Review: Bertram Mackennal
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV until 24 February 2008
Sex, nudity, orgies, death and fame, glorious, fickle fame. A hundred years ago, Bertram Mackennal was an art superstar. An Australian who made it big time in England, a member of the Royal Academy, collected by the Tate, commissioned by Royalty, his social circle included famous singers and actresses. At its height his studio employed twenty people, but now he is almost completely unknown. His less successful contemporaries, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin are much more familiar to us. Why have we forgotten him? Is this a painting versus sculpture thing or do we tend to forget (or ignore) those who leave our shores and find both public and market for their work in another (larger) country? Another explanation could be that his period is in a bit of a historical blind spot, too recent to be in the canon of Great Art and not up to current tastes. The Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist movements that border his early career are openly sneered at by intelligent, discerning people who do not buy posters from public galleries. And his memorial works are perhaps too functional to be recognised as art at all.
The work that launched Mackennal’s career is Circe (1893), a tall bronze female nude with an intense gaze. She stands feet together, arms outstretched before her, fingers splayed in supernatural intent. She has two snakes entwined in her hair and four encircling her feet. In a frieze that wraps her circular plinth is depicted an orgy of intertwined male and female bodies. Circe was the witch from Homeric mythology who transformed Odysseus’s crew into pigs. Mackennal made this depiction of a powerful woman at a time of burgeoning women’s rights, and at a time when novelties such as Mesmerism were giving scientific explanations to magical ideas. It was also the Victorian era, an age mesmerised by sexual perversions.
The marble sculpture, Oceana (1897) depicts our then youthful region as a coquettish teen nymph rising from the waves. Her left hand awkwardly attempts to civilise her hair while her right hand clings to the unkempt kelp of her savage origins.
Diana Wounded (1908) is a finely nuanced and utterly lovely life-sized marble. Although the title states she is a Goddess tending to a sore spot, the effect is of a charming young woman, unfastening her suspenders in a state of tasteful dishabille.
The War memorial for Eton College (1921-23) is a bronze, nude young man standing tilted forward with arms extended in a take me and do what thou wilt gesture. His exposed form clearly reveals him to be a paragon of male youth and his implicit willingness to die makes this work quite unlike other war memorials.
One of Mackennals most impressive works is on permanent display at Boroondara cemetery, Kew. The astonishing Springthorpe memorial features a trio of figures in marble. An angel looking over a deceased woman on a sarcophagus with a grieving figure crouched at her side. It is housed in a Greek style temple with a roof made from ruby glass tiles that bathe the interior in an unearthly rosy light. The temple is surrounded by gardens and was commissioned by Dr John Springthorpe for his wife Annie who died in 1897.