Current Issue #488

Thirty years of The Adelaide Review: Genteel Shambles

Thirty years of The Adelaide Review: Genteel Shambles

Thirty years of The Adelaide Review

I don’t think I had much idea of what I was down for, climbing the stairs to the Paringa Building upper floor office of The Adelaide Review in mid 1984. Stints as art critic for The News and The Advertiser had given me a glimpse of what it was like behind the scenes, grinding out text to fill the holes between ads.

Hitting deadlines and working in all kinds of places; trains, buses, front bars and park benches, I learnt the art of writing under wet cement. Later in life I came across E.M. Forster’s observation “How do I know what I think until I’ve seen what I say?” appears to sum up the lot of art journalist/reviewer. The scene which greeted me on entry to The Review’s office was one of genteel shambles. There were a few faces I knew; certainly Howard Twelftree (AKA John McGrath) who had been a fellow ‘journalist’ with me on the originating issues of the Blackfriars College OPtimist magazine. Howard had mentioned something about a new review starting up around town and that it had no art reviewers. I was curious.

On the strength of a handshake with the editor, Murdoch press affiliations melted away and my name was entered in the royal list of esteemed contributors for The Adelaide Review. Well that is a stretch. What happened is that each month, I and several other contributors, wandered with our handwritten copies into the office, found a desk with some clear space and just ‘dropped it off’. Occasionally you might get a breathless phone call from Christopher (‘Lord’) Pearson concerning some obscure point of grammar, or if the content came anywhere close to referencing High Anglicanism or Popish tendencies it was a case of buckle up and prepare for an inquisition.

The ‘drop-off’ ritual eventually took on a kind of system as Michael Vanstone assumed a proprietorial role towards contributors. As he also conspired to hold back some sponsorship wine from the clutches of Pearson and others, to ‘pay’ the contributors, his desk and what lay beneath became the go-to point in the office. I mentioned genteel shambles. I still have a visual memory of that first encounter with the Review as stepping into an early 19th century engraving by either Thomas Rowlandson or James Gillray – take your pick. Rowlandson’s The Brilliants with its rowdy group of gents intent upon getting drunk seemed close to the mark but Gillray’s The Union-Club, with chamber pots flying through the air and general mood of stylish uproar, now looks closer in spirit to the event.

Deep down I sensed that The Review wanted to be a naughty gadfly and that moment in time with a lot of manly chaps sitting on stacks of TARs, perched on the few desks available or huddled in conversation in the corners, and all drinking big reds, looked to be the closest I’d get to a literary café society. The art scene offered none of this. The revolutionary 1970s may have had big political agendas but the routine gatherings of political point scoring and polemics in cold, dimly lit halls and the growing dread that the anarchic spirit of the decade was about to be hijacked by careerists and academics, settled like a damp, gray cloud.

But The Adelaide Review with its gang of wits and an emerging demographic of literati was far more interesting. It confirmed something I’d learnt by meeting and reading the likes of Robert Hughes – that writing about art was first and foremost about writing. I may also have ingested The Review’s avowed aims in 1984 of being a ‘tabloid for intelligent newspaper readers… not catering to gossip or sensationalism’ nor wishing to bore with ‘esoteric intellectualism’.

Looking at the first year (1984) it is possible to see the beginnings of an alternative visual arts voice. The inimitable Ian Were covered the visual arts with me in that first year but award for first art review might go to Christopher Pearson for his ‘Sculptures of the dead’ article, covering assorted cemetery statuary around Adelaide (TAR March 1984). In contrast to the turbulent 70s, the art scene began settling back into the routines of putting on shows, which despite their quality couldn’t match the counter-culture fervour of the previous decade.

The artist reviews for 1984 established an important role the journal would consolidate over the next three decades in documenting individual artist (particularly Adelaide-based) emergence and development. The reviewed ‘class of 1984’, for example, included Annabelle Collette, Lynn Collins, Rita Hall, Noela Hjorth, Dianne Longley, and Barbara Zerbini.

It’s a snap shot in time repeated each month over the next 30 years that will prove its value when or if ever Adelaide gets the courage or appetite to tell its own contemporary art story.

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