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Museo Carlo Billotti

Speeches and Opinions
Jul 09, 2014

ATSIA Rupert Myer AM, Chair of the Australia Council, opens Museo Carlo Billotti, Rome, Thursday 3 July 2014.

Your Excellency, The Hon Mike Rann and Sasha Carruozzo, Marc Sordello, Francis Missana, Imants Tillers, Ian Maclean, Antonia Arconti and all at the Museo Carlo Billotti

It is a great privilege and a special pleasure to have been invited to make some remarks at this evening’s opening of “Dreamings.”

If this opening were occurring in Australia, it would be the custom there to acknowledge the aboriginal land on which we were meeting and to pay respects to elders past and present and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present.

That is, we follow a custom that pays respect to the original custodians of the land. This diplomacy has been practiced by hundreds of tribal groups across our vast land, and continues the unbroken cultural traditions that have spanned over more than 40,000 years. It is an important element of any ceremony and gives context and meaning way beyond just the words.

We are a long way from that place but it is impossible not to think of that custom and what it means even from this distance.

It is especially significant that this exhibition is taking place in Rome, this great place of scholarship, learning, art and cultural traditions, antiquity and modernity, creativity, purpose and civilization.

A learned Cambridge contemporary, The Rev’d Patrick Irwin tells me that ‘Ancient Rome relied on an unwritten code, the mos maiorum, which we could translate as “ancestral custom” or “the way of the elders”. This enabled Rome to preserve its sense of identity as it developed from city-state to world power. The sense of continuity and belonging conveyed by this concept, however, is much closer to Aboriginal patterns of thought than to our modern Western preference for defining our culture by reference to points on a time-chart, be they Julius Caesar and Michelangelo, Magna Carta and Shakespeare, or the First Fleet and Gallipoli. To Aboriginal elders the concept of mos maiorum would be both clear and familiar.

My Australia Council colleague, Lee-Ann Buckskin, has noted the ‘incredible synergy’ and ‘parallels between our Dreaming and the creation period with the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus the two babies being fed by a she-wolf.’

This exhibition presents the ideal context to consider broad themes of creation and custom, preservation of identity, continuity and belonging. In doing so, it draws together considered and refined expressions of artistry, scholarship, imagination, collecting and curatorship. It also reflects a close collaboration between many individuals and institutions across boundaries and vast geographies as well as financial support from many different and diverse sources.

My own interest and involvement in this project has been a combination of good fortune and circumstance, and perhaps a small dash of magical realism.

Several years ago, my wife Annabel and I and our family had the pleasure of lunching as the guests of friends at Restaurant Bacon on the seaside in Cap d’Antibes. We noticed that there were several works of Australia Aboriginal art on the walls of the restaurant and we commented on this, but knew nothing more.

As time went by and our time spent in Antibes more frequent, we heard and learned more about the collection of Aboriginal art that was being amassed, the generosity of its owners in sharing works of the collection, the passion for scholarship and zeal for promoting Australia’s unique visual culture to new audiences and in new contexts.

By last year, we had become so intrigued that we arrived one morning at the restaurant with a copy of the beautiful catalogue that had been produced for the extraordinary ‘Australia’ exhibition that was held at the Royal Academy in London. And thus began a correspondence with Marc and with Francis.

Through the correspondence, I came to read the powerful essays of Ian Maclean and his interpretation of how we might perceive and consider aboriginal art within different contexts and attitudes to and beliefs in the metaphysical world.

I learned of the dedicated and committed collecting being undertaken by Marc and Francis, with each acquisition made contributing to an overall aesthetic and spiritual purpose.

And I learned of an original, bold and exciting curatorial vision to bring into a single space parts of their collection alongside the work of contemporary Australian artist, Imants Tillers, and the great master of the last century, Giorgio de Chirico.

The opportunity to be involved personally was quite irresistible and indeed intoxicating.

When I served at Chairman of the National Gallery of Australia, three of the highlights of my term in office were:

First, the opening of the new wing of the gallery dedicated to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island collection. For the first time, the depth of the collection was able to be displayed over multiple gallery spaces in a way that has given visitors an experience that many find deeply moving.

The second was the opening in 2006 of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Imants Tillers titled ‘One World Many Visions’. On that occasion, I commented how Imants’ work displays an ongoing interest in issues of identity and displacement. The curator of that exhibition, Deborah Hart, explained a quality that informs his art and life as a sense of “in-betweenness – belonging partly to two cultures and not fully to either” Much of his work exposes us to the truths of loss and dislocation of peoples from their homelands. This is a powerful point of reference for the pain and challenge that many indigenous people experience from the loss of culture and land.

And the third highlight was the unveiling that year of the National Gallery’s purchase of Giorgio de Chirico’s 1916 work ‘La Mort d’un esprit’ (Death of a Spirit). At its launch, it was commented that ‘De Chirico’s metaphysical paintings consciously exploited the symbolism of his art, featuring stark views of semi abstract figures, harsh light effects and oblique perspective. Imaginative symbolic language—especially human figures meshed with machines, often placed in incongruous settings such as classical or mechanical landscapes — is seminal to modern art.’

I could not have known at the time and was not even able to imagine that the three quite separate and unrelated events would some years later combine into a single exhibition on the other side of the world revealing so much for us all to enjoy.

The effect is electrifying.

The title of this exhibition is “Dreamings”. It is simple and so well suited for its purpose. The mere notion of the Dreaming, although perhaps better understood in Rome than elsewhere, challenges many of the West’s ideas of time and history and material progress – the whole idea of how civilization is presumed to develop and takes hold.

Growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, we were taught this worldview and remained ignorant of aboriginal culture and tradition and their different narratives.

Like many, my guides became writers like Bruce Chatwin and his book “The Songlines”, and the Anthropologist W E H Stanner who did perhaps more than anyone else at that time to employ a language and sensibility that gave insight and empathetic understanding to the aboriginal world.

He wrote in 1953 that a ‘central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are’. He goes on to say that whilst it is a concept of the ‘indefinitely remote past, it is also, in a sense, part of the present’.

One of his hopes was that ‘artists and men of letters who…find inspiration in Aboriginal Australia will use their gifts of empathy, but avoid banal projection and subjectivism, if they seek to honour the notion.’

In this exhibition with its invitation to consider the metaphysical world, the continuum of time and space, mythology, poetry, ritual, order and originality, I believe we can safely conclude that this notion is being honoured and honoured well.

There is one last remark that I would like to make that bears no relationship to this exhibition, aboriginal art, Imants Tillers, Giorgio de Chirico or the Museo Carlo Billotti. It nevertheless makes a connection to Australian art and reflects Australia as a culturally ambitious nation both now and in the past.

Restaurant Bacon, where Annabel and I first encountered this wonderful collection, is located at Pointe Bacon. From the dining room, there is one of the best views in the whole of the Cote d’Azur across the Baie des Anges to the Alpes-Maritimes. The combination in the winter months of turquoise water, snow on the mountain tops and deep blue skies is extraordinary. And every other month of the year brings too its own beauty, and truth.

Born in Sydney in 1858, the Australian artist, John Russell, spent much of his life as a painter living in England, France, Switzerland and Italy. In that quintessentially Australian way, he befriended some of the greatest painters of the time and worked, lived, ate and drank alongside Monet and Van Gogh amongst many others.

In 1891, he painted ‘Landscape, Antibes (The Bay of Nice)’ in a very similar location to a work by Monet of the same name and date. It is of that Turquoise bay, high-horizoned snow capped mountains and, in the foreground, bushes showing the first blushes of Springtime. It is one of my favourite paintings in the collection of the National Gallery and certainly one of the reasons why I felt I had to travel to Antibes.

By my estimation, it was painted less than 100 metres from the Restaurant Bacon.

What a lovely, quite magical, symmetry that nearly 125 years later, in that place of sparkling beauty where one of Australia’s great paintings of the 19th Century was created, lies a collection of some of the great Australian Aboriginal paintings from the late 20th and early 21st Century, now being used to enlighten audiences about how to perceive different realities, thoughts, ideas, beliefs and rituals.

This last connection is that small dash of magical realism that I had in mind. This exhibition, ‘Dreamings’ comes from a perfect idea and from a poetic place, via another poetic place. It will surely remain vividly in the hearts and souls of those fortunate enough to make the pilgrimage to Rome, as we have all done.

We should all be so grateful that this has happened.

It gives me the greatest pleasure to open the exhbition.