The new public prominence of Aboriginal art remains the greatest single revolution in the past quarter-century in Australian art. We now know the names and countries of Aboriginal artists; we know their myths, their stories, and their place in the Dreaming. And through them we have found a new way to understanding our own.
Patrick McCaughey, The Bright Shapes and True Names: A Memoir, 2003
The National Gallery of Victoria has made five strategic purchases of Aboriginal art through the Felton Bequest, all during the period of 1988 to 1990 – pivotal, formative years in the development of the Gallery’s collection of Indigenous Australian art. Each of these works, extensively illustrated and published, has escalated in its undoubted importance and value since the time of acquisition.
The NGV started actively acquiring Aboriginal art in 1984, as Patrick McCaughey, then director, recalls:
I was in for a painful revelation in the summer of 1983–84. As I returned from lunch one day, a line of Aboriginal children came filing out of the gallery in clean white shirts and grey shorts. They were from Bathurst Island. I realised, heartsick at the thought, that they had been all over the gallery for the last two hours and had seen neither stick nor stone of their own art or culture. I felt ashamed, as I have rarely done before or since. I shot up the escalators, marched into Ken Hood’s office and said: we are going to collect Aboriginal art, and told him what I had just seen.1 P. McCaughey, The Bright Shapes and True Names, Melbourne, p.226.
In seeking to establish an Indigenous collection with a singular character, different from the great historical collections of the Melbourne Museum and other Australian museums, the Gallery decided initially to focus on the work of living artists, in particular from the Western Desert, where a phenomenal new way of painting was being forged. In keeping with this initiative, the NGV held two loan exhibitions of Papunya Tula art in the Oceanic Gallery established by McCaughey in 1984, in a small space on the first floor, punctuated by an escalator and circular lift.2 The Face of the Centre: Papunya Tula Paintings 1971–1984, 7 September 1985–27 January 1986, and Circle Path Meander, December 1987 – March 1988. The first of these NGV exhibitions, The Face of the Centre: Papunya Tula Paintings 1971–1984, 1985–86, which closely followed an exhibition held at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Dot and Circle: A Retrospective Survey of the Aboriginal Acrylic Paintings of Central Australia, 1985, focused attention in Melbourne on Western Desert art. An exhibition arranged by Marianne Baillieu at Realities Gallery in 1977 had already sown the seeds amongst a small group of corporate and private collectors, including Mrs Douglas Carnegie,3 Later in the essay referred to as Margaret Carnegie. I would like to acknowledge Beverly and Anthony Knight who read the essay, confirming dates and indicating points of detail. who had previously been alerted by Robert Edwards to the importance of the early paintings. Following his advice she purchased a small group of works from an exhibition at Gallery 67 that Edwards organised for the 1973 Festival of Perth, and from a 1974 exhibition at the Anvil Gallery, Albury. More significantly, in 1985, Margaret Carnegie and her son, Sir Roderick Carnegie, purchased a major collection of sixty-one paintings from Geoffrey Bardon which Margaret Carnegie made it her business to promote as the ‘9 x 5’s’ of Aboriginal art to a wide circle of Australian and international visitors to her Spring Street apartment. Amongst her circle of close friends, Melbourne collectors Anthony and Beverly Knight from an adjacent Spring Street apartment were also focusing their collection on Aboriginal art, some of which they displayed from 1986 onwards in the elegant downstairs interior of Cafe Alcaston.
Soon after The Face of the Centre exhibition, Patrick McCaughey visited Margaret Carnegie to view two monumental, unstretched canvases from the Bardon collection by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri: Woman’s bush tucker Dreaming, 1980, and Napperby death spirit Dreaming, 1980 (fig. 1). In a letter of 11 June 1986 to Margaret Carnegie, McCaughey revealed the NGV’s long-term interest in the latter work and its central importance in the history of Australian art:
I am just writing to say how deeply excited I was by seeing the great paintings by Clifford and Tim Leura yesterday in your apartment. I think both of them, but particularly the large Spirit Dreaming are the most powerful new paintings I have seen in Australia over the last few years. Of course I would love to borrow the big painting and this morning I spoke to Robert Lindsay who has, sight unseen, agreed to make it part of the first exhibition in the Murdoch Court … [Field to Figuration] a survey of Australian painting from 1968 to 1986 … It will form the very centre and heart of the exhibition and look quite splendid. I do hope you would agree to lend the picture for this exhibition and we would find a proper place to display it permanently in the Gallery after that … It is a great thing for Australian art to have Margaret Carnegie actively engaged with it still and wonderful for those great masters of the Western Desert.4 Patrick McCaughey, letter from Margaret Carnegie, 11 June 1986, National Gallery of Victoria archive.
In preparation for the exhibition, paintings conservator at the NGV, John Payne, examined the large canvas, the surface of which bore evidence of its history, having been painted in a creek bed and stored for a long period in a damp garage. Apart from some cracking, flaking, staining and losses in the paint layer, the major difficulty was caused by the distortion of the central part of the canvas, which occurred while the artists were working while sitting on its unstretched surface. Losses, stains, discolouration, cracks and fold-marks evident in the paint layer were treated, but the distortion of the canvas precluded it from being stretched and Payne and his colleagues devised a method for storing the work rolled on a cylinder and hanging it from the top edge of the work as a loose fabric. It made an impressive impact hanging as the sole Indigenous work in the Field to Figuration exhibition in the newly opened Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Court of Contemporary Art. Robert Lindsay, then curator of contemporary art, remembers that it was a symbolically important, key point of the exhibition, hanging at the apex between figuration and abstraction, and capable of being interpreted in symbolist or formalist terms.5 Robert Lindsay, personal communication to author, May 2004.
In June 1987 Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi was established in Melbourne, with the inaugural exhibition, Recent Australian Paintings from Papunya and Yuendumu, creating for Melburnians a strong and continuing focus on contemporary art from Papunya Tula and beyond. In 1987–88 the NGV acquired its first Aboriginal works through The Art Foundation of Victoria: two important collections of early Papunya Tula works assembled by Pat Hogan, owner of the Stuart Arms Gallery in Alice Springs, and Graeme Marshall, an accountant at Papunya. These paintings, acquired with funds set aside for major works of art around the time of the loan exhibition of works collected by Bardon, Circle Path Meander: Central Australian Paintings from the Carnegie Collection, established the historical core of the NGV holdings of Western Desert art. In a stirring speech made at the opening of Circle Path Meander in December 1987, Bardon crystallised the importance of Papunya Tula art for all Australians:
The painting movement articulated once more with immense brilliance the relationship of these [people] to their land. It gave them pride of self and let them once more become men and women speaking in their own right and their own traditions … The great aphorisms of space which the paintings so luminously set forth have already transformed our understanding of the continent. It has always been a measure of the powerful that they should be judged by their treatment of the weak. I sense that 200 years of neglect and discrimination cannot be reversed within one generation or even two, yet the painting movement points for all of us toward a great resurgence of the human spirit in this country. The Western Desert painters have by their insight of artistic form and towering compassion towards their land, provided for us all, and for all time, a re-perception of the continent.6 Geoffrey Bardon, speech at the National Gallery of Victoria for the opening of Circle Path Meander, 14 December 1986, NGV archive.
Bardon’s presence at the opening of the exhibition provided a source of inspiration, galvanising the NGV in its quest to represent the eternal vision of artists emanating from the Western Desert, with the aim of publishing a catalogue and arranging an exhibition of its holdings.
Circle Path Meander, which also included Napperby death spirit Dreaming, was on display when Dr Rodney Wilson took up his directorship at the NGV at the beginning of 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year. From the outset Dr Wilson, a New Zealander well versed in the politics of Maori art and culture, took an immense interest in contemporary Aboriginal art, attending the first two exhibitions from Lajamanu and Ngukurr at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi early in 1988. Deeply aware of the potent symbolism of the year for Indigenous Australians, he decided very early in his directorship that the NGV should mark the Australian Bicentennial with a major purchase of an Aboriginal work through the Felton Bequest, the Gallery’s premier source of funds. In a radical break with tradition and a deliberate leap forward in the history of the NGV, Dr Wilson asked me to recommend the most significant Aboriginal work then available through the market for purchase through the Felton Bequest. In searching for an appropriate work of ‘gallery-wide’ significance, only one work presented itself as truly ground-breaking, as being able to stand alone in any context and command attention: Napperby death spirit Dreaming. The painting had been exhibited publicly for the first time in Australian Perspecta 1981, the inaugural biennial exhibition of the Perspecta series – which arose in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in response to the scarcity of contemporary Australian exhibitions in major institutions in the 1970s – and in Field to Figuration: Australian Art 1968–1986, the inaugural contemporary Australian art exhibition in the Murdoch Court of the NGV.7 B. Murphy, ‘Tim Leura and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Napperby death spirit Dreaming‘, in Fieldwork: Australian Art 1948-202 (exh. cat.), The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2002, p. 60. The owners had also promised to lend it to two forthcoming major exhibitions, scheduled for 1988 and 1989 respectively: Advance Australian Painting at the Auckland City Art Gallery and Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia at the Asia Society Galleries, New York.
The monumental work, already spoken for by McCaughey and prepared by the NGV painting conservation department, was the centrepiece of the Bardon collection held by the Carnegie family. They needed to be persuaded that it was timely to sell it in 1988, rather than allowing it to appreciate in value over time. Their purchase of the Bardon collection in 1985 represented a huge investment and carried with it a strong element of risk. A series of delicate negotiations ensued to arrive at an appropriate price, which needed to be supported and substantiated by two independent valuations before the work was submitted for purchase in August 1988.8 The valuers selected from those approved under the auspices of the Tax Incentive Program were Jim Davidson (familiar with Aboriginal art and culture) and Lauraine Diggins (well versed in Australian and contemporary art). They both endorsed the acquisition, coming from entirely different perspectives.
For the Felton Bequests’ Committee the purchase proved controversial and contentious. Even in the mid 1980s there was little understanding or appreciation of Aboriginal art and little awareness of its importance in relation to Australian history or the field of contemporary art. Furthermore, Aboriginal art had not yet firmly established itself as part of the NGV collection, the market was uncertain and no Aboriginal works of similar scale or quality had been sold recently for comparison.9 When the acquisition became public, the NGV faced criticism in the press in relation to the price of the work, which under the terms of the Felton Bequest was kept confidential, inviting speculation. The criticism echoed earlier press criticism in relation to the major purchase by the Australian National Gallery of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. It constituted a daring risk for the Felton Bequests’ Committee, in contrast to approving works by European artists published in catalogues raisonnés and with long histories of auction sales. Faced with the danger of setting an ill-considered precedent, the committee sought assurance that the artists’ interests were fully protected and that the transaction be both equitable and fair. Ultimately, after the meeting, the vendors agreed to give ten per cent of the proceeds of the sale to the family of the artists in response to the NGV and Felton Committee’s concern to protect Indigenous artists’ rights. Robert Lindsay supported the acquisition with the crucial proviso that the NGV must take responsibility for the work by ensuring that, rather like the Aboriginal Memorial at the then Australian National Gallery (ANC), Canberra, it become the centre of a major collection with a permanent space.10 Author’s recollection of the meeting, confirmed by Robert Lindsay, May 2004. Some fourteen years after this pronouncement, the work was again selected for inclusion in a major exhibition of contemporary Australia art, Fieldwork: Australian Art 1968–2002, the inaugural exhibition at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, in 2002. In addition, the NGV had opened four prominent ground-floor galleries of Indigenous Australian Art in the same building.
It is worth asking, with the benefit of hindsight, why Napperby death spirit Dreaming, in particular, was chosen to mark the Bicentennial: endowing the work symbolically with the status of a European old master painting in a year that commemorated the landing of Governor Phillip at Port Jackson and the subsequent dispossession of Indigenous Australians of their land. Perhaps the answer lies in the epic imagination and grandeur of the work, which is like a great history painting and yet, rather like the Bicentennial itself, tells a troubling ‘story of the unfinished business between black and white Australia’.11 Julie Gough, correspondence to author, September 2001. It is a work that is visionary in its dimensions and ‘symphonic complexity’,12 Murphy, p. 62. reaching out to encompass multiple Dreamings in a mythological topography that is indelibly scarred by the profound loss and tragic social dislocation experienced by Anmatyerre people exiled from their traditional country due to kardiya (non-Aboriginal) annexation of Napperby as a pastoral station.
The work is the latest and largest of a great series of cartographic works, mainly undertaken by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, sometimes in collaboration with his elder brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, which as a group ‘stand as one of the most remarkable achievements of the Aboriginal cultural renaissance of the last thirty years’.13 John Kean, quoted in ‘One man’s Dreaming’ in Gallery, Melbourne, March–April 2004, pp. 24–6. However, in the case of this work, as documented in a video of 1980, Geoffrey Bardon commissioned Tim Leura, with whom he had a very close connection and friendship, to paint an encyclopaedic, topographical masterwork as the subject of a film he was planning to make on the life experience of Tim Leura and Clifford Possum. Bardon showed Tim Leura the sketch map the artist had made in 1973 of the Napperby area, outlining all its major Dreamings. Tim Leura invited Clifford’s assistance and together they produced the large Bushtucker Dreaming in the sandhills. But when Bardon received this work, he sent to Papunya an even larger canvas and asked the two artists to cover more of their life experiences.14 The untimely death of Tim Leura has prevented further research into his perspective on this collaborative canvas. Clifford Possum’s perspective on the work is documented in Vivien Johnson’s biography of the artist and is in contrast to that of Geoffrey Bardon, who originally commissioned the work (see V. Johnson, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2003; and Murphy, pp. 60–4; for Bardon’s account of the painting, see also G. Bardon, ‘Napperby death spirit Dreaming‘, in Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, by J. Ryan, National Gallery of Victoria, 1989, pp. 46–7).
In viewing the completed work, the hands of both artists are evident. As Bernice Murphy notes:
Tim Leura’s imagination is visible in the build-up of … formal effects that elaborate upon (and change) the foundational symmetry of the main journey lines … (painted carefully in dot trails by Clifford Possum) [and which] provide an inaugural symmetry and arterial movement along the huge, seven-metre axis of the painting.15 Murphy, p. 62.
The work documents stylistic differences. Clifford Possum, a brilliant technician, applies paint smoothly and meticulously in round, even dots along the middle concentric circles and undulating line of travel – the only part of the composition on which he worked. Tim Leura’s dotting – apparent in the rest of the work – is sombre, smudged and reflects his left-handedness.
Unique to the work, which reads as a self-portrait, Tim Leura includes copies of three paintings done for Bardon in 1972, the Yam spirit Dreaming, the Old man’s Dreaming and the Sun and Moon Dreaming. All three paintings express Tim Leura’s close relationship to Bardon and comment self-consciously on his position within the history of the Papunya Tula movement, creating ‘mere toys for childish white people’.16 Bardon, p. 46. The haunting death-spirit figure, an ethereal skeleton that stalks and shadows the artist’s homelands, reflects Tim Leura’s mounting despair towards the end of his life, which ended brokenly in 1984. As Bardon notes:
The culmination of Tim Leura’s painting life was probably his Napperby death spirit Dreaming, completed in 1980. It is an extraordinary work because it is the first painting in which a Western Desert artist stands aside from his tribal context and comments, quite self-consciously, on his art, his Dreamings and himself … The Great Painting is a savage and brooding repudiation by him of his white masters. He apparently felt that his life’s journey, shown in the huge sinuous line holding the Dreaming ‘windows’ in equipoise, was a rejection of white man’s pretensions. The death figure in the painting is Tim’s perception of himself in his own social context.17 ibid.
When James Mollison commenced as director of the NGV in early 1990, he established exacting museological standards for all aspects of the collection and brought his own special passion for contemporary Aboriginal art, which he demanded be stored, conserved, displayed and published with the same scrupulous care as other aspects of the collection. On his arrival he noticed the hanging system of the Napperby death spirit Dreaming and pronounced that displaying the work as a loose fabric detracted from its power and importance as a work of art. He asked me whether or not the artists would have been pleased to see their work displayed in this ad hoc way. At his request, the painting conservation department re-examined the work and proposed placing the giant canvas on a stretcher, a difficult process entailing the strip-lining of the edges, a protracted effort to even out distortions and, eventually, attaching it securely on a massive stretcher. In this way the work achieved a new grandeur and was displayed in a manner that was in accord with its significance, and in which the artists could feel justifiably proud.18 John Payne considers that the earlier method of display as a loose fabric did not necessarily compromise the painting in terms of wear and tear. The current method, while enhancing the appearance of the work, still means (due to the large scale of the canvas) that the painting needs to be unstretched and rolled for transport and storage, and restretched every time it is displayed in a different location (John Payne, personal communication to author, May 2004).
Having already established the central place of Aboriginal art in the collection of the ANG with the landmark exhibition, The Continuing Tradition, 1989, accompanied by the publication Windows on the Dreaming, Mollison made it his mission to strengthen the NGV Indigenous collection apace by making it a priority of the first importance in the NGV acquisition policy. He considered that the Western Desert collection, as revealed in the Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, 1989, exhibition and catalogue, had reached a position of strength but identified major weaknesses, which he took immediate steps to overcome. First, he focused attention of other aspects of Indigenous art, notably bark paintings from Arnhem Land, and by stressing the need to represent major senior artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kam Kngwarray and aspects of Indigenous art not yet part of the NGV collection.
Early in his directorship Mollison heard about an exhibition of East Kimberley paintings from Waringarri Aboriginal Art at Deutscher Gertrude Street gallery in 1989 and invited me to ‘go shopping’ with him. In previewing the exhibition we encountered two major works on a much larger scale than Rover Thomas had previously attempted: Dreamtime story of the willy willy, 1989 (fig. 2), and Yari country, 1989. Convinced of their seminal importance, Mollison asked me to consider whether Jack Britten’s Purnululu country, 1989, should also be chosen for acquisition (fig. 3). Aware of the paucity of acquisition funds, I initially hesitated before arguing strongly for it, in response to Mollison’s retort that there were ‘two kinds of curators: the quick and the dead’.19 My recollection of this gallery visit to see a memorable exhibition is as clear as that of James Mollison’s, who can still remember the stunned look on my face when I received his invitation to ‘go shopping’ (James Mollison, personal communication to author, May 2004). In view of their importance, the director proposed that Dreamtime story of the willy willy and Purnululu country should both be submitted to the Felton Bequests’ Committee for purchase. Unlike Napperby death spirit Dreaming, a historical example with a strong exhibition and publication history, these were contemporary works of relatively modest cost. Together the works stand as contrary ways of viewing sacred places in the artists’ countries. Britten’s is a complex, layered representation of the land in lateral perspective, in which topographical features are visualised and massed together, whereas Thomas works in a more abstract way, painting the land from the inside, with his mind’s eye, stripping it of detail and revealing it in organic symbols as if through its bones.
Britten’s painting of Purnululu (Bungle Bungle Ranges) captures the topography of the East Kimberley, full of rocky protrusions and twisted hills that are depicted in profile as conical shapes, not as flat circles characteristic of Western Desert iconography. Britten’s painting refers to the Dreaming story of Gidgunji, the chicken hawk who opened his mouth and tried to sing out: everything was turned over and he was transformed into stone. This story of Gidgunji’s transformation is manifest in the artist’s singular vision of the Bungle Bungles in which lines of bell-shaped rocks rise out of a sombre, darkened ground. It is a massive, brooding work, painted in sepia and black earth pigments that are mixed with gum from the bloodwood tree, producing a slight surface shine. The stratified rocks are set at diverse angles to each other, in a composition of twisting movement. Britten has incised the dark, resinous surface with zigzag and linear markings reminiscent of the engraving of artefacts and boab nuts in the Kimberley region. The rock forms also bear dotted designs, which derive from body paintings, showing that country and law are intertwined in the mind of the artist.
In contrast to the complex contrapuntal rhythms of Britten’s work, Thomas’s Dreamtime story of the willy willy reveals the artist’s interest in condensing complex mythological and topographical information to its bare bones, which are left to stand starkly on the surface as abstract elements. The work shows the ancestral path of miowin, a willy willy or spiralling red dust storm, which is shown as a red-ochre glyph unleashed on the matt, white surface of the land and rising into the sky, spreading out audaciously with a serpentine whoosh from right to left. The finely textured ground of creamy white kaolin, uncluttered by subsidiary patterning, symbolises the country associated with the storm. The design is bald and uncompromising and can be read as a totality, like a physical sign or gesture or a piece of calligraphy. The force of the storm is invoked through the single dynamic sweep of the red-ochre circling lines, like an organism expanding on the canvas. Like the greatest Aboriginal works of art, Dreamtime story of the willy willy contains a sensibility of design and surface texture, an inner life, a vital rhythm in the drawing that eludes mathematical definition. Matt and raw in texture, the painted surface forms a metaphor of the land itself: the metaphysical and the cosmic are evoked within the concrete.
These Felton acquisitions were the first works from the East Kimberley to enter the collection, therefore initiating a new direction for the NGV Indigenous collection. In 1993 they became central icons of the Images of Power: Aboriginal Art of the Kimberley exhibition. They represent exceptional works in the oeuvres of both artists and in the school of painting that emerged in Warmun in the East Kimberley in the early 1980s, and continues to flourish today.
Also in 1990, Mollison, having earmarked Emily Kngwarray as an artist of consequence, was determined to capitalise on the first and any subsequent opportunities to acquire her work from exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. From early 1990 to late 1994, the NGV purchased six large canvases, a batik, a work on board and six monochrome works on paper. This amounted to a grand endorsement of Kngwarray’s work because, at that time, the Gallery’s acquisition priorities were directed towards the natural ochres of Arnhem Land, the Kimberley and Melville Island, rather than acrylic paintings from Central Australia which were already well-represented. The full measure of the director’s support for Kngwarray, above and beyond that of other Aboriginal artists, was shown by his decision to purchase two of her paintings through the Felton Bequest: Untitled, 1990, and After rain, 1990 (figs 4 & 5). These two paintings, the first in yellow ochre, brown and multiple shades of green; the second, a rich medley of crimson, Indian red, pink and viridian on a lime-green ground, were first exhibited in the Melbourne International Art Fair of 1990. Here they caught Mollison’s eye and, since coming into the collection, have usually been displayed together, often in the second-floor gallery of Contemporary International Art (prior to the NGV redevelopment) because the two canvases complement each other in terms of colour and rhythm. After rain features a cool green palette and a vertical linear under-structure, whereas Untitled bears a swirling rhythm of hand gestures and has a hot-red colouration. Each of these canvases is painted along the stretching edge with stripes, derived from women’s body paint designs, the artist’s final heightening of the composition, serving to anchor it firmly within an awely ceremonial context.
The works were hung together in the major retrospective, Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere – Paintings from Utopia, 1998 and, in line with other examples by the artist from this period, are among the greatest Aboriginal dot paintings of their time. They are radical works consisting of a profusion of dots overlaid with more dots upon a network of branching lines, achieved through various stages and colour applications, demanding time and deliberation. The dots are not regularly or evenly applied but approached as an adventure, which reveals the magic of the artist’s hand. Both paintings have stood the test of time, being constantly displayed in both Indigenous and contemporary contexts, a mark of their importance to the NGV collection.
The years 1988 and 1990 stand out in the 100-year history of the Felton Bequest because in that time five great Indigenous works of art were purchased through the bequest, reflecting the foresight and passionate interest in Aboriginal art and culture of NGV directors Rodney Wilson and James Mollison. The acquisitions changed history, being symbolic of a broadening of the NGV collection and a recognition of the increasing importance of Indigenous Australian art, the world’s longest continuing, art tradition.22 By recommending that these magisterial works be purchased through the NGV’s premier funding source, Rodney Wilson and James Mollison demanded that works of Indigenous artists be given equivalent status with works by European, Chinese, Indian or Australian masters already purchased through the Felton Bequest. Acquired as much for their authority and aesthetic excellence as for their ability to enshrine the spirit of reconciliation, they remain central icons of the NGV collection as a whole.20 20 The years 1988–90 proved strategic for the Gallery’s Indigenous collection, establishing its important place within the National Gallery of Victoria. Since then, with support from successive directors, the NGV collection of Indigenous Australian art has become one of the finest in Australia. In mid 2001 the NGV established a group, the Supporters and Patrons of Aboriginal Art, enabling the Gallery to more than double its annual acquisitions budget for Indigenous Australian art.
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).
I would like to acknowledge the editorial assistance of Anita Angel, Curator of the Charles Darwin University Art Collection, who read and commented on the essay in detail.
During the period of this Felton Bequest investigation, the acquisition strategy was directed towards Aboriginal art, as it was then termed. The department was named Aboriginal and Oceanic Art.
1 P. McCaughey, The Bright Shapes and True Names, Melbourne, p.226.
2 The Face of the Centre: Papunya Tula Paintings 1971–1984, 7 September 1985–27 January 1986, and Circle Path Meander, December 1987 – March 1988.
3 Later in the essay referred to as Margaret Carnegie. I would like to acknowledge Beverly and Anthony Knight who read the essay, confirming dates and indicating points of detail.
4 Patrick McCaughey, letter from Margaret Carnegie, 11 June 1986, National Gallery of Victoria archive.
5 Robert Lindsay, personal communication to author, May 2004.
6 Geoffrey Bardon, speech at the National Gallery of Victoria for the opening of Circle Path Meander, 14 December 1986, NGV archive.
7 B. Murphy, ‘Tim Leura and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Napperby death spirit Dreaming‘, in Fieldwork: Australian Art 1948-202 (exh. cat.), The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne, 2002, p. 60.
8 The valuers selected from those approved under the auspices of the Tax Incentive Program were Jim Davidson (familiar with Aboriginal art and culture) and Lauraine Diggins (well versed in Australian and contemporary art). They both endorsed the acquisition, coming from entirely different perspectives.
9 When the acquisition became public, the NGV faced criticism in the press in relation to the price of the work, which under the terms of the Felton Bequest was kept confidential, inviting speculation. The criticism echoed earlier press criticism in relation to the major purchase by the Australian National Gallery of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.
10 Author’s recollection of the meeting, confirmed by Robert Lindsay, May 2004.
11 Julie Gough, correspondence to author, September 2001.
12 Murphy, p. 62.
13 John Kean, quoted in ‘One man’s Dreaming’ in Gallery, Melbourne, March–April 2004, pp. 24–6.
14 The untimely death of Tim Leura has prevented further research into his perspective on this collaborative canvas. Clifford Possum’s perspective on the work is documented in Vivien Johnson’s biography of the artist and is in contrast to that of Geoffrey Bardon, who originally commissioned the work (see V. Johnson, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2003; and Murphy, pp. 60–4; for Bardon’s account of the painting, see also G. Bardon, ‘Napperby death spirit Dreaming‘, in Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, by J. Ryan, National Gallery of Victoria, 1989, pp. 46–7).
15 Murphy, p. 62.
16 Bardon, p. 46.
18 John Payne considers that the earlier method of display as a loose fabric did not necessarily compromise the painting in terms of wear and tear. The current method, while enhancing the appearance of the work, still means (due to the large scale of the canvas) that the painting needs to be unstretched and rolled for transport and storage, and restretched every time it is displayed in a different location (John Payne, personal communication to author, May 2004).
19 My recollection of this gallery visit to see a memorable exhibition is as clear as that of James Mollison’s, who can still remember the stunned look on my face when I received his invitation to ‘go shopping’ (James Mollison, personal communication to author, May 2004).
20 The years 1988–90 proved strategic for the Gallery’s Indigenous collection, establishing its important place within the National Gallery of Victoria. Since then, with support from successive directors, the NGV collection of Indigenous Australian art has become one of the finest in Australia. In mid 2001 the NGV established a group, the Supporters and Patrons of Aboriginal Art, enabling the Gallery to more than double its annual acquisitions budget for Indigenous Australian art.