old and new

I finally had some time to spend a few hours wandering around,  and photographing in,  the CBD last week. The CBD is rapidly changing from when I used  to live there.   

The few hours of  photographic drifting was between  seeing the Marek brothers  exhibition --- Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea -- at the South Australian Art Gallery and  receiving the 1st AstraZeneca vaccination at my GP clinic.   The Morrison Federal Govt has been very slack in acquiring and  rolling out the vaccine,  and my GP clinic has only been receiving very  limited doses per week. Sadly, exaggerated claims, spin and outright lies have covered over  the stuff up re the vaccine supply and roll out.   

Back to the exhibition.  There was a deep resistance to the foreign, the European, and modernism in   postwar Adelaide and  the migrant artists in the European diaspora were consigned to obscurity. They represent by-ways, irrelevancies, alternative pathways – all leading to dead ends in the central narrative of Australian art history. For instance, Sasha Grishin's recent Australian Art: A History  does not mention the Marek brothers,  despite their influence on the early paintings of Jeffrey Smart. 

The Surrealist at Sea  exhibition finally  recovers, and recognizes,  some of the forgotten modernism in Adelaide after the 1945. An example of this forgetting is Patrick McCaughey's  recent Strange Country: Why Australia Painting Matters, which  ignores Surrealism in Australia,  and doesn't mention the Marek brothers. McCaughey's text is  both Melbourne-centric and ignores how some modernists, such as the Marek brothers  worked across several artistic mediums and not just in the medium of painting. In the Marek brothers case it was painting, sculpture, prints, film,  photography and jewellery. 

Instead of 'forgetting' one should say that McCaughey's kind of art history is wilfully blind to multiple modernisms, just like that of Clement Greenberg,  McCaughey's  American mentor. McCaughey's kind of medium specific modernist art history is a strange history indeed. 

This wilfulness  brings art history into disrepute.  Bernard Smith's Australian Painting 1788-1970  (1971 edition), is  40 years earlier and it  has a substantial section on Surrealism. However, Smith's text, which laid the foundations for art history in Australia,   does not mention the Adelaide-based  Marek brothers. Though the  Agapitos/Wilson collection of surrealism at the National Gallery of Australia  includes  Dusan Marek it does not come to grips with the breadth and depth of the work produced by  the Marek brothers. 

 So on the one hand   the Surrealist at Sea  is  a very  welcome exhibition indeed as it t shows that Adelaide was no modernist  provincial backwater. On the other hand,  it has only taken the Art Gallery of South Australia 60 years to remove its  historical blindness about, and prejudice towards,  post-1945  modernism in  Adelaide. Surrealism in Adelaide was much more substantial than just Max Harris or  Ivor Francis. 

3 responses
I was amazed at the huge volume of surrealist art in the Marek brothers exhibition. Fortunately the work has survived, even if art critics choose to ignore it. The exhibition definitely warrants another city wander Gary.
From my perspective it's great this work is finally happening - it has involved decades of pain and neglect for those involved. I should note, though, that the critical reception in Adelaide was divided between the arch conservative reactionaries and the supporters of progressive ideas in modern art. The Mareks' work did meet with quite a lot of public hostility as well - they arrived and started exhibiting in 1949. There was some local context to consider too, with several years of Contemporary Art Society activities and the Ern Malley hoax, which attempted to portray all modern art as a hoax or the domain of charlatans. By the time my father and uncle arrived and started showing in 1951 there was much more critical acceptance of new ideas - but their art was rooted in Expressionism and Impressionism and veered towards Abstraction, while the Mareks was formed in Surrealism and veered to Abstraction from there. It's much weirder though that in general, after such initial recognition the migrant contributions became glossed over and buried, rather than celebrated like other modernists in other cities. This perhaps is because Adelaide adopted a parochial position and deferred to their curatorial superiors interstate rather than standing up for the creativity and culture that evolved here.
Jenny, yes, there is a huge amount work in the Surrealists at Sea exhibition. Far too much to take in on the one visit. So I will need to go again. I was intrigued by the Coorong abstractions.