Discussion of Lucian Freud's painting newly aAcquired
by the National Gallery of Australia
and the role of the director, Dr Brian Kennedy
Radio National Arts Today 1 June 2001
Compere: Michael Cathcart
Hello. I'm Michael Cathcart welcoming you to Arts Today on Radio National. And we're at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra this morning at the end of the week in which the gallery unveiled its new acquisition - that large painting by Lucian Freud.
Let's start here in our National Gallery. The Freud painting is on show upstairs, with a very popular exhibition of paintings by Monet.
And at the moment we're surrounded by the gallery's wonderful Asian collection. We're in a room full of Asian statues and paintings and so on. And with me is a man who's had his ups and downs over the past few years - the National Gallery Director, Brian Kennedy.
Hello. How are you?
I'm in top form.
Now, you've brought me to show us one of the works that you particularly like. Can you describe it for us?
This work is a big tower. It's about six metres high. It's by one of the most famous contemporary Chinese artists - Cai Quo Xiang. Cai created for the National Gallery of Australia what he called his Crystal tower last year. He had had this plan for quite a number of years because he had about 10,000 rock crystals which he had stored in Japan. They were from China originally, and he wanted to make them into a tower.
What he's conceived for us I think is quite spectacular. It is on the one hand a stupa or temple form; on the other hand a lighthouse, or a tower. Stretching up into the galleries, it is illuminated inside. In its various stages as your eye is led up the tower, you feel that there is tremendous energy coming from it. That's exactly what Cai intended, because crystals were a great source of power in Chinese medicine. So Cai thought that with this tower strategically positioned within the gallery he'd be generating chi or energy throughout the building.
This work gives me a tremendous sense of vivacity and energy. I just find it extraordinary that an artist would make a work that is so beacon-like for the year 2000. That was Cai's idea - that for the year of the second millennium of the western view of the world, we would have this tremendous sort of energy coming from art in a national gallery.
Now, Brian, you and I are standing in the Asian Gallery, which essentially is downstairs. It's in the basement, I guess. And there's really nobody here. And upstairs they're crowding by their thousands to see your travelling exhibition on Monet - your blockbuster exhibition. It's a little bit frustrating isn't it?
It is a bit. But indigenous Australian art and art of the Asian region tends to achieve the same sort of visitation here. Only about 10 per cent of your visitors will come specifically to see these galleries, which is a lot fewer than for international art or for Australian art. Effectively it means that for major temporary shows of Asian art we will achieve about 30,000 visitors; similarly indigenous art. Australian art's anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000, and international art - anything above 100,000.
So, I think in terms of our antennae about the way Australian society reflects on Australia and where it's positioned in the world, these sort of percentages are quite indicative. It is intriguing to me, given the extraordinary beauty of these galleries. The reason they are downstairs is actually to provide even more space. I must say I find huge solace and comfort in being here.
Let's go and look at another piece. All right. We're standing in front of a large canvas. What it is?
This is a painting which I find tells a story which is very important for the National Gallery.
Art is political. But the National Gallery itself is not political, in the sense that this work of art is. This is a work by an artist called Xhang Xiaogang. And it's called Two Comrades with Red Baby. It's from the artist's bloodline series. It's an extraordinarily provocative work, but a very engaging one, which pulls you from the far end of the room.
As you look at it you see a red baby - a female - with cross-eyes, demonstrating that even in China, with its 'one child' policy, babies are not necessarily perfect.
To either side of this baby are two figures, somewhat androgynous, who are the baby's parents, and dressed in Chinese Maoist uniforms in black, white and grey. Connecting them to the baby are these little red lines. These are the bloodlines. This gives you an indication of what this very political and engaging painting's about. It's about the fact that in China with the 'one child' policy, you have the growing up of a generation which is worryingly and extraordinarily spoilt. The single children are sapping the energy in a capitalistic and consuming way from the revolutionary generation. Provocative, strong - this is a wonderful picture.
Now, you just made the little aside there, that the gallery itself wasn't political. I've heard you make that remark two or three times today. Why do you feel the need to make that qualification so clear?
Well, because I think in Australia it's quite different from other countries. Art still has the capacity to get on the front page. Now, that is wonderful. That is very attractive politically. It's useful to be potentially a football in politics. The personality of the Gallery Director can be used that way.
I think it's important to consistently make the point, however, that the reason that I am here is not because of Australian politics, or any side of Australian politics, but because of works of art. I think that it's by making that point consistently that we will continue to engage with the politics and preserve that rather fine line which people abroad find extraordinary - that we get more attention for art than they do.
A member of your board says in the Bulletin this very month, that you really haven't got a fair treatment from the press. Do you feel that yourself? Do you feel as though you're a bit under siege?
Oh, not now, no. I think I've got exactly the same treatment as most people in public positions get in Australia. Effectively at some stage you get totally beaten up. And I don't know why. But the experience is certainly chastening and toughening. If you come through that and it's still clear that you have a heart and a passion for what you're doing, you tend to survive.
I've won through that, I think, last October. But whether it's fair or unfair, I can't really judge. Whether it's an experience, I've no doubt. It's an extraordinary experience.
Well, we've just seen the launch - or the unveiling of the Lucian Freud painting. And it pulled a big crowd and it seemed to go terribly well.
But there was an article in the paper that suggested that your management style was highlighted by this. That, you know, you'd gone ahead and bought this thing without consulting with other members of the staff in a way that you might have done. Now, that's a criticism you've had to face again and again.
Well, in one sense I'd say it's the difference between management and leadership - it's the difference between a manager and a leader. But it's not actually true about the Freud.
I mean, the first thing that I did was ask Jorg Zutter, who hadn't yet even come to Canberra but was the nominated head of international art, to go and see it first, because I thought it was important to get his view. When his view was very strongly in favour of the work, then I pursued it.
Inevitably if you are given the sense of personality profile that I've been given and the attention that's applied to me perhaps as an Irishman, as somebody younger, as somebody from outside who is doing stronger and I think, hopefully significant things, but effectively taking on positions which have been long established, it's inevitable that I think questions will be raised of the kind.
Not everything goes right in an institution. We all wish that some things could have worked out differently perhaps. But I have really no issue about the way that I am. I just am a natural enthusiast and I take commitments and I take risks. I believe, with the case of the Freud, it's worked out really well.
Can you talk to me a bit about what you see as the role of the curator - because that has been one of the criticisms that's been said about you - that you're not giving due space to the curators in the way the gallery works.
Oh, that's just plain nonsense. And it's not just me saying that. I mean, the curators themselves have put up several hundred works a year for acquisition. It's very clear to anybody who looks, that it's they that have put them up, and it's I have backed them to get them delivered for display within the gallery.
I suppose the difference in one kind of director and another, is that some directors are what I would call curatorially engaged and others are not.
The difference is, one actually insists on having a role or a participation in the acquisition of works of art and is really passionate and consuming about works of art, can talk about them, but also really argue for and chase them. Another feels that that's a role one would leave to the curators alone.
I would say that's the difference largely between the administrator - the person who wishes only to administer - and those who are prepared to lead an art institution. I fundamentally believe that directors of art galleries should be art historians.
So, there's a kind of curatorial role that you've taken on yourself. And perhaps that's what's leading to the conflicts?
Well, this is an issue that's happened throughout the world, as to whether to split the director's role into a 'CEO type' and an 'artistic leader type', so that as in performing arts organisations you get the artistic director and the general manager.
This is something that's happening in galleries throughout the world. And for me - well, you can't be wonderful at everything. But I am more in the artistic director type I suppose, and I would hope that that would come through.
I think that really, on balance, the lessons of museology are that it's easier to train art historians to be administrators, than to train administrators to be art historians.
Can we look at another one of your favourites?
Good. We'll do that.
Yes. We've come to another painting here. What's this?
It's by Alfred Sisley, one of the Impressionists. He was one of the truest members of the Impressionist movement. We indeed have thousands of people going through the Monet show at the present time. Sisley was a very close friend of Monet. This particular painting is a small, really sweet landscape. It's a view which is called A path at Les Sablons, Un Sentier aux Sablons.
We're in the National Gallery of Australia talking to Brian Kennedy, who runs the place.
And that's a painting you could easily walk past and not notice. It's the very opposite of a destination masterpiece - which is a term you like. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, it's not so much a term I like, but a term that was applied to works that we acquired, but in particular the Hockney.
There's no doubt about it, that the way to make a gallery I think, well known in terms of the public and receiving a lot of visitation, is to buy works of art which cost an awful lot of money. I suppose if they're very big and they're by artists who are famous, that adds to it as well. That gives the term 'destination painting' which is a reason to visit a gallery.
We have a gallery not yet open 20 years to the public (that'll be next year - our twentieth anniversary), and we already have a whole series of works of art which are now gathering together to conspire to make, I think, a most important institution.
So the destination is actually the building, the place. Our place has a collection which shows many media, which I think is an important part of this collection, and expresses what it means about the place of Australian art in the world. That's evident by the type of material that we have in the galleries.
So, everything that's said about me, everything said about the gallery, everything said about the work of art, the opposite could be said also. Art is full of contradictions.
Well, it sounds as though you're saying there's a degree of showmanship in this.
Well, yes. But it's a two-sided process. I mean, on the one hand we buy, let's say, a few hundred works in a year. Now, we know that the one that the press will encourage everybody to role up to see is the one that costs a lot of money. We are participative in that hype, because we have an interest in promoting something that costs a lot of money, because we have to validate that purchase. We also have to validate our curatorial taste. There is an element of conspiracy to it. But at the end of the day the works actually sort themselves out.
Today we talk about the launch of the Freud. The Hockney is now sitting back within the collection as a work that was acquired in 1998. So its hype begins to dissipate. It's just one of those things about art galleries. We just have to be honest about it and say that we need to promote what we buy. We can only promote those things that the media has an interest in. I think that's deliberately why I started in the Asian galleries today, to focus on works to which we pay too little attention.
Well, by now most of us will have seen the Lucian Freud on TV or in the newspapers. And it's a depressing and fleshy sort of painting, not a pretty work. And I wonder how this choice of yours sits with the director who first copped serious flak for turning his back on the Sensation exhibition?
The Sensation exhibition of course, was a touring show of young British artists, their work owned by Charles Saatchi. And it was controversial for such works as Chris Ofili and Elephant Dung and Damien Hirst's Shark in Formaldehyde and so on. And you - well you cancelled the exhibition - you didn't go ahead with it. Can you draw a distinction between those two decisions?
I was the person who went after Sensation. And I was the person who cancelled it. So, it can't have been cancelled because I didn't like what was in it. I actually wanted to put it on. The Freud is a tough and uncompromising work of art and it's not a work that one is attracted to as a beautiful object. It's one that you're attracted to as an engaging object and a narrative work. It's the texture and the way that it's actually crafted which is predominantly important for me, in that particular work.
All these things come together as contradictions and I wouldn't for a minute shy away from a work of art which just happened to be unpalatable to somebody - in bad taste or even obscene - if I could see the beauty in it. That was the great tragedy of having to cancel Sensation, which was about issues of commercial and ethical difficulty in America, which have since become huge issues in the museum world. These issues caused the Board of our Gallery to cancel it. I really wanted, for example, to have an artist like Chris Ofili seen in Australia.
Do I sense that you regret the Sensation decision now?
Cancelling it? Absolutely not. It was the right thing to do. It has been credited throughout the world as the right thing to do. The exhibition didn't go anywhere else after that. It caused the American Association of Museums to re-craft their Ethical Guidelines for Museums.
But it does make me question going after it in the first place. That's an issue for Australia. I mean, if the critics are going to pan you for cancelling something that you actually went after yourself, it actually makes you nervous about going after something similar in future. And I wouldn't like to feel that.
So, what I query, is whether I was wise to go for it in the first place, not whether I was wise to cancel it. If people want things and if the critics want to encourage people to take the brave decisions, well they must not drive them into the ground. I think that time will show that it was a lot more interesting and ethical story than was given credit at the time.
I didn't handle it particularly well. I'd never been under siege in that way before. I'd always been the good guy before I had to face that issue. That's what made it the hardest decision for me. I think it was the toughest decision of my professional life, so far. It was the right decision and, often times, the right thing can seem to be a bad thing for some people. The issues ethically, of the difference between the right and the good, are issues that have concerned ethicists for a long time.
Let's go and look at another piece.
Now the Play Art, which is a satire, really, on contemporary art, is about a painting that is white, with imperceptible diagonal stripes on it. We're looking at a painting - at a large canvas which is white, with some imperceptible horizontal pastel shades on it.
This is a painting by Agnes Martin. It's in that infuriating way for many people, Untitled. Agnes Martin was the Pollock of Ireland. What do I mean by that? Well, in 1973 the Pollock created a storm about what was acceptable art for Australia. During the 1970's, when a Dublin gallery tried to buy an Agnes Martin, all the County Councillors came out and said 'that's not art'. So it's the 'what is art'? question. Effectively they accused the Director of buying a white painting.
Now, here we look at one of the great spiritualists, a spiritual magician of the 20th Century, Agnes Martin. An extraordinarily quiet artist. This painting in front of me now, is a painting which invites us to ask that question of what it is to look and what it is to see? Seeing is such a prolonged engagement, in comparison to looking - we look at people all the time, but we rarely see them.
Here we see a whole series of bands in pink, yellow and blue, which are separated by white bands. The more one looks at this picture, you see first of all the blue bands seeming to come forward in your eyes. Of course, 80 per cent of your knowledge is coming through your eyes, but in reality we see with our brain. Where you actually end up with this picture, is that the charcoal lines, outside the white lines which are between the blue, yellow and pink lines, are what comes out most strongly. Now this is not just an optical effect. It's the effect of prolonged engagement.
I think this particular work, frustrating as it is and difficult as it is for our viewers, is the one at the present time within the gallery which asks the question most 'are you prepared to take the time to engage with works of art'?
Minimalism is the ultimate challenge. It asks us to look at texture. It asks us to look at colours. A black painting is never a black painting. It's a painting with maybe 40 or 50 different blacks. The longer you engage with works of art visually, the more you come to value those sort of questions.
You used the word spiritualism then. I wonder whether your own Catholicism comes into play in the way in which you relate to art. Is there a religious or transcendental dimension as an art director?
I'm sure there is. But there's a distinct difference between church, as a series of rules, church as a community, belief, faith, the spiritual and the sacred. All these different areas are quite distinct. To say that art doesn't relate to spirituality is a fallacy. It is impossible to be engaged with art and not be opened up to the broader questions of life that Paul Gauguin asked, you know - Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? - These are essential questions for us.
I've no doubt that within my own being and in the way that I was raised, coming out of Ireland, one has a predominantly poetic response. In fact one cannot help that. But it also opens you to the other side of things. I mean not just Catholicism, but anybody who's engaged with the spiritual and sees the value of individuals, realises that people have the potential to be good and bad. It is that road that we try to engage between our capacities in either direction - that art explores.
Do you have a sense of where you want the gallery to go now? Can we cast our eyes three years down the road?
I think so. I think that the gallery has now been through that very difficult period of re-engagement with its initial principles - which is about finding what it means to be a national gallery; what it means to be local, national and international; what it means to engage with different media. We have been through this re-structure of staffing and its being consolidated now. I see a key question for Australia to be the growing nationalism of the last three or four years that I've been here. This has partly been an absorption of One Nationism. I really hope that this question is explored in all the election discussions - whether Australia is intent on being an island continent, with the world around it, or seeing the map of the world with Australia in it.
As an international person - director - and as somebody who has come from outside, I see the world with Australia in it. I see a fantastic Australia, but I see the world. This is not just an issue of globalism. It's actually an issue of what is art today.
Art is a very, very broad church - to put it that way. To try and confine it to an Australian 'ism' is ridiculous. On the other hand, I see many people who are really arguing for that viewpoint at the present time. I find it very worrying. Australian art is wonderful, but it is engaged with the world. The world needs also to be engaged with it. Australian art isn't well known enough throughout the world and that makes our international dimension very important in the exhibitions we might send abroad.
So these are the type of directions I've been espousing for four years. I hope that they will come through more, in the coming years.
Now this blockbuster that you've got running at the moment. The Monet and Japan exhibition is pulling people by the thousands. I mean they're queuing - from early this morning they've been queuing through the gallery. There are queues snaking past all the other art works. What's the next blockbuster? Are you committed to this as a strategy now?
Well it's an interesting issue, isn't it? I mean, I asked the question initially when I came here, 'do we like the word 'blockbuster''? And asking the question was assumed to mean that I didn't like major exhibitions. I just didn't like the equivalence that was given by the use of a word which meant a bomb of equal tonnage, implying that for all exhibitions coming into the gallery were of equal weight.
We will have a sequence of major shows. But if I say to you that we want to do a major show of Asian textiles, because we have one of the best collections in the world, you may say 'oh that's not terribly exciting'. But it's very important.
We will have to, I think, add to these collection-based shows by adding in exhibitions at the same time, which are focussed on attracting the public. We have a series of shows now, booked to 2004, but what's more important is that the curators are feeling free and I think creative, to think about what they want to do next.
I freely acknowledge, that during the first few years that I was here, in a time of instructed re-engagement with purpose, which was what the Council wanted from me, it tended to diminish creativity, but now I think that we are all very much on board.
Brian, thanks for being my guest on Arts Today and showing me around your gallery.
A great pleasure, Michael, thank you very much.