Gareth Sansom's Desk. 1978. By Janine Burke.
In 1978, when I began my Master of Arts on Joy Hester, I bought a second-hand Pentax to document her work. I'd had no training in photography. The previous year, I’d been appointed Foundation Lecturer in Art History at the Victorian College of the Arts, previously known as the National Gallery School. Hester was an alumnus there in the late 1930s.
With a tradition reaching back to the Heidelberg School, the art school remained a small, elite, studio-based enterprise with an air of endearingly raffish individualism. It proudly regarded itself as Australia’s most prestigious art school. It was there I began taking photographs.
Staff and students were the objects of my gaze as I taught myself how to look, as well as how to handle the practicalities of camera work. As photographic historian Julia Hirsch commented: “Like slips of the tongue, candid photography speaks to us of hidden meanings, of intentions we did not know we had, of emotions we had not recognised”. Walter Benjamin referred to photography’s “unconscious optics”.
Maxienne Foote, a postgraduate printmaking student, generously printed my early attempts in the school’s darkroom. Below are the fruits of my labour and, with them, a slice of history at the VCA, which is currently celebrating 150 years of art in Melbourne.
Allan was the witty, voluble Lecturer in Printmaking. Graham, who joined the school as a technician, later left to become a successful, full-time artist. He and Allan had a close bond. This shot captures Allan’s personality, his ability to ham it up in a split second. Spending time with Allan was sheer entertainment. But beneath the comic repartee was a kind-hearted and gentle fellow who looked only for the good in others.
1977 also saw the appointment of Gareth Sansom as Senior Lecturer in Painting and Frances Lindsay as Director of the VCA Gallery. Gareth was a dynamic character who immediately had a strong following among the students. He and I shared an office in the upstairs painting studio. Over the months, I watched in fascination as the board above Gareth’s desk became a dense collage of photographs, letters and other memorabilia – an artwork in itself. It mirrors the layered, self-referential vocabulary of many of Gareth’s paintings.
The painting studio was an atmospheric place crowded with students and their easels. There they painted their hearts' desire, discussed their work with staff, read and pondered. After graduation, Stephen McCarthy became a member of Roar Studios, an ambitious venture by a group of young artists which included alumni Mark Howson, Mark Schaller and Peter Ferguson. In 1982, they jointly opened a gallery in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and collectively exhibited their expressionist, faux-naif paintings.
Prior to working at the VCA, Frances was a highly regarded curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Later, she became Director of the Ian Potter Museum, then Deputy Director at the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1977, Robert had been appointed the National Gallery of Victoria’s first Curator of Contemporary Australian Art. Because the art school was close to the NGV, Robert was a welcome and regular visitor.
Elizabeth – who is still with the VCA and is the curator of the forthcoming 9x5 NOW exhibition – began her long association with the art school in 1978, becoming, in 1987, the first woman Head of Painting. Jenny Watson (interviewed recently here) is an alumna who, in 1982, had just begun a successful, international career. In 1975, the three of us were founding members of the Women’s Art Movement. We also contributed to Lip, the feminist arts journal. In 1982, Jenny was running her own art school in the city. This photograph captures the strength and style of two women who continue to have an impact on the Australian art world.
In 1982, alumnus John Nixon, dissatisfied with the commercial gallery system, started Art Projects, where Jenny Watson and John Davis exhibited. Reached by many flights of stairs in a rambling city building, it was an austere environment. Nixon's minimalist, abstract aesthetic (seen in the painting behind him) is influenced by the utopian art and politics of Kasimir Malevich.
John Davis (1936–1999) at work in his studio in the sculpture school. It makes me sad that John has left us. A member of the Land Art movement, John was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2010. He consistently worked with found, natural objects and was influenced by Aboriginal art and culture. As Curator David Hurlston noted: “At the core of (Davis’) practice […] was an awareness of ecology and a sensitivity to the elemental forces of nature and the effect of human actions”. John was an enthusiast – warm-hearted, humble and open. He was great to teach alongside, always looking for the strengths in a student’s work.
When I resigned from the VCA at the end of 1982 to pursue a career as a full-time writer and novelist, I was delighted that Norbert, an old friend and fellow alumnus of University of Melbourne, was appointed to the position, where he remains to this day. I can’t think of anyone more selflessly devoted to the education of art students. It could be said that teaching is Norbert’s artistic practice.
I feel very fortunate to have taught at the VCA. While I had something of a battle on my hands to make the art history course mandatory – some staff and students felt that self-education was the way to go – it was exciting to teach alongside artists whom I admired, as well as young artists brimming with talent, commitment and imagination.
Though I gave lectures, I also had informal tutorials with students, so I was well acquainted with their struggles and goals, and could advise them on which artists and books might be relevant for them to explore. They also shared in my research and it was gratifying to have many of them present at the opening of the Joy Hester retrospective which I curated for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981.