Melburnin’ November 2013
by Inga Walton
Following its première at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in May, a survey of one of Australia’s foremost photomedia artists is at Jubilee Hall, Horsham Regional Art Gallery’s temporary space, while they await the redevelopment of the Town Hall complex. Curated by Professor Anne Marsh of Monash University, Polixeni Papapetrou: A Performative Paradox (until 15 December, 2013), traces the concept of performance as represented in Papapetrou’s works: from her early experiments in the mid-1980s with black and white photography in the more documentary tradition, to her better known staged and theatrical works from 2000 onwards featuring her children and other characters engaging with real or imagined landscapes. “This comes from my love of nineteenth-century photography full of narrative and inspired by theatre. The Victorians were avid theatre goers and brought the language of theatre and performance into photography … this photography in the tableaux vivant tradition has inspired me”, says Papapetrou.
The Elvis Presley Memorial at Melbourne General Cemetery, the only one to receive official approval from the Presley Estate other than Graceland in Memphis, became the subject of one of Papapetrou’s early series, Elvis Immortal (1987-2002). The artist returned on a regular basis from 1986 to 1993 to photograph the fans paying their annual homage to ‘the King’. Often they are in costume, or sporting 1950s-style rockabilly clothing; Papapetrou photographed other fans in their homes with Elvis memorabilia, and impersonators of both sexes striking a pose. “At the Elvis memorial there were up to one hundred devotees, but it feels as if there’s only one person with me. From the outset, I want to make pictures about people and the roles that they take on in their lives. Existence is the biggest mystery of our lives, grappling with what it means to be human … To sum up that mystery is beyond science and it can only be alluded to through metaphors and images, which is ultimately what the work aspires to be”, she explains.
Papapetrou was also drawn to the Miss Alternative World Ball at the San Remo Ballroom in Carlton from 1988 to 1995 to photograph the transsexual and transgender drag queens in their finery. The series Searching For Marilyn (2002) continues her exploration of gender identity by contrasting the imagery associated with the ‘real’ woman, Marilyn Monroe, with the ‘fake’ performer, Ben Jacobsen, who aspires to recreate the glamour and luminescence of what was, in reality, a contrived studio confection. In Vale (2002) Papapetrou places two shots of Marilyn/Jacobsen wearing a red sequinned dress (itself an approximation of one Monroe wore in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) book-ending a reproduction of The Death of Cleopatra (c.1635) by Guido Reni. Muse (2002) positions the impersonator, this time in a gold dress (referencing Monroe’s famous plunging lamé halter column worn in a 1953 studio portrait by Gene Kornman), either side of Jean-Marc Nattier’s Thalia, Muse of Comedy (1739). The models for the original works were role-playing for the painter, just as Jacobsen revels in his interpretation of Monroe for Papapetrou’s lens, which both colludes with and amplifies these narrative layers of self-representation.
Another series, Ashton’s Circus, Silver’s Circus (1989-90), makes the connection between performance and identity more explicit, as clowns, illusionists, the lion tamer, and the fortune teller pose before the show. “I’m interested in the history of theatrical types from Renaissance times in Italy and in Shakespeare’s writings. I want to portray the clown both as an historical figure and an element of the unconscious, rather than a more frenzied figure who disorients the audience … The clown’s mask is meant to camouflage the real person and create an identity as the outsider, the fool, the comedic, the figure of fun, but I am more interested in uncovering the intelligent sadness in the fool”, Papapetrou remarks. Her use of props, vintage costumes, wigs and masks within her later work show a shift towards creating an archetype, and using anonymity to express aspects of the universal human condition. Papapetrou is unequivocal about the motivation behind her entire body of work, “Even when I was photographing drag queens and body builders, I made each photograph with love. For me, photography has never been an exploitative act … when I look into the camera I feel a deep connection with the person whose image I’m taking. Making pictures is the second biggest love affair of my life after my family”. Several of Papapetrou’s works from her series The Ghillies (2013) will be in the National Gallery of Victoria’s sprawling Melbourne Now, 22 November 2013 – 23 March, 2014 – www.ngv.vic.gov.au
Jubilee Hall, 21 Roberts Avenue, Horsham (VIC) – www.horshamartgallery.com.au
Artist site: www.polixenipapapetrou.net
Albury Regional Art Gallery’s touring exhibition Francisco Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’ features a complete set of the eighty etching with aquatint prints from the Fifth Edition (1881-86) of this masterpiece, currently at Ararat Regional Art Gallery (until 23 November, 2013). The volume was included in the collection of Howard and Judith Daniel, gifted to the Gallery between 1989 and 1997, comprised of over 250 prints and objects, and a library of some 160 books. The advocacy of their friend Justice John Flood Nagle, who had a long association with Albury Gallery, convinced the couple that their gift would provide an invaluable addition to a regional institution, and would be more likely to remain intact. In 2010, the Gallery decided to undertake conservation work on the prints, removing them from their bindings, thus making the plates more accessible.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), is widely considered the last of the ‘Old Master’ painters, and the first of the ‘Modern Age’. Court painter to Charles III (1716-88), Charles IV (1748-1819), and (nominally) Ferdinand VII (1784-1833). Goya chronicled the turbulence of the Peninsular War (1808-14), when the “Intruder King”, Joseph-Napoleon Bonaparte (José I), was installed by his brother Napoleon I from 1808 to 1813. The unflinching and propagandist works The Second of May 1808 (The Charge of the Mamelukes), which depicted the Dos de Mayo Uprising, and The Third of May, 1808 (both 1814), showing the aftermath of French reprisals, were followed by the series of prints The Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra) (1810-20). While maintaining his establishment career, painting royalty, the highest Grandees, and prominent figures within Spanish society, it was Goya’s acute and unforgiving satires of social conditions and prevailing attitudes, the effects of ignorance, hypocrisy, governmental corruption, and institutional abuses that would inform ‘Los Caprichos’.
Goya worked on the controversial images from 1796 with the first edition printed in 1799 for public sale as a single set, and withdrawn very shortly thereafter with only twenty-seven copies sold. The works were advertised as depicting what he described as, “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have hallowed … painting (like poetry) chooses from universals what is most apposite”. Several plates carry the inscription sueño (‘dream’), providing a convenient alibi for the artist: visions come to him as he sleeps, so that he cannot be held responsible for their content. Plate No. 43 The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) has become iconic in its own right. Here Goya envisages himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his slumber tormented by owls (in Goya’s day associated with ignorance), bats, and a watchful lynx (which embodies the power of sight); this nightmarish scenario reflected his perception of the state of Spanish society, and the collapse of boundaries between the supernatural and the everyday.
A debauched cast of prelates, prostitutes, hobgoblins, witches and ghouls mock social customs and vanity, offering cynical commentary on matters of expedience, particularly in marriage and interpersonal relationships. Even Goya’s own profession is not spared, as seen in Plate No. 41, Neither more nor less (Ni más ni menos), where a monkey clutching a palette paints a seated donkey; the successful portraitist faithfully captures the patron’s self-delusion. In 1803, Goya relinquished the copper plates and the 240 unsold sets to Charles IV in return for an annual pension for his only surviving child, Xavier. Goya’s motivations were ostensibly patriotic; to avoid the means of reproducing the plates falling into the hands of ‘foreigners’ after his death. However, Goya also feared attracting the attention of the Inquisition for whom his anti-clerical stance and lampooning of the Church and its superstitions was an obvious provocation. Although there are no records that he ever appeared before the Inquisition, following the restoration of Ferdinand VII in December, 1813, Goya was required to account for his past works and movements; his name was finally cleared in April, 1815.
The plates for ‘Los Caprichos’ remain with the Calcografía Nacional de España in Madrid, and between 1799 and 1937 twelve editions were struck with minor alterations and changes to the plates and the printing process. Local artist Geoff Todd was invited to respond to the exhibition and has produced a major new work, The Goya Painting (2013), which shows a deft reading of Goya’s oeuvre, and which hangs with Todd’s charcoal on paper work Mule Strung (2008). Goya placed a profile self-portrait as Plate No. 1 of ‘Los Caprichos’, which forms the basis of Todd’s rendition of the artist. The foreground figure impaled on the bull’s horns references Goya’s Tauromaquia (1815-16) etchings of bullfight subjects, and the winged men are reminiscent of Way of Flying (Modo de Volar) (c.1816). In the background, where the river turns red with blood, Todd has inserted a variation on Fight with Cudgels (Riña a garrotazos) (c.1820-23) from Goya’s Black Paintings (Pinturas negras), which he painted directly onto the walls of his house Quinta del Sordo (‘Villa of the Deaf Man’).
Todd is adamant that Goya’s themes and influence are just as relevant today and, more importantly, the manner in which he conducted his artistic life. “What I like most about Goya is that he was true to his art and himself, while still catering to the tastemakers who think they decide what ‘art’ is. They really don’t, as Goya’s more radical work demonstrates. Works like ‘Los Caprichos’ speak to us of many of the same contemporary issues we grapple with today, but maybe not so elegantly, or so skillfully as Goya”, Todd contends.
“We don’t seem to be as sophisticated at social commentary as he was. The ‘blunt instrument’ approach rather robs things of their pertinence, and the work suffers. Sure, Goya pleased his patrons, but he also left for us a searing record of one artist’s railing against all the problems and inadequacies of the society in which he operated. He didn’t consider himself above responsibility for that, and that is incredibly important”.
Merging Goya’s motifs and stylistic concerns within such a large work allowed Todd to dwell on the aspects of Goya’s practice which most resonate with him. “No doubt Goya as the Court Painter was working within boundaries set by other people, but he used his profits to fund his personal output, not at all fashionable at the time, but this is the legacy the world now treasures. That took courage, and we remain indebted to that”, Todd reflects. “Goya had two artistic lives running in parallel which he had to manage with great discretion. This allowed the survival of what is most important in his work, both to him as an artist, and to the testament of the culture and the period he leaves us. His work is replete with profundity that resonates to this day, and will continue to do so until we are more enlightened”.
Francisco Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’, Ararat Regional Art Gallery, Ararat (VIC), until 23 November 2013 – www.araratregionalartgallery.blogspot.com.au
The exhibition (excluding Todd’s works) continues on to Hawkesbury Regional Gallery, Windsor (NSW), 6 December, 2013 – 9 February, 2014 – www.hawkesbury.nsw.gov.au/gallery