Light in the dark: Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950 – Christie’s

In the early hours of Christmas Day 1952, the cargo ship MV Merino  ran aground off the east coast of Tasmania in dense fog. Bound for Hobart, it had 18 men on board, as well as a particularly precious cargo: 119 paintings sent to Australia from the other side of the world.

A landmark exhibition, French Painting Today  was to showcase work by an array of artists based in France, from the long-standing (Matisse, Picasso, Chagall) to the newly established (Hans Hartung, Zao Wou-ki, Pierre Soulages).

Four years in the planning, the show had been jointly organised by the Australian and French governments, with Hobart set to be the first stop on a multi-city tour that would also take in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

For a few days at the end of 1952, however, it was unclear whether the MV Merino — or any of the masterpieces on it — would survive intact. The 550-ton vessel remained stranded on a sandbank. It was only refloated when tugboats arrived from Hobart, shortly before the New Year.

French Painting Today  would go ahead, albeit slightly belatedly, at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the other five venues. Thanks to the media coverage surrounding the MV Merino — and the fact that this was the first major showing of modern French art in Australia — it proved a huge success.

According to Adelaide tabloid The News, ‘these French paintings are creating the greatest furore for years’. The Canberra Times, meanwhile, spoke of a ‘provocative event’, warning readers that a ‘masculine Antipodean palate, accustomed to a diet of realism, may find some of the paintings sophisticated to a point of being effete’.

Numerous attendance records were broken, with a combined total of 200,000 people seeing the show in Sydney and Melbourne alone.

Among the star exhibits was Soulages’s Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950. As ever with this abstract artist, who turned 100 last year, black was the predominant colour.

Black, architectonic bars are layered on top of each other against a pale ground. They come in the form of either vertical or diagonal brushstrokes, which provide a contrapuntal structure.

Soulages’s imagery is frequently likened to that of the Abstract Expressionists in the US, who emerged, as he did, shortly after the Second World War. In contrast to their largely gestural approach, though, the Frenchman cared greatly about the construction of his compositions, in a bid for formal balance.

Among the influences on his artistic vocabulary, Soulages often cites the Romanesque architecture of the abbey church of Sainte-Foy in Conques, a village near his hometown of Rodez in southern France.

‘His paintings throw off strange, smoky reflections that suggest the hallucinating light of Rembrandt’ — art historian Sam Hunter

He says that standing beneath its huge barrel vault as a youth was his ‘first artistic experience’ — and that it inspired him to become a painter. With its play of vaulted shadow and tranquil light, Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950  is surely an homage to the abbey.

Brushstrokes range from broad slabs to narrow masts, with Soulages’s tarry black offset by occasional passages of mahogany and Prussian-blue. A sepia background glows softly from the centre, like daylight breaking through a window — which seems apt, given that Soulages was commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for Sainte-Foy in 1986.

Soulages, incidentally, tends to dislike giving his works conventional names, lest this unduly influence a viewer’s experience of them. He prefers titles that simply state a picture’s dimensions and date of execution.

Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950  was thus painted in 1950. Even at this relatively early stage of his career, Soulages revealed one of his longest-lasting preoccupations: the dynamic interaction of light on black paint.

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The American art historian, Sam Hunter, wrote around this time that ‘his paintings throw off strange, smoky reflections that suggest the hallucinating light of Rembrandt’.

French Painting Today  ran until September 1953, the date of its final stop at the Public Library of the Museum & Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950  was purchased by an Australian collector almost immediately afterwards, and hasn’t been seen in public since.

Until now.

Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950 by Pierre Soulages is offered as part of the ONE sale at Christie’s on 10 July

Jason Wing: Battleground

Jason Wing has said that a common thread in his practice is ‘the everyday battle that Aboriginal people fight living in this colonial institutional framework.’ We spoke to Wing as he launched his first solo exhibition with Artereal Gallery which comprises works from his ongoing ‘Captain James Cook’ body of work as well as new and existing pieces from the ‘Battleground’ series of shields. Wing is also currently exhibiting with National Australian Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Australia, and his work ‘Captain James Crook’ is included in a new hang of the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In July, the artist will be included in ‘8 days in Kamay’ at the State Library of New South Wales. He is creating a major public artwork along the Parramatta River titled ‘Fire sticks’ comprised of 8 Dharug/Darug Nawi (canoes) in steel, and nearby he will paint a mural more than 100 metres long on the M5 motorway.

Jason Wing (L-R): Battleground 2; Battleground 3; Battleground 4; Battleground 5; Battleground 6; 2017, rusted Corten steel, enamel paint, matt varnish, aluminium bracket, 120 x 45 x 6cm each. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

How do you come to (and then master) your unique mediums? Can you tell us a bit about this aspect of your creative process?

I always think of myself as a student of life and art. My creative process is different every time; however, I often start by writing down my intention, what medium is the best visual solution at the time, and what is the best approach to deliver the visual solution. Then I research, sketch and refine, refine, refine. I strive for simple complexity.

Unlike some desires to erase the memory and image of Captain Cook your work prompts us to see his actions as criminal armed robbery. What has the journey been like, both personally and with your audience, with this subversive concept and image?

I have no issue with Cook personally or his achievements. Cook personifies Colonisation’s ongoing oppression targeting Aboriginal people. I can understand the desire to remove/update colonial statues of oppressors and people largely responsible for the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people such as Governor Macquarie.

Macquarie designed and rolled out the Australian assimilation policy, forced removal, kidnapping, martial law, high incarceration rates, attempted genocide, domestic/non-domestic slavery of Aboriginal people and more. It is inconceivable that this is acceptably perpetuated and celebrated. However, my personal position is a desire to see us update and build. My solution to Colonial place-making is to action a 1:1 ratio of Colonial and Aboriginal statues, place-making, naming and more. For example, for every statue of Cook, there should be a statue of Pemulwuy or another Indigenous leader.

In 2012, as a result of my artwork, Australia was stolen by Armed robbery, winning the Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize, I was targeted by anonymous and non-anonymous internet trolls, targeted by mainstream media’s prominent shock jocks, and faced a potential civil suit for defaming Captain Cook’s “good” name. I received potential death threats and psychological abuse, personal legal costs and more. Despite these personal consequences, I would do it again, and I will not stop telling and retelling the truth. I challenge the dominant colonial narrative negating the truth of ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people on all systematic levels.

L-R: Jason Wing, Captain James Crook (black light), 2019-2020, digital print, hand-painted silk screen UV light-sensitive ink, black light bulb and light fitting, edition of 8 +2AP, 66.5 x 55cm (framed); and Battleground 8, 9 and 10, 2017, rusted Corten steel, enamel paint, matt varnish, aluminium bracket, 120 x 45 x 6cm each. Photographs: Zan Wimberley

How did you stay creative during lockdown and has it altered your work in any way?

Artists are used to not being supported by our government, social, politically, culturally and financially. Historically our government considers art to be an unnecessary luxury item and it is always the first sector to be defunded. I feel that it has therefore been business as usual for artists and arts workers. Artists are the ultimate sole trader entrepreneurs and financial survivors against all ongoing systemic corporate hurdles.

My practice did evolve to more handmade works on available materials – specifically pens and paper. I focused on sketching in my art diary, virtual reality projects and handmade artist books. I had no issue being creative, and it was a great shift to returning back to the basics of drawing and creating handmade objects.

Your series ‘Battleground’ could keep going indefinitely, what progress have you made with it over time and what do you see its future as?

An ongoing series of artworks allows for critical reflection and the opportunity to rework new perspectives and ideas in a different time, place and space. The challenge is how to continuously reinvent under strict constraints without watering down the conceptual rigour of the work, with the aim being that each new iteration of the work and addition to the series is an elevation of the concept. I am thrilled with this second iteration of the ‘Battleground’ series (the first having been shown at the 2017 National Indigenous Triennial at the NGA). Personally, I feel it has a new poignancy and power due to the fact that the timing of the exhibition coincided with the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the 250th Anniversary of the Gweagal Shield.

These new works argue that there is a link between Captain Cook (the highest-ranking officer on the dingy) and the first bullet fired by Colonial settlers. Before they even set foot on land to shake our hand, our welcome to country was a bullet, allegedly fired by Cook. This violent, and likely lethal welcome to country, ripples and echoes to our present day and little has changed in terms of the initial sentiment and intentions of the invading conquers.

The new iteration of my shields have a musket/bullet hole almost perfectly centred within them, as a direct reference to the Gweagal shield. I have also incorporated ‘placard like’ text onto these shields, including on one the words ‘COVID 17–70’ which speaks to the biological germ warfare used as a military genocidal tactic in colonised/invaded countries such as Australia, Africa and India. Other text on the shields include ‘ALWAYS WAS NEVER WILL BE’, ‘CIVILLIES’, ‘ABOUT FACE’ and ‘NOBLE SAVAGE’.

Jason Wing (L-R): Battleground (COVID 17-70), 2020, rusted Corten steel, deep etch primer, enamel paint, sealant, aluminium bracket, 120 x 45 x 6cm; Battleground (Noble Savage), 2020, rusted Corten steel, deep etch primer, enamel paint, sealant, aluminium bracket, 120 x 45 x 6cm; Battleground (About Face), 2020, rusted Corten steel, deep etch primer, enamel paint, sealant, aluminium bracket, 120 x 45 x 6cm. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Why is it important to address the parts of history/culture we should cherish and those that are shameful?

Aboriginal culture is the oldest living continuous culture in the world, having existed for over 100,000 years. We are arguably the most important culture in the world, yet we are also arguably the most oppressed people in the world.

This state and government-sanctioned systemic oppression is celebrated by our current and past governments from 1770-2020. Historically and currently, our Government has actively designed official government policies promoting the attempted genocide of our people. Past, present and future. Still to this day they are largely unaccountable with recent statements by our current Prime Minister stating/implying that there was “no history of slavery of Aboriginal people”. This infallible denial of western fact speaks to an ignorant, uneducated, so-called leader lying to the public’s face with no accountability and completely protected. There is no amount of “politically correct” backtracking or spin doctoring to resolve this belligerent, unremorseful denial, which gives permission for others to follow his racist, untrue, inaccurate fake news. We deserve better leadership and more respect for what should be the most respected culture in the world.

Look at how the rest of the world protects their national treasure, such as the pyramids, which have existed for a mere fraction of the age of the Aboriginal culture. How does our government protect our irreplaceable national treasures? Rio Tinto explodes a 46,000-year-old sacred site on National Sorry Day, 2020. They said “sorry” “not sorry” and then received approval for more sacred sites to be destroyed. This has been happening every day since 1770. It is important for all individuals to speak up about injustice; otherwise, we are complicit accomplices. Injustice will only prevail if we allow it to.

What do you see as the role of art and, if you want can you speak about this in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement?

Art has always been a vehicle for social justice.

Aboriginal people are less than 3% of the Australian population – we used to be 100%. We will never be the majority, so we do need to partner with other solidarity movements on an international scale to build allies and to highlight our own experiences of ongoing injustice.

The reality is that if the so-called ‘minority’ groups of the world unite, then we would actually be the majority. Laws, military force and systemic oppression are what keeps this majority in the role of a minority. The internet is a great tool to equalise, mobilise, inform policy, educate, archive, broadcast and more. This social media tool can force mainstream media to be accountable for injustice or at the very least present an alternative to the Western colonial mainstream media propaganda of fake news, fake histories and fake truths. It is critical to unite in solidarity of all minority groups, but we as Australians have the ultimate personal responsibility to empower the most significant culture in the world. People who benefit from the oppression of Aboriginal people have a responsibility to equal the balance.

Making art is a way for me to have my voice heard.

Artereal Gallery
12 June to 11 July 2020
Sydney

Barry Tate & Matthew Clarke: The Winter of Disconnect: The Great Indoors

‘The Winter of Disconnect: The Great Indoors’ chronicles Barry Tate and Matthew Clarke’s artistic journey’s around their individual home studios in Warrnambool, Victoria during COVID-19.

Tate presents a series of paintings and ceramic vanitas as installation pieces – large-scale totems, incorporating ornate hand-crafted furniture that conjure a sense of luxury. The works compound symbols of opulence such as grapes, flowers, porcelain plates and antique crafted furniture. Through the domestic lens, the installation will explore ideas of production, fodder and advancements in global civilisation, reflected in society today, now more than ever.

Barry Tate, Sunken Treasure, 2019, mixed media on canvas with LED lights, 132 x 177 x 20cm. Courtesy the artist and Fox Galleries, Melbourne

Clarke presents a series of new paintings and sculpture inspired by his direct descendant Captain Thomas Henry Clarke and asks the question: ‘Is that ok?’, to reflect on the seafaring and pioneering ancestry as a source of inspiration and resilience while staying at home. Geometric patterns, vibrant colour and self-portraits provide an intimate timeline of Mathew Clarke’s great indoors.

Matthew Clarke, Ghost Wallaby & Wallaby No. 7, 2019, acrylic on wood, 180 x 38 x 30cm, and 111 x 40cm. Courtesy the artist and Fox Galleries, Melbourne

Fox Galleries
3 July to 2 September 2020
Melbourne