Turning pages

Appearing on Culture Concept Circle website, January 23, 2017




Rare Books Have Remarkable Stories to Tell, says Derek Parker


“Every house has a bookcase,” says Douglas Stewart, the principal of Douglas Stewart Fine Books, “and every bookcase should have some rare, special, meaningful books.”

Douglas is proud of a first-edition of the well-known artist and author Australian Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding: Being The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff, which is in near-mint condition.

He speaks as someone who has been buying and selling books since he was very young, although his current store in Armadale, Melbourne in Victoria, opened in 2013.douglas-stewart-and-magic-pudding

“There’s no course that teaches this,” he says. “You learn by doing. But you have to have the passion for it, you have to understand the transformative power of books and related material.”

One of his recent acquisitions is a large hymn book, used in Utrecht in the seventeenth century. It was meant to be displayed to, and followed by, the church audience.

Written by hand on vellum and in a monastic binding, it has stood up remarkably well, although there are a few signs of wear and repair.

“In the case of this piece, those marks are part of the book’s journey,” Douglas notes. “A rare book can have a lot to say, even beyond its contents. It’s like a piece of history speaking to you.”hymn-book

Another highly significant piece is a carved stone-printing block from China, used to print paper money in 1287, the era of Kublai Khan.

Despite having had a turbulent ride through history – it was recovered in an archaeological dig in the early twentieth century – it is in very good condition, and its original purpose is clear.

“We exhibited that piece in Hong Kong, and it is part of an increasing global interest in rare Chinese books, maps, and publishing items,” says Douglas.

“Many people of Chinese background who have settled in other countries are now wanting to look back to their cultural roots.”

A large part of Douglas’ job is to exhibit at book fairs around the world. In 2016, he exhibited material at ten major events.

“My life has a large element of show-and-tell,” he says. “And that is exactly how I like it.”First editions of books that are famous are always popular. Australian-themed children’s books are another area where there is rising interest.

Private collectors or public institutions acquire many of his more expensive pieces but he explains that his clientele is much broader than might be expected.

“A lot of people start with an area that interests them, such as an artistic period or a style of writing,” he says. “Yes, you can spend a lot of money if you want, and certainly I’m not going to stop anyone from doing that.

But you can also acquire, for example, a signed first-edition copy of the Peter Carey novel Bliss for a very reasonable amount. It’s the sort of thing that can be the seed for a significant collection. Book collectors are everywhere.

“Yes, rare books can be a good financial investment, but my feeling is that that’s not why most people acquire them. They buy them for the privilege of holding them. They feel that a rare book enriches their life – and of course they are right.

The trend is towards people buying a small number of items that are of high quality and have resonance for them, rather than whole shelves of books without particular meaning.

Sometimes it might not be a book: an item we are currently handling is the sale of a bound set of Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette. It was printed in 1803, on the press that arrived with the First Fleet, so it has an outstanding place in our culture and history.”douglas-stewart-with-stone-block

As for whether he has a favourite among all the pieces that have passed through his hands, Douglas comes up with a surprising answer.

“It was just one page, or rather, one page on two occasions,” he says. “They were from the Gutenberg Bibles, the first book printed. You could feel the history attached to them.

That’s when you truly understand why rare books are so important.”


China images

Appearing on Culture Concept Circle, July 2016


Miss Wan Studies Hard

China images


By Derek Parker


A remarkable show at the Monash Gallery of Art traces the development of photography as an art form in China from the colonial days to the current era of digital re-imagining. China: Grain to Pixel has 150 works, and is the first major show of its type to come to Australia.

It was put together by Liu Heung Shing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, and his partner Karen James. Liu is also the founder of the Shanghai Centre of Photography.

“For too long, it has been a one-way street, where Western exhibitions come to China,” he says. “I want to send some exhibitions the other way. This exhibition tells the story of the evolution of modern China.”

The early images are essentially documentary, posed and formal, although the artists made a point of getting out of the cities to show society from the ground level up. The Communists realised propaganda value in photography, and the era saw plenty of factory workers and farmers staring stolidly towards a golden era that would never arrive. Later photographers would take this as a starting point, and the result was a self-consciousness that is particular to the culture. There are very few images of people smiling here: everyone knows this is a show and what part they are supposed to play.

This sense of performance continued as the economy switched to go-go capitalism and Chinese photography dived into the digital age. The new technology was embraced but often with a sense of ambiguity. In a remarkable image by Chen Man, Miss Han Studies Hard, a leggy beauty bicycles between the past and the future. Zhang Hai’er captures images of girls who are too cool for school – indeed, too cool for anything. Liu Hueng Shing provides an image Taking Down Mao in Tiananmen Square: deconstruction of the image, or the image of deconstruction?

China: Grain to Pixel is a complex, fascinating show. Its size and sweep requires attention, but it repays the effort.

Taking Down Mao by Luiu Heung Shing


Keeping an Eye Open

Keeping an Eye Open

Appearing on the Culture Concept Circle, December 2105


Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art

By Julian Barnes

Knopf, $25, 288 pages

Booker Prize winning contemporary English writer Julian Barnes is usually associated with intelligent, mesmerizing works of fiction such as influential French 19th century novelist Gustave Flaubert’s Parrot, Pulse, and The Sense of an Ending but he has also written extensively on art, especially painting. This will not surprise anyone who has closely read his novels; what is unusual is his capacity for humour and insight, given that the field of art criticism often takes itself far too seriously for its own good.

Keeping an Eye Open is about just what the title implies: that in looking at art, the most important thing is to, well, look at the art. The seventeen essays of the book, collected from an eclectic mix of publications, cover a great deal of ground, but Barnes says early in the piece that he has a particular interest in the story of how art made its way from Romanticism to Realism and on to Modernism – that is, from about 1850 to around 1920 (although he is quite willing to venture into more recent times). He is interested in how painting came to be about painting, rather than history, religion or propaganda.

He sees French painter and lithographer Théodore Gericault (1791-1824) and his work The Raft of the Medusa as something of a starting point, examining how the painter shuffled around the facts of the real case to suit the needs of a narrative painting (the essay originally appeared in Barnes’ 1989 novel The History of the World in 10½ Chapters).

The critics of the time did not take the idea well, but Gericault had set a process in motion and it was picked up by such luminaries as French painters Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Eugéne Delacroix (1798-1863).

And Edouard Manet (1832-1883) as well: his The Execution of Maximilian is really a painting about character, structure, and drama posing as a political event.

French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), for whom Barnes obviously has great liking for the humility of his approach and the vibrancy of his palette, took the same idea into portraiture, focusing not on likeness but on essence.

Barnes traces a line from that up to German born British painter Lucien Freud (1922-2011), probably one of the most irascible and arrogant painters to have ever picked up a brush but redeemed by his determination to cut through to the heart and soul of his subject, to find what was there and portray it, even if it was not a pretty thing to look at (perhaps especially so).

In the case of Freud it can be difficult to separate the painter from his output, although we are obliged to try.

Freud might be a fascinating fellow, in a horrible sort of way, but he demands that his paintings be judged in their own terms, as paintings of people.

Barnes agrees (this would probably be the only thing the two of them would ever agree on).

The essay on Freud is also notable for Barnes’ use-invention of the word ‘flaubertising’, which comes with a story of its own.

When a writer is willing to comfortable enough with his material to go with something like this, it encourages the reader to accompany him for the ride. To say that Barnes is concerned with paintings as paintings is not to mean that he is not interested in ideas.

The essay on late nineteenth century surrealist artist René Magritte is affectionate, in part because Barnes likes the way that Magritte refuses to sit neatly in one or another category.

There is an appealing cleverness to Magritte, a strangeness that is playful without being coy.

In Magritte’s time, theories of art were already beginning to overtake practice, and his enduring images – a huge egg in a birdcage, apples in places where apples should not be, inside-out skies and bowler-hatted men – were a way of saying that painting can be a conversation, and a very enjoyable one, rather than a clash of aesthetic ideologies.

Perhaps this is why Barnes is sceptical of Pop Art, although his essay on Oldenburg (titled “Good Soft Fun”) is not without its sense of appreciation. Barnes points out that Pop Art has not dated well, and these days can look a bit silly.

Once one has got the idea of a giant bicycle or a hamburger made of cloth – understood the self-referentiality, laughed at the inside-ness of the joke, accepted the irony – there isn’t much there.

Irony is not the same as subtlety (although pop artists might not grasp the distinction), and it is subtlety that keeps taking us back to Gericault, Manet, Degas, and, yes, Freud as well.

Barnes is too polite to say so, but one suspects that he has little time for people who call themselves artists but who cannot paint a decent apple.

French artist Paul Cézanne, he says, could paint an apple, and did so, and thereby told us something (maybe everything) about the world. Seeing it is largely a matter of keeping an eye open.

In the end, this is a remarkable book, articulate without a trace of pretension.

It is worth reading slowly – unusual in this time of ours – to follow the connections and let the larger story unfold.

Barnes clearly loves his subject, and equally loves good writing.

So enjoy it as you would enjoy a fine painting, one you can see again and again, and see anew each time.


Body as site of meaning

Appearing on Culture Concept Circle site, http://www.thecultureconcept.com/bradbeer-returns-to-drawing-nucleus-derek-parker

Bradbeer Returns to ‘Drawing Nucleus’

Bradbeer 1The new collection of pieces at John Makin Gallery, Collingwood by Godwin Bradbeer, widely considered a leader in the field of drawing, sees a return to his focus on the body, and especially the human face, following a series of excursions into other areas.

pjpa_m108371“Figure drawing has always been the nucleus of my work, if you like,” Bradbeer says. “It is a fundamental way to talk about the human condition and the nature of individuals”.

Pipa“Every now and then it is good to step back a bit, consider other ideas and follow them up, and produce some works that challenge yourself and the audience. Those are the parts that circle the nucleus, held to it but also a bit separate.”

pjpa_m108967His two shows of last year, Pentimenti and Project, included an installation of school chalkboards, a marble sculpture of an axe on a piano stool, and x-ray drawings of animals.

pjpa_m108965The current show, Recent Works, provides seven large drawings using chinagraph, silveroxide and pastel on paper. (With thanks to the artist and the gallery for the use of images, the Exhibition is now showing at the John Makin Gallery, 67 Cambridge Street, Collingwood.)