John McDonald

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and formerly Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia. The Art of Australia – the first volume of a new – and comprehensive – three part history of Australian art for Pan Macmillan, was issued in December 2008. Read more...

On the critical list (Artworks, ABC Radio National, 05 September 2010) - Norman Lebrecht, John McDonald & Marion Pott, presented by Amanda Smith (download audio - 33:19/15.4 MB).

The Three Gorges Museum [Unpublished article]

Published: May 03, 2011 (1,389 words).

During 2010, the Australian government invested time, energy and taxpayers’ dollars in funding a series of cultural events in China. Very few of the Imagine Australia tours were covered in the Australian press, but it was an unusually generous program, incorporating visits by classical, experimental and jazz musicians; the National Boys Choir; video artists, dancers, film-makers and photographers. Concerts, exhibitions and conferences were supported like never before.

It may be a long time before we see a repeat of this splurge in cultural initiatives, which were clustered around the central nucleus of the Australian Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It was an acknowledgement of the crucial role that China plays in Australia’s current prosperity. As such, it continued our familiar practice of seeing culture as a postscript to business, but at least the arts made it onto the agenda.

One of the unheralded initiatives of 2010 was a tour of China undertaken by seven Australian artists, under the auspices of Brian Wallace’s Redgate Gallery in Beijing. With the exception of expatriate painter, Zhang Xiaoping, who was born in Anhui province, none of the artists had previously visited China. For Fiona Foley, Peter Gardiner, Phil James, Guy Maestri, Frances Belle Parker ad China de la Vega, it was a gruelling introduction. The group travelled by bus and hard sleeper to Pingyao, X’ian, Hua Shan, Chengdu and Chongqing. They floated down the Yangtze River for four days on a ramshackle boat, finally arriving in Wuhan. This was followed by six days in Shanghai, then a month in Beijing, where they made work for an exhibition at Red Gate.

Catherine Croll, who planned and led the trip, had stretched the budget as far as possible by economising on transport and accommodation. Comforts were sacrificed in favour of kilometers, as the artists were introduced to “the real China” that most tourists happily avoid.

I joined the group in Chongqing, at the half-way mark of the journey, in time to see one of China’s few well-preserved heritage sites, the Buddhist caves at Dazu, and one of its most recent creations, the Three Gorges Museum, which opened in 2005.

The municipality of Chongqing is the major city in southwestern China, with a population of 31 million. It is a hot, humid place, built on hilly terrain. It is also the biggest port on the Yangtze, and a popular departure point for river cruises. As the gateway to the Yangtze, Chongqing was the logical site for a new museum celebrating the Three Gorges Project – the official name for all the upheavals associated with the construction of an enormous new dam downriver near the city of Yichang. Work began in 1993 and was not fully completed until 2009, with statistics on every level that are daunting and record-breaking. The raising of water levels by up to 175 metres has inundated some 630 square kilometres, wiping out two cities, eleven counties and 116 towns. The process has cost US$30 billion, and necessitated the relocation of 1.13 million people.

It is a project that could only have been undertaken by a country with a centralised form of government that was undaunted by widespread public protests. The Chinese know that dissent can have dire consequences, but from its inception the dam generated an unusual degree of controversy. Even the National People’s Congress was split when the vote was taken to proceed with the project in 1992. Although the proposal passed by a healthy majority, it was the smallest margin ever recorded in a chamber known for its unanimity.

The purpose of this massive project was to provide hydroelectricity for China’s growing needs and to control the flooding that has been a part of life on the Yangtze for two thousand years. The problems were on an equally monumental scale, and continued throughout the years of construction. There were protests from farmers who were forced off their land, and environmentalists who detected a dangerous build-up of pollutants in the swollen river. Archaeologists witnessed important historical sites disappearing under the rising waters, while many thousands of peasants and small business people complained of inadequate compensation for loss of home and livelihood.

The Three Gorges Museum is the government’s response to its critics: 42,000 square metres of exhibition space devoted partly to the story of Chongqing, but mainly to the people, the history, the culture and the wildlife that have been submerged in the muddy waters of the Yangtze.

This is a typical Chinese response to a sensitive issue. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the project it is uniformly referred to as “Glorious” or “Magnificent” – the kind of terms once reserved for Mao Zedong. Without a trace of irony, the museum celebrates all the things that have been consigned to the bottom of the river. The dam is treated as a historical necessity, or perhaps a force of Nature. The authorities are not portrayed as destroyers but as diligent preservers of a cultural heritage. For instance, ancient calligraphic inscriptions chiselled into the stone of the gorges have been removed and relocated to the museum. The archaeological sites that have been submerged are replicated with small models and collections of artifacts.

Dioramas show the prehistory of the region, the fauna, birds and fish. Traditional villages that have been flooded are reproduced as neat and tidy replicas. The former inhabitants of these villages now live in concrete apartment blocks in new, purpose-built communities that line the banks of the river. Many of them undoubtedly feel better off, but there are thousands who are struggling to adjust to their severance from a way of life that stretches back countless generations. A huge slab of rock that once sat in the middle of the river, terrorizing mariners, has been lopped off like the head of a defeated general, and displayed as a victory trophy.

One might feel relieved that China’s current leadership at least feels the need to pay lip service to issues of cultural history and heritage. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, everything old was treated as a blight that had to be expunged. Mao called for a clean slate, upon which his own thoughts could be inscribed, and found an army of youthful fanatics willing to act upon his vision. By contrast, the Three Gorges Museum is an attempt to excuse and downplay the level of destruction. Where the Cultural Revolution was sheer, willful vandalism, the damage caused by the Three Gorges Project is presented as an unfortunate by-product of an engineering miracle that ensures a brighter future for everyone.

The display ends with photographs of smiling Party leaders attending official events associated with the project, and a panorama of present-day Chongqing lit up like Las Vegas. The message is clear: the benevolent leaders made the correct decision. No matter what the cost or the sacrifice, it was worth it.

One should not be surprised to find such an elaborate propaganda exercise in the new, market-driven China. Today’s propaganda, like its cruder predecessors, propagates a fantasy of constant progress. In such a world-view the museum is the appropriate place to see relics of the past. Inside its marble walls these mementoes are preserved forever, while the outside world continues to grow and flourish. It is as though the ineluctable laws of economics do not apply within the quarantine zone of the museum.

Although the Three Gorges Museum has four storeys the main interest is confined to the first two floors, and chiefly to the ground floor. Despite the relentlessly positive spin it puts on a problematic project, it remains a fascinating place. More strikingly than any other institution I can name, it dramatises the dual identity of the museum as a sanctuary for rare and valuable objects, and as a mausoleum – a repository for dead items removed from their original, vital context. This was roughly the distinction that T.W.Adorno discerned in the contrasting attitudes toward museums held by Marcel Proust and Paul Valéry. In Chongqing there is no contradiction between these positions. The items in the museum had to die in order to be preserved. When the original context has been obliterated, the objects take their place as components in a new story of struggle and triumph, as Chinese will power and ingenuity overcomes nature, and history is consigned to a venue where it may be more easily controlled.

John McDonald travelled to China with assistance from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The opinions expressed are his own.

© 2011 John McDonald

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Leon Kossoff - Drawing from Painting (at Annandale Galleries, Sydney, NSW, opening Oct. 12)

Published: September 01, 2010 (1,980 words).

In a recent interview Lucian Freud expresses his exasperation that no-one seems to have noticed that Leonardo da Vinci was a really bad painter. This opinion, at first so vehement and startling, begins to make sense when one looks at Freud’s own drawings and working methods. Leonardo, the epitome of the Renaissance’s uomo universale, was a victim of his many competing interests. In his notebooks Leonardo’s artistic investigations vie with his studies in engineering, anatomy, ballistics and countless other subjects. His drawings provide neat, precise records of his observations, although few major paintings ever reached completion.

Leonardo was an intensely cerebral artist, whereas Freud – and his School of London colleague, Leon Kossoff – proceed from intuition or instinct. Having begun, they will toil away at a picture for weeks and months until the motif has been flayed like Titian’s Marsyas, its secrets exposed to the world. It sounds like the most painful labour, or perhaps a refined form of masochism, but it is a more complex pursuit. For artists such as Freud, Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, their painstaking work in the studio represents the natural business of art. It is not a perverse fixation, it is their version of normality.

This is not to say these painters don’t have social lives, friends and families, merely that everything else seems to be structured around the regular sessions in the studio. Looking at a motif with such sustained intensity becomes an addiction. Like any addict, the threshold of satisfaction keeps rising. One may look at the same model, the same landscape, day after day and always find something new. One may paint the same person for many years with no diminution of interest. There is something heroic, something neurotic about such activities, but when we stand in front of a painting by Freud, Kossoff or Auerbach, we can feel the hours that have gone into the work. In an art scene besotted with stunts and quick fixes, they remind us that painting – when pursued wholeheartedly – is one of the hardest of all occupations. 

This is not to say that the sheer quantity of time expended on a picture is any guarantee of quality, and none of these fiercely self-critical artists would pretend that every work is a masterpiece. But when an artist spends such a long time looking, he or she invariably discovers a truth – or at least the subjective impression of a truth – that lies beyond appearances.

Leonardo was a bad painter in Freud’s opinion because he was ready to put his trust in appearances. Presumably Leon Kossoff would agree, as he has felt no urge to draw from Leonardo’s work in London’s National Gallery. His attraction to Goya, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens, Hals and Poussin is evident in the many hundreds of drawings he has made standing in front of their works during early morning visits to the museum. All of these old masters, even the neo-classical Poussin, often viewed as one of the most coldly intellectual of artists, have grappled with the intractable problems of trying to create a still image of something that is constantly in motion, even if that motion is simply a matter of being alive: inhaling and exhaling; aging invisibly, seconds at a time. Perhaps the frieze-like aspect of Poussin’s paintings required even more concentration in their depiction of turbulent scenes such as the rape of the Sabines or a Bacchanalian revel. Poussin is the pre-eminent exponent of “the decisive moment” long before Cartier-Bresson - or the camera - were invented.

Think of Leonardo with his neat, careful observations: his attempts to divide human beings into types, according to physiognomy; his systematic studies of facial expressions or the muscles of the body. Leonardo thinks and acts more as a scientist than an artist, searching for those indisputable pieces of data that allow him to construct classifications applicable on all occasions - the Renaissance version of William Coldstream. By contrast, an artist such as Kossoff does not accept there is any bedrock of fact that can be probed, measured and explored. A model or a motif is different at each viewing, as is the artist himself. His health or his state of mind may exert a decisive influence on the image.

Leonardo looks at a motif until he has absorbed and recorded all the information he deems necessary in order to capture an accurate representation. Kossoff or Freud can never stop looking because they do not believe that any representation can ever exhaust the possibilities of a motif. In their individuality human beings ultimately defy classification. We may choose to send messages about ourselves through dress, behaviour or demeanour, but this is only a small part of the total package. The fascination for an artist such as Kossoff, is to keep probing away at surface appearances, searching for a deeper, more fundamental level of reality.

This process may lead an artist beyond appearances, but it also takes them to that zone ‘beyond good and evil’, to use Nietzsche’s famous formulation. The artist is not a moraliser or an ideologue. He or she does not seek to educate us about how to live, or to portray the world as a happy or tragic place. With Kossoff, his subdued palette and the dense impasto of his paint have led many to believe that he is an alienated individual, with a grim, depersonalised view of life. This is not simply an exaggeration, it is a complete falsehood. Contrary to the most superficial impressions Kossoff’s paintings are intensely personalised. His subjects may or may not be alienated, but he is not judging them or the society they inhabit. He paints what he sees, and if this appears grey or depressing to some viewers, then we must conclude this is a pretty common observation about London tube stations or people in big cities.

Kossoff goes against the grain of our times by refusing to accept the order for compulsory happiness issued by capitalist societies no less than communist dictatorships. We are told we need to be happy, otherwise our lives are a failure. How do we achieve this blissful ideal? Through manic, never-ending consumption of goods and services. But because there is always something else that needs to be bought or experienced, such happiness is ephemeral. This is alienation in a nutshell.

Working every day in his studio, Kossoff experiences the kind of happiness we associate with monks and hermits – a state of high concentration on the things that matter, with little need for distraction. There is scant distinction between work and life, or between work and pleasure. He is not a business man who needs to keep maximising his revenues. Regardless of whether his paintings are selling for high prices or being ignored, the artist’s pleasure is his profit.

Indeed, if one looks back over Kossoff’s career, his paintings seem to grow lighter and more exuberant with each year. This is almost certainly due to his increasingly confidence and sense of mastery. He is one of those rare people for whom aging has represented a valuable accumulation of knowledge and experience, rather than a pitiful loss of one’s powers. In this he is reminiscent of those legendary oriental sages who extoll the virtues of forbearance over untrammelled desire.

Kossoff has attained his mastery through adopting the role of a life-long student. He says that he has always drawn from the old masters – and from the motif – in order to learn; and that painting is simply a form of drawing in paint. If one looks at his paintings of the 1950s and early 1960s, they are so dense and dark that barely a glimmer of light plays across their surfaces. They actually seem to absorb light, with a view to exterminating it and restoring a comforting, womb-like darkness to the world. To look from these pictures to the views of Christchurch Spitalfields painted in the early 1990s is to see an artist who has become a convert to the transcendental power of light. The Spitalfields paintings are bathed in a soft, silvery glow, instantly recognisable as the light of London. This light, often portrayed as murk and gloom, is treated affectionately in Kossoff’s paintings. One feels that he really loves Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Baroque edifice, and the grey, leaden skies that show it to its best advantage.

Kossoff may not be able to fully explain these feelings in words, but his drawings and paintings constitute an endless series of explanations. He looks at the motif from many different angles in many different lights, bringing out all those aspects that have captured his attention.

In his drawings from the old masters Kossoff is even more fully absorbed in the pleasures and mysteries of creation. He approaches the paintings in the National Gallery like complex machines that have to be taken apart and reassembled in order to understand their inner workings. He might leave out certain parts of an image or emphasise some previously unobtrusive detail. He is not only trying to understand the composition, but the mood and mentality of the artist who created it. This leads to some startling conclusions, as when Juliet Wilson-Barreau quotes Kossoff’s view that Goya’s work is “essentially all about living and the joy of being alive.”

This does not tally with the popular image of the artist who gave us the Caprichos and the Disasters of War, or the dark masterpieces found in the Prado, but it is the part of Goya that Kossoff finds most fascinating. He is less fixated than we are on the black and bitter side of the Spaniard’s work. Perhaps this is a much truer version of Goya? Looking at the bulk of his work one finds a spirit of wit and sensuality that often overflows the boundaries of academic painting. This joie-de-vivre was part of Goya’s nature, even if it was forced into submission by the upheavals of the age, and his personal traumas.

In his drawings and etchings after Poussin, Kossoff seems caught up in a frenzy of activity. The apparent coldness of Poussin’s work is contradicted by Kossoff’s discovery of compositions infused with latent energy. It is as if Kossoff is the analyst charged with curing a highly repressed personality, allowing the sensual and emotional side of Poussin’s nature to rise to the surface.

Perhaps the most breathtaking of all Kossoff’s transformations of famous paintings comes in his response to Degas’s La Coiffure. The most daring and memorable aspect of this picture is the vivid red that suffuses the composition. The viewer feels almost intoxicated by this colour, which seems to convey the physical sensations felt by the woman having her long hair vigorously brushed. Kossoff’s version, reversed on the etching plate, is nothing more than a few spare lines: a virtual diagram of Degas’s image, stripped of its overwhelming redness. He aims, perhaps, to show that one may extract the same feeling from the picture without the component that seemed so crucial. Is it the colour red, or the minimal, blocked-out nature of Degas’s composition that gives the painting its force? Kossoff raises this question, which may never have occurred to us before.

What is finally most impressive about Kossoff’s interrogations of the old masters, is the way he treats these works as vital, immediate phenomena. He experiences these paintings with the same excitement that most people feel only in the cinema, when prompted by the more aggressive stimuli of filmic narrative and music. He approaches stories drawn from the Bible or classical mythology with the absolute certainty that they relate just as strongly to the public and private lives of their creators. No artist of our time has striven so consistently to make the art of the past a living part of the present. His conviction is simple: rid one’s mind of those distinctions that Leonardo sought, and let the thinking be done by the eye and the hand.

© 2010 John McDonald, kindly used with permission from Annandale Galleries.

John McDonald writes for Annandale Galleries. The opinions expressed are his own.

Annandale Galleries, 110 Trafalgar Street Annandale, Sydney NSW, opening Oct. 12. Information can be found at (61-2) 9552 1699 or

110 Trafalgar Street Annandale
Sydney NSW 2038 Australia
Gallery hours: Tuesday - Saturday 11:00 - 5:00 pm
Telephone: (61-2) 9552 1699
Fax: (61-2) 9566 4424
Directors Bill & Anne Gregory ACGA

Exhibition dates: 12 Oct - 4 Dec 2010

Click here to John McDonald's archive page.