For Gough, it was time for the Arts—as well

’If Australian galleries were limited by the comprehension of the right honourable gentleman they would be very bare and archaic indeed.’ 

Gough Whitlam in defence of his purchase of Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Polls‘, 1952, in Parliament.

This morning Australia woke to the news of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s passing. Amongst the many liberating achievements of his government during its few years, listed today; an absence suggests few, perhaps, realise if it were not for Gough Whitlam, Australia would not own Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Polls‘.

The purchase, at the time, was a scandal—one that resonated throughout Australia as the work of art, itself, went on national tour much to the popular uproar that awaited it at each stop. In Perth, Western Australia, its visit was met by a backlash of indignation echoed around the table in conservative families as was mine, whereupon it occasioned our first family visit to the Art Gallery of Western Australia to witness the spectacle and partake in its criticism. I was not yet ten. All I can remember upon seeing the painting amidst the jostling crowd, was silence.

In 2005 I wrote an essay in which I included a rather indulgent reference to Gough Whitlam’s purchase of ‘Blue Polls’, at the end (indulgent in that it is very long). I guess I always found it inane that the painting’s place in history has no place in our history, given its mark on our history.

I nevertheless include the reference here on this day in memory of Gough Whitlam, in memory of the sense of urgency with which he addressed the moment that catapulted his government into a raft of ground-breaking policies never before seen in Australia. I preface the reference to Gough Whitlam with an appraisal of the purchase, first.

Excerpt of Gough Whitlam’s address outside Parliament House upon the Whitlam  Government’s dismissal on 11 November 1975

The reference is as follows…

Robert Berlind, ‘Looking at Blue Poles’, in Art in America, May, 1999, writes:

‘Making my way through the history of Australian painting at Canberra’s National Gallery several years ago, I was shocked suddenly to come upon Blue Poles, seeing it firsthand for the first time, in all its rough splendor. (I had forgotten about the Aussies buying it in 1973 for a then scandalously high $2 million and the ensuing consternation that jeopardized the art-friendly Labor government of Prime Minister Gough Witlam [sic]. Rumors–true–of the painting’s booze-fueled genesis at the instigation of Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, who actually worked on it, only made matters worse for the already perturbed public.) After studying the modestly scaled, mostly conservative Australian art of the modern period, I felt a rush of gratification before that Pollock. It was so immediate, so real. And so tumultuous, quite unlike the magisterial drip paintings of 1949 and ‘50 at MOMA and the Met, which I know very well. Blue Poles gives the impression of disaster narrowly averted: a near train wreck of a painting whose off-kilter, staggering verticals just manage, with grace under great pressure, to hold the work’s anarchic energies in place.

At the recent MOMA retrospective it was evident that Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 holds a singular place in the trajectory of Pollock’s oeuvre. …Frank O’Hara wrote extravagantly of Blue Poles that it was “one of the great masterpieces of Western art … our Raft of the Medusa and our Embarkation for Cythera in one.” (I can’t think what Watteau has to do with it, but the reference to Gericault’s high drama of last-minute, against-all-odds salvation is inspired.) …’

At a launch at the National Gallery of Australia in October 2002, the purchasing culprit himself, Gough Whitlam, had this to say:

‘… The purchase of Blue Poles made an immediate impact at home and abroad. …The first question in Parliament had been directed to me on 24 October 1973 by Doug Anthony, the Leader of the Country Party and my fellow republican, who asked how the choice was made but not ‘how the painting was made or about the merits of it, which I cannot comprehend’. I was compelled to reply:

’If Australian galleries were limited by the comprehension of the right honourable gentleman they would be very bare and archaic indeed.’

W.C.Wentworth IV pored over the myths of the painting’s creation to produce the last question, which was directed to the Speaker on 4 December:

’Do you agree that the aesthetic impact of a work of art is increased by the contemplation of it in the circumstances in which it was created? When the bargain-priced masterpiece Blue Poles reaches its fortunate purchasers in Australia, will you discuss with the President of the Senate the possibility of having the painting laid out on the floor of Kings Hall so that honourable members and senators can view it from the viewpoint of its inspired creator? Will you further arrange for free drinks to be served in King’s Hall so that honourable members and senators can share to the full in the inspiration of the artist or artists? If the painting is so exhibited, will you ensure that it is securely fenced off in order to shield us from the temptation to take off our shoes and affix addendums to it in the same manner in which the basic painting was allegedly done.’

Speaker Jim Cope answered in his best style:

‘I will do so, providing the honourable member agrees to sit on the biggest pole for some time.’ …

American critics derided the purchase. The Australian connoisseur Daniel Thomas dismissed their remarks as sour grapes, ‘a desperate American excuse for allowing Australia so unexpectedly to steal one of their great national treasures’, and he urged people to go and see the painting for themselves.’ … Between 1 November 1998 and 2 February 1999 the Museum of Modern Art in New York organised a retrospective exhibition of the works of Jackson Pollock. The total attendance was 329 330. The Chief Curator described Blue Poles as one of the linchpins of the exhibition. He said that, if the National Gallery were disposed to sell it, he would bid not less than US$25 million for it. My Government had bought it for US$1.35 million, a world record price for a modern American painting until that time.

…Eighty of the 104 paintings in the Pollock retrospective at MoMA, including Blue Poles, were exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London, between 11 March and 6 June 1999. They attracted 196 321 visitors. When I welcomed Blue Poles back to Canberra on 21 July, Australian sceptics had been converted to true believers. Pollock’s Summertime (1948) is one of the treasures of Tate Modern, Bankside, opened in May 2000. The gallery’s handbook pays this tribute:

’Jackson Pollock is widely seen as the key figure in western art in the mid-twentieth century, exercising an influence on the second half of the century comparable to that of Picasso on the first half … The celebrated Blue Poles of 1952 was a final heroic manifestation of the high point of the Pollock of 1948-50.’

You all can further research these matters in my latest classic My Italian Notebook. I abolished many things, like conscription and higher education fees. I initiated many things like building the National Gallery and buying Blue Poles. Seeing all of you here surrounding a masterpiece, I was right!’