Saturday, 21 June 2014

Book review: Affairs of the Art, Katrina Strickland (2013)

In her excellent book, this journalist has done much more than add her piece to post-feminist commentary. There's a lot to learn in here for anyone with an interest in Australian art, which is a sphere most usually isolated from what happens in the rest of the world. So it's not just a book by a woman about women for women. Because most Australian artists in the relevant periods - the Modernist period and the period immediately following it - were women, and women tend to outlive their husbands, most of the subjects in the book are women. But not all.

In any case the most interesting thing for me personally was learning about things like the value of art. A good take-away for anyone who collects art is to make sure you have good documentation for your acquisitions. A gallery receipt might come in handy sometime, say 30 years down the track, if provenance becomes an issue.

That's on the practical side. Beyond that, there are tons of interesting stories in here not just about how women have handled their dead husbands' affairs but about how the art market works. For this reason alone the book can be profitably recommended to read for anyone who has an interest in art.

Strickland prior to writing this book had written about art for a major Australian daily newspaper, and over the course of writing the book she gained valuable insights into the way different people - let's say, different women - have handled the posthumous business of art dealing. The insights she developed over time give her license to make value judgements about people. So it's interesting to read at the end of one chapter her salute to Lyn Williams - widow of painter Fred Williams - who emerges from reading the book as a kind of superlative model of an artist's widow, at least as far as we are allowed to see by reading the book.

But the kinds of relationships that exist over time change and so the general relationship between the widow and the estate also changes for later generations, as we can see by reading about cases that came after Lyn Williams. There is a generational shift in the role of the artist's partner, and this emerges in the way the estate is handled for people living later. Robert Klippel's estate, for example, is being handled by his son, Andrew. So it's not always about women wielding power.

In many cases it is, however, and for biographers as well as auctioneers dealing with these women it can be a fraught business. How a widow relates to the memory of her partner becomes something that other people have to adjust themselves to, sometimes with explosive results. And so the personal enters the public sphere, in a way that we usually see only with pop stars and movie stars. The art world is a lot quieter, usually, than popular culture, so it can offer different kinds of lessons to us all.

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