Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The One That (Nearly) Got Away

On April 15, 2006, Jonathan Green wrote in The Age:
"It was the one that got away. The iconic piece of utterly Melburnian art that slipped through the outstretched fingers of our state gallery and into the semi-obscurity of anonymous private ownership.

John Brack's The Bar, that brown-suited, hard-faced, hard-drinking, wryly ironic take on Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies Bergere" (1881-82), is now … who knows where? Sam Newman's bedroom? The executive toilet at BHP Billiton? Some empire gilt dining room in St Georges Road, Toorak? In a packing crate of rough-cut pine bound for old Europe?"

Three years later, we know that it was nowhere so exotic, but rather in the collection of Tasmanian businessman David Walsh. He bought it, not to hang on the walls of his bedroom or bathroom, but rather on those of the new private art museum, MONA (Museum Of Old And New Art) that he is building near his Moorilla Estate winery on the banks of the Derwent.

The museum will open next year and will house Australia's biggest private collection, worth over $100 million. "The Bar" was meant to be, in the words of Gabriella Coslovich, "a genteel form of audience-bait, a significant but safe work (by contemporary standards) that will draw visitors in and expose them to a most unconventional museum experience".

"Unconventional" is the understatement of the year. "Controversial" or "provocative" may be nearer the mark.

I for one can hardly wait for the opening of MONA and confidently expect that it will be an occasion for lots of mayhem and blood in the streets. I wonder who will be game to cut the ribbon? This is one photo op that all the politicians will be dodging!

Tasmania's Finest will have all leave cancelled and be deployed in full riot gear to control picketers and protesters bent on arson and destruction. It will all make for riveting reports on the six o'clock news, especially if they intersperse the scenes of violence outside the museum with close-ups of the no less sensational art works inside it.

The museum's overarching themes will be Sex and Death, and I have only to mention that the works on display will include a full-frontal nude of an hermaphrodite by Jenny Saville and a Damien Hirst canvas covered in flies trapped in resin (from his "Cancer Chronicles" series … that title alone is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and curl lips).

The pièce de résistance will be Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary", a painting of a black Madonna, with a clump of elephant dung on one breast and magazine cut-outs of genitalia in the background. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, in a fit of righteous anger, withdrew funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, when they showed the work as part of the Saatchi collection. Who knows what wrath it will provoke in Hobart?

Thankfully, Mr Walsh relented and kindly sold "The Bar" to the NGV for the $3.2 million that he paid for it. Didn't even add on the odd few thousand for storage! Thanks to White Knight Mr Brumby who came up with a $2 million loan to the NGV, our Melbourne barmaid is rescued from a life among the porno madonnas and germ-infested flies. Drawing her skirts aside in distaste, she can sweep right out of that den of iniquity to take up her rightful place in the Ian Potter Gallery, where the homebound office workers in Collins Street will pop into her bar at 5pm for a well-deserved cold one.

Let us have no mutinous mutterings about "$2 million of taxpayers' money in a time of financial crisis, blah, blah …" – when you go to see our barmaid, just put a few bucks in the box toward paying back the loan, and feel that warm glow that says "I helped to rescue her!"

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