With more than 3,000,000 people, the Australian city of Melbourne has everything from a capitalist skyline to street-level grunge. Outdoorsy types, drop-dead hipsters, executives, housewives and working blokes form a mélange that has accents from Asia, India and Southern Europe -- though Australia's aborigines are surprisingly not much in evidence. Genocidal guilt, the ghosts of convicts, and an unspoken rivalry with Sydney flavor the Melbourne air.
The grand payoff, I thought to myself, should be a hot art scene.
My stab at Melbourne gallery-going was a flop, however, for in Australia, January is the equivalent of August, and the best of the art spaces were closed. Even the locally celebrated Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA), a rusted-out, black-brown steel structure sluicing Richard-Serra-like through a small warehouse district, was sealed up.
What to do? Why, museums, of course!
The National Gallery of Victoria
As it happened, Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (1952) was being featured at the National Gallery of Victoria -- the top museum in Melbourne (pronounced "MEL-bun," by the way) -- on loan from Australia's "official" National Gallery in Canberra. This 16-foot-wide, famously manic highlight of Pollock's career became an emblem of Australia's esthetic ambition when it was acquired for a then-whopping $1.3 million in 1973 (the same year the Sydney Opera House was finished).
Woe to us, but our little entourage (two Americans and an Aussie) never made it to the Pollock. Instead, we wandered into a labyrinth of galleries of earlier non-Australian art, and found so much to see and talk about that we ran out of time.
Courbet's turgid The Wave (1872), for instance, renders its subject as a kind of vaginal lip in foamy white over cobalt green with red glazes -- wow! In Monet's Rough Weather (1883), an equally menacing ocean is poised to gobble up a man in a hat watching from the beach. Both works are expressive, emotionally charged and menacing, qualities which seemed at the time to be not French at all, but wilderness-driven. No surprise, then that they wound up in this "frontier" nation.
Two early 20th-century nudes then caught our attention. Robert Delaunay's painting of a woman reading combines the geometry and sizzling color of Orphism with a pose straight out of Neo-Classicism, thus providing a fascinating lesson in Modernism's train-wreck with Salon Painting. On the other hand, the late Pointillist (ca. 1911) Ring Gymnast by Eugene Jansson, who remains little known outside his native Sweden, derives its power from its portrayal of a sweaty gymnast's overdeveloped muscles and in-your-face genitalia as he works out nude -- innocently or provocatively, take your pick.
An outrageous pair of 15-foot-plus floor chandeliers by the French crystalmaker Baccharat, commissioned but never collected by the assassinated Czar Nicholas II, greets visitors to the NGV's 19th-century European painting galleries. These rooms are filled with paintings that blend virtuoso draftsmanship with often over-the-top emotion. I eat this stuff up.
On display are such scenarios as A.A. Schenck's Anguish, a picture of a sheep standing guard in the snow over her wolf-slain lamb while crows await the feast; St. George Hare's The Victory of Faith, two gorgeous young nude women - - one brown, one pink - - lounging in an ecstatic post-coital embrace on the cold stone of an empty North African plaza; and Edwin Landseer's Midsummer Night's Dream: Titania and Bottom, showing the ass-headed lothario and his new sweetheart, mocked by a very naked Puck and a throng of fairies.
Throughout the museum, donor names appear and reappear on labels, identifying well-traveled Melbournians whose art-buying clout came from farming, finance and mining fortunes (an 1853 Gold Rush established the city). With Impressionism here, Cubism there, a big chunk of Victoriana and many other holdings, including Asian art, the collection nods at being "encyclopedic," but its core lies in the magic of individual encounters.
The Heide Museum of Modern Art
The next day's destination was the Heide Museum of Modern Art in the farmy, eucalyptus-shaded suburb of Heidelberg. After spawning a school of Tonalist landscape painters at the turn of the century, Heidelberg became a hangout for modernist writers, musicians and painters during the 1930s to the '60s. Two of Australia's best patrons of 20th-century art, John and Sunday Reed, helped make that happen, extending an open invitation to stay at their renovated one-story Victorian homestead, named Heide, which they had moved to in 1934. Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, Australia's most influential mid-century painters, were among them.
In the old house, which reopened in 2001 after a renovation, intimate portraits of good looking men and women, a library hearth with Nolan's somewhat scary portrait of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly above it, a wallpapered bedroom hung with tiny abstract-erotic sketches, and an eccentric plumbing system invoked a hint of abandon, a cigarette-smoking restlessness and a touch of Bloomsbury. The art is quite diverting, but the atmosphere begs elaboration. Has someone made an Indie film about this place?
The other building at Heide is a larger, more museumlike one-story structure built in the mid-1960s. On view during our visit was "Australian Surrealism," an exhibition of some 60 paintings and works on paper that was produced mostly in the 1940s and '50s. Not only is the work later than European Surrealism, it is oftentimes far more weird.
But isn't that what Surrealism -- particularly war-related Surrealism -- is supposed to be? James Gleeson's Funeral Procession in a Wounded Landscape (1945) transforms bodies, trees and hillocks into a Boschian-erotic nightmare. Since Australia oozes with gnarly trees and arid stretches, the scene seemed logical enough, though I couldn't help but wince at the Dali-esque overstatement. .
More successful are Nolan's sparse, semi-abstract depictions of a self-cannibalizing animal in the Outback (from his 1950s "Carcass" series) and John Percival's and Albert Tucker's raw genre scenes of Melbourne. Expressively painted, these works seem more political than psychological, making them seem a bad fit in the "Surrealist" category.
But no matter. Surrealism's abstract pole is represented by intimately scaled drawings by Robert Klippel and Clifford Bayliss from the late 1940s. These works have obvious echoes of Mir, Picasso, Ernst and Matta, but when you've got strong artists surrendering themselves to intuition and accident -- what I like to think of as "Ouija Board Surrealism" -- who cares?
We left the show the way we came -- via a Surrealist-themed entry installation of wires hung with all manner of doll faces, shoes and other castoffs by a group called "Mother's Art" -- way too corny for my taste. Outdoors, Gary Wilson's moiré-Op metal sculpture, Untitled (2003), was far more interesting. Heide also boasts a large sculpture park that is highly regarded locally, and which is no doubt worth a look.
The Australian Centre of the Moving Image
I took one last plunge into Melbourne's art scene with a visit to the new Federation Square, a sprawling cultural complex located near the National Gallery. A blend of spiderweb, geodesic and glass-box architecture with lots of tawny open-air plazas, the site includes the Ian Potter Museum, known as "NGV-Australia," and the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI).
ACMI does supplement its theaters and viewing rooms with a cavernous underground Screen Gallery, which featured a group show titled "Transfigure" and mixing works from Australia, Europe and Canada (no Yanks, thanks). The selection was heavy on technological-microscopic processes (Drew Barry, Justine Cooper, Paul Brown) with occasional forays into scratchy-creepy old-seeming film (Tams Waliczky) and metaphorical flesh (Gina Czarnecki, Robert Gligorov).
It was diverting enough, but walking through darkness from one noisy, dizzying backlit rectangle to another can wear thin unless there's something truly magical. For this viewer it was Orka, a very soothing, black-and-white rumination on Iceland's water, rocks and animals by the single-named Steina, who is the better half of the legendary video duo of Woody and Steina Vasulka. Whatever "a 'tracer' device that reveals the micro-movements of nature over time" means, as the brochure put it, I'm all for it.
The ACMI also has a comfy "Screen Lounge," where visitors can view selections from the museum's collection. But yikes! The choices were so endless I didn't know where to begin. One tape by Tracy Moffett, the celebrated half-aborigine artist who has taken the international art world by storm, struck me as too student-ish to stay with. Another one was too violent. Back at the "menu," I tried something that sounded sexy -- but to my surprise, I found myself watching jumpy footage of a political protest march.
This New York curmudgeon finally gave up -- the Screen Lounge seemed too much like cable TV. Next time I'll choose a film in advance and sit down for one of the ACMI ticketed theater screenings.
On the way back home, the plane was filled with excited tennis buffs, fresh from the Australian Open. For a moment I regretted the fact that I hadn't seen even one match. But what I really cherished about this trip was getting to know Melbourne as its own, and no one else's, city of art.
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is a artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.