I’m living in London. I work in retail. I’m talking to a customer and they happen to ask me why I moved all the way from Melbourne and settled here. I share with them the fact that I got accepted to do my masters here.
Their interest is tickled: they ask, “A Masters in what?”
I answer: curatorship.
They proceed with, “Well if you’re going to study about art and galleries you’ve come to the right city.”
I’d agree with them a little more, if only extraneous circumstances outside of my power had decided before I did that I’d be applying to study in London. European art however, wasn’t original source of my love for all things art related, nor do I consider London the epicentre of the art world.
Before I had ever gotten accustomed to salon displays and European imagery, the essence of Australiana in art had already formed a small home in my heart. Expansive wooden panels of aboriginal art, intricately dotted, so deeply embedded with meaning whilst simultaneously so culturally removed from what I knew at a young age, enraptured my very imaginings of what art could entail. Frederick McCubbin and the sorrowful nostalgia of the Impressionists emotionally haunted me; Margaret Preston and her accessible prints were fanciful to a young art student exhausted of inspiration. But above all of these remarkable individuals and nameless others that bore Australian art to something other than whimsical colonial depictions of the outback savagery and infant nationhood, Rupert Bunny an eclectic painter of his time, wholly resonated with me.
In 2010 the exhibition Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris opened at the National Gallery of Victoria. I was yet 18, paranoid about my lack of artistic talent, and was desperately clutching at anything that might’ve sparked a plan for my folio. My sister, who knew little of art herself offered to take me to this exhibition which I had yet to hear of. Walking into that exhibition space though, I was completely transported. Here was an individual who had not a single style that could be classified as his own; Bunny was a kaleidoscope of a man, an artist who was able to appropriate varying formalistic qualities of different art movements, interpreting them in a way that suited his mutable identity. He dabbled in anything that inspired him, anything that he thought was in vogue at that particular time. The works he created spanned so many different schools and movements that I was immediately taken by his chameleon-like methodology.
Without being attached to a single style, some argue that his work lacked authenticity and talent; that his flittering from one movement to the next didn’t facilitate an appropriate development in his own technique, and therefore, his oeuvre as a whole exudes a quasi-professional and sometimes stunted air. Irrespective of the criticism, Bunny survives as one of Australia’s most successful exports of the time. One of the first Australian artists to be featured in the Paris Salon in 1888, his works circulated freely abroad in European circles more than they did at home. Bunny’s influence might not have the legitimacy of Picasso, nor the outreach and public admiration of someone like Van Gogh, but for a single 17-year old girl looking on at his artworks, I felt as if someone understood and demonstrated my own shortcomings as an artist.
As I had understood it, art was a chore. I lacked the expression that my teacher wanted from me. I was meticulous, methodical in any approach I took. I could be creative, but to actual harness any aspect of intensity left me bewildered. I couldn’t take to translating any depth I felt to canvas. I could however, mimic styles and appropriate certain techniques well enough, which I believed was in turn reflected in Bunny’s own approach to his work. How relieved I felt when I could observe an individual whose art didn’t necessarily have any uniqueness to it. In art class, so much is spent on developing personal aesthetics and branding that I had lost any sense of self to the anxiety of creating work that reflected me as a whole; work that could stand independently of others branded as mine entirely. If Bunny could look to individual movements and use their qualities in his own work, why couldn’t I? Why did I necessarily have to be different?
His Burial of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1896) in all its religious glory adheres to the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, where the heroine is idealised in a shroud of softness emanating a grace only inherent to the virtuous woman. The sweeping composition is, if anything, lovely. In contrast, his portrait Madame Melba (c. 1902) evokes the same statuesque power of Sargent’s own portraits featuring enigmatic women, and the image Side of Chapel, St Paul (1922-23) could almost be confused as something attributed to Cezanne. Three examples, three distinct changes in stylistic qualities, all the same man. But it was more than his adaptability as an artist that infiltrated my consciousness.
When I try to recall my initial perception of Bunny’s work in the exhibition, delight in being embroiled in such an aesthetically pleasing space is what permeates my memories the most. What I loved was the romantic charm that this canvases conveyed; the innocence of femininity and the overwhelming beauty captured and framed in his artworks that seemed so effortless and endearing simultaneously. Ribbons and swans, frilled white flocks and pinkish hues dabbed on the white cheeks of young women – all synonymous with the essence of girlhood that society deems irrelevant and naïve, here immortalised on canvas and celebrated.
Hard to decipher back then, but now I’ve come to see just how much femininity is demonised, cast as the antithesis of rationality – a value society has come to glorify as a characteristic natural only to men. In an all-girl school, the environment in contrast to popular belief, didn’t cultivate a positive attitude towards womanhood. There was no real encouragement in the recognition of just how multifaceted womanhood could be. To add to this environment of competitiveness where student was pitted against student, academically speaking and in terms of self-awareness, girls had to constantly check themselves, ensuring that their behaviour could be accepted at large. The fear of alienation by your peers paired with society’s own labelling teenage girls as nothing more than silly inhibited us in fully comprehending how to identify as women. To keep in line with femininity convincingly saw you welcomed by your peers, and mocked by society. Go against the grain, and you’d be judged regardless. Where was the middle ground? Could I not fucking like a lip-gloss without being labelled as superficial? If I behaved boyishly I would still both criticised by my classmates and society. You’re damned if you, damned if you don’t.
Rupert Bunny helped me reconcile the fact that being a woman was in no way a bad thing. How could it be, when represented in such a way that captured fancy and beauty so endearingly? There was no fear in the portrayal of elegance and feminine graces of women, no hiding from the romance and intimacy embedded in pastel tones and soft limbs. To celebrate the female body without the undertone of sexual desire was liberating. Here was an artist that venerated womanhood in the most delicate of terms, without eliciting derision but awe in its stead. Rupert Bunny is my own idol, because his artistic technique and subject matter declined social expectations, and even in his very subtle subversion, managed to maintain public respect for so many years after his death.
In retrospect I could even go so far as to say that Bunny’s work had resonated with me to the extent that, in later years, my motivation towards working with art in whatever form was inspired by my trip to the exhibition that day. London is my second home, but it was Australian art that set the wind into my travels here.