In a fit of sanity, the board of trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW met on Tuesday May 27th to discuss the awarding of this year’s Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting to Sydney artist Sam Leach. Their decision was to uphold the award.
A campaign that argued the award was illegitimate since Leach had referenced a Dutch landscape picture without attribution – and was not therefore an “Australian” landscape – met with a great deal of support in the mainstream media. This was partly due to the fact that The Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic John McDonald was part of the campaign, aided and abetted by The Australian’s resident curmudgeon Christopher Allen, gallerists Martin Browne of Martin Browne Fine Art and Janet Clayton of Wilson Street Gallery, and sundry others including a very nasty series of comments left on both the Oz and SMH’s websites. Even Germaine Greer got in on the act, writing for the UK press, finding the painting wanting and the controversy passé.
Happily for Leach and his gallery Sullivan & Strumpf, the trustees’ decision puts this conservative backlash [against what was ironically a painting everyone could like] into the pages of history. The Sydney Morning Herald put it this way:
“The gallery trustees spent an hour at their board meeting yesterday discussing Leach’s win, concluding unanimously that he should not be stripped of the prize for his painting, Proposal for a Landscaped Cosmos, which is heavily inspired by Adam Pynacker’s 1668 work Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore.
“Speaking after the meeting, gallery director Edmund Capon told The Age: ”It wasn’t taken lightly. I don’t think we have ever spent an hour at a board meeting discussing a topic in this way.”
“In a written statement, the trustees defended their decision, saying that at the time of judging they noted that Leach’s painting had ”the light and air of a Dutch 17th-century painting”, but they also ”recognised and appreciated its quality and its mysterious implications of the natural world”.
Leach and his gallery also issued a statement:
Today’s announcement by the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW to uphold their decision to award Sam Leach the Wynne prize has been gratefully received by the artist and his many supporters in the arts community. “I made this painting with total sincerity and a great deal of thought”, said Leach. “I entered it into the competition because I believed it makes an interesting contribution to the history and discourse of Australian landscape painting.” Leach’s representatives from Sullivan + Strumpf Fine Art said they were not surprised by today’s announcement. “Despite the public controversy, we were confident that the Trustees would confirm their original decision” claimed Ursula Sullivan and Joanna Strumpf. “The painting is not only a beautiful artwork – it adhered to the rules of the prize in which it was entered.”
Like the Henson Affair before it, the so-called Wynne Controversy brought with it a host of loosely associated concerns that had very little to do with the actual painting or the intentions of the artist. In a somewhat curious addendum, Sullivan & Strumpf also supplied the media with a “background briefing” on the painting, the artist and a little art history. Since no one else will bother to run it, here is the full text of the brief:
Below is a refutation of the two main concerns surrounding the work:
1. An Australian Landscape
- 17th century Dutch artists painted their fantasised idea of Italy in what is known as ‘Italianate’ paintings, similar to the way Australian artists John Glover and Eugene von Guerard infused their Australian landscapes with imagined European environments.
- These paintings influenced architecture and design across America, Europe and Australia, and notably, the Adelaide Hills, where the artist grew up. When the artist visited the Rijksmuseum and viewed the Italianate paintings of the period, an immediate connection and recollection of his home was made. As an Australian artist, using the concept and template of an idealised landscape and knowingly presenting it as a “proposed” landscape in an award based on Australian landscape painting, he references the expansive and diverse history of landscape painting and, in particular, the way in which it has affected our own Australian environment and how we perceive it, both now and in the future.
2. Citation: (It has been suggested that Sam Leach has submitted a copy of a work by Adam Pynacker, and that a reference to the original should have been made.)
- Sam Leach in no way denies appropriating the Pynacker image.
- There is no visual art tradition or conventiont hat requires citation, especially where the image is used to create a new or subverted meaning. Citation is a practice used in academic scholarship that is not relevant to art practice. Art history abounds with examples of works that clearly reference landscapes and poses from the work of other artists. This practice of referencing other work is an integral part of the continuum of art history.
- When looking at the work, it is clear that the work has been made to look ‘old’ in style. For those who do not have pre-existing art historical knowledge, this recognition is the only requirement – it is only necessary to recognise that it is an old-fashion style landscape from the past, overlaid with technology and submitted, as the title suggests, as a proposal for a landscaped cosmos.
- For those that do recognise the source genre and/ or painting (the Rijksmuseum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Holland), knowing the artist has referred to the Italianate genre, adds extra information about the use of an idealised landscape, but does not alter the meaning of Sam Leach’s painting. The work’s meaning is not related on a literal level to the work of Pynacker and to include his name in the title would only confuse the meaning of the work.
- By removing the figures and boat, and including white and red gridded LED lighting at the top and bottom of the painting, Leach completely changes the meaning of the Pynacker painting: it moves from a decorative idealised landscape, to a painting that constitutes a meditation on the future complex relationship between technology and nature; the way historical paintings have influenced our man-made environments (notably the Adelaide Hills of the artists childhood); and, perhaps most significantly, the history of landscape painting itself.
- Leach has purposefully and with intent painted and titled this work exactly as it is presented.
All this of all course doesn’t mean the end of the controversy. There has been talk of a legal challenge in the courts but with the trustees decision to uphold the award – and the long history of failed legal challenges to recent competition decisions, notably the suit against Craig Ruddy’s win of the Archibald – it would seem like non-starter.