Affairs of the Art

Katrina Strickland tracks the changing fortunes of Australian artists’ legacies, and finds their loved ones – often widows – calling the shots

Affairs of the Art It is perhaps only in an age where art has become inextricably linked with investment portfolios and capital flows that a book such as former Australian Financial Review arts editor Katrina Strickland’s Affairs of the Art becomes possible. For centuries past, art rose and fell in estimation at the whim of passing fashions (plus ça change…), at the behest of monarchs, popes and patrons, and for its adherence to technical and ideological principles. Often the identity of the artist was of secondary importance, but such modesty will not do in our age of celebrity; investment portfolios and family livelihoods demand an artwork and its creator form a bond – part myth, part value-add. Fine art (especially painting) has, over the last few decades, firmly entered this domain. Affairs of the Art is unique both for the territory it (un)covers – digging into the machinations of how surviving family members (in these cases, mostly canny widows) play this game both alongside and against the art dealers and the ever-shifting market – and for its cast of characters, a kind of rambunctious coterie of Australian art’s best and fairest, its creators and wheeling dealers, its lovers and admirers, its affairs and its sometimes violent tempers, its fakes and crooks and bitter failures. All add up to make this a brilliantly constructed and engaging read. The central question posed is: how does the reputation of an artist carry on after his or her death? What factors affect the subsequent academic reputation, the cultural esteem and (by no means always the same thing) monetary value of the legacy? In the case of some of Australia’s great modernist painters, Strickland reveals, it has much to do with how the widows control access, market flow and scholarship. This is a potential minefield – we’re talking artists’ reputations and sometimes colossal egos – but Strickland’s book is a galloping narrative, and provides an intimacy with the artists that is skilfully handled, given all the information on them here is via second-hand reports, albeit from those who knew them well. Yet those left behind to administer the estate – of special focus here are Helen Brack, Lyn Williams, Wendy Whiteley etc – are perfectly open and candid, which says a lot for Strickland’s ability to draw them into this portrait, personal and revealing, of how to administer the legend and the legacy. For there is both a reputation to uphold – or further enhance – and with it, market prices. Nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the neglect into which George Baldessin’s reputation fell when his partner departed Melbourne for Paris, abandoning both the pain of loss and a warehouse full of art. Only recently has the reputation of Baldessin begun to recover; it’s not just, as critic Sebastian Smee suggests here, that as a printmaker and sculptor Baldessin was working in less glamorous media that his contemporary Brett Whiteley; Whiteley also carried on longer, despite his early death, and has since been supported by a dedicated ‘industry’ that has propped up the name and value of the artist. By focussing on the afterlife of the works of some of Australia’s recent greats – Brack, Williams, Whiteley, Baldessin, Arkley, Tucker and Oliver – Affairs of the Art also doubles as a primer on Australian modernism; this is a passing generation that laid claim to the status of ‘culturally defining’ in the period 1950 – 1990, but which has been, despite the soaring auction prices Strickland documents, in gradual decline, taking the first quiet steps from volatile present into the long and sometimes unlit spaces of history; coming generations might have trouble understanding the mythologies, and wonder what all the fuss was about. Brett Whiteley is a case in point. His pop star life, for instance, seems inseparable from the extravagant brilliance of his art – not least because he, along with Howard Arkley, sold paintings ‘out the back door’ to pay for heroin habits. But this inability to separate the man from the myth is perhaps a greater problem for those who knew him as an artist in his prime – many of whom are quoted here by Strickland. A later generation who barely knew of Whiteley while he was alive (or who weren’t brought up in that wonderfully self-regarding Sydney milieu) would presumably be more dispassionate about his place in Australia’s cultural pantheon, if that is indeed where he belongs. Personal anecdotes aside, Whiteley was ultimately just another brilliant Australian artist who died too young with substance abuse hovering like a cloud – file alongside Bon Scott and Howard Arkley or, more recently, Rowland S. Howard. Katrina Strickland is deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine. Affairs of the Art is available now from Melbourne University Press, RRP $34.99; e-Book $19.99.

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