On “Blue Poles”, the most controversial painting in Australian history

“MAGNIFICENT”; “stunning”; “his single greatest painting”. Such are the superlatives that greeted “Blue Poles” by Jackson Pollock, one of America’s finest post-war artists, upon its arrival at London’s Royal Academy this month. The painting, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia, is on display for “Abstract Expressionism”, the most authoritative collection of the movement’s works that Britain has seen in half a century. Viewed alongside works from other towering figures of 1950s New York, including Willem De Kooning and Clyfford Still, “Blue Poles” evokes a past era when America was brimming with new-found creative confidence and possessed the will to defy past conventions. 

Pollock’s masterpiece inspires similar nostalgia and awe in Canberra, where it has hung for the past 43 years. The National Gallery of Australia almost never parts with the jewel in the crown of its collection: this is just the second time “Blue Poles” has gone abroad since 1973. There are reports that Australians visiting their capital to see the painting have fumed at its absence. Yet the deference that Australians have for this artwork does not come from a sophisticated appreciation of Pollock’s legendary drip-painting technique. Rather, it is inspired by the work’s unlikely status as an emblem of their country’s modernity. For many Australians, the chaos on the canvas represents the political chaos of the 1970s, and the birth of a national identity distinct from that of Britain’s.

The early 1970s was the most tumultuous era in Australia’s history. For three years, the leftist government of Gough Whitlam dismantled old ideas, ending the “White Australia” immigration policy, abolishing the death penalty, withdrawing troops from Vietnam and scrapping “God Save the Queen” as the country’s national anthem. Whitlam doubled government spending to finance universal health care and free university education, and poured millions of dollars into the arts. But no policy summed up his government’s energy like the purchase of “Blue Poles” in September 1973. The painting was the very definition of a luxury acquisition: its A$1.3m ($2m) price tag—a record for an American painting—had to be personally approved by the prime minister. The amount was a third of the National Gallery’s annual budget (which itself had benefited from a twelve-fold increase). A national scandal ensued.

The painting, which the hard-drinking Pollock supposedly began during a drunken session with two friends, did not find a receptive audience upon arrival. “$1.3m for drips and drabs”, ran one newspaper headline. Another raged that “barefoot drunks painted our $1m masterpiece”. If Australia’s tabloid journalists were perhaps not the most sophisticated connoisseurs of modern art, neither were its politicians. Members of Whitlam’s own party publicly railed against government expenditure on “weird paintings”. The Senate hauled the National Gallery’s director, James Mollison, in for questioning. In one of the many lengthy parliamentary debates on the topic, one senator, Reginald Wright, said:

I think that people who paint in this manner must be a bit under the weather. It has been made clear from contributions that we have had in this place that Pollock…walked about in a drunken stupor, stamped on paint on a canvas and ultimately produced the painting “Blue Poles”…There is no question that we have been made to look a bunch of suckers in falling for this purchase.

Never before or since has a work of art been so reviled in Australia. Yet Whitlam stood by his decision, even plastering “Blue Poles” on his prime ministerial Christmas card to MPs. In 1976, after he had been relegated to the opposition benches, he told parliament:

No country has a greater need than Australia, remote as we are from the great galleries of the world, to acquire works of art from other nations and civilisations…Overseas galleries have always recognised that the function of any gallery other than the most provincial is to offer a comprehensive view of world culture.

The conservative government that replaced Whitlam in 1975 was careful to spend only modest amounts on (mostly Australian) artwork, turning down bargains from the likes of Cézanne and Braque in the process. Yet as Pollock’s reputation has grown over the years, so too has the painting’s value. Now thought to be worth at least A$100m, “Blue Poles” has become a national treasure. Once seen by Australians as a symbol of Whitlam’s largesse, it now stands for the spirit of cultural internationalism that he instilled in his country. 

Edith Devaney, the co-curator of “Abstract Expressionism”, refers to the purchase of “Blue Poles” as “the best cultural investment Australia’s ever made”. But she prefers to concentrate on the artwork itself. “It is very much seen as a culmination of the strongest part of Pollock’s career,” she says. “The painting itself transcends all the stories about it.” One visitor to the the exhibition in London was Ben Heller, a 90-year-old who was friends with Pollock. It was he who sold the painting to Australia, having bought it for just $32,000 in 1957. Mr Heller told reporters he had suspected back in 1973 that its sale would cause a stir among Australian taxpayers. “But I didn’t expect it to drive the government out.”

“Abstract Expressionism” is on display at the Royal Academy of Arts until January 2nd 2017


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