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The Savage Club Arts Club Dinner Thursday 13 May 2010 Black Tie

May 17, 2010

The third annual Melbourne Savage Club Arts Dinner took as its theme  “Art and art criticism in Australia” guest speaker Professor Sasha Grisham AM, FAHA, Art historian, Art critic and Curator.

The Club resides in an elegant Victorian mansion. One enters through an imposing red door off one of Melbourne’s famous byways.

The Melbourne Savage Club founded in 1894 steps you back in time with an ambiance of old empire like no other. The Club is based upon an appreciation of music, art, drama, science and literature and is known for its bohemian spirit.

The walls of the main club room are resplendent with a plethora of tribal artefacts  and the room is warmed by two huge open fires. A welcome sight stepping in from a cold Melbourne autumn evening. Seated at the Steinway, composer and pianist, Jason Sprague played us excerpts from Mozart and Bach as we mingled with arriving guests.

I spoke to Sasha Grisham at length about the Australian connections to the famous American painter James McNeil Whistler one of the most significant painters of the 19th century.

I have just finished reading a marvellous biography  “James McNeil Whistler  Beyond the Myth” by academics Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval.

Whistler certainly was a contradictory character, often described as an ” irascible maverick and gregarious dandy” he seemed to be always feuding with the establishment or anyone that stood in his way.  While Australian artist Caroline Williams describes “Whistler as” a fabulous artist and a bitch of the first order ” the letters Whistler sent to his wife Beatrice reveal another dimension to his arrogant character that of “crippling self doubt and fear of failure”

But it was his relationship with Mortimer Mendes an Australian artist and early disciple of Whistlers that in a sense was a metaphor of his

relationship with many fellow artists –  initial enthusiasm and friendship then souring  of the friendship with bitter recriminations. In the case of Mendes, Whistler sent a letter to “The world “in response to an article on Mendes in the Pall Mall Gazette on Mendes home decorating skills. Whistler completely disparaged the artist and mockingly called him  “The kangaroo”  thereafter  Whistler referred to Mendes as “a treacherous rascal”  This suggests that only Whistler could have written  “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” Whistlers only literary work.

George McCulloch ( no relation to art historian Sue McCulloch) a Scottish born Australian millionaire purchased several paintings by Whistler. He also purchased the famous Whistler “Portrait of the Painter” with Whistler’s elegant butterfly signature  – I wonder what happened to  these paintings???. Sasha and I spoke briefly about Whistler’s court case with the great art critic John Ruskin in 1878  – Whistler won the case but the costs awarded to him was just one farthing and he had to pay his own court costs –  far short of the 1000  pounds he had expected. In fact the case bankrupted him. How many times has hubris got the better of  artists.

We moved upstairs to the imposing Dining Room with the ceiling adorned with hanging Punkah fans. The walls of the dining room are decorated with the art works from the Savage Art Collection either painted or drawn by Savage artists or donated by Savage members. On this special arts occasion each table hosted a well known artist. We had the pleasure of being on the table of renowned artist Murray Walker and composer Jason Sprague. Its a tradition at the club that artists be creative with the butchers paper tablecloth.

Sasha gave an interesting talk on art criticism dividing his talk into three parts Ethical, Formalist and Art History – (for a copy of the talk see The Savage Club website). I would have liked to have had a discussion on the controversy over Sam Leach “Landscaped Cosmos” painting which took out the Wynne Prize for the depiction of an Australian landscape. I don’t mind appropriation or sampling or collages but in the end the artist must bring the outside elements and make it his or her own. To me this painting was by Adam Pynacker, a 17th century Dutch artist not Sam Leach.

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