Monday, 21 March 2016

Design: the wallflower of Australian galleries

[Unidentified painter 3] for Maioliche Artistiche Cantagalli Firenze. 'Piatto Urbino' (c. 1895).  Reproducing a dish probably from the Fontana Workshop in Urbino, the image depicts Scipio Africanus receiving the keys of conquered Carthage. The dish forms part of a large group of reproduction maiolica selected from an 1895 catalogue by the British artist and designer Walter Crane for the Art Gallery of NSW.
Art Gallery of New South Wales (2133)
The collecting of designed objects – the things commonly designated as decorative and applied arts – has long been part of the activities of Australian art galleries. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne began developing its collection of decorative arts in 1859 with the purchase of a collection of plaster casts of ‘the choicest statues, busts, and alto-relievos […]; of coins, medals and gems’. In Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) also collected reproductions of well-known European decorative arts during the 1890s, including plaster casts of the architectural features of Europe and an extraordinary collection of copies of European Renaissance maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware) dishes made in Florence under the direction of Ulisse Cantagalli and selected for the gallery around 1890 by Walter Crane. These acquisitions, based on best contemporaneous practice, were solid bases for future collecting activities.

When the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra – then known as the Australian National Gallery – opened in 1982 it also displayed a significant collection of decorative arts and design, both local and international.  Indeed decorative arts were essential to the vision outlined for the NGA by its first director, James Mollison, and he was largely responsible for the acquisition of its extraordinary holdings of Russian revolutionary ceramics and nineteen works by the so-called ‘pioneer of modernist design’, Christopher Dresser. At a time when most major international museums adhered to the modernist idiom of displaying works of art ­– understood to be primarily painting and sculpture – on bare, white walls and had relegated decorative arts and design objects to storage, this was a bold and far-sighted decision.

The fortunes of these three collections have varied over the years. As Terence Lane explained in 1980, during the nineteenth century the NGV’s collection was ‘essentially a didactic one’ and the focus was on reproductions: copies of maiolica, electrotypes of hoards, fictile ivories and plaster casts; but there were also unexpected acquisitions of collections of historical Italian glass, as well as glass, ceramics and metalwork from contemporary makers, some purchased at the international exhibitions during the 1870s and 80s.  The advent of the Felton Bequest in 1904 meant the gallery had access to significant funds for acquisitions outside the purview of politicians and was also able to draw on a crop of, generally able, European-based advisers, starting with Jean-Jacques Marquet de Vasselot of the Musée du Louvre and including Sydney Cockerell of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Kenneth Clark of the National Gallery in London. As Ann Galbally observes, 'Felton's bequest transformed the NGV from a small regional picture gallery into one of international standing.'

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) (designer). Long case clock and panelling from the Langer apartment, Vienna (c. 1903).
National Gallery of Victoria, Presented through the Art Foundation of Victoria by Mr Alfred Muller, Governor, 1994
Quality attracts quality and, since the advent of the Felton Bequest, the NGV has attracted not only other notable funding sources such as the Art Foundation of Victoria but also significant and important donations of decorative arts to complement those purchased including the Connell Collection (1914), the Andrews Collection (1925), the Howard Spensley Bequest (1939), the Templeton Bequest (1942), the Biddlecombe Bequest (1954), the Collier Bequest (1955), the G Gordon Russsell collection acquired by the W & M Morgan Endowment (1968), the Everard Studley Miller Bequest (1975) and, during the 1990s, the Keith and Norma Deutscher Gifts. These bequests have been supplemented by a series of judicious acquisitions by the museum’s curatorial staff including but not least the remarkable suites of furniture and fittings designed in Vienna by Josef Hoffmann about 1912 for the Gallia family (1976) and Adolf Loos about 1903 for the Langer family (1994).

Unidentified Delft pottery. Garniture of tin-glazed earthenware (c. 1700).
National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 2015
The evidence of its current displays and exhibitions suggests the NGV’s commitment to collecting and displaying international decorative arts and design remains strong. The gallery continues to acquire important pieces in the collecting area and there are significant exhibits drawn from the gallery's collection of European and Asian decorative arts and design in its St Kilda Road venue. Currently the NGV International is the venue for two decorative arts and design focussed exhibitions, both also based around objects from its collection: 'Eighteenth century porcelain sculpture' and 'Blue: alchemy of a colour'. While these exhibitions are relatively esoteric in their subject matter, they are a refreshing sign of the NGV's attention to not only scholarly research but also its willingness to promote its own collection.

Sadly, the same commitment cannot be seen for the gallery's collection of Australian decorative arts and design. Nominally these should be displayed with Australian art at the gallery's Ian Potter Centre on Federation Square, but they're not. A search of the NGV's collection database of Australian decorative arts reveals the endless message 'Not on display'. Instead four galleries in the Ian Potter Centre have been appropriated for 'Two hundred years of Australian fashion', celebrating 'Australia’s unique voice and impact on the fashion industry internationally, showcasing the work of contemporary designers such as Dion Lee, Ellery, Romance Was Born and Toni Maticevski alongside key designs from the past 200 years, including exquisite examples of historic design.' While this promotional spin suggests a strong commercial imperative, the exhibition is likely to be popular.

The situation at the AGNSW couldn’t be more different. Until recently – with, since 1978, the exception of Asian decorative arts – the AGNSW held the dubious reputation of being the only state gallery in Australia that didn’t collect or display decorative arts and design. In terms of allocating state resources, responsibility for collecting the field seems to have passed to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in the late 1920s when the AGNSW Board of Trustees rejected a gift of ‘contemporary applied arts’ that had been assembled by its president, the architect and planner John Sulman during a European tour he made in 1924. The gift was eventually made to MAAS who, failing to appreciate its significance, deaccessioned a number of items as being unfashionable some twenty years later. In fact, notwithstanding a brief flush under the remarkable Charles Francis Laseron, officer in charge of applied arts between 1926 and 1929, MAAS had neither the expertise nor the resources to actively collect decorative arts until the 1970s. Its curator/director from 1927 to 1955, Arthur Penfold, was not only ignorant of the field (he was an industrial chemist) but maintained an animus against collectors of decorative arts. As a consequence, the AGNSW was in 1952 the recipient of a generous bequest of eighteenth century English porcelain from the estate of Dr and Mrs Sinclair Gillies, but it languished in the basement, where it may still remain although it is not listed in the gallery’s collection database. The gallery deaccessioned further items – including the plaster casts ­– as late as the 1980s.

The James Fairfax Galleries at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
A part of the promised Kenneth Reed bequest underwhelms showcases along the centre of the space 
Times have changed. In 2010 a retired Sydney lawyer, Kenneth Reed, announced he intended bequeathing the AGNSW ‘a substantial collection of old master paintings, Italian Maiolica and European 18th-century porcelain’, valued for insurance purposes at $7 million. The gallery’s interest was driven primarily by the twenty-five old master paintings forming a part of the gift but it also seems to have recognised that the maiolica and eighteenth century European porcelain could be used to decoratively enhance the gallery’s existing, somewhat paltry, holding of old master paintings. Until such time as the bequest is executed, its ceramic component was conveyed to the gallery on loan and subsequently catalogued. Table-top show cases were acquired for the gallery exhibits while the rest of the collection is displayed in a dark foyer near the gallery’s research library in the basement. Two impressive neo-classical painted and gilded porcelain vases – one of Sèvres origin, the other from the Royal Porcelain Manufactory (KPM) in Berlin, acquired for the gallery from the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition, flank the library entrance, but there seems to be a certain reluctance on the part of the gallery to acknowledge its other decorative arts holdings; the two vases also don't appear on the gallery's collection database.

The objects comprising the Reed loan, while domestically scaled, are of a notably high quality, particularly for an Australian private collection, but, as currently displayed, neither enhance the paintings they are set against nor convey any sense of why the decorative arts were an integral part of pre-modern European art and design. There’s a sense of desperate oddity in that the gallery shows only pre-nineteenth century European ceramics with the implication that later productions somehow or another, are deficient in their sense of artistic integrity. The AGNSW’s highly conventional display of this loan material lacks any critical rigour and, ultimately, seems employed as a decorative fore drop for the more serious things hanging on the walls. Moreover, the absence of any examples of Australian decorative arts and design in those galleries devoted to Australian art reinforces the sense of a stunning national cultural deficit.

Meanwhile the New South Wales state collection of decorative arts and design held by MAAS languishes in that under-threat museum’s Ultimo basement, for the most part, unseen, unappreciated and, for the best part, forgotten by the public for whom it was collected, although a number of objects from its extensive collection of costume are currently on display, but in Melbourne. It’s unclear what the future holds for this collection. The current state government proposes reconfiguring the museum into more of a child and entertainment-focussed science and technology centre and and moving it to Parramatta, a transformation that would, inevitably, lead to the institution's demise as Australia’s last remaining museum of manufactures and the diminishment of its decorative arts and design collections.

But if decorative arts and design are underappreciated in New South Wales, the situation prevailing at the NGA in Canberra is, perhaps, even more disheartening. The NGA recently rehung its permanent collections; in doing so it moved its international and Australian displays with the former relocated from the monumental galleries of the ground floor to the more intimate spaces of the first floor. While there may be a compelling nationalist rationale for this shift, it’s not all that effective as, until the 1980s, most Australian works of art were invariably modestly proportioned whereas many of the overseas paintings  acquired by the gallery during its formation were, quite deliberately, grandly scaled.
Illuminated signage at the NGA for its Wedgwood Tea Room.
The background display would appear to be a detail of the decoration on a ceramic object produced by the eponymous British-based pottery
This reconfiguration would seem the ideal opportunity to show the NGA’s long-concealed collection of international decorative arts and design. But, aside from a token display of the constructivist elements of the gallery’s important collection of Russian revolutionary ceramics and an Henri Matisse-designed costume for the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev the opportunity has been ignored. In fact the only reference to international decorative arts and design in the NGA comes with a poster for the gallery’s Wedgwood-sponsored tea room, which apparently has ‘stunning views across the lake’; there is certainly no example of any of the work of the eponymous pottery on display.
Paul Arden (1940-2008) and Jeff Stark for Saatchi & Saatchi. Poster for the V&A (1988).
V&A E.515-1988
With the exception of a small case of craft produced from the 1970s through to recent days located on the outer perimeter of the entrance foyer, a similar situation prevails in terms of Australian decorative arts and design, notwithstanding the fact that the NGA has, over the past forty odd years, assembled what, in terms of its scope and quality, is probably the single most important collection of this material anywhere. The NGA may well, in the words of the 1980s V&A advertising campaign, have an 'ace caff' but there's not much design in the 'quite a nice museum' attached to it.

These are not the only Australian institutions collecting and displaying designed objects in Australia: the state art galleries of Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia collect – or have collected in the recent past – designed objects, as have many of regional galleries and organisations such as the various state branches of the National Trust of Australia and the awkwardly titled Sydney Living Museums, formerly the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. Recently a number of publicly accessible private collections of decorative arts have emerged including the Johnston Collection in Melbourne, the David Roche Foundation House Museum in Adelaide and the short-lived Clyde Bank museum in Sydney. These private institutions have emerged largely because there is a perceived deficit on the part the state and federal institutions when it comes to collecting and exhibiting design and the decorative arts. The reactionary drive behind the private galleries is revealed in the way the historical commodities forming their collection bases are displayed: there's an emphasis on form and fashionability rather than a critical analysis of the material cultures that enabled their production, mediation and consumption.

With the notable exception of the NGV there is an ideological constant emerging in the way design and decorative arts are approached institutionally in Australia. It represents a shift from a progressive, pedagogical and, at times, scholarly view of material cultures to one that places greater emphasis on form and appearance, on decoration and fashionability. The AGNSW's decision to selectively employ designed objects to decorate its galleries and the NGA's excision of designed objects from its displays while using a designed commodity brand to market a catering service seem to be apposite distillations of this partial and uncomfortably exclusive reading of design history.

Thanks to Andrew McNally for facilitating this overview.

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