A new perspective: ACU Art Collection - Book review by Margaret Pont

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Image:
Justin Maurice O’Brien
1917-96, Australia
Pietà, c.1960s
Oil and gold leaf on board
H 74.5 x W 51 cm
Acquired 2009

Australian Catholic University Art Collection

This is a beautiful book – a bespoke book. In it, Caroline Field has selected sixty-six works from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Art Collection. These range in medium from early medieval sculpture, stained glass and textiles through to works in oil, acrylic, print, ceramics and, most recently, twenty-first-century glass. In full colour, each work is presented photographically, and more than fifty have an accompanying essay. These are written by an impressive range of authors, which includes art historians, religious commentators, curators, art writers and critical thinkers. The importance of classifying and recording what had previously been a rather random collection of religious, historical and contemporary works cannot be overstated. This publication will allow visual access and documentation to students, artists, academics and the public. It will also provide a basis for an exhibition of selected works in the proposed gallery and the placement of works around ACU campuses.

At a symposium on John Henry Newman’s idea of a university held at Newman College, Melbourne, in 2010, three vice chancellors spoke. The suggestions were that the university could variously been seen as a business, a means of working through the information maze and as a place that provides pastoral care. The latter was posited by the ACU, and Louis Laumen’s bronze statue of St Mary MacKillop epitomises this sentiment. Placed at the entrance to ACU’s Melbourne campus, it can be clearly seen by passers-by in Brunswick Street, wonderfully close to the saint’s place of origin. Through abject hardship this saint’s care and kindness prevailed; human nurture is in harmony with nature, signified by the proximity of the accompanying bird. To look on this statue is to is to experience a sense of calm and to feel welcomed onto the campus.

The book contains numerous renderings of the Madonna, many with the Christ child. These affirm a tradition of mediated divine help through the centuries. They remain powerful images of the ultimate sacrifice. Justin O’Brien’s Pietà reminds us of his prize-winning work in the first year of the Blake Prize. For me, it was a thrill to recognise the face of O’Brien’s Madonna. His muse was Daniella Scardamaglia, the wife of the artist’s friend Egidio, whom I met in Italy. She is a woman who radiates a sense of grace and generosity. Surveying religious art across the prize’s 70 years shows clearly how art is capable of opening up new ways of embracing the world of the spirit. Religion, now more popularly called spirituality, shows us how we can live together. The four Indigenous artworks included in A new perspective are thought provoking. They pose questions relating to country, expanding the sense of being and offering alternative stories of humanity’s place in the universe.

Other themes, some biblical, remain highly significant. Arthur Boyd’s ceramic tile The Tribute Money portrays Jesus and Peter as everyday characters, and the work alerts us to the archetypal nature of the situation. The artist poses the age-old question in the form of a parable: “How do we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s?” Or, alternatively, “What is the cost of submitting to a regime as opposed to investing morally in our psychic health?” The inclusion of two prints from Les Petites Fleurs de St François continues the above questioning, particularly materialism. The quality of these works will provide an inspiration to printmakers and graphic designers.

The two studies of trees are as evocative as they are diverse. Both show how important trees are to our environment; their nourishment is physiological and spiritual. Two exquisite bowls are featured: one glass, the other ceramic. They are objects of such beauty and virtuosity that they evoke a sense of awe. We are in the presence of creative genius.

This collection enables interaction on many levels. Above all, the university serves to engage students. It is wonderful that some of the works featured in the book are thoughtfully positioned on the university campuses. Pippin Drysdale’s ceramic bowl appears to be suspended magically in space in a glass display cabinet in the café area. An impressive mosaic panel is sensitively placed in a garden area with an adjacent seat. Some individuals may feel at home contemplating the life of Mary MacKillop through the relic of her cross, while others may feel this in sharing a coffee with friends next to the wondrous bowl.

Each instance can still the soul.

Margaret Pont is a scientist who worked in genetic engineering for thirty years. She also studied fine arts and Italian, and is now an independent scholar of early Christianity and Franciscanism. She has published widely, including the monograph Arthur Boyd and Saint Francis of Assisi (Macmillan Art Publishing, 2004). She is currently working on ‘An Evocation of the Basilica of San Francesco’, which considers the art of the Basilica.

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