Recent Past: Writing Australian Art
by Daniel Thomas
edited by Hannah Fink and Steven Miller Art Gallery of NSW/Thames and Hudson
Published December 2020
In an essay on the Hermannsburg water colourists, not collected here, Daniel Thomas writes that, by Easter 1958, when he was first employed as a curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of NSW, he already knew
that art history included connoisseurship (the detailed scrutiny of works in order to determine their authorship), judgement (whether to treat an object as important enough to place in a museum for eternity), categorisation of style, analysis of visual form, determination of subject matter and, finally, interpretation of content or meaning, either for the culture in which it was made, or for others. Art history classifies art-museum objects and, having done so, makes them interesting.
Daniel’s other qualifications for the job included a prodigious memory and four years in Europe during which, when he wasn’t studying for a BA in Modern History at Ariel College at Oxford, he went travelling across the continent and ‘looked through every art museum from Dublin to Palermo, from Vienna to Copenhagen.’ This version of the grand tour came on the back of his secondary schooling at Geelong Grammar where he studied under, among others, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, himself first a student, later a master, at the Staatliches Bauhaus when it was at Weimar in the early 1920s.
Dr Hirschfield, as he was known, was a Dunera boy who became art master at Geelong; there he propounded the Bauhaus principles of self-knowledge, economy of material and form, and the reform of society through art. When he heard that the Thomas family were advocating that young Daniel become a medical doctor, he demurred, saying he was clearly destined for the arts. Daniel, in turn, and perhaps in gratitude, described him as a ‘serene, quiet man – so fair that he glowed with the pale radiance of saints in stained-glass windows’. There is a fine essay on Hirshfield-Mack’s work in this book.
Nor is the Hermannsburg connection arbitrary. Daniel and his twin brother Bertram, known as Snow, born 1931, were in the late thirties driven by their mother and two of her women friends to Central Australia in order to escape the wet and cold southern winter; or else (or as well) to avoid an epidemic of infantile paralysis aka poliomyelitis then sweeping the land. There, he recalls, aged seven, in July, 1938, shaking the hand of Albert Namatjira, then near the beginning of his illustrious, doomed career in the art world. He carried away ‘a memory of pictures matching the astonishing limpid reality of a haze-free mauve and orange MacDonnell Ranges in sunny Central Australia.’
The family home was at North Down, near Port Sorell east of Devonport on Tasmania’s north-west coast; in a pleasing symmetry, characteristic of so much in this book (and indeed in the life its author has led), Daniel upon his retirement returned there, urged on by his brother, to build a house next door to where he, Snow, who had never gone away, still lived. The family were farming folk, of Welsh ancestry, with a long history in the district and upon the island itself. Meantime, between his initial employment as an art professional in 1958 and the present day, Daniel (who has the distinction of being referred to in the art world by his first name alone) has continued to write, fluidly and fluently, upon Australian art, both contemporary and historical; and it is out of these writings that this book, Recent Past: Writing Australia Art, is made.
There are 75 pieces collected here, some just a paragraph or two long, some full-length essays. There are also quite a few obituaries. The earliest piece is from 1961 and the latest from 2018. Most, if not all, have been published before and they are ordered more or less chronologically. Thomas was not primarily a writer; he was a curator, later a gallery director, whose day to day activities went far beyond the composition of essays and reviews. These other responsibilities are reflected in the order into which this selection falls: there are 23 entries from the twenty-year period (1958-78) when he worked at the AGNSW; three from the five years he spent as the inaugural curator of Australian art at the NGA in Canberra; fifteen from the years 1984-1997, when he was director of the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide; and 34 contributions, in two sections, from the time of his retirement in Tasmania.
This generous and wide-ranging selection is bookended by several pieces of autobiographical writing. At the front, there is a brief essay, ‘On Writing’, presumably composed especially for this book, followed by a 1999 piece, ‘Being a Curator’, commissioned by Art Monthly Australia when Thomas was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of NSW; and at the back an address he gave to graduands at the University of Tasmania in 2007. The front matter also includes a foreword by Michael Brand of the Art Gallery of NSW, the publishers of the book; and an introduction by editors Hannah Fink and Steven Miller. At the back, along with the meticulously compiled documentation of the works illustrated, and a detailed index, there is a bibliography of Thomas’s published writing, from 1949, when he was reviewing Gertrude Stein and Russell Drysdale for If Revived: A Timely Journal of the Geelong Grammar School Literary Society, edited by Rupert Murdoch, to a 2020 tribute to James Mollison entitled Very Good At Looking.
‘It’s not my primary identity,’ he says in the first words of ‘On Writing’. ‘That was building the audiences for Australian art, and building the collections of Australian art, in art museums.’ So, in a sense, what we have here is ancillary to those primary tasks of audience and collection building; but in another sense writing, whether conceived as description, explication, interpretation, persuasion, promotion, or publicity, is intrinsic to those other tasks. Indeed, you could say that over the period of sixty-odd years represented here, writing has achieved a centrality in the art world which is both exhilarating and, at times, disturbing. Who hasn’t felt, attending an art show, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading matter available, both in wall texts and in catalogues? Who hasn’t wanted simply to look, rather than read, your way through the rooms?
A consequence of this proliferation of words across and within the visual arts is that there are now a number of people writing about art who have little aptitude for it; and also some who are skilled but at the same time addicted to jargon, say, or to the convoluted syntax favoured by those for whom precision of an arcane kind is a goal that will be appreciated only by their peers or the professors. Daniel Thomas is not of this company; he writes simply and directly, his sentences are solidly based in particulars, and his insights, or judgements, are made with an easy familiarity and an undogmatic stance. You don’t have to agree with him in order to delight in his expansive, humorous and gracious prose; just as you don’t have to know in detail the work of the artists he writes about in order to appreciate what he has to say of them. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of this book is that it introduces you to artists whose work you may not know very much about; another is to read Daniel Thomas on artists whose work you do know and love.
His range across the 75 pieces is astonishing. He has, it seems, been to all the shows and remembered everything he saw. Nor does there seem to be anything, or anything much, he cannot bring his intelligence, his skills and his excellent memory to bear upon. He writes about 1970s Performance Art just as well as he writes about John Glover or Eugene von Guérard; about Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams as perceptively as Grace Cossington Smith and Dorrit Black. He doesn’t write just about fine art; there are pieces on architecture (‘Harry & Penelope Seidler’); ceramics (‘Skangaroovian Funk’); and erotics (‘Erotica at Carrick Hill’). There are also illuminating accounts of art world people like gallerist Kym Bonython and collector and patron John Kaldor.
The essays are enlivened by anecdotes, drawn from Thomas’s own experience, or from things he has been told by artists or others he has spent time with. He visits Imants Tillers in his home above Sirius Cove, where the Heidelberg artists had a camp; or organises picnics at Commodore Heights in Ku-rin-gai Chase with Gilbert & George or Sol LeWitt or Nam June Paik. Telling stories about your brushes with famous artists can be awkward; you risk coming across as a besotted fan or else a boastful pretender; but Thomas, with his grace and acumen, never seems anything other than at home. This is equally so when he’s at the Cossington Smith house in Turramurra; or, under the hilarious alias Sophie Dumbleton, describing for Australian 25 Beautiful Homes his own place at Port Sorell. I think the reason for that is that he sees himself as equal to anyone; and, concomitantly, extends the same courtesy to others.
Because most of these pieces have been published before, and because the editors and / or the author have decided to reproduce them as they were originally printed, some corrections or amendments became necessary; they are added below the first page of the relevant piece, with the rubric DT20 attached. These notes are intriguing, not least because the number of times he has to correct himself is so few; and also because the corrections, or the extra information, are fascinating in their own right. Most of the essays on artists include bits of biographical information, judiciously employed, never intrusive, never sensational. I did not know, for instance, that Dorrit Black, aged 60, died in a car crash; somehow the knowledge changes the way I see her work―as that of one who was cut off in her prime. The equally premature death of David Strachan, discretely evoked, also in a car crash, I did know about; but not the circumstances of it. He was only 51. There are many other examples of what might sound, in some else’s voice, like gossip; but not here.
This is perhaps because Thomas’s use of biographical information isn’t subservient to his aesthetic judgements; he does not make the mistake of trying to describe the work through the life. The most he will do is use a detail or two to provide context for a work; or indeed an oeuvre. Aesthetic judgments, too, are made in accord with accurate information; and that information both precedes and succeeds the dictates of taste. One of the most attractive qualities of Recent Past is the way he is able to describe a work without making a judgement upon it; and yet is still able to indicate, clearly, what he likes or doesn’t like about it; and why he feels that way. That said, unlike many art writers, he prefers not to expatiate upon work he does not appreciate.
In this connection it’s worth pausing over his unusual use of the word connoisseurship, as quoted above. Given its French root, the verb ‘to know’, his usage is accurate but not in accord with the more common meaning of connoisseur today: one who is, usually hedonistically, an expert on something or other, perhaps antiques or wines, and has the means with which to indulge his or her obsession. The emphasis on knowledge is more impartial. Thomas outlines, for instance, what used to happen when a work came into the Art Gallery of NSW: a picture being accessioned was meticulously described, front and back, and every available piece of information about it written down – more or less in the way intelligence files are compiled inside security agencies. Because, of course, in art history fact has to precede both interpretation and aesthetic judgement.
Not that Daniel Thomas isn’t a hedonist; or, I should say, he doesn’t deny the pleasure-giving function of art. It is, clearly, the basis of his work as a whole, not just as a writer but as a builder of audiences and collections too. How else are you going to attract people to a gallery if it is not for their pleasure; how are you going to build a collection if not with an eye to the potential of the work to delight? He goes further than that: it is the accession of a work into a gallery, he says, and the place it then begins to occupy in art history, which makes it interesting: a radical view, since it suggests that anything uncollected is, by definition, uninteresting. It’s like the proposition put forward by physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who said that those parts of the universe hitherto unobserved do not exist – or not until such observation has been made.
To collect a work, then, is to bring it into the kind of consciousness which is the art museum’s raison d’être. This doesn’t mean that the painting a friend gave you, hanging on your wall at home, is a lesser work of art than its equivalent in a gallery; it does mean that they are different kinds of objects. One is simpler than the other; but, at the same time, at any point, one could become the other; and, if you consider current gallery de-accessioning policies, vice versa. But a de-accessioned work continues to carry with it all the information about it that accreted before and during its time in a gallery; and so, even hanging on the wall at home, it will remain a different kind of object to its unexamined other, which exists purely to be looked at, and for the personal associations it may hold. It has presence, you might say, but lacks history.
Because of Daniel’s twenty years at the Art Gallery of NSW, which formed so much of his taste and where he acquired so much of his knowledge, in some ways this book functions as a history of that institution, especially of the period between 1945 and 1971 when Hal Missingham was director and that between 1950 and 1973 when Tony Tuckson was assistant or deputy director. Thomas writes well about both men, and particularly tenderly of Tuckson, who was his mentor and a fine artist in his own right; as well as another who died too young. Recent Past is also a kind of autobiography, though one notable for its dearth of material about Daniel’s personal life, insofar as it existed outside of his professional one. I’m not suggesting there are things withheld; any collection of ephemera, first published in newspapers, magazines or catalogues, will lack that kind of detail.
In this sense Recent Past has some intriguing similarities with Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters, which Text published last year. It too constructs an inadvertent autobiography, this time through a selection of letters written over a period of six decades; but there are differences. Personal letters, howsoever oblique or encoded, will always cast some light upon the personality, and the intimate relationships, of the writer; in the way that a selection like this, of previously published pieces, will not. What it gives us instead is a kind of intellectual autobiography; or perhaps it’s better to say a history of engagements. Some of these are deeply felt; the essay ‘Aboriginal Art: Who was interested?’, is a sustained polemic against those who claim such art was always, until very recently, ignored; as well as a compelling summary of just how much of it there was and how good and various a great proportion of it is. A third aspect of the book is that it also constitutes a work of reference; courtesy of that wonderful index, you can always go to it to find out what Daniel says about an artist or a work.
The book is luxuriously made – a ‘prestige gallery publication’. The illustrations – three or four for the longer essays, one or two for the shorter ones – are well chosen and the quality of the reproductions is good. There are telling photographic portraits of Daniel Thomas front and back. The editing is of a high standard and the amount and accuracy of information that has been brought to the subject, unimpeachable. Some of this must be due to Steven Miller, who has been archivist at the AGNSW since 1995, and who has co-authored a monograph on Harriet Weaver, and written Degenerates and Perverts, about the controversial 1939 Herald exhibition, as well as several other books. Miller had a hand in compiling the excellent chronology that was appended to the catalogue of the Colin McCahon show A Question of Faith (2002).
His co-editor Hannah Fink, who seems to have been the initiator of this project, is likewise an elegant writer and a published author – her exemplary study of the life and work of Bronwyn Oliver, Strange Things, came out in 2017. She has also edited, amongst others, books on Papunya Tula and on Asian Women Artists. Given the range and extent of the bibliography, selecting the 75 pieces which made the cut must have been a demanding task. It’s a tribute to their labours, as well as to Daniel’s skill as a writer, that the book may be read, as I read it, from cover to cover; it is to the editors’ credit that most of the questions that arose in my mind during that read, or subsequent to it, were answered with recourse to the documentation. In this way we are fortunate to have surveyed before us a vast field, full of endeavour and delight.
Finally, the design. The cover of this cloth bound hardback, with shiny blue lettering on a brown ground, when I first saw it, looked like a conundrum. The letters are recessed, as if cut in to the weave; the font is highly abstracted and the two words of the title are made into three (rec / ent / past), arranged in vertical columns in such a way as to suggest hieroglyphics. The five internal sections use the same font but in black, or rather, silver and white; and the same arrangement of individual letters in vertical columns is employed. It was hard to read and initially I found it irritating: why not go for the clarity of design, and of writing, which is characteristic of the rest of the volume?
However my irritation soon gave way to curiosity; and so I set myself to learn to read this arcane script, as it were, at a glance. I soon could; and then one day, not long after, when I was sitting in a comfortable chair with the book in my lap, I found that I could also construe the letters on the cover with my fingertips, the way a blind person reads Braille; and from that moment on I was sold. It was, if you like, a lesson in the processes of looking and seeing; and, as Daniel Thomas shows us time and time again in this wonderful book, if we do not look, and know what it is we are looking at, we will not see.