Cover image of the review

Brave New World: Australia 1930s / Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art

5 Aug 2017
Brave New World: Australia 1930s, 14 Jul - 15 Oct 2017 Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art, Heide Museum of Modern Art 20 Apr - 8 Oct 2017

Brave New World: Australia 1930s and Call of the Avant-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art are both important new museum shows. They involve a serious investment of institutional resources. They demand great curatorial expertise. They make a number of significant art-historical finds and equally propose a number of tough-minded art-historical exclusions. They are, in their various ways, polemical. They change, even if only subtly, our previous understandings of Australian art.

In other words, they're everything we want these large-scale institutions to do and that we often criticise them for not doing. They are not populist blockbusters. They are not imports of shows of world-famous European or American artists from overseas. They are not even the same old rehangs of the already-canonised Australians – Roberts, Nolan, the Heidelberg School – that State and national galleries put on and then attempt to convince us that they are doing their job.

But what accounts for the subtle sense of disappointment – no, that is too strong a word – or rather subtle sense of deflation as one walks around the two shows? It is almost as though – and this goes beyond the undoubted talent and expertise of the curators – one encounters an internal limit to the very kind of exhibition that is being put on there. In fact, what thinking seriously abut Brave New World and Call of the Avant-Garde allows us to do is experience a particular museological problem that bedevils – we are almost tempted to say necessarily accompanies – shows of this kind. The two exhibitions can be seen to raise each in their own way the fundamental irreconcilability between the experience of the work of art and the experience of the museum. And they might allow us to reflect upon – again – what would be required for art to be put properly into a museum context, how the exhibition of a work of art in a big museum like the NGV or Heide might add to the experience of the work of art rather than detract from it.

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