Venus in Tullamarine
Ella Howells, Cat Lawrance and Katie Paine and Charlie Robert
Curated by Cameron Hurst with Jeremy George
Due to take place in August 2021 as part of the GPG’s Semester Two Exhibition program, Venus in Tullamarine has been rescheduled to take place in 2022. In the meantime, the following is a presentation of work in progress from the participating artists, the curator and catalogue editor.
Famed for the outlandish classic ‘The Magic Pudding,’ the legacy of Norman Lindsay —anti-modernist, amateur boxer, author, libertine and artist— continues to cast a long, shifting shadow over Australian art and cultural history. In Venus in Tullamarine, four student artists respond to key works from the University’s Lindsay collection.
Cameron Hurst – Communing with the Norman Lindsay Collection
The University of Melbourne’s art collections are an esoteric index of shifting institutional aspirations. Some speak to powerful donors and the university as a nexus of colonial knowledge production: “The Ronald and Pamela Walker Collection of Maps of Constantinople and surrounds, 1493-1734”; the Captain Cook-centric “Miegunyah” Collection. Some of the collections–the Vizard, especially–clearly anticipate current debates about nationalism and identity politics. But some of the collections are harder to pin down. Trawling through the archives while researching for a George Paton Gallery exhibition, I became fixated upon the Antipodean phantasmagoria of the Norman Lindsay Collection.
Forgive me for my bluntness: Lindsay (1879–1969) and his artworks are really weird. A skilled draughtsman and Nietschze-obsessed, quasi-fascist sensualist, he is a singular Australian artist. The University’s collection of his work, sequestered away in a storage facility in Tullamarine, consists of a number of impressive prints, drawings, oil paintings and two miniature models (a ship and a frollicking horse). The collection was displayed in the Architecture building for years. This seems somewhat inexplicable given the imagery of the prints and paintings, which orbit around consistent themes: laviscuous nude women in pseudo-Antiquity, lascivious nude women in the pseudo-Dark Ages, laviscuous nude women in pseudo-pastoral idylls. They’re arresting, to say the least.
Art historically, Lindsay functions as an orgiastic foil for the sexual politics of any given day. There is a new tussle to shape perceptions of his work every twenty years or so. He has been an ungodly pervert, a visionary, a lothario and an icon of pagan sex-positivity. In 1913, his allegorical painting The Crucifixion of Venus was removed from exhibition by conservative Christians. In 1930, his Bildungsroman Redheap underwent similarly motivated censorship. By the free love era, puritanism shifted to accusations of pornographic bad taste. Robert Hughes proclaimed in 1970 that Lindsay’s “melon-breasted, ham-thighed Playmates are wholesome and dated.” Yet in contrast, four years later the writer (and Norman progeny) Jack Lindsay “wonders why [Lindsay’s Sapphic art] has not been taken up by the more militantly Lesbian sections of Women’s Lib.” Good question. Another couple of decades passed. The Lindsay biopic, Sirens (1994), attempted to position Lindsay as a prescient artistic advocate of feminine sexual subjectivity in a climate of provincial repression. Incidentally, the film was made by University of Melbourne alumni John Duigan. I’d love to know how he wrangled Elle Macpherson, Hugh Grant, Sam Neill and Portia de Rossi into that cinematic bush Bacchanalia…
Luckily, I’ve got months of lockdown time to devote to research in preparation for Venus in Tullamarine, an exhibition about the Norman Lindsay collection to be held at the George Paton Gallery in 2022. What to make of Lindsay today? Where does his work fit in the morass of a post-Me Too, mid-COVID, pre-Anthropocene world? Lindsay notoriously conducted Ouija board ceremonies at his Springwood estate, hoping to commune with the dead. I’m currently leaning towards peer-reviewed journal articles and history books to get in touch with him, but in the transcendental ennui of yet another Stage 4, I’m open-minded. Lindsay, if you’re reading this, send me a sign… I’m home all day.
Ella Howells – Atomised into Keyword Form
Norman Lindsay’s works are widely available online as print reproductions. The above (left) text reveals a printer’s website’s AI interpretation of his artwork ‘A Star Explodes,’ atomised into keyword form.
Lindsay was born with a blood disorder and as a result, was not allowed to venture outside much as a child. He was raised in the Catholic faith, which he felt similarly stifled by, and thus rejected when he grew up, adopting his signature neo-pagan eroticism. Catholicism typically extols restriction as pursuit of virtue, and positions illnesses as either an idyllic means to purity and heavenly access, or if the individual is a ‘sinner,’ as penance, a symbol of their internalised turmoil. It is an aesthetic religion, as evidenced through the biblical scenes within churches’ stained glass and frescoes; the impact of which can be clearly seen within Lindsay’s more detailed paintings and etchings. By adopting the virtuosic devotion of a feverish religious painter to depict heretical, bawdy acts, he breaks the line between the sacred and profane like a runner barely panting, glancing back with a laugh.
Whilst an anti-modernist traditionalist, arguably Lindsay was distinctly ahead of his time with his edgelord tendencies, age-gap phantasm and quasi-religious aesthetics, both of which are hotly in-vogue a-la post 2020, foreshadowing amalgamations of e-girl interests as they are churned through the intellectual meat-mincers of 6 isolation periods. Religious imagery of monastic penance, silent retreats, abstinence and a preoccupation with the fragility of life against an invisible force permeated consciousnesses and instilled, perhaps, a renewed, retroactive reverence for the silver-lined hedonism many of us swiftly shed. In an atomised world where sex carries the potential transmission of death, Lindsay’s explicit images elicit the mystic eroticism echoed in widely-reported wild lockdown dreams, forming unlikely Icons of worship.
As sexuality becomes more heavily performed, pornified and policed by algorithms, I wonder whether Lindsay would think that this is a form of magic, or a form of decay. I wonder what he would have to say about the artificial reduction of ‘A Star Explodes’ into an exploding diagram of terms, or about the infinite reproductions that could be made of the work at the command of a hand clicking. Perhaps algorithmic censorship would bar him from saying what he would really want to say, like invocations of the faceless unpredictable godhead, smiting his young self from the heavens above?
When Lindsay lassoes the abject and the sublime and throws them into a mirror, the result is libidinal, unabashedly perverted in spite of its virtue. I wish to mirror this through a digitally-aided reproduction, from pinpricks, so when placed in front of a window, the light spills through, like simplified stained glass, like tiny stars, arranged before they explode.
Cat Lawrence – Etching Processes
“Recently I have been working with a heavy focus on the materiality and behaviour of copper throughout the intaglio process. I’ve been reading Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett. I am most interested in her notice of ‘thing-power,’ the idea that the vitality of things exceed their object status. I have personified my own copper plates with a frustrating antagonism that appears to be accidentally conjured through my own ritualistic repetitions of printmaking. The more I read about the controversy surrounding Lindsay and his prints, the more peculiarly his character appears in the tedious materiality of my own practice.”
Katie Paine – The National Theatre of Ghastly Idealism
“Australian subjectivity is founded on age-old western figures of otherness-the most significant being the notions of the antipodes and an Austral utopia. This gives Australians a perverse claim to being European. Indeed, a common strategy of Australians who fear their perverse origins is to read the metaphors of an antipodes and a southern utopia back into classical texts.”
Katie Paine’s work in progress is a preliminary drawing for a series of works on paper responding to Lindsay’s etchings. She has been considering Lindsay’s mythologising as profoundly connected to the particularities of Australian settler colonialism.
Jeremy George – Porn Painting: What Norman Lindsay did to Australian Artistic Action
In John Duigan’s 1994 film Sirens Hugh Grant – playing an Anglican priest recently arrived in Australia – visits Norman Lindsay at the bequest of the Church to try and convince him against displaying his Crucified Venus at the 1912 Society of Artists at the All-Australia Exhibition. Duigan’s film is one based on actual events, and ultimately paints Lindsay sympathetically, as a genius sensitive to feminine subjectivity railing against the conservative orthodoxy of his time.
This is of course, not the whole story. If Duigan’s bohemian portrayal neglects Lindsay’s fascist tendencies scrawled across the pages of the Bulletin, he also omits that despite his controversies, Lindsay nonetheless rose to become Australia’s most lucrative artist before the first World War.
So, how do we think of a relation between Norman Lindsay’s two faces: his reputation as a reclusive libertine, cultivating a hedonistic world in private, and his reality? He is Australia’s most highly paid artist— and a public figure whose lingering presence continues to exert influence over Australian cultural discourse. From the rise of the Sydney intellectual occult to the indoctrination of generation after generation of good Aussie children to the world of the Magic Pudding.
My sense is that this antagonism between the private and the public receptions underpinning Lindsay’s significance can be parsed through the prism of one his artistic controversies: the pornographic.
For the Marquis de Sade pornography could provide a perpetual structure by which to acknowledge the eliteness of the elite, a goal Lindsay echoes in his discussions of a chosen artistic aristocracy in Creative Effort and elsewhere. In her study of pornography Frances Ferguson, however, reads the Sadean thesis as epitomising a broader point about the way pornography works in society. Like Benthamite utilitarianism it:
“…intensively uses comparison and displays relative value to create extreme perceptibility. In the process, it sets aside or minimizes the place of individual beliefs and emotions as explanations for what we have done and what we will do.”
The pornographic creates a structure through which we can begin the modern journey of judging others not by their beliefs but by their actions. Lindsay could be the exemplary case of this process in Australian modernity as an infamous, outspoken and censored artistic libertine. Despite his screeds to the contrary, Lindsay may have tacitly contributed to the rationalising discourse of modernism via the pornographic, and hence Australian modernism more generally: Norman Lindsay’s private bore our public. This might go some way to explaining why his influence is still felt, and why I (at least) still feel compelled by some of his work.
My research will therefore be conducted on two registers. Firstly, the ways in which Lindsay practices and theorises the pornographic in his work. Secondly, examining how Lindsay’s pornographic legacy occasioned a modern Australian cultural structure and its declensions in intellectual history. The aim is to knot them together, and in doing so glean a new perspective on a figure that looms large over any conception of Australian culture.
Jeremy George is editing the Venus in Tullamarine publication in collaboration with Cameron Hurst and Amici Studios.