Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Juan Davila: The Artist as Historian

The one thing historians never do is observe the past. All we observe is the past transformed in some way into history.

Greg Dening, ‘Empowering imaginations’ in Readings Writings, 1998

History as art is a simple explanation for the collection of original works, drawings, sketches, prints and paintings held by the State Library of Victoria. Many appear to represent what was there at the point of their creation – most, in fact, distort that reality by brighter colour, a wider view than is possible for the human eye, or enhancements to make the scene or image more attractive. A more complex explanation is to view these images as documents; evidence that requires interpretation. The small panorama Melbourne 1836 by the obscure bootmaker-cum-artist Hofmann is one example. Painted along with a huge banner version to commemorate the 50th anniversary of European settlement, it is based on an earlier engraving, itself a recollection. It is at the same time nostalgic for humble beginnings and triumphant in reminding the viewer of how quickly the city had grown.

Juan Davila first entered the Library’s collection in a small work called Picasso Theft. Purchased in 1992 as a portrait of the artist, this collage of photographs and painting is a rich record of a great scandal in Victorian art. It commemorates the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group called the Australian Cultural Terrorists which sought to draw attention to the plight of young Australian artists. Davila produced a replica of the Picasso and offered it to the National Gallery to ‘allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and to enable the Gallery to ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery’. Three weeks later Davila received a reply: ‘It is kind of you to consider giving the painting to us but as the original has now, happily, been returned to us we feel we must decline your most generous offer’. Davila’s weeping countenance is a comment on the dual rejection of the replica and his pleas for the gallery to support local art.

A second Davila work held by the Library also comments on the politics of art in Victoria. “Do I Pass Muster?” is a print made in 1996 and based on a larger oil painting, The Premier of Victoria. It depicts Jeff Kennett as a cow in a blasted landscape with trees shaped into swastikas, and was purchased by the Library in 2000. The print reveals the inspiration for the painting to be a work by Tom Roberts, A Mountain Muster. This painting, from the Alan Bond collection, was offered at auction as the last romantic bush picture by the artist in private hands, part of the group that includes Shearing the Rams and The Breakaway. A Mountain Muster was purchased anonymously by the National Gallery of Victoria for a record price for a work by Roberts. Unfortunately the price exceeded the available cash reserves by more than 50 per cent. The inclusion of a newspaper article in the print reveals that this was resolved in a neighbourly conversation over the dustbins by the Director of the Gallery and the Minister for Planning, who found the necessary cash in an obscure cultural fund created from bonds paid by property developers. Many critics considered A Mountain Muster an inferior work, and the Senior Curator for Australian Art at the Gallery was reported to have opposed its purchase. For Davila the high price and unorthodox funding suggested an unhealthy cultural hegemony led by a Premier best represented as a mad cow.

Stepping from the politics of art to political art is easy for Juan Davila. Arriving in Australia in the wake of the Pinochet coup in Chile, he brought a Latin American understanding of the post-colonial and the fragility of independence in the face of superpower politics. “God and Country”, acquired in 2005, was made in 1989 in the wake of the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of European settlement. A year later it appeared as a huge poster over an inner suburban street in the company of advertisements for beer and printing centres. The patriotic title is in stark contrast to the word ‘WOG’ which almost obscures the comic-like illustrations of Aussie icons, and the buzz words of art history. It is a wry comment on the politics of inclusion.

“Sorry”, produced in 1999 and purchased by the Library in the same year, continues this theme. The year before, the report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the practice of removal of Indigenous children from their families had recommended that governments and agencies involved in this practice make a formal apology. In the debate which followed, ‘sorry’ became a word spoken and shouted in almost every discussion, but not mentioned in the Federal Parliament, officially to avoid the risk of conceding a right to compensation, but perhaps unofficially to avoid the black armband of history. Davila’s image is a complex palimpsest of contemporary and historical references. Riding a Collins Class submarine (patched to symbolise the controversy raging at the time over their poor design), a Blinky Bill admiral holds the hand of a strange little peanut. The references are to Augustus Earle’s portrait of the Port Jackson Aboriginal Bungaree, and to Norman Lindsay’s classic tale The Magic Pudding. Above, half of the Eureka Flag appears, and in the gloom a large ferry-like boat departs. The effect is to challenge the viewer to apply the politicised word ‘sorry’ to an Australian identity that seeks to familiarise the Indigenous in imperial garb, defend the territory so claimed with the latest weaponry and dull debate with a comic nationalism, symbolised by half a flag and perhaps half a nation.

Inclusion and exclusion are themes brought together in the 2002 work ? (the title is a question mark), presented to the Library by the artist in 2008. Part of a large suite called ‘Woomera’ protesting at the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, it draws inspiration from a World War I propaganda poster drawn by Norman Lindsay, only in this version the threatening Hun has the features of the Prime Minister. Davila’s artistic protest was accompanied by a manifesto calling on artists to protest the injustice, which concludes with the following words:

As artists we should remain open to the question of how such events in Australia are to be symbolised. Rather than taking refuge in the benevolent boredom of Australian culture and its refusal to deal with history and memory, we should propose an enquiry into the psychological forces that support and resist this horror so reminiscent of that in Chile under the dictatorship.

A softer aesthetic pervades the work “Ned Kelly in Love”. Produced in 2003 as a gift to the Library as it prepared for its 150th anniversary, and given in memory of Jean Cameron, the work drew its inspiration from the groundbreaking Library exhibition held that year, Kelly Culture: Reconstructing Ned Kelly. The exhibition explored the many ways in which Ned Kelly is reflected in Australian cultural memory and showed his armour in the most accurate reconstruction, the product of painstaking research by the exhibition curators Allison Holland and Clare Williamson. Davila has often referred to Kelly in his works, especially to his mythologising by Sidney Nolan, and examples of this can be found in “God and Country” and “Do I Pass Muster?”. The work explores Ned as an object of passion – his armour is an empty, shining shell and his lover is clothed in the garment of bush masculinity, the Driza-Bone coat, reflecting on and reflected in the surface of her desire.

A Panorama of Melbourne takes the broadest view of history. Created in 2008 during Juan Davila’s residency as a Creative Fellow at the Library, the work was acquired with the assistance of the State Library of Victoria Foundation. It is vast in scale and ambition, drawing on images held in the Library of the changing occupation and shape of the city. Periods and time are marked by changing dress and architecture, and while these can be recognised they are compressed or altered to both freeze the moment and emphasise the change. Figures populate the panorama, yet are isolated – individuals rather than representations of community. Space is generously used, suggesting a city not quite at home with the vast emptiness of much of the continent on which it stands. And the image moves beyond the historic or the current to a future marred by an exaggeration of the self-conscious architecture of the postmodern. The sketchbooks displayed alongside the Panorama, also purchased with the assistance of the Foundation, show the care with which Davila explored the visual references in the Library collection, and the work is another fine example of the collaboration in printmaking between the artist and master printmaker Larry Rawling. For both the artist and the printmaker this is a major work, in conception and execution.

Juan Davila brought to Australia an artistic vision that has always reflected a consciousness of the past and a preparedness to engage critically with aspects of our shared community that some find uncomfortable or challenging. His place as a major artist is assured; in this exhibition he can claim his place as a fine historian.

Shane Carmody is Director, Collections and Access at the State Library of Victoria

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