The women wore gowns, furs and jewels. One even had a tiara. The men’s formal evening wear verged on the dashing, all black ties, sashes and medals. And when it came to the speech to launch the celebration of Australian art and culture, it was a strangely apologetic Victorian governor, Sir Dallas Brooks, who stood in front of a large group of international Olympic officials, local VIPs and a smattering of city council officials.
‘Our national treasures have not been brought forward in any spirit of boastfulness. We simply offer the best we have,’ he said.
It was Saturday evening, 17 November 1956 at Melbourne’s National Gallery. The occasion was the official opening of the first Olympic Arts Festival and the governor—a man Noël Coward described as ‘… a typical Royal Marine officer, which means that he was efficient, sentimental and had perfect manners’—was intent on letting the world know that Australian arts were, well, not quite as sophisticated as those in the rest of the world. ‘Australia is only a young country and we are very proud of our achievements,’ Brooks continued. ‘But we are also fully conscious of our shortcomings. So we hope you will find something to enjoy and admire in the exhibitions and we all look forward to learning something from your friendly criticism.’
So began one of the rare public displays of Australian culture, comprising a series of exhibitions across Melbourne of architecture, sculpture, design, music, painting and drawing and literature. But perhaps unwittingly Brooks’ opening remarks captured the tone of the festival: here was an exhibition not designed to celebrate and show off Australian culture, but rather to admit its shortcomings. It was a time when old attitudes held sway, an accepted view that Australian artistic endeavour was crippled by isolation and half-starved by a diet of stale European traditions.
Central to that was an understanding that Australia needed to come to terms with its own geography and past as sources of inspiration and self-awareness. And those who pushed that idea were Melbourne’s intel-lectual elite, the University of Melbourne academics who were central to the identification, selection and curation of the arts festival. What most of that elite chose to do was to curate the festival on the basis of the nation’s cultural antecedents, rather than speculate on the changes underway in the Australian aesthetic that would herald a new era of distinct national themes and expression. Brooks’ opening remarks stand now as a peculiar characterisation of how the nation saw itself, where the notion of the cultural cringe sat at the heart of what it meant to be Australian.
The 1956 Olympic Games were the first Olympics to be held in the Southern Hemisphere. For everyone associated with Melbourne’s staging of the games it provided a burden of expectation and an opportunity to impress. The pressures associated with feeling the international gaze upon it were increased when IOC president Avery Brundage decided to abandon the traditional Olympic arts competition, and instead direct Melbourne to hold an arts festival. Brundage was a former Olympic athlete, a Freemason, a Chicago hotelier and developer. He was also a man who issued directives with the certainty of a five-star general. His unpopularity was legendary. US sportswriter Red Smith memorably observed that Brundage was ‘the official target of abuse in every Olympic year since the invention of the discus’. Brundage thought the amalgam of athletic excellence with artistic exhibitions was the perfect way to celebrate the amateur spirit he so cherished.
‘People interested in the fine arts would have an opportunity to become acquainted with amateur sport in its highest manifestation and those interested in athletic sports would be exposed to outstanding works of art,’ Brundage explained to the already brow-beaten Olympic executives in Melbourne. Put simply, Brundage wanted to bring the aesthetic and the athletic together in Australia in 1956. But was it the time and the place?
Brundage’s idea, communicated to the Melbourne team in March 1954, was taken up with what seems to have been a weary sense of duty. In theory, the festival would be a celebration of Australia’s finest cultural expressions, a platform to show the world that when it came to the arts, Australia knew one end of a paintbrush from another, the difference between an ode and a sonata, and the distinction between avant garde and modern. Except it didn’t turn out that way. The city’s cultural arbiters dithered and dallied before turning to the University of Melbourne to deliver the final say on what represented Australian high culture in the 1950s.
The decision to invest the university with the responsibility of choosing cultural winners and losers was driven largely by the lack of any institutional alternative: the University of Melbourne was the city’s only tertiary institution. (Monash University was not established until 1958.) It also pointed to a tacit understanding that when it came to the arts, the intellectual elite knew what mattered. Here was an institution steeped in the English university tradition, and for all intents and purposes, a repository of taste and discernment. There was little debate: most Victorians were happy to defer to those choices. The university’s central role reinforced just how stuck the Australian cultural engine was in the old empire and its cultural markers. It fostered a cultural ideal that was predictable, short on innovation, relentlessly white, male and English. But it didn’t capture the new reality, that outside the university there were glimpses of something stirring, a sense that postwar Australia was enlarging its view, reflecting a changed world order and new ways of seeing.
In 1950 Arthur Phillips’s provocative short essay in Meanjin identified what he called the nation’s ‘cultural cringe’:
Above our writers—and other artists—looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon achievement. Such a situation almost inevitably produces the characteristic Australian Cultural Cringe—appearing either as the Cringe Direct, or as the Cringe Inverted, in the attitude of Blatant Blatherskite, the God’s-own-country-and-I’m-a-better-man-than-you-are Australian bore.
Phillips’s cultural diagnosis seemed particularly apt in the build-up to the arts festival, where it became increasingly obvious that the patrons of the proposed extravaganza would be inquisitive locals, rather than overseas visitors. The vast distance between here and everywhere else meant it took days to get to Melbourne if you couldn’t afford an aeroplane seat.
Throw in a worsening international political climate, ranging from the Korean War and culminating in the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising in the Olympic year, and there were particularly compelling reasons for overseas tourists to stay at home. So the potential for some cultural exchange between visitors and locals was compromised from the start.
Even Melbourne’s representatives didn’t try too hard to convince the International Olympic Committee that the city was a cultural jewel just waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world. In the overblown material that the Melbourne bid used in 1949 to advance its case to host the games, there was scant evidence of the deep culture that was supposed to exist in the ‘the seventh city of the British Empire’. In one particular glowing document, entitled ‘Melbourne: a city of unrivalled loveliness’, there was a section called ‘The home of art and literature’. It identified the ‘pillared majesty’ of the National Gallery and Museum and noted that the gallery’s collection was ‘… considered extraordinary for a Gallery so far removed from the world’s art centres’. Not only that, but the Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria) had 600,000 volumes, which ensured it had the most ‘comprehensive range of reading in Australia’. Melbourne even had its own symphony orchestra, which had earned praise from visiting conductors. (Cultural cringe anyone?) World-famous artists featured in Melbourne concerts. It was hardly compelling evidence of a cultural outpost, holding up the empire’s traditional aesthetic standards. A gallery, a library and an orchestra—did that amount to the home of art and literature?
The International Olympic Committee had in previous games staged a fine arts competition. Part of Brundage’s determination to replace the competition with a festival was his dogmatic commitment to the purity of the amateur sportsperson. In an ‘artistic competition’, the amateur ideal was contravened by the artists, ostensibly ‘professional’ because they sold their work. The fact that most of the participating artists were barely making a living was immaterial: amateurism needed amplification, and didn’t the ancient Greeks glory in the spirit of athletic competition and artistic excellence? But the IOC president was also mindful of the poor response and patronage of previous competitions. When Melbourne’s turn came, Brundage insisted on a festival of fine arts replacing the competition.
Melbourne’s first step in realising Brundage’s goal was to establish an arts committee in 1954 under the chairmanship of University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Sir George Paton. Regular meetings took place over the next 16 months, but no discernible progress appeared to be made. There was a sense that no-one could decide what the arts festival should look like, what art should be included and how it could be displayed. Paton was a Rhodes scholar from Grovedale, near Geelong, and an Oxford law graduate, who had an enviable reputation for pragmatic classroom discussions and an affable manner. He was, it seems, chosen to keep the academics focused on the arts festival task rather than to provide any cultural insights.
Paton was not an artist, a cultural academic or a critic. Indeed, he was even a reluctant university administrator, more at home in the lecture hall, but found himself leading the royal commission into television in 1953 while also supporting the creation of the professional Union Theatre Repertory Company and its transferral to the city as the Melbourne Theatre Company. Like so many of his intellectual crowd, Paton invoked history and geography to help explain Australia’s lack of a distinctive artistic voice. ‘We are, however, a remote and scattered people drawn mainly from one stock. It is hard for us to avoid insularity; and perhaps our greatest need at this stage of our history is to grow beyond our own tradition,’ he wrote in the festival catalogue.
Paton appeared unable to provide the required focus to his committee in its early days and to unite its disparate voices, drawn from different university faculties and arts institutions, such as the National Gallery. By March 1955, with the games only 20 months away, Melbourne’s main Olympic organising committee transferred Paton’s committee to the Olympic civic committee, a recognition perhaps that the main committee was too consumed with the nuts and bolts of running the games to worry about the arts festival. Unlike the games, there was no template for Melbourne to follow when it came to an arts festival.
Progress was only made when, in its new bureaucratic home, the arts committee was divided into a fine arts subcommittee that was to produce visual art and literature exhibitions under Paton’s guidance and a festival subcommittee under Sir Bernard Heinze that would look after music and drama. Paton had former vice-chancellor, chair of the National Gallery Trust and ABC commissioner Sir John Medley, plus former gallery director Sir Daryl Lindsay and his successor Eric Westbrook, on his com-mittee. There was, at least, a direction to follow now and the looming deadline created some momentum.
Heinze had been Ormond professor of music at the University of Melbourne since 1925, a distinguished conductor, as well as director-general of music of the ABC since 1929. Paton’s and Heinze’s direct connection to Melbourne’s sandstone university was a confirmation of just how central the university was to perceptions of cultural excellence. But it brought with it all the notions of what traditional artistic expression looked and sounded like.
This initial embrace of the Old World disguised an emerging cultural trend that owed something to the impact of the Second World War on Australian immigration and the broader experience of Australians who had seen something of the world because of the conflict. Theatre critic and arts publisher Katherine Brisbane recalled something was stirring. ‘Self-assertion was in the air, uncertainly expressed in a yearning to mix on terms of equality with those older civilisations thousands of servicemen had glimpsed during the war and from which a daily increasing number of new Australians had come.’ But the expression of these impulses remained vague, glimpsed by some writers, artists and performers, off in the distance, a vision that suggested better things.
Instead, it was the physical environment that became the fulcrum for new thinking, powered by the practical demands for more affordable housing, the expansion of the suburbs and the increasing proliferation of the motor car. Two years before Melbourne was awarded the games, the young architect Robin Boyd published the first history of modern architecture in Victoria, entitled Victoria Modern. In the same year Boyd, under the auspices of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, joined with the Age newspaper to create a small-homes service that would give putative home owners a selection of architects’ plans for only £5 ($10) to envisage their new home. They would then find a builder to make it a reality. It was an innovation that promoted the appeal of the city’s suburbs and regions.
By 1954 Boyd had a weekly column in the Herald, writing about architecture and design issues, applying his easy writing style—and often provocative thinking—not only to the outside of houses but inside as well: the look of living rooms, the labour-saving devices in kitchens and laundries, and the way people lived. ‘We have in Melbourne no scenery, skyscrapers or spectacles to impress visitors. But we have unique standards of home comfort—at all levels, not only in the three-car-garage class, but in the carport and carless classes as well,’ Boyd wrote in the Herald in 1955. ‘Because we have nothing else to do, we excel at home-making. We have more violent contrasts in housing than any other town in Australia, and therefore the world. We have architectural and botanical excellence side-by-side with world phenomena in explosively vulgar design.’ This was a robust critique, rare in its subject and bold in its delivery. And it appeared in a conservative afternoon newspaper. Such commentary was a radical incursion into an old and weathered cultural scene. And Boyd’s growing profile was a reflection of a deep interest in a new style of living following the conflict, privations, austerity and monochrome tone of the 1940s.
But unlike many other cultural pursuits, the architects and designers didn’t have the Old World custodians to frustrate their thinking or stifle their ideas. Manufacturing was growing across Australia, consumer goods were in demand, and aspirations of a comfortable—and peaceful—domestic existence were coming to the fore.
• • •
Nothing exemplified the clash between the old and the new quite like the debate about the best way of engaging Australian writers in the arts festival. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the man at the centre of the stoush was Clem Christesen, a man willing to roll up his sleeves in defence of the nation’s poets, novelists and historians. In 1940 Christesen started a small literary journal in Brisbane that he called Meanjin. The first issue was eight pages, only 200 copies were printed and it contained a range of poetry, including some of Christesen’s verse.
Five years later, the University of Melbourne invited Christesen to move the magazine south and operate under the university’s financial umbrella. Christesen and his wife Nina agreed and set about expanding, developing and engaging the nation’s literary culture. By 1949 Christesen felt there was a distinctive Australian quality about the local literature. ‘It is a product of this country and of this people and no other, reflecting distinctive ways of life and living, patterns of thought and behaviour,’ he wrote. ‘Our task has been to learn to possess instead of being possessed, to understand the nature of our own heritage, to interpret first to ourselves and then to the outsider, native values and the cause of meaning of our own way of life.’
Unsurprisingly given that robust verdict on the local literary scene, Christesen was a fierce advocate for domestic talent and despite the university’s apparently enlightened financial support, Christesen didn’t believe such support bought his silence in matters where university personalities were on his turf. Christesen’s first complaint to Paton was a broad swipe about the festival’s invisibility among the nation’s literati. ‘So far as I can gather, no literary society in Australia even knows of the existence of the Olympic Fine Arts sub-committee. No suggestion from writers or writers’ groups seem to have been sought,’ he told Paton in November 1955.
Christesen took it upon himself to rectify that and noted he had discussed in 1953 holding an ‘international literary congress’ in Melbourne during the games with the Australian committee for UNESCO responsible for drama, theatre and literature. The UNESCO representative told Christesen the committee was ‘sympathetically inclined’ to the idea but the logistics of trying to find visitor accommodation at such short notice in Melbourne when spare hotel beds were at a premium made it impossible. Not to be deterred, Christesen felt Paton needed to know what he’d been up to.
I should like to mention informally that writers seem to be very disappointed to learn that only an exhibition of Australian books and manuscripts will be held during the Olympic period. This does not seem to them to be a particularly adventurous or exciting proposal, one which indeed could be held at any time. It was felt that if internationally famous athletes could be invited to take part in the Games, then it would be reasonable to assume that distinguished writers could also be invited to this country and possibly take part in a conference … And apart from the fact that our own writers would benefit enormously by personal contact with leading overseas writers, the visitors themselves would benefit by first-hand experience of this country, of its literature and arts. Seemingly not even a national conference of writers is to be held—nothing, in fact, other than an exhibition of books and manuscripts.
It was a fair point, but Paton didn’t have the time, the money or the inclination to embrace such an idea, let alone make it happen. He responded somewhat tetchily:
Dear Christesen, If we arrange a congress of writers, we will be asked to arrange a congress of painters, sculptors, architects and so on. Perhaps you do not realise that the Fine Arts Committee has a very small budget and that accommodation is severely overtaxed … Our terms of reference are to hold a National Arts Festival. It is a little hard to blame us for not doing something else.
Paton had no desire to mollify the Meanjin editor and passed Christesen’s letter on to the secretary of the Olympic civics committee, the aspiring Liberal politician Don Chipp. Chipp, the man who would later famously pledge to ‘keep the bastards honest’, also had no time for Christesen’s proposal and didn’t hold back in his response to Paton:
Mr Christesen’s criticism that an unparalleled opportunity is being missed to my mind reflects on nobody but himself and his colleagues, as it seems to me that if they are so anxious to have a congress and are sincere in this gesture, I cannot see why they do not make arrangements themselves … I may be a little unfair in saying that this group is acting in the true Australian tradition of ‘knocking’ and yet are not prepared to do the very thing they criticise another organisation for failing to do.
What neither Paton nor Chipp acknowledged was that there was going to be an alternative fine art exhibition in Melbourne, in much the same way that Christesen had proposed for the nation’s writers. The Contem-po-rary Art Society in Melbourne, revived by John Reed in 1954, was going to hold its own exhibition of modern Australian art in direct competition to the official festival exhibition. The CAS was not best pleased at what had been proposed for the fine arts elements of the festival: complaints about the subcommittee’s parochialism were sent to the state government and the IOC. Christesen’s rebuke seemed almost mild in comparison.
However, there were two key considerations of which Christesen was unaware: the budget for the literature festival was only £200, significantly less than all the other artistic components of the festival. Even the festival catalogue—a sturdy 196-page hardback—had a budget of £500. The poverty of literature’s allocation could perhaps best be explained by the revelation that it was fortunate that literature was included at all. The chairman of Meanjin’s advisory board, Ian Maxwell, professor of English at the University of Melbourne, was also on the Fine Arts Festival subcommittee and became the convenor of the literature advisory committee. But when discussions started about what role literature should play in the festival it was Maxwell who suggested that it should not be part of any proposed program at all. Indeed, the committee agreed ‘that Literature be eliminated from the festival as it would be difficult to organise satisfactorily’. But the committee proposed an alternative: ‘that the Public Library might organise an exhibition of Australiana to coincide with the Games’. And that was what happened.
There would be examples of Australian poetry, drama and fiction, plus displays of the library’s unique holdings that included a fifteenth-century Italian translation of Boethius—the oldest book in the library—a collection of early printing examples, including a Bible from 1454–56 and the first nine editions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s work, dating from 1532. There were examples of notable Australian writers C.J. Dennis, Mary Gilmore, A.B. Patterson, and the more recent Kenneth Slessor and James McAuley, plus a display of the journals of Abel Tasman, William Dampier, James Cook and Arthur Phillip. But there wasn’t a clear sense of ‘Australianess’ about the exhibition. The overwhelming impression was that it was a display of the library’s holdings of the English canon, leavened with some examples of local writers. Christesen was moved to write in Meanjin:
If an international conference was really outside the terms of the Olympic charter (isn’t the whole festival international?) surely a national literary conference could have been sponsored before or after the Games period. And is it not reasonable to assume that halls and suitable private accommodation could have been provided for visiting writers? As it stands at present, the best the Olympic Fine Arts Sub-committee can offer concerning Australian literature is … an exhibition of books and manuscripts. Floreat Moomba.
When the fine arts catalogue was released it was, tellingly, yet another Melbourne University academic, this time a senior lecturer in history, a young Geoffrey Serle, who wrote the introduction to the literature component of the festival. It was a cautious text from a man who would become an assured prose stylist, biographer and insightful editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In it, Serle sought to locate just where Australian literature had come from and where it was going: ‘Australia had the great good fortune to inherit the entire English literary tradition of Chaucer and Shakespeare, just as she inherited the Christian religion, parliamentary government, English common law and cricket,’ Serle wrote, in a clear acknowledgement not only of the nation’s cultural precursors, but its religious, political and sporting ones too. Serle from these foundations postulated that these old traditions had impeded the growth of the local product, and ‘… literature had to start from scratch, had to be created entirely afresh’.
Not for the first time, the country’s unique geography was identified as the culprit in a literary culture failing to take root. ‘[L]iterature would not flourish in Australia until the country’s baffling strangeness had been overcome and it was seen through appreciative eyes as a fit and proper subject for the artist,’ Serle wrote. There had been innovations, Serle maintained, but when it came to defining what that looked like, Serle fell back on notions of the Australian character to explain the nation’s fiction:
The strength of the Australian novelist has been his [sic] realism, integrity and dramatic power: his writing is virile and earthy. The major weakness has tended to be in form rather than content, in construction and style rather than in intellectual ability or power of expression; Australian writing by and large is rough-hewn rather than polished (after all, to some extent, a reflection of Australian behaviour).
Serle concluded that writing was part of recent ‘exciting developments in Australian cultural life’. He was even optimistic about the consequences of such developments. ‘As the literary tradition firms and Australian society expands and becomes more diverse, one may with reason anticipate an eventual continental contribution to English and to world literature.’ Its tone suggested that such an achievement was still a long way off.
But in comparison to literature, the fine arts, music, architecture and design fared far better during the festival, not just in terms of their budget but also in promoting their work. Most of the commentaries that accompanied these parts of the festival in the official catalogue were again written by Melbourne University academics—Bernard Smith, then a senior lecturer in fine art, reflected on painting and drawings (which were selected for the festival by the NGV’s keeper of prints, Ursula Hoff), Brian Lewis reviewed architecture, the Reverend Percy Jones, who was vice-director of the conservatorium, wrote about music and Keith Macartney from the university’s English department wrote about drama.
For most of them, the message was remarkably the same: Australia had precious little that was distinctive or unique. We were a young nation still in search of our own cultural identity. ‘Australian architecture cannot be easily recognised as a distinct building expression … the promise of early colonial building became submerged in international influences …’ Lewis wrote. Smith opted to highlight the nation’s predilection for sport rather than art, somewhat prophetic given the nation’s Olympic success:
Australia is better known abroad for her achievements in athletics than for her achievements in art. For she is a young nation who still honours the stamina of her athletes more than she honours the vision of her artists and writers. So the story of her art even today, remains the story of a beginning.
Percy Jones chimed in: ‘If it is true that music is the last of the arts to flourish in a civilization, it is no surprise to find that as yet the voice of Australia in original com-position lags behind the expression of national life in terms of painting and writing.’ (Smith and Serle might have disagreed with Jones’ view.) Keith McCartney made similar observations:
For drama is a reflection of the lives … of the audience for whom it is written and can be ‘national’ only when it in some measure gives expression to the soul of the people. Thus, it is not surprising that young nations like Australia need time to effect the necessary combination of circumstances for the realization of individual drama.
But McCartney saw some signs of life and cause for optimism, unlike some of his colleagues. ‘It is only in the last few years that Australia has shown signs of finding this combination … the voice of the native playwright called forth that immediate reply within popular theatre which gives real and lasting dramatic life to his work.’ McCartney was referring to Summer Locke-Elliott’s Rusty Bugles and more recently Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, plays that sounded like Australia and Australians. Here, at last, was proof that Australia was starting to find its voice.
Just how firm Melbourne University’s hold on these artistic pursuits was can be best appreciated by what was happening in the industrial-design element of the festival, an endeavour that had no traditional or historical precedent that was connected to ‘old’ academic priorities. Not surprisingly, it was held at the Royal Melbourne Technical College, the old ‘tech’, which taught design as part of an applied art studies course. In 1951 it offered Australia’s first industrial design qualification. Ron Rosenfeldt, the coordinator of the festival’s design exhibition, did his training at the tech and worked with the Myers retail group on shop interiors, some furniture and hotel refits.
When the time came to assemble exhibitors for the festival, Rosenfeldt was able to draw on a healthy list of former ‘tech’ students who were already making their way in the design environment. The result was a display that emphasised new products, such as aluminium, moulded plastics and fibreglass. But it also included manufacturing exhibitors Brownbuilt, Repco, the radio and television firm AG Healing and Maileys washing machines.
Rosenfeldt’s rationale, as he noted in the festival catalogue, was to explain the importance of the designer as part of a team producing a low-cost solution to an Australian problem. ‘The Holden car, austerely designed in comparison with other General Motors products abroad, clearly indicates our approach to this problem. In Australia, good appearance must be based more strictly on making the product look as though it will do its job efficiently,’ he wrote. In tone, Rosenfeldt’s analysis of the design scene was starkly different to every other program entry: it was an explanation of how design contributed to Australia. It was pragmatic rather than aesthetic. ‘Industrial design is a young profession in this country,’ Rosenfeldt noted. Profession indeed. Could any other Australian artist claim to be making a living from what they did?
The festival inevitably fell into some old habits: Italian opera singers soprano Sena Jurinac and baritone Sesto Bruscantini were brought to Melbourne for a series of Mozart operas. But in other ways there were signs of cooperation and attempts to maximise the exposure of Australian talent. The ABC brought the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to Melbourne for two festival concerts, which were a sellout, at the Olympic pool. And the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust restaged The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
The festival was proclaimed a success, partly it seems because it was sheltered by the general feel-good ambience of the games, which offered it protection from any lingering public criticism. Right up until the end the festival was still imbued with an old-world sensibility when Heinze conducted the Royal Philharmonic in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. More than 10,000 people saw the architecture and sculpture exhibition at the university’s Wilson Hall. And all of that—a whole festival—on a budget of just over £100,000.
But the painting and drawing element of the festival drew critical fire—a mixture of the good, the not-so-good, the amateur and the professional turned it into a display of Australian art chosen by committee. It was, as one modern observer dubbed it, an aesthetic camel. The exhibition of Australian literature barely rated a mention in the city’s newspapers.
Amid this celebration of Australian culture, more profound expressions were working their way to the surface. Some provoked the heavy hand of tradition in the face of popular engagement. Others spoke of something fundamental, that art had captured some of the ‘strangeness’ of the country and its people.
Nine months before the Olympics, the National Gallery of Victoria acquired John Brack’s Collins St, 5p.m., which he had completed the previous year. It was a painting that owed much to the new movement in Australian art, but the impulse, let alone its array of stern, angular Australian faces, was evidence of something narrow and constricted. Forty years after the NGV secured what became the iconic Melbourne painting of the city at the end of the working day, John Brack and his wife Helen explained the cultural climate of the time:
[John] did not experience, then, any climate of optimism that the community was to favour modernity and modernism; indeed the pictures indicate that the climate he experienced at that time was one of banality, ignorance, sterility and naivety; this was experienced both inside art circles and outside of them.
Yet there was a recognition elsewhere that something distinctive was emerging within Australian art. In 1953, a London exhibition entitled Twelve Australian Artists provoked English art critic John Berger to write in Meanjin: ‘One thing, however, I am certain about: very few mixed exhibitions in either London or Paris imply the under-lying unity which this one did. This unity had nothing to do with any common style but with something much subtler: the birth of a national tradition.’ Berger singled out Russell Drysdale, Lloyd Rees, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. Here was a sense of difference that was clear to the outsider. Berger went on to quote the poems of David Campbell and Alec Hope to support the unique sense of place communicated in the art, before concluding that it was evidence of a national tradition that ‘held its own, both literally and metaphorically’.
This emerging sense that outsiders found more evidence of cultural innovation than the local elite also afflicted Sydney novelist Patrick White in the Olympic year. White’s Tree of Man had been lauded in New York and London as a great novel. One New York critic described it as ‘a majestic and impressive work of genuine art that digs more deeply in to the universal experience of human living than all save a few great books’. But back in Australia the poet and academic Alec Hope, ironically enough, reviewed it in the Sydney Morning Herald with a savage focus on White’s style. ‘When so few Australian novelists can write prose at all, it is a great pity to see Mr White, who shows on every page some touch of the born writer, deliberately choose as his medium this pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.’ Yet Australians responded warmly to the novel, and 8000 copies were sold in the first three months of its release. And the Australian Literature Society awarded White a second gold medal.
On the eve of the Olympics, Barry Humphries reprised a character he had first introduced at the end of 1955. Edna Everage, a suburban housewife who wants proudly to show off her home to an Olympic visitor, became something enduring, loveable and intrinsically Australian. The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll would continue to engage audiences during the Olympic year and forever after. White became Australia’s first Nobel Prize winner for literature. In 1960 Robin Boyd would deliver a searing critique of the Australian suburbs with his book The Australian Ugliness. A candle had been lit that became a torch.
Even now it is difficult to extricate the festival from under the massive shadow of the Olympics and the hyperbole around the sporting competition to establish just how successful it was in celebrating Australian arts. The festival barely registers in conventional histories of the time and its role as a placemark in the nation’s cultural evolution barely registers among specialist commen-tators. What remains indisputable is that the festival occurred at a critical moment of flux in the nation’s cultural development. Many of the innovations that were underway eluded those charged with choosing content for the exhibitions or offered glimpses of something beyond the old-world traditions. Those arbiters, mostly drawn from the traditions of an academic thinking rooted in the English cultural experience, probably felt the ground starting to shift beneath their feet. But they held the line one last time before the waves of modernity swept over them.
Nick Richardson is a journalist, author and academic. His book on 1956 will be published later this year.
The Arts Festival of the Olympic Games Melbourne, A Guide to the Exhibitions with Introductory Commentaries on the Arts in Australia, Olympic Civic Committee, Melbourne, 1956.
1956: Melbourne. Modernity and the XVI Olympics, Museum of Modern Art at Heidi, Bulleen, 1996 (exhibition catalogue)
David Marr, Patrick White: A Life, Jonathan Cape, London, 1991.