The great strength of the Peggy Guggenheim exhibition from Venice is that it is a personal collection, an aggregation of artworks assembled by one person's intersection with specific objects in time and reflective of their taste and erudition.
In this sense, Art Gallery of WA director Stefano Carboni and his senior curatorial team are to be congratulated because they have brought to Perth the first opportunity to view many of these objects in an Australian context.
The exhibition is conceived and installed as a series of rooms arranged from Cubism through to Surrealism and Abstraction.
The first of these rooms offers an encounter with the two titans of 20th century Modernism, with Marcel Duchamp's Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train, painted in 1912, squaring off opposite Picasso's 1928 work, The Studio. In this arrangement of work, all the strange paradoxes of modernity are displayed. Duchamp, arguably the more radical artist, variously seen as where modern art went wrong or alternatively as the redeeming source of all contemporary practice, is here represented by an early work in dark sombre colours that makes him appear the more conservative artist. Across the room Picasso's The Studio is aggressively modern in its stark colouration and shocking white blankness.
This is where the personal collection as exhibition, as distinct from the blockbuster show, allows the viewer new and significant associations with an artist's work. In a curious way, as this exhibition demonstrates, there was a conservative streak to Duchamp's work. He was primarily concerned with returning art to the "service of the mind" as he often said, and in this painting from early in his professional career we can see the way he links the Orphic Cubism of his older brother's work to the painting of the past.
Picasso's work, while by contrast appearing decisively modern, also knowingly looks backwards as well as forwards in evoking the tradition of the studio as theme.
Here the juxtaposition of objects offers a rich source for the complex linking of ideas, in this case that of the artist and model, with a nod to Cezanne and his use of the studio as an investigation of art itself, presented as a model of human experience.
Extending this concept, at the far end of the room, a work on paper by Piet Mondrian, Ocean 5 (1915), amply demonstrates this reconstruction of existence as visual experience.
If you have ever had the experience of turning a photograph of the surface of water upside down you will understand something of Mondrian's ambition here to reconcile the transformation of opposites, just as in your viewing of the photograph the inversion of the familiar allows you to see the strangeness of water in all its molecular and gravitational turbulence.
Nearby is one of the gems of the exhibition, Large Collage (a 1955 reconstruction of the 1918 original) by Jean Arp, radiant in its intelligence and beautifully understated in its authority. It represents that other phenomenon of the personal collection, the relation of time, the longevity of the lived and viewed personal object, a work acquired, lived with, damaged, restored and then returned to its owner.
In the subsequent rooms of the exhibition this theme of conversations between objects continues. I found the correspondence between the elegant small work by Yves Tanguy, Promontory Palace (1931), and Mark Rothko's subtle 1946 watercolour on paper, Sacrifice, to be both geologic and notational, both artists striving for a type of intimacy. Both works have something of the quality of the close encounter that one associates with notebook explorations or the ruminations of personal letters.
In the last rooms there is also the evocation of persons absent but present by association. This is striking in Alberto Giacometti's Piazza (1947) where the arrangement of the solitary female image (his wife as model) is bisected by the perambulations of equally solitary spindly male figures. This work evokes powerfully the writings of his friend and one of Peggy Guggenheim's lovers, Samuel Beckett, particularly his late prose works, in the way they detail the stark non-space of human existence. Giacometti's work stimulates the viewer to bring all manner of associations to his sculptures and this small masterful work is no exception.
On the afternoon I viewed this work, all manner of outlandish tales were being associated with this sombre existential work and this alone is sufficient to mark the event of this exhibition as a success and a significant contribution to the visual culture of WA. That this is to be the first of many such encounters with the great collections of the world at the Art Gallery of WA is truly good news.Associate Professor Donal Fitzpatrick is the head of the School of Design and Art at Curtin University of Technology.
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