Outside of the arts community, the death of James Mollison on the 19th of January this year probably went unnoticed. “James Mollison?” I might hear you say. Well as it turns out Mr Mollison was quite a remarkable individual. He was a secondary school teacher from Victoria with an interest in the arts. More on him later.
1972 was the beginning of the ‘heady’ reign of the Gough Whitlam government, with ended with a bang in 1975. 1973, his second year in the seat, was a remarkable one for many reasons. The Vietnam War ended, oil rose by 200%, Roe V Wade was ruled upon by the US Supreme Court, the UK joined the EEC, there was the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East among many other news-worthy events. It was also the year of Blue Poles.
Blue Poles is a painting by Jackson Pollock which he painted in 1952. The excellent piece in The Conversation in 2015 is a good place to start to get an art critic perspective on the work. Suffice to say it is now considered a mammoth work by a mammoth artist. As the photo above shows it is a mass of seemingly random colours splattered on in layers with eight diagonal deep blue lines signifying the poles. In its day this was a polarising (no pun intended) work of art as was the majority of the artistic output of Pollock. The phrase ‘my four year old could have painted that’ was often used when the likes of Pollock, Rothko et al were discussed. Loved and loathed in equal measure Blue Poles resides in the National Gallery of Australia.
Gough Whitlam personally signed off on the purchase early in his Prime Ministership and famously hand wrote on the approval letter to release the purchase price to the public. He was a wily politician knowing that the price would leak anyway. Releasing the price at the same time as the announcement meant there was no shame and no hiding. Compare that with today’s Prime Minister whose Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would not confirm where he was on holiday (Hawaii) as the bush fires took hold.
As might be expected there was a bit of a furor as the public lined up to see Australia’s new purchase. It cost the princely sum of $1.3m. There were lots of vox pops at the time with people saying it was a huge waste of money and how many hip operations or new school teachers could be paid for with those funds instead. The usual stuff. There was a fairly broad consensus that it was a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a country that could ill afford it.
And whose insane and ill-considered idea was it to buy this work of ‘so called’ art? None other than the secondary school teacher James Mollison! Remarkably Mollison worked his way up to eventually becoming the Director of the National Gallery of Australia. He was described by his successor as:
“of almost legendary stature [and] had single-handedly built a great and comprehensive collection from the ground up; indeed he had presided over the collection for more than twenty years with great flair, and over the institution for seven years—it was in the truest sense, his Gallery, his professional achievement.”
Blue Poles wasn’t the only standout work he purchased. He is well known in art circles for the purchase of De Kooning’s Woman V, and securing Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series. The Gallery now has one of the best collections of Australian art. It’s no exaggeration to say that Mollison had a significant stewardship over the cultural maturation of Australian society, where previously it was felt that if you wanted ‘culture’ you had to go abroad e.g. Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Clive James etc.
On hearing of Mollison’s passing I mused what would have happened had social media been around in 1973 when the Blue Poles purchase was made. Based on my observation of the vitriol that seems to engulf the web and twittersphere etc., I’m thinking the reaction would have been a lot harsher. Listening to and seeing the contemporary responses in 1973 the opinions were less ingrained, less visceral, less politically charged and polarised. People seemed less willing to take the event and extrapolate it up into an ‘us and them’ proposition, or a reflection of the government of the day. In short, people seemed kinder and more forgiving in their responses, even if they were completely at odds with the purchase.
A lot of the criticism centred around the amount paid. If art’s not your bag then perhaps another prism to judge the purchase in retrospect,and the contribution of Mollison, is through the eyes of an economic rationalist. In today’s dollars that’s the equivalent of paying possibly $7m. I’m pretty sure that competing interests nowadays would kick up the proverbial shit storm if we paid that for a single work given the crises facing rural communities etc. Facebook, Twitter et al would go into melt-down. The anti-intellectual, anti-arts lobby would come out all guns blazing. Blue Poles would surely not pass the ‘pub test’, although some might argue it’s easier to like after 10 pints!
So I did some homework. Blue Poles has a current estimated value of $350m. Take $7m in today’s dollars and compare it to $350m. “Not bad” as the ‘posh’ lady on the Trivago advert would say. I then calculated that if we had put the $1.3m in the stock market what that would be worth today. Guess what, the ASX200 doesn’t even come close to $350m! Mollison knew about art appreciation and he also knew about appreciating value. Who knows what the real value is beyond its sale price in terms of tourism and the confidence the Australian community has in having a vibrant arts and performance culture?
Putting value aside for a moment, is it any good? It doesn’t tour much and that’s understandable given its size. In 1998 the work was included in a Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It dominated the show according to critics at the time. Featured as the last work in the final room critics said it ended the show “not with a whimper, but a bang”. There were calls for it to be re-purchased and Americans questioned why such an important piece of cultural history was allowed to be acquired by a foreign government in the first place. Mollison clearly demonstrated 20:20 vision when it came to a fine eye for art.
We live in an uncertain world today and it’s easy to think that it is more complex and controversial than days gone by. Looking back, 1973 in particular, would suggest otherwise. What has changed, I think, is greater polarisation of our views, less willingness to see the other perspective and less kindness in the way we broadcast these views to the world. Sadly in today’s world we seem many poles apart on issues. In 1973 we were merely Blue Poles apart! Vale James Mollison – a man of vision and courage.