demands that we give over to the process. You have to be tenacious.”

David’s own endless struggle with the aesthetic vagaries of painting abstraction attests to a life lived to create great art through sheer perseverance. Looking on, I know that David’s contribution to painting is significant but it has not come easily.

There exists in creative practice an inherent and constant need to push through to the next level, attain the next resolution from fragments of ideas, influences and aspirations that assail us. David has described the, “sheer perseverance and final understanding that failing and flailing are part and parcel of continually regenerating in the studio”. This rings true to me- that failure is an inherent part of a process of creating something new.  Faith in the practice, that persistence can build inherent skill, that each failure, is the foundation of a subsequent success- building something new, is to my mind a beautiful description of the creative process.

These aspirations can of course be shut down so as to pursue a more comfortable existence but many of us have concluded that not knowing what could have been, is too big a price to pay for comfort. So we toil, with no guarantee of financial reward, or that we will recognised, or that we will be remembered. We hope that our loved ones will understand why we had to do this and most of us do contribute and maintain responsible lives. It takes grit to do this for a lifetime. For an aspiring or professional artist in Australia, the numbers regarding income are sobering. Salt in the wounds also, are the extraordinary art prices and reputations touted in our media feeds. As Tulika Bahadur describes in her MAC article, Privilege in the Art World—and Two Ways to Circumvent it, success in an art industry of high prices and big names is fickle and in no way relates to talent. Tulika does offer two ways forward though- which I recommend you read.

A combination of grit and passion have also been described by professor of psychology Angela Duckworth as being the basis of success. Duckworth states,

“A bias towards finishing what you begin rather than leaving it half finished, is actually characteristic of some of the most successful people in the world,”

Duckworth also explains, while perseverance, hard work and resilience in the face of adversity are the best predictors of grit and therefore of success, there is also a need for passion. It is passion with grit that get us through the difficult seasons. It seems that it’s not talent rather our passion that will best facilitate eventual success.

There has to be a faith in the practice, that creativity is not capricious and elusive, rather, in searching, we will find. This faith is echoed in comments I have heard made by author Elizabeth Gilbert when she discusses the Roman understanding of the muses, as that which inspire, not from within, but from without. Creativity is bigger than us and it is not self generated, rather something we link in to- receive. I recently returned to reading, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron which shares with Gilbert, an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of our creativity. Both these writers point us to a place beyond our machinations and supplications to a place which has at its core a sense of provision.

While grit and perseverance keep us returning to work, we need this to be driven by passion to keep us creative and productive. Passion enables the joy of creating to continue in the midst of a working routine. Cameron warns that for an artist, grounding their self image in military discipline can be dangerous. She explains,

“That part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined, automaton, functioning from willpower… Over any extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.”

Creative success comes through grit and perseverance grounded in passion and enthusiasm. Passion is a commitment, perhaps an act of faith, which is enacted when we accept our creativity, yielding to it, knowing that it is part of a more immense creativity. In short, we are provided for, if we believe in our creativity.

I left my job as an electrical technician at the age of 23 to pursue my dream of studying art. It took till that age to believe that if I took a step towards the vision that tugged at my heart, I would experience provision. As it turns out, that provision was far more complex and elaborate than I could have imagined. Had I not left my previous career, I may never have had the extraordinary creative journey I have had, including, meeting those I have met and realising that not only an artist lay within me, but a teacher also.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Gareth Sansom – A Forensic Possibility 2010

Gareth Sansom A forensic possibility, 2010; Oil, enamel and collaged digital photographs on linen; 183 x 244 cm; enquire
Gareth Sanson, A forensic possibility, 2010
Source: Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

From the dense and wonderful Gareth Sansom survey exhibition at the NGV in 2017, A Forensic Possibility was one of my favourite works. Gary is a friend, mentor, and adventurous spirit that I have had the pleasure and agony of knowing since I started post-grad studies at the VCA in 1983. For me this painting shows a coming together of Gary’s searching intelligence, wit, appropriation of worlds and styles, craziness, fluent painterly technique combining a huge vocabulary of ways of putting paint down and an encyclopaedic sense of the history of painting.

A Forensic Possibility is spatially multidimensional with all its excavations pushing constantly back up to the surface. If you half close your eyes it appears almost black and white with a few blue and orange blobs and a hard zap of yellow at the top. The purple vertical smeary triangle thing harmonises the yellows with the inky dark blues. One sensation is always challenged by something mocking or at odds with it, such as the intentionally clumsy naïve drawing on viscous white threatened by the ultra sharp shards around the perimeter in their corporate yellows and array of flat office greys . The sharp white fractures, themselves a pure white abyss, on the far left lean with superiority into the brick red smear with its decidedly hand drawn rectangles that then echo the clunky steps in cool blues- a rhythmic metamorphosis with sensations of sharp control , badly lit stairwells and fleshy paint.

Highly focused, odd and intense, wrong handed with intent- what more could you want? Perhaps the loopy sausage stairs traversing the canvas, up or down who knows? So much pleasure from not knowing. It is essential to realise that Gary uses the “casual” but this is not a casual painting. The elements gain drama and the essential tension through their interdependency. The bigger truth is that paintings can contain anything, high and low. The artist strives to establish relationships between the parts. This is where the art seems to seep in.

Image: Gareth Sansom: Transformer exhibition at NGV in 2017
Source: Broadsheet

In the flesh much of the paint is luscious, physical, energised to a variety of pitches. This picture enjoys its own wild ride. Compared to many other pictures of Gary’s this resists a central focus- my eye can wander at will. Apart from the steps there is no definite image to hold onto. I love the list of things I initially thought was an absurd shopping list but apparently derives from a film’s murder victim’s forensic report. Each word in the wonky stack forms a clear and simple image with a tactile resonance in the viewer’s mind. Paradoxically the painting has almost no definite visual images….unless we look down at the bottom section and discover small collaged photos of the artist caught seemingly in the throes of some mad existential play. Nice to note the perfect match of the masked figure with arm resting on the edge of the modernist square complete with soulful drips in the right bottom corner. The switch of languages is deft and exciting.

This painting is an accumulation of things found in the process of making. It is not possible to plan such an adventure. The paint and possibilities of space, image and colour lead the way and the artist follows. Light is the great activating force. The putting down of elements in turn creates the picture’s own appetite for development or elimination and then finding another way. I see Gary opening and descending one trapdoor then finding another. The painting establishes its own desires, the artist must submit.

Windows, gaps, apertures, perimeters, an accumulation of lushly painted grammar never getting to one point but many. Time is elongated and materialised into the picture. The clues keep appearing yet an answer is very happily not revealed. For me, Gary’s lifelong passion for cinema seems to come to a palpable moment in this picture, especially with the pitch black surround- the painting like a bright white burst onto the cinema screen before the celluloid jams and melts in the projector -the audience collectively catch an image, of what they don’t know, in the dazzle.

Written by David Palliser.

Privilege in the Art World—and Two Ways to Circumvent it

“The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market.” (Credit: pxfuel.com)

Art is an industry unlike any other. It operates in strange, funny ways. It is an unregulated market wherein there are no ultimate definite criteria as to the worth of works. The value of a painting and sculpture depends, at the end of the day, not so much on talent (which is a notoriously slippery subjective term) but on the PR machinery of the artist or dealer. Talent—to the extent it can be universally identified—certainly has its role, yes, but prices are determined more by which dealer randomly discovers which artist and which collector randomly discovers which dealer, and how much he/she is willing to pay for what. Whichever individual or platform somehow ends up attracting money can invest further and capture space in the media to reach aspiring collectors, and consequently, keep generating more sales.

Works such as these by superstar artists like Takashi Murakami (back) and Kaws (front) appeal to wealthy individuals just starting off their collecting journey sometimes simply because they have been bought by other wealthy people before. (Source: ToyQube)

The current situation is that, globally, the art world is run by a handful of megagalleries (Gagosian, Perrotin, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Pace, a few more) and auction houses (mostly Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips) that regularly find themselves witnessing record-breaking numbers. They decide what will be displayed in important museums. A few artists (dead and alive) hover at the top—e.g., Jeff Koons, Kaws, Andy Warhol, Basquiat—and we find their names repeated countless times to the point of tedium.

But the fact is where value—material (of money) and intangible (of status)—has been once accumulated, there it remains. I see new rich millennials on Instagram who are keen on collecting art. They too simply go for somebody like Kaws or Takashi Murakami, whatever is readily available and already famous in affluent circles—having no great awareness or knowledge of the variety of art that is being produced worldwide. They do not have the time or motivation to search for some pioneering First Nations Canadian painter or a thought-provoking Cambodian sculptor or an important Ethiopian photographer.

The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market. Those emerging artists who do gain quick access to big galleries are very often relatives or acquaintances of seasoned art collectors themselves and come from backgrounds that can allow them the financial means to overnight promote content on social media and acquire a hundred thousand followers. If the work is mediocre, it doesn’t matter; it may still end up selling. Social clout—gathered on the basis of birth—rapidly turns into commercial clout.

That is the story at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom are thousands upon thousands of galleries that produce too much art, may represent enormous amounts of talent and hard work, but are barely able to gain visibility and buyers and build value for their artists—for lack of resources that can fuel the required level of PR. Rich people who can buy art prefer to approach the big, well-known names for advice and direction. As a result, at the bottom, there’s too much supply but little demand. Lower- and mid-level galleries that cannot guarantee sales, find it difficult to survive and have small rosters of represented artists are themselves regularly flooded with pitches.

This can sound very depressing and frustrating to gifted, diligent artists who have no prior connections in the industry and inherited wealth (for advertising). How can they make their work stand out and catch attention? It is not easy to break into the system, even at the very bottom. And what if you do not even have a good BFA or MFA from a reputed college?

I think those who exist outside the domain of privilege may start by opening profiles on various online art selling platforms (e.g., Saatchi Art, Artmajeur) and, of course, post regular content on social media (even if you can’t pay for followers, you never know who might someday find you). But beyond these, two strategies could be helpful, to an extent, in circumventing the unyielding and non-inclusive structure of the art world.

1. Expand your Network (but without Hard-Selling)

It is very important that artists take networking seriously. The more the number of people who are aware of your existence, the greater the chance that you will be able to sell more art. But one must be careful with communication. As I wrote in my article on COVID-19, you can introduce yourself to people without asking them to “buy” your work (or to represent you). Power dynamics in human relationships are extremely sensitive. If you are the unsolicited one and want to approach an influential individual (a dealer, collector, curator, publisher or a well-off businessman who is also an art enthusiast), direct and loud language will normally not serve your purpose. Hard-selling can be a huge put-off in an overcrowded world. A better way to make yourself known is to pursue another course of action/thought first and slowly reveal your creative identity. Dealers who are too loaded with pitches will give you more respect and attention if, instead of directly messaging them, you somehow befriend somebody close to them (who then shows your work to them). If there’s a businessman or cultural influencer you want to approach, find an article or video of theirs—then email them saying you enjoyed it and why the subject interests you. Leave your website and social media profiles in the signature. Chances of receiving a reply go up with soft-selling.

It is said that your network is your net worth—artists ought to take this seriously. (Credit: pixabay.com)

2. Merge your Art with a Functional Object or Experience

If wealthy potential art buyers and successful gallerists are not in your sphere, there are other avenues through which artistic careers could be built and advanced. These are certainly not easy, may require research, careful negotiation and some investment—but they can allow your skills to be presented before a good number of people.

If you find that people are unwilling to buy art because they do not want to put money in items they cannot use in a tangible manner—impress your art upon functional objects. Who doesn’t need mugs, suitcases, dresses, furniture? It may be a little difficult to find the right partners or platforms that allow this but I know artists who have build great businesses over time with such an approach. There are websites that turn art into fabric, either on-demand or with built-in marketplaces (e.g.digitalfabrics.com.au and shopvida.com, respectively). Finally, I feel that artistic knowledge could also be merged with “experiences”, not only objects. An experience that an artist may sell could be an evening for a group that includes a painting class and drinking of wine. Artists may also collaborate with professionals in tourism to act as cultural guides and with mental health professionals who administer art therapy.

There are many routes that one can adopt if one has an entrepreneurial spirit and is open enough to not be dictated by fixed notions of how an artist must use their talent and make money. If admission into the hallowed echelons of an art world run by a small elite is blocked for an artist, rather than being discouraged, they can consider themselves free to innovate. Far from taking one away from the desired goal of having artworks sold, these activities will increase its odds as they will bring exposure to the artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The art of Luisa Blignaut

After Anaesthetic

Driven by a freight train of a mind, Luisa Blignaut’s acrylic paintings frequently and impulsively veer off track into unexpected, fertile territories.

The painting After Anaesthetic describes the minutes after Luisa woke from surgery and looked out of the Box Hill hospital window towards the Dandenong Ranges. Below is the city, with geometrically abstracted buildings. Luisa paints her reflection in the window where the rolling mountains and hills stop for the self portrait which is itself a geometric construction and traced by rainbows. Luisa has described this experience of waking and then slipping away again to wake again in another room.

It was a rainy day and I saw a rainbow when I opened my eyes. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I was in another room, remembering the rainbow.

The hills musically echo the rainbow, as if Luisa has recognised herself somewhere within them, somehow, in the rainbow also. A part of these elements but aware of self as constructed, geometric, like the buildings. This seems to be a description of a slipping in and out consciousness, from apparent void into self. To be both separate from things and a part of all things, a sense of the tentative and the universal, of being in-between. The in-between of things characterises much of Luisa’s work.

Bark Blues

Luisa has a deep love for contemporary classical music, experimental music and jazz. She finds joy, meaning and integrity in improvised and experimental music. She frequently parallels natural textures and patterns with musical ones. In Bark Blues, subtle tones and textures correspond as much with music as with the bark of the trees, the title being a play on both texture and rhythm. Music and the improvisation of blues and jazz give the best insight into Luisa’s working process. Luisa has said that she “thinks all the time when painting, whilst thinking nothing at all at the same time“. Of all Luisa’s quotable quotes, this is my favourite. She also describes this as a “conversation between cognition and intuition displayed on a canvas with paint and brush. Brush strokes explore, discover and react. The resulting paintings are spontaneous and improvised.” Bark Blues describes Luisa’s way of thinking and working in a wonderful mixture of spontaneity, musicality and visual revelry.

The painting Polyrhythms uses the landscape to describe a musical composition which combines contrasting rhythms. As with Bark Blues we are seeing the two elements, visual and musical simultaneously. Each element of the landscape – sky, sea, beach, coast and even the poles have their own rhythm which simultaneously contrasts and seemingly harmonise with each other. Luisa has created the visual equivalent of a complex musical technique.

Polyrhythms

European Bee Eater, Thorns and Namaqua Spring all directly reference Luisa’s South Africa. Luisa was a frequent bird watcher and walker. Each of these images translates Luisa’s memories into a play of colour, form and space across the canvas using direct spontaneous brush marks. Thorns, uses the native vegetation to create a patterned abstraction as a homage to South Africa. Likewise, the intensity of colour in Namaqua Spring is extremely subjective, referencing an intense personal connection to a place where Luisa frequently found solace during turbulent years.

European Bee Eater
Thorns

Namaqua Spring

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy, references Luisa’s experience of driving across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain whilst suffering hay-fever. It is as intense in colour as Namaqua Spring but more topographical in its structure, appearing to describe a spatial vastness.

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy

The work, Maybe somewhere else, has a blue band of light at the centre which splits the composition top to bottom as if universal and all encompassing. The warm orange and reds surround the cooler blue. What is, Maybe somewhere else? Perhaps, for moment there is a pause here, a reflection of what lies outside the immediate and the material. As painting it contains an integration of all the elements discussed so far, organic, memory, visual and musical, but then asks a very seemingly simple question, what else and where?

Maybe somewhere else

As with After Anaesthetic, the painting Conversation combines the human face with natural elements, in this instance the textures of the bark of a tree. The eyes double as knots in woodgrain, and the simplified rhythmic forms also seem to reference music. This is a painting which knows no constraints. Is it a portrait or portraits? Yes. Is it comical? Yes, and also dry. Wry? Yes, but not cynical. It is biographical but altruistically, in that it is generous to the self and others. It appears to describe a moment of frustration without being mocking, drawing out the comical elements of the situation. The works brilliance is in bringing tree bark, the face(s) and social interaction together successfully into an expressive artwork.

Conversation

A series of paintings which Luisa entitles wth the word Bifurcation use the same simultaneous integration/separation of elements we have seen elsewhere in Luisa’s work. These abstract paintings, limited to two colours/tones play two fields against each other. Which colour is the top layer? We can’t quite tell because they shift and refuse to be grasped. Bifurcation means the division of on element into two. These two fields are both one whole organism which refuses to allow distinction of its parts and also, two elements. The apparent simplicity of these works hides a tactical resistance to being defined.

Scattered Bifurcation

Luisa’s works often combine elements of landscape and abstraction; rich memories from her original South Africa, and of Australia combining with her extensive musical knowledge. They form intuitive contingencies to hold together elements which become deeply biographical images. The works feed off a great depth of experience which is channelled through spontaneous painting decisions, making them appear disarmingly simple. Yet they contain complex strategies that are intriguing in their visual and conceptual structure.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Outside of place, a reflection on the work of Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn’s paintings build environments, often domestic and exotic at the same time, often modern and ancient also. These environments seem to be in flux, suggesting that while we exist in this time and place, it’s in the transience and conflicting aspects of our experience that we have the possibility of greater perspectives.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A Rothko like painting on a wall with glass of wine in the foreground. Perhaps we are in a New York apartment. Out of a window we see both a cityscape and the ruins of an arch. There is no consistent spatial correlation between the elements, rather this is a narrative about the conflict between the apparent permanence of our moment in time and its inevitable decline. Permanence, represented by the city with its great crowning victory of culture, the painting. While these are all celebrated in the moment, with wine, it is all contrasted against the ultimate decline apparent in the ruins which sounds a clarion call.

Margaret Dunn

We look out from the ruins of a building. An unusually large carrot leans precariously, humorously, in the distance. Dunn has mentioned that the carrot represents Trump leaning against a missile. There is a precarious fragility to this moment both through the imminent threat and through the decay, an awareness that it all can, and is ending. However a tree in blossom anchors us back in the moment and points to a natural and logical hope. The hope of new growth and of a future. Yes, all is transient but not without meaning or hope. Perhaps a fine balance contains the tension between transience and hope. Perhaps it is all one.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A complex weave of of staircases and buildings envelopes us. Are we destined to remain enmeshed in the the confusion of our built environments, our ideas and our culture? Are we trapped in this one moment as if it was our definitive and confused place? It’s in the confusion and the clash of the present with its myriad of experiences and possibility that we occasionally see windows and doors to other places that are beyond our present experience. There is a hint that as with the seascape that provides a stable and reassuring horizon in the distance, there is an opportunity for us to go beyond the limitations of ourselves, of our times, and that there is a reliable, consistent place there. 

Margaret Dunn

A building crumbles and its structure merges back into an abstract background. The transient and decaying building gives way to a new form of diagonals and planes. The building is limited but it flows out into an infinite rhythm of abstraction. All is in flux, flowing from the temporal to the infinite, with both existing simultaneously.  

Margaret Dunn

The camel rests in the desert, not in the tent which meets an immediate need for shelter, not in the tombs of great cultures and not within power, represented by the turret. Rather, the camel rests alone, beneath a limitless sky with the moon as its companion. The camel is not limited to this time and place, because it avoids entrapment, rather it has available to it, the infinity of the sky and of the desert plain.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Margaret Dunn attends Studio Art classes with Marco Corsini.