Netting the big and the little fish: monographs and biographies

Emeritus Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia and highly respected investigative curator and writer Daniel Thomas pulls out the stops in a far-ranging appraisal of art book publishing in Australia. He writes: "Once the artist is well dead, even if the book is 'only' a monograph, disregard the family and friends; we need to know everything."

Monographs and biographies are not, I imagine, of great interest to those who write for, or publish, contemporary art magazines like Artlink. More interested in cultural questions than in single individuals, Artlink has never devoted an issue to a single artist, whereas an older quarterly, Art & Australia, would once produce William Dobell or Sidney Nolan issues to coincide with retrospectives of those celebrity painters. Monographs - Murray Bail defines them as lavishly illustrated books, like his own Fairweather, that focus on the works of art more than the life – are bound to be promotional as well as critical if the artist is still alive. (Fairweather is dead.) We can't help despising most monographs: often paid for by the artist’s dealer, or even by the artist, they reinforce a market for the works of art as well as help us to understand the work. And biographies – necessarily about dead artists, and with meagre illustration – are hardly part of 'arts publishing’ at all; mainstream book-publishing houses take them on if the subject is likely to interest general readers, whether for the art or for other reasons. The art trade and the mainstream publishing industry will always look after what Artlink calls ‘the big fish’.

Celebrity artists who score monographs and biographies don’t have to have made work of lasting excellence. Some did, some did not. Complicated sexual activities or drugs or personal charm (Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Howard Arkley, Charles Conder), or continuing art-market interest in favoured movements such as ‘Australian Impressionism’ (Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder), can be enough to justify a biography. In Britain when Augustus John: A Biography, by the star biographer Michael Holroyd, came out in 1974 and 1975, the artist was not only a dozen years dead but also forty years out of favour. John’s irregular ways with women and his flamboyant lifestyle, as well as his moderately interesting and once very high-priced works of art, were more than enough to earn him a two-volume blockbuster. Art history or cultural studies can analyse mediocre artists just as fruitfully as good ones. Any well-documented individual is convenient grist to academic mills.

Contemporary art is what most interests present-day students and teachers and magazine publishers. (Practising artists, too, are deeply interested in their living colleagues and competitors.) Among other reference tools, the art world would like provisional data that is fuller and more accurate than what can be found in those art-trade monographs. Since present day consumers of information go first to the internet, our chief concern is the quality of online information.

Key in the name of a contemporary artist and the first landing is usually onto a CV in an art dealer’s website, or the artist’s own site. Those are self-interested, commercially-slanted documents. Or else a page-one hit will be a semi-reliable Wikipedia entry, created by an unidentified Wiki obsessive. The constantly changing world of online information and opinion contains little that is good about contemporary Australian artists. It’s inadequate, too often inaccurate, and – except in blogs such as Nigel Lendon’s Iconophilia – uncritical. We need better material online.

Forty years ago at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney I wrote a number of articles and exhibition catalogues on the work of living senior artists or recently-dead ones – e.g. Grace Cossington Smith, Grace Crowley, Weaver Hawkins, Ralph Balson – none of whom were media or art market celebrities but whose work seemed worth bringing to attention. For those and other publications I unearthed many new biographical facts that helped our understanding of the work. I was teased somewhat about the heightened concern for extensive documentation that I brought to that backward State Gallery. (Victoria and South Australia then had much more professional institutions than New South Wales.) But of course it’s the role of a museum to collect and preserve not only works of art but also to research and preserve all possible associated information.

The collecting institutions – the art museums – have always collected biographical data on the artists, contemporary or otherwise, whose work they collect. They are better at it than the more recently established contemporary art spaces whose role is to produce exhibitions but not to collect. Australia’s major art museums are therefore a prime receptacle of biographical data, though not yet a fully accessible resource. Lately, however, they have risen to this responsibility: their libraries are now much more than a reference service for in-house curators; they have become essential archives for broad cultural studies. Among others, archivist Steven Miller at the Art Gallery of New South Wales Research Library, Glenn Cooke at the Queensland Art Gallery, or Jin Whittington at the Art Gallery of South Australia, have accumulated accessible information about more than a century of exhibitions, reputations and lives of their local artists – those that Artlink calls ‘little fish’.

The professionalised art museum archives, and the long-established State Libraries, are the places to start trawling for information about Australia’s less celebrated artists. However, the art museum websites are not yet very useful for those who want a capsule biography on page one of a google search.

Newspaper obituaries are another good source for biographical data. Newspapers have editorial standards for accuracy and they don’t mind toppling sacred cows, correcting falsehoods and revealing scandals. If recent, obituaries will usually rise to the top of an internet search.

As suggested, reliable bare-bones biographical data – of both Big and Little Fish – not stand-alone monographs and full-dress biographies, are what academics preparing a lecture or writing a conference paper, or students preparing an assignment, most often need. They used to find them in reference books.

There were, and still are, only two quick-reference printed books for Australian artists. One of them, the Australian National University-based Australian Dictionary of Biography, has recently produced an online version, but it includes only a selection of artists among all kinds of Australians, and all are long dead.

The useful one, not yet online, is Alan McCulloch’s commercially published Encyclopedia of Australian Art, first issued in 1968 and last updated in 2006. It includes living artists as well as dead, Aboriginal as well as whitefella artists. There are also essays on movements and styles and mediums. Unlike the unillustrated ADB, it is lavishly illustrated. Many of McCulloch’s artist entries have been plagiarised by Wikipedia. It is now planning to go online and, when it does, its illustrations could make it as useful as the excellent Wikipedia sites for international artists. Art critic McCulloch originally compiled it as a resource for collectors and dealers: "History has been permitted to speak for itself concerning artists of the past" and the living were limited to those “whose work might be of interest to future generations of artists, scholars, collectors and connoisseurs”. McCulloch’s comprehensiveness filled practical needs: it was the only place where you might track down extremely obscure artists whose work had come to light in a garage sale, or had to be assessed after a death in the family.

McCulloch continues as a small family business. For the living it relies on questionnaires sent to candidates who might falsify birth dates and upgrade their fame, or else fail to respond and correct a draft entry. Nevertheless, the hard-copy new McCulloch's Encyclopedia is already exceptional, and bracingly critical: “Hart, Pro (Kevin Charles) ... activities included support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation political party…a relentless self-promoter…an NSW state funeral was inexplicably held for Hart.” Constant correction and updating of an online version would make it even more valuable.

The other long-established biographical resource, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, now fills seventeen chronologically spaced volumes, the first of which appeared in 1966, the most recent in 2007. Sixteen of the volumes are now online, with factual corrections to the hard-copy versions; volume 17 will soon be online (it covers Australians with names A–K who flourished 1981–1990, among whom I contributed an entry on the art publisher Mervyn Horton); and volume 18 will go online simultaneously with the hard-copy book. Australians who happen to be in the ADB invariably land on page one of a Google search.

Another university-based biographical dictionary, edited by the late Joan Kerr, is now out of print. Confined to early-colonial artists, the Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870 was unusually comprehensive. It embraced the ‘minor’ media of (commercial) photography and engraving. The term ‘Sketchers’ in the title signalled that even amateur practitioners were included, and thereby Kerr was writing early-colonial women into our art history. Nineteenth-century Aboriginal artists were also included. Published in 1992, Kerr’s Dictionary of Australian Artists…to 1870 grew out of a research project initiated by Bernard Smith in the 1970s, at the University of Sydney, for a biographical dictionary, more accurate and authoritative than McCulloch but similar in scope, which would cover the full span of Australian art history. Also out of print is another of Joan Kerr’s spin-offs from that on/off scheme: Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book (1995) is a biographical dictionary of Australian women artists up to the 1950s, for which grants were received during her time at the University of New South Wales.

In 2002, at the University of New South Wales, the scheme was revived as DAAO: The Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. Vivien Johnson’s Western Desert Artists: A Biographical Dictionary (1995) is incorporated into the DAAO, and so are Kerr’s database of Australian cartoonists and Roger Butler’s extraordinary National Gallery database of over 22,000 major and minor settler and Indigenous printmakers from throughout our Australasian region.

The DAAO is a marvellous project, but a great many late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century artists are still absent. And you have to know about its existence. A Google search never leads into DAAO.

In 2009 DAAO has changed. Instead of Dictionary of Australian Artists Online the same acronym now stands for Design and Art of Australia Online. It will continue the laborious accumulation of biographical data, rigorously researched with support from the Australian Research Council and partner universities, art museums and libraries. But it will become more like an encyclopedia; it plans to incorporate complete readymade texts and illustrations of a few out-of-print books that are deemed pedagogically crucial.

I recommend that this forum on arts publishing agitate to ensure the partly-biographical resource DAAO survives and eventually becomes as accessible as the ADB, and far more comprehensive. This will no doubt take many years.

I also recommend that people agitate to ensure the partly-biographical printed book The New McCullochs Encyclopedia of Australian Art be republished as soon as possible online. This will no doubt take only a short time.

I further suggest that, meanwhile, everyone immediately contribute do-it-yourself corrections and improvements to the Australian artists already present in Wikipedia.

Other biographical genres. An internet search will usually link an artist to a relevant bibliography. Besides monographs and biographies, there are other ways of finding biographical context for art. One traditional format is collected letters.

A good example is Janine Burke’s Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed (1995). Nancy Underhill’s Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in his own words (2007) collects not only extracts from letters but also diary notes, media interviews, and statements made for exhibition catalogues.
Art museum catalogues for monographic exhibitions always include a good sampling of such vivid material. Indeed museum publishing is almost invariably far more scrupulous, and far more useful, than most commercially published monographs. Examples by museum curators include David Hansen’s John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque (2003) for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery; Rebecca Andrews’s Hans Heysen (2008) for the Art Gallery of South Australia; Geoffrey Smith’s Arthur Streeton (1995) and Sidney Nolan: Desert and Drought (2004) for the National Gallery of Victoria; Trevor Smith’s Robert MacPherson (2001) for the Art Gallery of Western Australia; Deborah Hart’s Richard Larter (2008) for the National Gallery of Australia; Deborah Edwards’ Robert Klippel (2002) for the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and Wayne Tunnicliffe and Julie Ewington’s Tim Johnson: Painting Ideas (2009) for the Queensland Art Gallery.

And by no means all commercially-published monographs are lightweight. Patrick McCaughey’s outstanding Fred Williams was first published in the artist’s lifetime by Bay Books, and the posthumous second and third editions by Murdoch Books. The same publishers issued the two editions of Murray Bail’s Fairweather, perhaps the finest of all Australian monographs. Craftsman House, publisher of many rather journeyman monographs, can take great credit for Wystan Curnow’s Imants Tillers and the ‘Book of Power’ (1998). And Macmillan has published monographs by Christopher Heathcote on important but rather neglected Melbourne artists George Johnson (2006) and Roger Kemp (2007). The commissioning editors at commercial publishers of art books are as passionate at heart as the non-profit publishers.

However, a big issue has lowered editorial standards at university and other subsidised publishing houses. As they scramble to become self-supporting non-profits some have approached the condition of vanity presses. Most notoriously, Melbourne University Publishing had a bad patch in 2003 when it published Ann Galbally’s poorly-edited biography of Charles Conder. The copy-editing left glaring typos throughout; the content was mealy-mouthed, willing to mention syphilis gained as a youth from a landlady in Sydney but the prudish author was allowed to sanitise the adult bisexuality. For Conder, who died in 1909, or for Fairweather who died in 1974, there is no need to respect the susceptibilities of surviving family and friends about sicknesses, bad habits, money-grubbings, politics, sexualities or unkindnesses.

With lesser artists, an emphasis on such details can become prurient. But when the works of art are themselves of extraordinary interest, as it is in the case of Fairweather and Nolan though perhaps not Conder, absolutely nothing should be withheld. Murray Bail insists that because his Fairweather was a monograph, not a biography, it did not have to explore the possibility that the artist was schizophrenic. I disagree with Bail. Once the artist is well dead, even if the book is ‘only’ a monograph, disregard the family and friends; we need to know everything.

Darleen Bungey’s outstanding 2007 biography of Arthur Boyd (died 1999) told us, with his widow’s permission, about his hitherto little-known drunkenness in old age. I think I remember Humphrey McQueen’s 1996 biography of Tom Roberts (died 1931) speculating about the money for a not-cheap voyage to England by the young man: gigolo maybe? I accepted, uncomfortably, that because the paintings by Grace Cossington Smith (died 1984) were so splendid, in Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, a study of how women managed their lives as artists, it was reasonable for the author to speculate about the spinster’s sexuality. I wonder how Nancy Underhill’s forthcoming biography of Sidney Nolan (died 1992) will navigate the problems of egotism, an abandoned wife, a suicide wife, and a living widow and children.

A different estate-related issue is control of copyright in an artist’s writings and images. Albert Tucker’s widow withheld permission to illustrate paintings in Janine Burke’s 2002 biography because she knew the author was going to downgrade the artist’s late work. If permission had been granted, readers could have made their own judgements and perhaps disagreed with the author.

What general readers want Since for nearly twenty years I have been less a writer about Australian art than a reader, I seek indulgence for a few complaints.

More pictures please If we are interested in art we need pictures rather more than texts. We love the complete works, fully illustrated, of major artists – Caravaggio, Monet, Segantini, Tom Roberts. In 1985 there was a two-volume Tom Roberts catalogue raisonné, by Helen Topliss for Oxford University Press, but it was too expensive for private buyers. New technology is not expensive, and today more art publishing should follow the 2002 example of Deborah Edwards’ Robert Klippel, an exhibition book with an ‘Appendix’ in the form of a CD-Rom which contained a catalogue raisonné that illustrated more than 1,200 sculptures, a life’s work. Forthcoming publications of this kind will prefer DVDs, which can accommodate more complex tabulated information.

Moving-image DVDs have not yet I think appeared as appendices to Australian art books. They should. They could scrutinise all aspects of a sculpture, and the surfaces of a painting. They could walk through an environment or past an installation. They could present works of video art in full.

And moving-image exploration of a gallery space would give crucial information about the scale of an object in relation to a human body. Print illustrations of, say, a small hand-textured Mondrian painting adjacent to a vast screenprinted Warhol canvas or a projection, can be misleading about scale. A single image from a film or video projection is always inadequate. Publishers should illustrate gallery installations more often; the Queensland University Art Museum has done so to great effect for understanding the scale of abstract paintings. A work of art is not solely or even primarily an image, it’s also an object.

Eyes Readers who devour long texts for pleasure still require hard copy; online reading is only for quick information-gathering, never for pleasure. (Improvements to Kindle-style hardwares, coming soon, might make downloaded books pleasant enough for reading on screen.) Much hard-copy publishing at present is designed typographically to look stylish as a visual layout: ease of reading is ignored; designers seem to have come from the world of smart-looking corporate reports and brochures. A first test for readability of long texts is the quotation marks and the font. The font should have serifs. Quotations should have double inverted commas. Single inverted commas might look more ‘modern’ but should be used only for unusual meanings or irony (see Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide); at the close of a quotation they frequently cause an irritable reader to backtrack and check whether it was a quotation mark or an apostrophe.

At the forum on publishing it was good to find a welcome kit in my Adelaide hotel room where the classy magazines (e.g. Griffith Review) used double inverted commas. So do newspapers; The Australian and its peers know how to hold a real reader.