Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Antipodean response to Abstract Expressionism




In the period following World War Two, Abstract Expressionism had become the dominant art movement of the Western art world, bringing New York City to its very centre. Deployed as a weapon against the rigid Socialist Realist art of the Soviet Union, Abstract Expressionism came to be known as an assertion of the cultural power and artistic freedom of the United States. [1] As observed by Saunders, this was achieved primarily through patronage and support from the CIA, who assisted in funding the largely influential exhibition, The New American Painting, organised by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition toured eight European countries over 1958-59, which assisted in firmly establishing the importance of contemporary American painting, especially Abstract Expressionism, for an international audience.


Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, enamel on canvas, 266.7 x 525.8 cm.

Contextualised by the perception that Abstract Expressionism was advancing with critics and audiences in Australia and abroad, the Antipodean group convened at the Victorian Artists Society in Melbourne in February 1959 to defend the figural image in art. The group included the Modern Australian artists Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, Bob Dickerson, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh and art historian, Bernard Smith. In response to the success of The New American Painting exhibition, the group staged their single exhibition Antipodeans in August 1959. Providing a critical framework for the exhibition, the Antipodean Manifesto was published in the catalogue and was written by Bernard Smith and signed by the exhibiting artists.

The Antipodean Manifesto denounced the aesthetic value as well as the functional value of abstract forms of art. Smith asserted that: “Today Taschistes, Action Painters, Geometric Abstractionists, Abstract Expressionists and the innumerable band of camp followers threaten to benumb the intellect and the wit of art with their bland and pretentious mysteries. The art which they champion is not an art sufficient for our time.”[2] Describing Abstract Expressionism as that which reduced the living speech of art to the silence of decoration[3] Smith sought to challenge Clement Greenburg’s idea that Abstract Expressionism epitomised pure aesthetic value, and in doing so characterised Abstract Expressionism as being a vapid form of art that was showy and devoid of meaning.

Concerned that art was losing its humanist values to abstraction, Smith championed the practical and ideological function of art within the community, maintaining that art had to communicate a sense of past experience and an involvement in life.[4] One of the Antipodean artists whom Smith had a particular regard for was Arthur Boyd, whose work he emphasised was “grounded closely upon personal experience”[5] and that which conveyed the “universal expression of man’s place and man’s dilemma in the universe.”[6] Consistent with Smith’s artistic agenda, works such as those from Boyd’s “Half Caste Bride” series, which were produced before and during the publication of the Manifesto, documents the artist’s observations of people who inhabit the outback, particularly Indigenous Australians. Having witnessed the plight of Indigenous Australians, Boyd highlighted these social issues through the expressive potential of art. Likewise, in his work Collins St, 5p.m., 1955, John Brack captures the modern urban condition whilst providing a social commentary on the political implications of social class and status in contemporary Australian society. Thus, in terms of artistic expression, the Manifesto was seen as a platform for reinforcing the Antipodean artists’ shared commitment to the figural image, which they saw as being consistent with the communicative and expressive potential of art. 


John Brack, Collins St, 5p.m., 1955, oil on canvas, 114.6 x 162.9 cm.

Although the Antipodeans asserted that their standpoint was not an overly nationalistic one, the Manifesto did certainly set out to assert that contemporary Australian painting had a well-founded and powerful national identity. This is recognised by Peter Beilharz who states that “the Manifesto was really an attempt, among other things, to place art activity within national and global culture” and to convey the Australian experience.[7] The burgeoning influence of the abstract image in art was seen as source for great concern for the Antipodeans, as there was a growing anxiety amongst the group towards the potential for Abstract Expressionism to marginalise Australian cultural identity. Beilharz adds that “[Bernard Smith] knew about American art, displayed American war art in the Gallery of New South Wales, and could discern how it might be that New York, in particular, would establish itself as the global centre of the international art scene. What this meant . . . was that Australia was now doubly antipodean, annexed by relations of subordination both to the United Kingdom and the United States.”[8] As a result, Smith and the Antipodeans critiqued the excessive promotion of Abstract Expressionism which “seemed to crowd out other forms and aspirations,”[9] as an attempt to illuminate Australia’s identity within the new internationalism of the post-war period.

Bernard Smith’s Manifesto was not without critical opposition, as it did provoke a backlash from those who favoured abstraction as well as those who saw Smith’s text as conveying an air of conservatism towards the progression of avant-garde forms of art. Australian artist, author and art critic, Elwyn Lynn at the time criticised the Manifesto, stating that it was “a repressive and censorious document in its vituperative stand against abstraction, and especially abstract expressionism.”[10] Rosemary Brooks also criticised the ways in which the Antipodean Manifesto stridently challenged overseas abstract art claiming that it “reinforced the contemporaneous national penchant towards xenophobia.”[11] Further to this, in 1961 there was an exhibition held in Sydney in response to the Antipodeans by the Sydney Nine group, consisting of Hector Gilliland, Leonard Hessing, Clement Meadmore, John Olsen, Carl Plate, Stanislaus Rapotec, William Rose, Eric Smith and Peter Upward, who came together to “assert the seriousness of practitioners of abstract art.”[12] Opposition not only existed outside the group, however, as members of the Antipodean group did resign during the group exhibition whilst some of those who remained regarded their participation with the movement as mistake and an embarrassment. Although defined by the contested Antipodean Manifesto, which indeed reflected the arguments of the time, today the Antipodeans indicate an aspect of the diversity of Australian art practice while representing a  fervent commitment to creativity in Australia.




[1] Frances Stonor Saunders. “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’”, The Independent, 22nd October 1995, online article, accessed 27th August 2012, <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html>
[2] Bernard Smith, The Antipodean Manifesto: Essays in Art and History, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 165.
[3] Ibid. p. 165.
[4] Ibid. p. 166.
[5] Ibid. p. 35.
[6] Ibid. p. 35.
[7] Peter Beilharz, Imagining the Antipodes: Culture, Theory and the Visual in the work of Bernard Smith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 109.
[8] Ibid. p. 101.
[9] Ibid. p. 101.
[10] Simon Pierse, Australian Art and Artists in London, 1950-1965: An Antipodean Summer, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012, p. 84.
[11] Rosemary Brooks, “Commentary on Bernard Smith’s Book “The Antipodean Manifesto””, Leonardo, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1979), MIT Press, p. 215.
[12] Deborah Clark, “Antipodeans: Challenge and Response in Australian Art 1955 – 1965”, National Gallery of Australia <http://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/antipodeans/index.htm>

1 comment:

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