Cultural day yesterday. Up early for a Saturday and out the door by 9.30. Got my hair cut while having the usual interesting conversation with the hairdresser. Met Becky for breakfast at Manchester Press, then went exploring the city together.
It’s the annual Open Melbourne weekend, where some of the cities best loved and most interesting buildings are thrown open to the public. It was an overcast day with the odd drizzly interlude, but that didn’t stop anyone flocking to the city to check things out. There were people everywhere with maps in their hands criss-crossing the city on their way to the next venue. Some places had queues snaking around the block. Half of them had serious cameras to take pics of the rarely seen treasures of Melbourne. Overall there was a vibrant, friendly buzz in the streets.
We checked out the Myer mural hall, which was surprisingly elegant. On the walls were scenes of famous characters representative of fashion and art and literature and history and so on, painted near on 80 years ago. A high ceiling and windows that looked out over Bourke Street from on high gave the room a retro feel that seemed current still, an art deco vibe enhanced still more by the tables and chairs set-up for high tea in the middle of the room. I must bring mum here, I thought.
We wandered around some more, checked out the Block Arcade, did some shopping, went by the Scots Church in Collins Street before ending up in the council buildings in Swanston Street. Here there was the distinct feel of history. Much of it was in the architecture – Tasmanian blackwood hand carved like they never do now, formal rooms and fittings, old vinyl seats, marble columns, stained glass and moulded ceilings, dark, business-like rooms. On the walls hung portraits of former lord mayors, both standing stiffly alert with heavy beards long out fashion. The city’s coat of arms – a sheep, a bull, a whale, and a clipper – were prominent on the walls and in the carpet. Certificates and banners from our sister cities were displayed in glass cases, and a set of elaborate keys that look like they might open a serious chastity belt represented the keys that might open many of those cities, and more. We stood on the same surprisingly large balcony the Queen had stood on, and AFL premiership winning teams, and the Beatles once, waving to their adoring fans. On the wall in the passageway photos of the kings and queens of Moomba added some colour to the place, though half now I couldn’t name.
We tried the ANZ Gothic building, and then a rooftop garden, but in most cases the queues were too long. We settled for a beer and a latte in the city square while a Japanese band played steel drums and international students buzzed around stands spruiking services and benefits to them. The rain fell and went away. Trams rattled down the street. Peruvian buskers played the same one tune over and over again and the minutes ticked peacefully by.
I parted from Becky and joined JV and his Beccy at the NGV for the Viennese exhibition. I was really looking forward to this. That time and place – Vienna turn of the 20th century – is one of my very favourites, and the design and artwork reflected that. As it happened it was even better than I expected.
I was blown away by the vividness and invention of the design, which was striking. Something about it struck a powerful chord in me – this clearly an element of my aesthetic. Like pretty well every place that goes through a rich artistic period there a strong sense of change, of movement, even revolution. Artists striving to create something, to say something, to represent a view or perspective or philosophy through their art, invariably churn up the old clods of earth and invigorate the society and culture on which they feed. For a while their is almost a dizzying spiral of invention and creation, which inspires more, and which patrons seek to encourage. Invariably it comes to an end, spent somehow, the energy exhausted, the leading players gone, or, society changes.
The war seemed to do little to dim this creative cycle in Vienna, but the death of the leading artists – Klimt, Schiele, etc – one after the after on the heels of it saw the end of the period.Wandering through the exhibition one could trace the development and apotheosis of the Vienna school, which encompassed architecture and furniture design, domestic design, crafts, photography, as well as art. Many of the paintings, familiar from so many re-prints, were compelling in person. Many had an almost luminous quality to them so that you stood staring at them studying the little elements within them, the dabs of paint, the vivid colours, the skin tone on the spindly fingers, the large, deeply expressive eyes. Perspective shifted from the art itself to the subject of it, seeing them as a person, wondering at them, before once more the art drew you back. It seemed so real, but so stylised too. I felt as I wandered by a kind of buzz myself. What would it have been like to live amongst so much creativity? What would it be like if Melbourne were like that now?
Like all art these paintings said something, but what they had to say seemed less important to me at that moment than the fact that they actually had something to say. This was expression expressed. This is what we have so little of now, and why we are so much poorer than we might be. There and then looking upon this collection of artwork, and the minds that combined to create it, I felt a kind of agitation. I wanted to raise a clamour, why can’t we do this? What have we forgotten? What must we do to bring it back?
Amid the vivid posters and colourful paintings there were pencil drawings and water colours by Klimt of naked women raw in their explicit nudity. These are powerful images of women semi clothed but with their hairy genitalia revealed, of women laying curled with their fingers in the gaping maw of their pussy. Many would see these as a kind of high brow porn, but to me they are great art. They are raw and real, there is nothing dressed up or contrived in the compositions. Here are women captured in intimate moments, their minds turned inwards. They are sexual perhaps but they don’t rouse those sensations. They draw you because they seem so personal, like a voyeur looking on unseen these casual and very real moments of personal intimacy, and, so doing, bearing witness to the person inside.
This was one of the best exhibitions I have seen at the NGV, and much more my style. I can admire the skill and occasional genius of artist through the centuries. Van Gogh leaves me assailed by colours and technique that is almost psychological, but there remains a distance. Monet and Degas and Cezanne and the like make paintings of scenes that are beautiful to look at or which capture a moment, but they are of moments and scenes of another age before mine, and with a distinctly different sensibility. When I saw Caravaggio a few years back much of his art seemed dark and intense. I liked it, but like so much of older art I could not directly relate to it. I can relate to the Viennese school because it has a modern aesthetic that is hard to explain in simple words. There is a different technique and look, which is a further development of all that has come before, but that hardly explains it. I guess art reflects the society it exists within, and perhaps in the turn of the last century we are seeing the true dawn of the modern age. I think that’s it, and because of that this art is much more culturally relevant to how I experience life in the 21st century.
From Vienna the focus shifted to Germany, and one of my favourite types of art, the violence of German expressionism, Bauhaus, and, in time, to the Art Deco. Their was an Art Deco exhibition a few years back, but we’re yet to see German Expressionism in my lifetime. Maybe next?
Anyway, that was that. We went to the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra for a drink and a nibble. Back in the day when I used to visit occasionally it was a pub full of tossers you’d bump into in the gents snorting coke, before wandering back in to pick up before the night ended. It’s moved on from then, renovated a couple of times over and re-positioned itself. We had a bottle of wine and then some dinner, and then home after a long, but very pleasant day.
- Happy Birthday Egon Schiele! (echostains.wordpress.com)
- How Vienna in 1900 Gave Birth to Modern Style and Identity (bigthink.com)
- Expressionism (dorjikhandu.wordpress.com)