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When people think about Rockhampton, they are usually thinking about flooding, beef, or the fact that it is somewhere on the way between Brisbane and Mackay. The quality and breadth of its collection of Australian art probably is not even on their radar. It could have something to do with the Central Queensland attitude of not needing to be too boastful. Yes, we have a world-class collection of significant works of art by some of the greatest Australian artists to date, but we are not going to make a big song and dance about it. Until now that is.
The Rockhampton Art Gallery holds an unusually good collection for a regional centre. It is not the parochial smattering expected from an institution outside of a major metropolitan centre. Generally, if a smaller centre states that it holds a work from an established artist, it is usually just a working sketch, or an insignificant piece. Yet the small city of Rockhampton, a city of only just over 80,000 residents,1 can amass a collection featuring major works by some of the best known Australian artists, including Jeffrey Smart, John Brack, Fred Williams, Margaret Olley, John Olsen, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and Grace Cossington Smith. It is quite clear that the title of the exhibition refers not only to the cream of the Rockhampton Art Gallery’s permanent collection, but the cream of almost half a century of Australian artistic practice as a whole.
The question that springs to mind is how did ‘Rocky’ do it? How does a regional Queensland gallery manage to build an important $14 million collection since the 1960s?2
Rex Pilbeam is not a name widely known outside of Central Queensland, but the Mayor of thirty years is generally regarded as the singular driving force transforming Rockhampton from an insignificant spot on the map into a bustling, modern city.3 Establishing a community centre, a major theatre, a velodrome, an Olympic swimming pool, stimulating local business, and stabilising the water supply through the construction of a barrage in the Fitzroy River, can all be attributed to his tireless work.4 He also had the great foresight to invest heavily in Australian art with the singular purpose of enriching his beloved city for future generations.
In 1975, Pilbeam accessed funding through the Australia Council for the Arts’ Australian Contemporary Art Acquisition program, and secured donations from the local community after highlighting the tax benefits of such contributions, making a total budget of $140,000.5 In 1976, the city put together a selection committee made up of Mayor Pilbeam, the then Rockhampton Art Gallery Director, Don Taylor, architect Neil McKendry, and the Anglican Dean of Rockhampton, the Very Reverend John Bayton, to begin the process of acquiring a top-quality collection.6 After seeking expert advice from the leaders of state and national galleries and museums, the committee approached commercial galleries to negotiate purchases. On the advice and encouragement of eight-time Archibald Prize winner Sir William Dargie (who subsequently painted the portrait of Pilbeam), the committee directly approached modern artists in Melbourne and Sydney, who were identified as collectable, to purchase further work.7 The spending spree finally wrapped up in 1977, marking a two year period where the best of the best had been sought and bought for a municipality far outside the art capitals of the nation.
Rex Pilbeam’s drive to build a collection ‘to be acclaimed throughout the Commonwealth’8 has had an interesting side effect. Whether by luck or by design, the collection (which has been honed through exhibition selection and design by the current Rockhampton Art Gallery Director, Tracy Cooper-Lavery, and Curator Diana Warnes) paints a picture of a city, region and people in a unique time and position, both politically and geographically.
Noel Counihan’s linocut Albert Namatjira (1959) is an arresting image which literally holds the legendary Indigenous art figure up as a crucified martyr. It clearly references the struggles faced by Namatjira throughout his life. Even in this day and age, when Namatjira is looked upon with great reverence, seeing him in a Christ-like pose with his head hung, still feels like a heated political message. It is a reminder of the shame and outrage felt at the time of his death shortly after a period of incarceration; how a proud Aboriginal man can be withered and depreciated by unjust laws.9 This message is loud and clear now, but Counihan produced it in the year of Namatjira’s death, eight years before Indigenous Australians were legally considered anything other than flora and fauna,10 and well before the Black Jesus debate was popularised. It is a record of the forward-thinking arts community of the time, and this positive social attitude is a reflection of the spirit in which it was purchased.
The somewhat ‘safe’ portrait of Rex Pilbeam by Sir William Dargie from 1977 is a pivotal painting in this collection. Pilbeam had a reputation of having a wild personality, reportedly a straight-talking, womanising gambler who was once shot by a jilted ex-lover; it may seem more fitting that his portrait be commissioned by an artist like Brett Whitely (who, incidentally, is also represented in this exhibition). With more careful consideration though, the elder statesman-style portrait echoes a political philosophy of regional areas of Australia. It is a philosophy of time-tested quality; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It is reminiscent of other super-long-term regional politicians. To include a traditional Dargie portrait in a collection of (at the time of purchase) contemporary artworks is paradoxically (and quite fittingly for Pilbeam) a radical move.
Rockhampton’s unique geographic location is clearly defined and pinpointed from a general global region down to its specific landscape through several key pieces in the exhibition. Donald Friend’s The magic island (1970) is made in his vivid Balinese style using pen and bright inks with themes of Indigenous cultures and traditional lifestyles. It highlights our proximity to and fascination with our Asia Pacific neighbours. This global positioning gives way to some truly iconic images of Australia.
Drought and eagles (1975) by Clifton Pugh is a painting which encapsulates the essence of rural Australian life. It is an image which is both confronting and very matter-of-fact. The carcass of a kangaroo is being picked by two black, skulking eagles, and has been presented in an almost bird’s eye view of the scene, with no horizon and no significant place markers. It makes you feel like an observer of what is happening, not a participant. This cycle of life is not to be disturbed, that is the nature of things. It is clean and efficient. Although Drought and eagles is a blunt image of death, it is neither gory nor emotional. Even the skull of the kangaroo with its fleshless grin seems to show a calm understanding of the situation, and the eagles are surviving the only way they know how. Just like the rural Australians. They are people who deal with the harsh realities of life and have an understanding that they are temporary caretakers of the land, and never the land’s master.
The softer, more beautiful side of the Australian landscape has been brought to life in the watercolour After heavy rain, reflections in a dam (1948) by Kenneth Macqueen. Macqueen has caught the often forgotten, lush and serene aspect of our continent. Cycles of flood and drought dominate the Rockhampton region’s environment, and Macqueen’s rendering of a partially submerged eucalypt, with wildlife opportunistically seizing the temporary benefits of heavy rain, perfectly captures the beautiful ebbs and flows of that dominance.
If you were tasked with painting a single representation of Capricornia, Rockhampton’s region, you would not do better than John Coburn’s Tropic of Capricorn (1975). Its highly abstracted landscape and hard edged composition seems to be a reflection of Rockhampton itself. Red and brown, it is hot and fertile. The careful arrangement of various flat shapes across the surface is somehow delicately poised, yet dynamic. The shapes themselves are consistently constructed yet diversely shaped and coloured. Tropic of Capricorn is a complex painting which looks deceptively simple. It speaks of both uniqueness and togetherness in a community. It speaks of equality, diversity, and harmony. John Coburn has painted Rex Pilbeam’s vision.
Pilbeam’s drive and belief in his city has left us with a great legacy to continue. In fact, he directly challenged future generations with continuing his drive for a culturally significant collection.11 This challenge has been met with public programs and donation schemes which have led to the Rockhampton Art Gallery adding significant pieces from contemporary artists such as Sally Gabori, Daniel Mafe, Ben Quilty, Kate Shaw, and Michael Zavros, to their permanent collection.
This is an important exhibition, not only as a showpiece for Central Queensland, but as an opportunity to experience some rarely seen masterpieces from some of our country’s greatest artists.
Noel Counihan, Albert Namatjira, 1959. Linocut.
Clifton Pugh, Drought and eagles, 1975.
William Dargie, Portrait of Rex Pilbeam, 1977. Images courtesy Rockhampton Art Gallery.
1. Profile.id.com.au, Community profile | rockhampton region | profile.id, (2014). Retrieved 6 March 2014, from http://profile.id.com.au/rockhampton/home
2. Warnes, D., ‘Nothing like it in the country’, 2014, in Cooper-Lavery, T. & Warnes, D., Cream: four decades of Australian art, ex. cat., Rockhampton Art Gallery, 2014, p.5.
3. Tucker, D., ‘Transforming a Provincial City: the Pilbeam Mayoralty 1952 – 1982’, Queensland Review, 10 (1), 2003, pp.163-174.
5. Warnes, D., 2014, op. cit., p.5.
6. Ibid., p.8
8. Pilbeam, R., 1975, as cited in Warnes, D., ibid., p.8.
9. National Museum Australia, Collaborating for Indigenous Rights: Public response to Namatjira court case and death, 2008. Retrieved 11 March 2014 from http://indigenousrights.net.au/civil_rights/albert_namatjira_and_citizen...
10. National Archives of Australia , The 1967 referendum fact sheet 150 – National Archives of Australia, 2014. Retrieved 11 March 2014 from http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs150.aspx
11. Pilbeam, R., 1975, as cited in Warnes, D., op. cit., p.11.
Cream: Four Decades of Australian Art is a Rockhampton Art Gallery exhibition being toured by Museum and Gallery Services Queensland. It was exhibited at the Rockhampton Art Gallery from 15 February to 27 April 2014, and will tour until 2017 to the following locations: McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park, Victoria (11 May – 3 August 2014); Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo (29 August – 19 October 2014); Caloundra Regional Gallery (29 October – 14 December); Toowoomba Regional Gallery; Tweed Regional Gallery; Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum; Outback Regional Gallery, Winton ; Artspace Mackay; Cairns Regional Gallery.