Pioneering modernist exhibition: a cultural turning point for 1930s Australia
Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, Miegunyah Press
28 March 2006
Degenerates and Perverts, a richly illustrated 306-page book by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller, examines the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art and its impact on Australian artistic and social life.
Accurate information about the impact of this landmark event in local cultural history is long overdue.
The remarkable exhibition of fifty-nine painters and nine sculptors, many of them major figures of late nineteenth century and twentieth century art, was initiated by Australian newspaper magnate Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) and financed by his Melbourne-based Herald newspaper.
As well as leading British painters Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Walter Sickert and Edward Wadsworth, it also included the work of post-impressionists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne (see also here); early moderns Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall; and other contemporary pioneers such as Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, to name a few.
All told, 217 paintings and a smaller number of sculptures were on display.
While art patrons in New York, Chicago, Paris, London and Berlin and other major American and European centres had ready access to the work of these celebrated artists, an exhibition of this artistic range and size had never been held in Australia before.
Not unexpectedly it generated passionate debate.
Artists, writers, students and thousands of ordinary people flocked to showings, breaking attendance records.
Over 70,000 people saw the exhibition in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, an astonishing figure considering Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million.
By contrast, the exhibition provoked an angry backlash from leading representatives of the local art establishment who vehemently denounced the show and worked to undermine it.
In fact, the book’s title is a direct quote from J.S. MacDonald, then director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), who declared that most of the exhibition was “putrid meat” and the “product of degenerates and perverts”.
Murdoch, an NGV trustee and avid collector, was clearly at odds with these sentiments.
And while his taste was pedestrian—Degenerates and Perverts notes that he generally preferred “understandable art”—he hoped the show would encourage local artists.
Surrealism: see here.
Australia: new finds in ancient Aboriginal rock art: here.
Australian novelist Kylie Tennant: here.
Impressionists vs. Bouguereau conflict in French art about 1880: here.