Mt. Lofty Botanic Gardens
Jean Genet (1910-1986) is one of the most controversial and challenging French writers of the 20th Century. His major works include the semi-autobiographical novels Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), Querelle de Brest (1947), and The Thief’s Journal (1949) and the plays The Maids (1947), Deathwatch (1944), The Balcony (1956), The Blacks (1959) and The Screens (1961).
Genet was a vagrant, a thief, a criminal, and a homosexual. He was also incredibly independent, driven and opportunistic. His wrote his first major work, Our Lady of Flowers (1943) on brown paper in a prison cell. A prison guard caught him, confiscated his writings and burned them. Genet then rewrote the whole thing again. On his release, he sought out Jean Cocteau who was impressed with Genet’s writing, which complemented his own existential work and introduced Genet to other influential French artists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. It was due to Cocteau and Sartre, as well as Picasso, that Genet was published. They also helped prevent him from returning to jail.
Sartre went on to write a detailed analysis of Genet’s work called Saint Genet (1952). This so disturbed Genet that he did not write again for a number of years, but when he did, it was to create some of the most explosive and controversial plays of the 1950s. Furthermore, Genet inspired many other artists from different fields, including Jacques Derrida, Lindsay Kemp, Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and David Bowie.
It is perhaps difficult to fully appreciate today the absolute radicalism of Genet and his considerable impact and influence – at least in Australia. I was reminded of this in a recent radio interview here in Adelaide, promoting a production of Genet’s The Maids that I am directing, with the wonderful, highly informed and experienced Peter Goers. Peter questioned me as to why Genet is not done much anymore. At the time, I was a bit thrown by Peter’s accurate question. I muttered something about Sartre, that Genet’s theatre, according to Sartre is the theatre of ‘fury’ and ‘hate’. This is most certainly true and is an integral part of The Maids in its murderous and suicidal hatred of class and privilege. Peter’s question, however, has made me reflect, and the following should be read more as a meditation on Genet and The Maids.
The Maids is possibly the most well-known and most performed of Genet’s plays. It is complementary to a great deal of post-WW 2 and early Cold War drama in theatre and film of the time, in that it involves secrets and the gradual and eventful unraveling of those secrets. Subsequently, it shares certain themes with such works as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which was also first performed in 1947.
One reason for The Maids exalted position as a major work of the 20th. Century is primarily due to it having three wonderful female roles, amongst the best of world theatre. Many great actresses have performed the roles of the maids, Solange and Clair, and their Madame. This includes Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, Vivien Merchant, and recently Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Hubert and Elizabeth Debiki.
Genet’s world is more transcendent and elusive than simplistic emotions. Even if they are full of ‘sound and fury’ they are not ‘nothing’. They tap into the continual bafflement of the individual – caught in between order and chaos, between truth and illusion; between the mask and reality.
What makes Genet rather shocking and provocative is that the illusion is often preferable to the reality with seeming tragic consequences. However, the tragedy is not necessarily how the respective protagonists see it – they tend to see their subsequent demise as a release, a freedom from oppression and a way of remaining true to themselves. Maybe the fact that Genet doesn’t allow for sentimentality and ‘niceness’ is a reason for his current relatively neglected position in modern Australia? Genet is not ‘nice’, he is most certainly not ‘P.C’, and the portrayal of women in The Maids is not particularly flattering; powerful but not ‘nice’. What perhaps needs to be questioned is why there is a sense of dissatisfaction when one is denied ‘niceness’ in preference for bafflement. Order versus chaos, and in Genet’s world it is chaos that wins time and again – as it does in life.
Subsequently, as I muse, is The Maids an ‘absurdist’ piece? The French certainly don’t think so. Most despise the term ‘absurdist’, which was first used to describe such works by the English critic Martin Esslin. The French don’t tend to use this term, but rather see such works as The Maids as deeply reflective of real life. Sartre’s ‘Hell is other people’ isn’t ‘absurd’, it is very real. So too is the eternal battle between servants and masters, or in The Maids case, mistresses. Shakespeare encapsulates the essence of this battle in Julius Caesar when he has Cassius say, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings’ (JC:1.2).
In Genet’s The Maids, it is the Madam’s maids, Solange and Claire who are the ‘underlings’. They represent any person, male and female, who have felt the whip of oppression based on privilege, wealth and class; in fact any form of discrimination. They truly hate the ‘Madame’. Whilst the reason for this hatred is not always clear, nonetheless, it is very real; and if we were truly honest with ourselves we would allow ourselves to empathize with this hatred, as virtually all of us have felt the whip of the boss man or woman and have hated the person simply because we are ‘underlings’, and felt powerless to do anything about it. For example: we rant and rail full of ‘sound and fury’ about Donald Trump, or any other perceived political authoritarian, but all this ‘sound and fury’ actually amounts to nothing but a sense of frustration and a denial of our own significance, influence, and worth. We are powerless; we remain ‘underlings’ with only our hatred and resentment to keep us company (along with other malcontents on FaceBook). However, anger and hatred, as Plato observed, gives us pleasure. So that is partly the cathartic challenge of The Maids – will you, as an audience member, allow yourself to hate? And no – it’s not ‘nice’; but it is human, honest and very real, and not in the least bit ‘absurd’.
Reading through the respective publishing and performance history of Genet’s work it is a relative minefield of explosive condemnation and awe. Whilst I am quietly confident in my production, nonetheless, I am expecting a hammerhead reaction – polarized opinions, bafflement, and that dreadful summation ‘well, that was interesting’. Furthermore, Genet seems to attract the type of criticism that reeks of odious comparisons and how it should be done (like Pinter, Brecht, Wilde, and others), rather than how it could be done. Ah, well – such is the current zeitgeist. All I can offer in defense to my valiant cast and crew is as long as we think we have done the best we possibly can then it really doesn’t matter what others think.
So – why did I agree to direct Genet’s The Maids? To answer this I had to reflect on my relationship with Genet. This began with Lindsay Kemp’s extraordinary production Flowers (1974), based on Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, which I saw as a teenager in Sydney.
Not only did it assist in reconciling and articulating my own blooming homosexuality, it also transported me into the magical but dark side of illicit desire, and the heart of existentialism. I then attempted to read Our Lady of the Flowers and A Thief’s Journal, which I found a bit of a struggle, but finally started to get it with Querelle at Brest. This was complemented by reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Camus’ The Stranger and seeing productions of Deathwatch, The Maids, as well as Sartre’s In Camera, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – with the addition of The Rocky Horror Show, Yukio Mishima’s Confession of a Mask, and Tom of Finland.
Yes – this was a discovery of homosexuality in a particular theatrical manner. The point is, however, I had no idea what ‘existentialism’ or ‘absurdist’ meant, not from an academic point of view. I hadn’t read Martin Esslin, Derrida, Foucault, or even much Sartre and Camus. I came at these things not from academic labels but from experiencing them raw without preconceived ideas about what they were supposedly meant to be, albeit filtered through a theatrical gaze – and I am grateful for this innocence. I still tend to flinch and shy away from such labels; all I care about is how it feels and how it stimulates the imagination. However, as with a great deal of ‘gay’ literature – the mask is always present and very real, partly out of necessity, and partly out of desire.
The only other major Genet experience was Jim Sharman’s epic 4 hours NIDA production of The Screens. I was new to NIDA then and agreed to be the staff member to sit through all 10 performances. That’s 40 hours of my life I will never get back again. Jim’s production wasn’t bad – in fact it was rather spectacularly good – but it was baffling and exhausting; which is another challenging aspect of Genet’s work – it should be baffling and exhausting – as well as funny and ‘theatrical’. I think ‘theatrical’ is preferable to ‘absurdist’.
So – here I am forty years on from my initial contact with the world of Genet and finally entering and endeavouring to produce my own version of The Maids in collaboration with others. Why? Well, as previously mentioned, it does offer three terrific female roles. I was asked to direct this by a couple of Adelaide actresses with whom I had worked and thought were terrific. It was their idea and passion for the play that was the initial appeal. So my sense of responsibility and commitment to them is very high – and it has been a joy to rehearse with them this complex work, discovering new things at every rehearsal, which is always indicative of a great play and engaging process. For example; today’s rehearsal involved discussion about making final decisions about blocking and ‘locking’ the show into place. Whilst acknowledging that this is ultimately a necessary step I argued that I don’t really like to ‘lock down’ shows. Why? Because the theatre is a ‘live’ experience and this production will be slightly different for each performance. Subsequently, it can never be fully ‘locked down’; there will be a definite blueprint and safety net but it should be allowed to grow and change throughout the season. Some actors like this; others don’t – and that’s okay – but it is part of my aesthetic if you like.
Another reason for doing The Maids is rather selfish. This is recognized as one of the major plays of the 20th Century, and I have never before directed a play by Genet. So this has been a personal artistic challenge of myself. I have no idea really if this is going to work or not. There isn’t any certainty – not with a play like this – but nothing ventured nothing gained. As I have continually harangued respective acting students, you have to be artistically brave and make bold choices if you wish to be truly a theatre artist – the risk is all!
Furthermore, The Maids as well as the theatre venue in which it is to be performed, the intimate Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, complements my current aesthetic in regards to theatre. I wish to do plays and productions in venues that are focused primarily on the actor. Whilst I deeply acknowledge and appreciate the art of theatre design, I am more interested in the challenge of an ‘empty space’ and allowing the actors and the playwrights words envelope and engage the audiences imagination, thoughts and feelings.
It is the relative simplicity that is the challenge rather than the theatrical ‘smoke and mirrors’. They have their place, of course, and rightly so, but it is not necessarily where I am focused at the moment. Whilst I can admire and respect a fabulous artistic design and concept I am not moved by it. This is a debatable point, of course, and I have certainly experienced a number of ‘wow factors’ in regard to theatre design, but they are only momentary. Only the actor and the playwright are capable of moving and changing an audience.
I crave the simplicity and challenge of an ‘empty space’; and for me, the actor is the heart of the theatre – as it was in Shakespeare’s time, so it is for me.
As part of the South Australian History Festival that has been running throughout May, there is a truly fascinating exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide – Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales. This a celebration of the compelling majestic power and beauty of whales.
Part of this exhibition is devoted to the history of ‘whaling’, past and present. Hunting whales, despite its current ‘politically incorrect’ status, was and still is part of human history. Why hunt whales? Many people today, including myself, would find such a thing truly repulsive – and it is! Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the brutality of ‘whaling’, this exhibition captures the fascination, dependence upon and respect for whales by a number of human groups and tribes, some of which continue to hunt whales today. This includes a few modern indigenous tribes in places such as Indonesia and Greenland, as well as past ‘western’ commercial whaling that inspired artists and writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I am most certainly not defending the hunting of whales and ‘whaling’, nonetheless, there is a fascinating mystery, a kind of ‘romanticism’ about ‘whaling’ that is part of past and modern human history. Why? Neither I nor this exhibition has an answer, yet it does exist and is a conundrum – which is partly why this exhibition is so fascinating and well worth a visit. Furthermore, it is a part of South Australian history as Port Adelaide once was a trading centre for commercial whaling in the now distant past. This may be uncomfortable for many who think it should be buried beneath the veneer of the niceness of modern ‘political correctness’ – nonetheless, it remains an historical fact. This exhibition challenges as well as informs without being gory and horrific, adding to its overall impressive value.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons why a visit to the South Australian Maritime Museum is worthwhile. There are numerous artefacts from the past that are fascinating. This includes a series of ‘figureheads’ that once stood proudly at the prow of sailing ships – a lost art form in itself.
The Fleurieu Peninsular extends to the immediate south-east of Adelaide. It was named in honour of Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu who was French explorer, by Nicholas Baudin when he was exploring the region in 1802. The name ‘Claret’ seems rather prophetic as this region that encompassed ‘The McClaren Vale’, one of the top wine regions in Australia. This is a short photographic record of a recent trip down to the Fleurieu Peninsula, particularly to the spectacular and rugged coastline, and the magnificent pristine beaches.
Goolwa – Paddle-Steamer and Hindmarsh Bridge
First ‘port of call’ was GOOLWA, at the mouth of the Murray River. Goolwa was once considered as the capital of South Australia due to it being a major port. This included the old paddle-steamers that travelled up and down the Murray River. It was also once known as ‘theNew Orleans of South Australia’, which conjures up all kinds of hedonistic possibilities. Now, however, Goolwa is a relatively quiet country town, a popular place for tourists to visit and perhaps catch a glimpse of the by-gone time.
Encounter Bay – South Australia
From GOOLWA we drove west to PORT ELIOT and to the headland, granting a spectacular view of the coastline, including Victor Harbour and Encounter Bay. In the late-nineteenth century, the connection between Goolwa, Port Eliot and Victor Harbour was quite significant. There are remnants of this by-gone ear, old sandstone houses and hotels, and even an old steam train that still runs between the three towns. The rest is very much tourists and retirees townhouses, that are not particularly attractive. The best part is the beaches and coastal walks.
The headland is the remains of an old glacier, thousands of years old, which accounts for the unique rock formation.
Granite Island – Encounter Bay
Just beyond Victor Harbour, at the western promontory, there is this wonderful coastal walk. The coastline is rugged with some startling, almost pre-historic rock shapes, and there are tales of shipwrecks and drownings that are marked along the path. It kept reminding us of parts of Cornwall in the UK, with one lonely sandstone house set amongst the hillside that runs down the coast.
Deep Creek – Walk
We drove further west along the coast and started the walk to Deep Creek Beach, which marks the beginning of the ‘Heysen Trail’ that goes all the way to Cape Jervis. We only did part of this walk, which as you can see was rather steep, uphill and downhill. Nonetheless, the view was fantastic – and as you gazed south all you could think was ‘next stop Antartica’.
MALSIN BEACH in the Gulf St. Vincent was recently named amongst the ‘Top 10’ beaches in Australia. It easy to see why as it is quite unique with its impressive cliff face. We arrived at sunset and walked along the beach to the ‘Unclad’ section. Maslin Beach was the first official ‘nudist’ beach in Australia – we did not venture into that
Maslin Beach – Wedding
Maslin Beach – ‘Unclad’
Onkaparinga River – Maslin Beach
We started the next part of our journey through the Fleurieu Peninsula by visiting PORT WILLUNGA. This was another old sea-port that serviced Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula. The only remnants left of that ear are the weathered posts of the old jetty and the man-made caves in the cliff-face. There is also the ship-wreck 200m of the coast of the ‘Star of Greece, which went down in 1888.
From Port Willunga, we drove inland to the PRIMO ESTATE VINEYARD.
And then to PORT NOARLUNGA, which is a beach suburb of the City of Onkaparinga; very popular with families and tourists. We bought a couple of delicious hamburgers from a local (Thai) restaurant and devoured them on the beach.
Like anywhere in Australia there are always fantastic and fantastical ‘street art’, which includes advertisements, murals, and shop window displays.
We returned to Adelaide and went to the South Australian Art Gallery, then walked through the Botanic Gardens before returning to the Rose Park apartment for another beautiful sunset.
Biennale – Art Gallery of South Australia
Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Rose Park – Adelaide
Currently, in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia, there is a truly wonderful and enlightening exhibition – Colours of Impressionism – that has some excellent works from Musee D’Orsay in Paris. What follows is a brief overview of the exhibition.
The first colour that is focused on is black. Following traditional methods, black was used for shadows, to highlight landscapes and portraits. Black hues were used by the romantic artists to darken their predominantly historical paintings. Significantly, ‘black’ was also the dominant colour of men’s clothes in the mid-nineteenth century, hence its relatively constant presence in realistic portraiture of the time, and was regarded as very ‘modern’.
Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne (1869) – Edouard Manet
It was Edouard Manet (1832-1883) who exemplifies the beginning of a new approach by the ‘impressionists’ in the use of the colour black. To quote from the exhibition pamphlet – ‘Manet applied thick black paint to create stark shapes with greatly simplified contrasts. Black played a key part in the balance of his compositions, a departure from its standard use in creating shadows and darkening other tones’.
There are other works in this first section of the exhibition. Two works that captured my attention that also exemplify this new use of the colour ‘black’ are by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and James Tissot (1836-1902).
Le Bain (1873-74) – Alfred Stevens
What is remarkable about Alfred Stevens’ Le Bain (The Bath) is the juxtapositions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ objects. The actual bath, which was traditionally done in ‘white’, is in various dark shades and hues. In contrast, the eye is drawn to the ‘white’ objects, such as pale flesh of the female bather, the book and linen next to the bath, the flowers, and the soap dish on the wall. Intriguingly, there seems to be a black ‘fob watch’ in the soap dish, which suggests that there is a time limit for this bath.
I am big fan of James Tissot’s work. He is primarily known for his painting of ‘high society’ that are generally quite crisp and vibrant in detail. Subsequently, it was great to see La reveuse (The Dreamer), which is a rather dark intimate painting of a woman reclining in a chair. According to the accompanying descriptor, Tissot was also inspired by Japanese art at the time in regards to linear portraiture.
La reveuse (1876) – James Tissot
The second section of the exhibition deals with the colour white. This is exemplified by respective paintings of snow by Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). There are others, including a most unusual Paul Gauguin, nonetheless, it was the following that captured my attention and imagination.
La neige / Snow (1873) – Charles-Francois Daubigny
Following new contemporary theories in regard to colour, shades of blue were used for shadows and highlights. Furthermore, inspiration came from Japanese artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Monet, in particular, was inspired by these Japanese artists, and kept a large personal collection of Japanese art.
Vue de toits (effet de neige) / Rooftops in the snow (snow effect) – Gustave Caillebotte
La neige a Louvreciennes / Snow at Louvreciennes (1878) – Alfred Sisley
There are a number of Alfred Sisley’s ‘snow’ paintings but this one stood out for me, partly because of my own fascination with ‘pathways’ and ‘perspective’.
However, the most impressive painting for me is this section was Claude Monet’s magnificent La pie (The magpie). This relatively large painting not only exemplifies the use of white and blue, but also the vulnerability of life in winter, represented by the sole magpie perched on the rickety gate.
La pie / The magpie (1868-69) – Claude Monet
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the matter of la peinture claire (‘painting light’). This involved the impressionists use of luminous colours, ‘subtle contrasts of tone and rapid broken brushstrokes to capture the ephemeral effects of light’. This complemented another developing characteristic of ‘Impressionism’ known as en plein air, which essentially meant painting in the open air.
La peinture claire and en plein air were partly due to a reaction against the conventional and academic approach to historical painting favoured by the official ‘Salon’ of contemporary Paris. The ‘Impressionists’ were also called the ‘Independents’ because of their reactionary position. The term ‘impressionism’ came from the art critic, Louis Leroy, who used this word to describe the work of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renior and Alfred Sisley, who were the artists represented in the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris in 1874.
There are numerous examples of la peinture claire and en plein air in this exhibition, particularly by Pissarro. However, it was the ones by Alfred Sisley that mainly attracted my attention. This included La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly (Boat in the flood at Port-Marly). Sisley lived in Port-Marly from 1874-1880. In 1876 the region was subject to severe floods and Sisley did a series of paintings, of which this is one.
La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly / Boat in the flood at Port-Marly (1876) – Alfred Sisley
What is remarkable about this painting is not only it perfectly exemplifying la peinture claire but also adds a dramatic element to un plein air. Even here there is the unexpected subversion of conventional ‘historical’ painting, based on real events. The two figures, as well as the whole canvas, seem rather calm and tranquil in contrast to the natural disaster of the flood.
There is also another – a ‘triptych’ that has paintings by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, all depicting different aspects of a ‘lie-de-France’ – Sisley’s Saint-Denis Island (1872), Pissarro’s Entrance to the village of Voisons (1872), and Monet’s Pleasure Boats (1872-73).
These three paintings were donated to the Musee de Louvre in 1923 by Ernest May and remain exactly as they were when they belonged to him. As the catalogue states, ‘Each in a similar gilded frame, they maintain their long-standing dialogue’. Whilst Pissarro’s painting centres the triptych it remains within his general preoccupation with earthy rural settings. Sisley’s and Monet’s offer a chance to discern their respective differences in depicting reflections in water. As the catalogue states, ‘in Monet’s treatment of water, the areas of flat colour impart a vigour absent in Sisley, who preferred small, juxtaposed touches to express the shimmering river.’
The fourth section of the exhibition is about the Impressionists use of green and blue. Monet’s advice to a young American painter, Lily Cabot Perry, encapsulates the use of these colours and more: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you…Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint them just as you see them…until your own artless impression of the scene appears before you’.
Most of the paintings in this section are un plein air. There is one Monet, however, that is of an interior – Un coin d’appartment (A corner of the apartment), which contains a young boy in blue who is framed in different shades of green shubbery. It is a rather unsettling painting as the young boy seems like a ghostly presence in this corner of the apartment.
Un coin d’appartment / A corner of the apartment (1875) – Claude Monet
Another extraordinary Monet painting is Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony). This comes from a much later period in Monet’s life, around 1900, and is one of two studies; the other being Water lily pond, green harmony. As stated in the catalogue, these paintings ‘anticipate the long sequence of pictures that Monet painted of the pond that was built in Giverny in 1893’. Nonetheless, the ‘pink harmony’ painting also exemplifies the respective use of la peinture clair, the use of green, blue and pink, and the influence of en plein air.
Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie / Water lily pond, pink harmony (1900) – Claude Monet
The fifth section of the exhibition is devoted to the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. This is exemplified by works by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944). These artists featured in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
The critic Felix Feneon identified Neo-Impressionism as ‘a modern synthesis of methods based on science’. Rather than mixing on the palette, the Neo-Impressionists divided primary colours based on the principles of contrasting colours advocated by Michel-Eugene Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as Ogden Nicholas Rood’s influential 1879 ‘colour circle’. As the exhibition’s pamphlet states, the Neo-Impressionists ‘methodically juxtaposed small brushstrokes of complementary unmixed hues, these responding to and invigorating each other’. This was called Divisionism, that included the sub-genre of Pointillism, ‘which refers to the technique of applying tiny dots of paint rather than adopting the principle of colour division to create more vivid and accurate tones’.
One of the most famous examples of Pointillism is Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86). This exhibition contains a couple of ‘studies’ that Seurat made in preparation for the final painting.
Whilst there are a number of other Neo-Impressionist work in this section, there are three by Paul Signac that I found particularly impressive – Les andelys (The Riverbank), La bouee rogue (The Red Buoy) and Les chateau des papes (Palace of the Popes); and L’entree du port de Roscoff (Entrance to the port of Roscoff) by the lesser known Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).
Les andelys / The riverbank (1886) – Paul Signac
La bouee rouge / The red buoy (1895) – Paul Signac
Le chateau des papes / Palace of the Popes (1909) – Paul Signac
L’entree du port de Roscoff / Entrance to the port of Roscoff (1889) – Theo van Rysselberghe
The final section of the exhibition involves how the colours of the Impressionists softened in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This exemplified by works from Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Auguste Renior (1841-1919).
Sur un banc au bois de Boulogne / On a bench in the bois de Boulogne (1894) – Berthe Morisot; Gabrielle a la rose / Gabrielle with a rose (1911) – Auguste Renoir
As stated in the exhibition’s pamphlet, ‘The works us “fluid harmonies” of gentle tones, rather than complementary colours, to create subtle effects such as the morning mists, the pink of dusk and the play of light at different times of day. Painting the fleeting light was now, however, less about recording direct observation than the expression of a mood evoking a sense of memory or melancholy’.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).
La cathedrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil / Rouen Cathedral. The portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight (1893) – Claude Monet
The exhibition concludes with a painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), representative of and anticipating ‘Cubism’ in the early twentieth century.
Rochers pres des grottes au-dessus du Chateau Noir / Rocks near the caves above Chateau Noir (c.1904) – Paul Cezanne
The Art Gallery of South Australia contains some truly exceptional artworks. This includes some 19th Century paintings that exemplify the kind of ‘historical’ works favoured by the conservative academics at the Paris ‘Salon’ that the ‘Impressionists’ reacted against. This includes popular works such as The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-58) by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) and Zenobia’s last look at Palmyra (1888) by Herbert G. Schmaltz (1856-1935).
The Impressionist exhibition has a couple of paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), citing his ‘experimental use of colour’ influence on the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. Australian ‘Impressionism’, which was like its European counterpart also primarily characterized landscape painting – un plein air – can trace its own unique influence with the early colonial artists, such as John Glover (1767-1849).
Baptism on the Ouse River by Rev. Henry Dowling (1838) – John Glover
One of the most impressive Australian paintings and one of the most popular in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection is Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) by H. J. Johnstone (1835-1907). This perhaps couldn’t be regarded as a work of Australian ‘Impressionism’, more like a precursor to twentieth-century ‘photo-realism’ (Jonstone was a professional photographer), nonetheless, its use of colour is very much sympatico with ‘Impressionism’, as well as coming from the same time.
Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) – H. J. Johnstone
The first major Australian ‘Impressionist’-like artist is perhaps Tom Roberts (1856-1931). Roberts, like his European Impressionist counterparts also firmly followed un plein air, as exemplified by his Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885).
Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885) – Tom Roberts
Other major Australian ‘Impressionists’ are Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), exemplified by his Cario Street Scene (c.1897), and Charles Conder (1868-1909) and his A Holiday at Mentone (1888), both in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.
There are many others. Complementing the final section of the Musee D’Orsay’s exhibition – ‘Ideal Harmonies’ – and the more ‘fluid’ and softer use of colour and light in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is From the apartment window, Paris (1901) by Hans Heysen (1877-1968), Le Bar, Saint Jacques, Paris (1904) by American artist Ambrose Peterson, La Coiffure (1908) by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947), After the Bath (c. 1911) by E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), and The Pheasant (c.1919) by English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942).
Finally, to finish with one of my personal favourites is German-Australian Hans Heysen, who studio and home were in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, which can be visited today. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a number of large paintings by Hans Heysen – one of which is Mystic Morn (1904), which is a superb example of ‘Australian Impressionism’, as well as a painting that exemplifies ‘ideal harmonies’.
Mystic Morn (1904) – Hans Heysen
George Selth Coppin (1819-1906) has been called “the father of Australian theatre” (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 1939). Whilst this may be disputed, nonetheless, George Coppin was one of the prime movers in establishing a professional theatre in Australia in the mid-colonial period. In many ways, he could be called 19th Century Australia’s ‘greatest showman’. As Sally O’Neill states, ‘Undoubtedly his enterprise was irrepressible; the business of entertainment suited his talents but, more important, he had an ingrained love of the theatre. He acted to make money but he found a stage in many other spheres.’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
George Coppin was born 8 April 1819 in Steyning, Sussex, England. His father, George Selth Coppin, was the son of a clergyman who gave up his medical studies to become an actor, and subsequently was disowned by his family. Hence, George Coppin was born into a theatrical family and started performing (with his sister) from the age of six. From 1835 he was working in the English provinces and at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he established himself as ‘first low comedian’. It was also in Dublin he met Maria Watkins Burroughs, nine years his senior, and they lived together from 1842-1848, Maria accompanying Coppin on first adventures overseas.
In 1842 George and Maria decided to leave the UK, with a choice between the USA and Australia. On a toss of a coin, they decided on Australia and arrived in Sydney 10 March 1843. From this point and for the next fifty years Coppin’s fortunes were like a rollercoaster, going from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’ several times. He worked in Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide, either as an actor-manager, or hotel owner. He created a number of theatres and hotels, including the Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, and the Semaphore Hotel, which gave the Adelaide suburb its name. It was also in Adelaide, in 1848, that Maria died.
In 1851, after going ‘bust’ again, he left for the Victorian goldfields, and whilst he did not find gold, nonetheless, he earned a considerable amount performing for the gold diggers. In 1853 he returned to Adelaide, paid off his creditors, and returned to England. He worked successfully in London and the provinces, and it was whilst working in Birmingham he met Gustavus Brooke (1818-1866), one of the leading British tragedians of the time. He engaged Brooke for an Australian tour and had a pre-fabricated ‘Iron Theatre’, specially built for the tour. In a way, Coppin’s ‘Iron Theatre’ prefigured popular ‘pop-up’ theatres in the 21st Century.
This marks the beginning of ‘international’ actors touring Australia. Whilst there had been a number of English and American actors touring Australia, the Coppin-Brooke partnership truly marks the successful touring of Australia by internationally renowned actors. These included Gustavus Brooke, Joseph Jefferson, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, and Maggie Moore and J. C. Williamson.
From 1858 Coppin also established a political career that lasted off-and-on until 1895. Time and space does not allow for any elaboration on Coppin’s political career, other than stating that it was relatively successful and he was a valued member of the respective Victorian parliaments and legislative committees on which he sat. It is, however, in his ‘off’ political years that Coppin furthered Australian theatre. This included acquiring the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which unfortunately was burnt to the ground in 1872. As the Theatre Royal was uninsured Coppin went ‘bust’ again. Nonetheless, he formed a committee and rebuilt the Theatre Royal. It was in this period that he also performed in the USA where he met J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore, and in 1881 engaged them to perform in Australia.
Suffering from gout from 1868, Coppin announced his retirement from the stage; an announcement he kept making for next twenty-odd years. He embarked on numerous ‘farewell’ tours in Australia and other British colonies but did not give up the theatre until the mid-1880s. His later years were mainly concerned with his political career, as well as developing the Victorian seaside suburb of Sorrento, where he lived with his family. In 1855 Coppin had married Harriet Hilsden, Gustavus Brooke’s widowed sister-in-law. Harriet died in 1859, and subsequently, Coppin married one of her daughters from her first marriage, Lucy Hilsden, in 1861. Coppin had three children from his first marriage, three daughters, and seven children from his second marriage, two sons and five daughters. Except for one daughter from his first marriage, Lucy and the other children survived him when Coppin died in 1906.
This brief sketch doesn’t really do justice to the incredible life of George Coppin. As an actor, he specialized in ‘low comedy’, but was also successful in ‘classical’ works, such as Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Bob Acres in Sheridan’s The Rivals, Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Launcelot Gobbo in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The contemporary Australian critic James Smith described Coppin’s talent and ability to successfully portray “the ponderous stolidity and impenetrable stupidity of certain types of humanity—the voice, the gait, the movements, the expression of the actor’s features, were all in perfect harmony with the mental and moral idiosyncrasies of the person he represented, so that the man himself stood before you a living reality”. This suggests that there was an acute sense of observation of real life, and a kind of early ‘naturalism’ in Coppin’s characters, albeit in essentially heightened comic roles. This is complemented by his theatre-manager-director insistence on ‘correct costuming’ for his characters and productions (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
As well as building theatres, including the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, establishing new methods of advertising shows, and bringing international artists to Australia, Coppin also helped to establish copyright legislation for playwrights in Australia and was one of the first to advocate for a ‘school of acting to develop Australian acting’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
Coppin also advocated and brought camels to explore the interior Australia, some of the camels that Coppin imported were on the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition (1860-61). Whilst owner and manager of the Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, he arranged for the first aerial balloon ascent over Melbourne and helped to introduce English thrushes and white swans to Australia. This is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the truly remarkable George Coppin.