Articulate (verb) ärtĭ'kyəlāt: to explain meaning, to put into words coherently. Writing contemporary art, rewriting art history.

Inside Line


For a nation of people so in love with the outdoors, Australians have always had a sharp eye for interior design.

In the early days, of course, décor was largely imported; and between the gold rush and the wool boom, money was little object. The prominent Barr Smith family, then Australia’s wealthiest, led the charge, and between 1884 and 1929 furnished seven grand homes around Adelaide entirely in William Morris designs…and along the way, amassed one of the premier collections of decorative arts outside Britain.

But home decoration was not just for the elites. Australian artists and designers were avidly applying Modernism to domestic interiors in the pages of The Home magazine, first published in1920. The most influential of these was Margaret Preston, whose vigorous graphic prints of native flora and Aboriginal motifs were widely published in women’s magazines. In 1929, readers of Women’s World were even advised to keep and frame Preston’s covers ‘as charming pictures…just the decorative asset we need for Australian homes.’

That same idea of place still winds like a silver creek through Australian interiors, but never in an obvious way. Contemporary Australian design has matured into a sophisticated but underplayed approach, always with an eye to innovation, character and subtle references to the natural environment.

Design expert Jan Henderson feels that the seeming lack of an ‘Australian style’ has become Australia’s signature. ‘That plurality is our real strength,’ she says. ‘We’re not constrained by set styles that are almost clichés. Australian design can take the best from many looks and reinvent it for all the ways Australians live.’

Today, we demand more of our homes than ever before. Not only do they have to be offices, hotel kitchens, education centres, gyms, and technology hubs, they need to energise and provide respite. They must offer warm social spaces and moment of private restoration for their busy inhabitants, and more and more people understand that interiors play a crucial role in creating a sense of individuality and well-being.

But creating the perfect home interior doesn’t happen by accident. Far from being an extravagance, engaging a professional decorator or interior designer is now simply seen as the smart choice.

Unquestionably, hiring a professional has numerous benefits. Foremost is obviously their experience- design that represents quality takes education and time, and rather like learning to appreciate fine food and wine, there are no shortcuts. Designers are experts at creating and utilising spaces, and will arrive at creative solutions most people would never imagine. Their knowledge of decorative styles helps resolve mismatches into a harmonious whole, and their understanding of design psychology creates positive responses to domestic spaces.

An interior designer will project manage every stage, helping to minimise costs, time and disruption, and in cases involving structural work, help navigate building regulations. Many work closely with architects to plan distinctive residences from the ground up, and have access to resources that are simply not available to the public. An entire industry of manufacturers, restorers and specialist importers deals predominantly, if not solely, with designers, dramatically expanding the creative possibilities for your home.

A good designer will also have the contacts for skilled craftsmen and women who can create bespoke cabinetry and furniture that will last a lifetime, while professional decor and well-designed builds can add substantially to the value of your home…not that you’d dream of selling.

When choosing a designer, it pays to do the legwork and develop an awareness of quality design.  The Design Institute of Australia a starting point; from there, design experts recommend shopping around. Online portfolios are an accessible way to gauge a designer’s aesthetic and flexibility, and a well-established profile and strong history is a good indictor of a designer’s calibre, often the key to a successful project.

Jan Henderson, co-Editor with Gillian Serisier of inside Interior Design Review, emphasises the importance of finding a designer you resonate with. ‘Design is a relationship you need to build, so you need to find someone on your wavelength, to bring ideas out of you that you didn’t know were there,’ she says.

With inside hosting the Interior Design Excellence Awards, Henderson has a valuable perspective what constitutes exceptional design. Now in its thirteenth year, IDEA is Australia’s largest and most successful design awards, adjudicated by a panel of leading professionals representing a broad cross section and deep understanding of the industry.

‘It’s a difficult decision,’ she says, ‘and only getting harder with the high calibre of entries. The jury looks for a special commitment to designing for the needs of the client, in a way that brings together pure talent, and eye for detail and a professional habit. Standout design thinks outside the box.’

It’s certainly a description that aptly summarises Arent&Pyke, 2015 IDEA Residential Decoration winners. Although working on commercial and hospitality projects in Australia and overseas, Sydney duo Juliette Arent and Sarah-Jane Pyke prefer the warmth and generosity of residential projects.

‘People yearn to have a connection to their spaces,’ Arent says. ‘A large part of our process is about distilling the ideas and emotions they associate with home, their families and their interests. We work closely and nurture clients through the whole project, so releasing that joy for them is important to us.’

Arent and Pyke spend a great deal of time learning how their clients actually use their spaces. ‘There are common threads in family homes. Practicality and making spaces to be together is important, but there also needs to comfort and finesse, special moments in the everyday that are unexpected, but still feel natural. That’s what makes someone feel the house is truly theirs, not a page from a magazine.’


Figtree house, their winning residence, is an elegant testament to their approach. The beachside terrace in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs is a far cry from the industrial space the clients initially wanted. Arent and Pyke lightened the stately Victorian lines with colour, layered lighting and kept a thread of industrial design throughout. The home’s different moods are shaped by the spaces- the deep navy and white of the sitting room, for example, is composed but laid-back, achieved with a mix of vintage and contemporary furniture. The family and dining spaces, on the other hand, are flooded with leaf-filtered sunlight playing on soft colours and natural textures.

Arent and Pyke delight in stretching themselves and their clients. ‘We never want to be formulaic, and we always want to give the client more than they ever expected.

‘Our clients, their ideas and the things they love and want around them, are our starting points. We take them on a journey, and we make sure they enjoy themselves and learn from it. It’s always gratifying to see them develop their own ideas, and get the confidence to carry on for themselves.’


Planting the right seeds and fully engaging with the client is all about building trust and for Sydney-based Amber Road Design, whose Cronulla Residence won it a Commendation in the 2015 IDEA awards, that engagement led to a significantly expanded project.

Initially briefed to source furniture for a modest waterfront weatherboard cottage in Cronulla that would ‘introduce sculptural and artisanal beauty’, the project then went on to encompass internal building works, custom joinery, selection of artwork and working with a paint consultant to provide a palette that improved light reflection to illuminate the various spaces.

The end result combining iconic furniture pieces, beautiful shapes and lines and impeccable craftsmanship is a delightful expression of the client’s request to ‘keep it as unpretentious and simple as possible’.


Interior design extends well beyond colour and texture, as architect Steven Whiting and creative director Carole Whiting eloquently attest, to encompass creating whole new interiors. And Whiting Architects’ Kerferd house, winners of the 2015 Australian Interior Design Awards: Residential Decoration, is a perfect example.

For the project, the five-person team responded to the surrounding architectural language with an understated extension to the existing double-fronted Edwardian red brick, that creates what Whiting describes as ‘precincts’- distinct areas for living that integrate with the structure. He notes that ‘good architecture doesn’t need more space- it does more with the space it has.’

It’s impossible to separate the functional from the decorative in the Kerford home; rooms fold origami-like into one other. Every element serves multiple functions. The restrained palette of natural materials, tactile layers of softened white linen and wool and textured blacks makes inhabiting the house a meditative, cocoon-like experience.


Drawing on their background as filmmakers, the Whitings regard the interiors as a landscape in itself, constantly changing with light and time- requiring an extraordinary level of trust and commitment from clients.

‘We take a lot of time getting to know our clients, and design completely around their life and habits,’ says Steven Whiting. ‘We make them an integral part of the process.’ Carole Whiting laughs. ‘They have to trust us, we’re literally in their sock drawers.’

But it’s an approach that clients find satisfying and rewarding, in ways that can’t be measured in cost or construction. Whiting describes Kerford as a house that makes you stop, and think, experience and look.

‘The light frames views, sets up spaces with the way the sun hits, and creates a mood and feeling. In the longer term, the natural materials will age, weather and mellow. It’s profound and serious, but also lets you enjoy new discoveries. It’s a house that shows rather than tells.’

Published Il Tridente 2016

Venetian Vision

It might be the worst of clichés to describe the Venice Biennale as the Olympics of the art world- but it is entirely accurate.

Since its inception, the Biennale has been the epicenter of contemporary art; one of the largest and undeniably the most prestigious cultural event in the world. It’s the place to see the cutting edge of art, meet artists, critics and dealers from the multi-billion dollar art market, an opportunity for national prestige and cultural politics…and the place to be seen. Venice is not the only international art event- but it is the pinnacle.

For Australian artists in particular, Venice is the opportunity to interact with the global arts community, and to gain international recognition for their work. As well as being the peak of their career, Biennale representation cements Australia’s place at the forefront of contemporary art.

Since the renaissance, La Serenissima had drawn a steady stream of travellers, lured by its history and romance, its impossible beauty and singular architecture. In particular it was a beacon for artists- Titian, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Turner, painters who turned water and stone into colour and floating light: a roll-call of Venice’s pilgrims is shorthand for fine art and high culture.

Venice took advantage of this prime position in 1895, founding the Esposizione biennale artistica nazionale, exhibiting artists from14 countries (by invitation) and establishing itself as the cultural destination par excellence. Attracting discerning tourists from around the world, the Biennale was an instant success; so much so that it quickly outgrew the modest Palazzo dell’Esposizione that had been built in Napoleon’s historic Giardini, still one of the Biennales main venues.


The solution came in 1907 with the first national pavilions built in the Giardini, dedicated spaces for each country to demonstrate its cultural clout. Belgium lead the charge that same year, with more following steadily as the Biennale grew into a worldwide event. Over one hundred years the Giardini became a fanciful architectural park, with thirty pavilions built in evocative ‘national’ styles from Neoclassicism (France, 1912) to Modernism (Brazil, 1964), culminating in contemporary bubbles of steel and glass (Korea, 1995).

In 1988, Australia beat sixteen countries to the last available pavilion site: prime canal-side real estate envied by many. Architect Phillip Cox quickly designed a temporary structure to house the Bicentenary exhibition that year…but as ‘temporary’ stretched into decades, plans for a permanent Australian Pavilion were made, to mark the 21st year of Australia’s Biennale participation.

Elaine Chia, Director of Venice Development for the Australia Council, relates that the brief was careful not to impose creative restrictions. ‘Simple yet powerful,’ she says, ‘and sits well within the landscape.’

‘The Venetians were very open to our design aesthetic, so it was an opportunity to really claim the site.’


‘It had to be clean and concise’ says John Denton, of Melbourne practice Denton Corker Marshall, answering the brief that called for 250 square metres of exhibition space. Experts in designing cultural spaces including the Melbourne Museum and Museum of Sydney, DCM refined the concept to a‘white box contained within a black box’, envisaging the Pavilion as an art object rather than a building.

It is a striking, perhaps timeless addition to the Giardini, where the Architecture Biennale also takes place on alternate years. Handsome and sculpturally bold, clad in black Zimbabwe granite, its simple form is punctuated by large apertures that subtly suggest a camera obscura.

Chia is elated that the Pavilion makes such a distinct contribution to the international dialogue of architecture. ‘It’s the only 21st century structure among all this historic architecture,’ she beams. ‘It’s the latest chapter in the story of the Biennale, a story punctuated by a mix of styles that reflects the times.’


‘And it makes such a statement about who Australia is in 2015- a young nation but not stereotypical, sophisticated and forward looking. The old Pavilion had the flavour of Australian art looking out at the world- this is the world’s turn to look at us.’

Chia is even more pleased that despite having to bring in materials via canal, the project was completed on time and within the budget of $7.5 million. It’s a not inconsiderable sum, considering public funding for the arts is often contentious. But showcasing our art on the international stage reaps rewards that go beyond simple economic benefits, including international prestige, cultural diplomacy, and participation in the global economy of ideas- a forum where Australia is a known heavy hitter.


Moreover, Chia points out that $6.5 million of the price tag came from 82 private donors, including actor Cate Blanchett and investment banker Simon Mordant AM, Venice Biennale Commissioner since 2013 and driving force behind the new Pavilion. ‘It’s incredibly rewarding that so many got behind this,’ she says, noting that private philanthropy is essential to the future of public art. ‘It’s a positive sign that a growing number of passionate people are willing to get involved in taking Australian art to the world stage.’

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Although monolithic on paper, the Pavilion responds with sensitivity to its historic setting. Where it presents an assertive aspect across the canal, approached through the gardens it is self-effacing, revealing only discreet glimpses until one stands before it. Unlike the haughty facades of older pavilions, this democratic approach sets the stage for viewing the art in the understated interior, a liminal space for appreciation, thought and discussion.


And there’s much to think about in Wrong Way Time, the representative exhibition by South Australian artist Fiona Hall, AO. With a career spanning four decades- and almost as many artistic media- Hall has established herself as an artist of versatility, ingenuity and imagination, galvanised by what Biennale curator Linda Michael calls as ‘an electric sensitivity to the currents of our world.’

‘This is an intense time for an artist,’ says Michael; and with Wrong way time, Hall responds with equal intensity to the murky undertow of global politics, financial inequity, the destruction of natural resources, the destruction of hope. Michael describes the exhibition as a gestalt, ‘hundred of parts that appeal to our human impulse to make connections.’


‘There is some earlier work in the exhibition, but it is made new again within the larger context.’ Still one of the most relevant is Tender (2006), a museum vitrine filled with native bird’s nests delicately woven from shredded dollar notes. The question of what price our fragile environment and endangered habitat is achingly clear.

One of the most powerful new works is All the king’s men, hanging, contorted heads knitted from strips of military camouflage stretched painfully over wire armatures, repeated again and again like an agonised prayer. These confronting husks are not about the trauma of conflict, so much as crafted from it.


Although Wrong way time registers a future that is far from rosy, its life-affirming creativity runs offsets its pessimism, and hints at the possibility of turning back. Every piece of Hall’s installation is about connection and consequence: each word and action has repercussions that can bring about the worst or the best of human capability.

While Michael feels that the Biennale has moved past national lines, with participating country’s curators now contributing their perspectives to an overarching theme, she is gratified by the new Pavilion. ‘It’s a very responsive space,’ she says, ‘almost Spartan but flexible, with generous proportions ideal for exhibition.’

Michael is confident that the space will bring out the ‘the enormous sense, heart and soul’ in Hall’s work, and show it at its best.

‘The art world is a tough judge, and artists are open to all kind of responses in Venice. Art has a different meaning, and a different value, to everyone who sees it.’

Some standouts among Australia’s representatives at Venice:

2013: Simryn Gill’s Here, art grows on trees famously repurposed the Pavilion itself as part of her site-specific exhibition. Gill removed half the roof, letting light and rain, birds and fallen leaves become part of the work, tying together seemingly unconnected fragments of a crumbling world using the vulnerable, fragile cycles of nature.


2009: Shaun Gladwell created a powerful statement of Australian landscape and culture with his MADDESTMAXIMVS, spinning the outback imagery of the iconic films into poetic but no less stark video works. The recurrent lone black figure caught between blood-red dirt and unforgiving sky echoes the paintings of Sidney Nolan as much as George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy.

Alongside Gladwell and working across a range of media, Vernon Ah Kee, Ken Yonetani, and Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro showcased the breadth and pluralism of Australian contemporary art.


2003: Patricia Piccinini transformed the Pavilion into a family home, a haven for native creatures never quite found in nature. Hyperreal and hypertactile down to the texture and smell of human skin and hair, her sculptures are as vulnerable and tender as they are disturbingly strange- and question on several levels what ‘normal’ is, what family is…and why some lives are valued more than others.


1995: The selection of photographer Bill Henson for the Biennale’s centenary marked a bold stride into the heart of global arts culture. The first artist working in technological media to represent Australia, the mysterious chiaroscuro and breathtaking emotion of his ‘cut screen’ photographs rivaled Venezia’s magnificent renaissance art on its home turf, and set photography’s place as an historical yet continually experimental contemporary genre.

1990: Australia brought Aboriginal art to an international audience for the first time. At once traditional and contemporary and critically compared to Rothko, Rover Thomas’ dot paintings centred on the Indigenous experience of the Australian desert landscape: a living presence, personal, familial, deeply spiritual and ingrained in the psyche.

1954: Australia launched its Biennale career with expressive new ideas about Australian life and landscape. William Dobell’s accomplished portraits and Russell Drysdale’s haunting paintings of an inhospitable land were already well known to European audiences; but it was perhaps Sydney Nolan’s iconic paintings that cemented Australia’s international reputation: possessed of a unique culture, sophisticated and connected to Europe, but with its own stories to tell.

Published Il Tridente, 2015.

An Ordinary Picture


Small and dark, obscured behind dirty varnish and bulletproof glass, the portrait known as the Mona Lisa has become a universal icon, an image known to millions. It has been the subject of such intense and inexhaustible mythographia that its very name no longer refers to a sixteenth-century woman, but to the painting hanging in the Louvre, stripped of its history and encrusted by legends.

Yet the painting remains a portrait, the depiction of a specific individual in a specific cultural setting. If we cast aside centuries of accumulated (usually ill-considered) speculation, we can approach the painting as a piece of contemporary art, seen afresh from within the tastes, expectations and modes of thought of the sixteenth century. We can unravel how a contemporary audience would have understood this storied work, as an astonishing portrait that carried some privileged glimpses into the mind of an extraordinary artist.

Sixteenth-century Florence was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: its citizens lived in multifaceted society composed of intricate networks of social obligation and promotion. They were also highly visually literate, both adept at discerning the nuances of iconography and actively engaged in using their art to build a societal identity that emulated the heroic Classical past.

Renaissance society easily reconciled material luxury with the increasing intellectualisation of painting. Civic humanism appreciated the accrual of wealth as the basis for civic benefit; at the time, ideas celebrating the dignity of man reoriented investment in material culture towards artworks which embodied ‘genius’, that concept of semi-divine inspiration which increasingly defined cultural capital during the renaissance.

Portraiture was just such an elitist commodity, announcing the wealth, intellectual taste and prestige of the owner, and as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. Viewers could easily discern not only the sitter’s status but their character and interests, their personal ties and self-perceptions in the complex visual language of their surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Contemporary audiences had no difficulty recognising multiple aspects to portraiture, and looked to clues patronage and context to support interpretation. The clues which might define Mona Lisa, however, are troublesomely scarce.

Although undeniably by da Vinci’s hand the panel is unsigned and undated, nor does any mention appear in his notebooks. In the absence of these facts, debate has raged around the dating of the work and possible identity of the sitter.

The marked similarities to Florentine drawings, in particular those made by Raphael during his residence in the Tuscan city 1504-1508, suggest that Mona Lisa was begun before 1504. Professor Martin Kemp however dates the work to 1513-1516, asserting that the technique of veiled glazes is characteristic of da Vinci’s later style. This suggests that the portrait was a cumulative image, begun around 1503 and developed in stages over the succeeding years.

Closely tied to the date is the question of the sitter’s identity. Though it is unlikely he saw the painting, the renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that the figure was Madonna Lisa del Giocondo. Historians have since proposed as the sitter the Duchess of Milan Isabella of Aragon, or the widowed Duchess of Francavilla Constanza d’Avalos. Other contenders include Isabella Gualanda, the artist’s mother Caterina or the artist himself in female guise.


Fortunately, this speculation has been rendered academic. Vasari’s traditionally accepted attestation that the sitter is indeed Lisa di Antonmaria Gherardini, who married Ser Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495 and bore him five children, has been supported by archival documents uncovered by researcher Guiseppe Pallanti, after twenty-five years’ research in the city of Florence archives.

Even more recently, the discovery of a contemporary souce has confirmed Pallanti’s findings. A note by city chancellery official Agostino Vespucci compares da Vinci to the classical painter Apelles, stating that he was currently working on three paintings at once – one of them a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Vespucci’s handwritten notes in the margin from October 1503 permit an exact dating of the painting and with only a few words, solves two centuries-old enigmas.

Among the renaissance middle class, portraits were commissioned for specific reasons; the birth of Gherardini and Giocondo’s second son Andrea in 1502 would have furnished just such an occasion. Alongside its role as a statussymbol, portraiture in the renaissance often functioned as a remembrance of a loved one in their absence or death: having previously lost two spouses within a year of marriage as a result of childbirth, an apprehensive Ser Francesco may have desired a commemoration of his open-hearted third wife.

The Florentine documents unearthed by Pallanti also reveal the close association of the Giocondo family with da Vinci’s own. Ser Francesco was a client of da Vinci’s father, the distinguished notary Ser Piero da Vinci. Living in the same district of Florence, the two men were civic associates and members of the same social circle for many years. As the Giocondo family chapel was located in the nearby church of Santissima Annunziata, where Ser Piero was the convent’s procurator and Leonardo had lodged whilst assuming Filippo Lippi’s commission for the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, it is highly likely that the artist was well acquainted with both Ser Francesco and Madonna Lisa.

Scholars have wondered why an artist accustomed to the patronage of aristocrats would accept a commission from a local merchant, especially when he was refusing commissions, claiming that he was ‘overtaxed by the brush.’ The social intricacies of sixteenth century Florence make it probable that the portrait was commissioned by Ser Piero as a gift, as he is known to have to have done on other occasions: in addition to being an expression of affection, such a gift would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable regard from a well-connected family. Pallanti suggests it may also have been the elder da Vinci’s way of offering financial assistance to his son, whose bank records suggest was without an income in the spring of 1503.15 Considering the commission as a family favour accounts for not only the lack of studio or financial records (it may in fact never have been paid for), but the painting remaining in da Vinci’s possession.

The painting itself fits firmly into the formal genre of Florentine portraiture. Although slightly larger than most portraits, it is still on a domestic scale, doubtless intended for display in Ser Francesco’s recently purchased household. Mona Lisa conforms to the convention of placing female sitters indoors, reflecting their role in sixteenth century society. The family unit was the intersection between public and private which determined the individual’s relation to society; the civic task of women was to instill republican virtue and morality into their families. A common symbol denoting civic responsibility in masculine portraits, the twin pillars of the loggia here enclose the sitter in the domestic setting and indicate the societal aspects of two lives conjoined in matrimony.


The presentation of the sitter, however, differs surprisingly from the conventional. The common attributes of affluence, status or social role are absent, as is the expected allegorical and symbolic iconography. Rather than holding a book indicative of literary interests, Gherardini’s hands rest upon the chair arm in a gesture indicating morally sound conduct. She does not appear with the pet that would bespeak a luxurious lifestyle, or a symbolic animal such as an ermine; not even a simple vase of flowers adds to the semiotic schema. The sitter is not transformed into a biblical or classical allegory, but depicted without commentary other than the fantastical panorama outside her loggia.

Gherardini is also depicted without the expected trappings of wealth. She wears no rings, and the necklace which once graced her throat was painted out by the artist. Gherardini’s gown, often assumed to be dark mourning attire, is actually of a style fashionable in early sixteenth-century Tuscany, in rich green silk with saffron sleeves, the veil of a modest Florentine matron covering her simply dressed hair. The design of linked rings and knots on her camicia suggests the wedding ring absent from her finger, or is perhaps a conceit by an artist enamoured of elaborate knots.

With the Florentine documents revealing that Gherardini’s social background to be the yeomanry (her dowry having been a farm in Chianti rather than a substantial sum invested in the city’s dowry fund, as was customary among the urban patrician class), the lack of display reflects the quiet tastes of a woman unimpressed with ostentation, and removes any distraction from the startling realism with which she is depicted.

Though unconventional in detail, the painting’s breathtaking realism represents the very ideal of renaissance portraiture. Alhough influenced by Netherlandish art’s vivid realism, Italian artists also subscribed to Neoplatonic theories which exalted an idealised naturalism. Accordingly, rather than the conscious manipulation of reality to command emotional impact practiced in Flanders, the Italian emphasis was on such a subtly perfected mimesis and virtuoso representation that the image seemed so like to life that it lacked only breath. With consummate delicacy of technique, da Vinci achieved a likeness so physiognomically mobile and possessing such vitality that it elicits the same instintive, visceral response as toward another living person.

The secret of Mona Lisa’s motile image lay in da Vinci’s sophisticated use of sfumato (‘dark smoke’). A development of tonal painting, sfumato superimposed transparent layers of colour to achieve convincing effects of perspective, depth and volume. Characterised by delicate translucence, da Vinci’s pictorial texture was well suited to almost imperceptible gradations of veiled shadow and colouration. So ethereal are the layered glazes of Mona Lisa that light is refracted, yielding an extraordinary luminosity; X-rays pass through virtually unobstructed by the minimal pigment density.

Breaking from the sharply limned Florentine tradition, the subtlety of the portrait’s modelling displays a superbly confident painterly execution, which would not have been lost on a sixteenth-century audience. Where the mirror-like morbidezza surface itself required an unrivalled dexterity, the shadows of the sfumato effect demanded seemingly inimitable application and patience in the placement of myriad fine layers, with no possibility of reworking and allowing each time to dry.

It is this realism that lies behind the mythologisation of Mona Lisa as a modern enigma. While perhaps due to musicians hired to alleviate the sitter’s boredom as Vasari suggests, the ‘enigmatic’ quality of Gherardini’s smile is due more to the fevered intellectual climate of European Romanticism, wose critics were intent on embedded Mona Lisa in the public consciousness as the turbid embodiment of woman as an eternal, sphinx-like mystery. The early twentieth century saw the famed smile subject to psychoanalytic investigation, most notably by Sigmund Freud, who in 1910 proposed that the smile, so like a nursing mother’s, was patterned after the artist’s absent mother Caterina- a traumatic separation that accounted for da Vinci’s homosexuality.

Perhaps the most extreme psychographic interpretation is the suggestion that Mona Lisa is a self-portrait in female guise. In her exposition of Mona Lisa as ‘woman-revealed-as-mask,’ Lilian Schwartz (1987) uses sociological theories of gender identity to validate the Freudian justification of da Vinci’s sexuality. While undeniably delighting in the play of ambiguity and fantasia, da Vinci was nevertheless unlikely to produce such a transgendered self- portrait; it is far more probable that any resemblance to the artist unintentionally results from his style and practice.


A sixteenth-century audience, on the other hand, would ascribe none of these myths to the painted smile. Cinquecento viewers would recognise the smile as an artifice, an artistic device to impart that the image is a living, genuine simulacrum, invested with the virtues and emotional identity of a specific individual. The spectator’s conscious participation in the fiction of the sitter’s receptivity also reflects this surrogacy. The notion of a portrait’s capacity to react benignly to the spectator, to listen if not to speak, is exemplified in Mona Lisa: the illusion that Gherardini is truly and tangibly there, aware of and responsive to the spectator’s presence is what generates the impression of life. Rather than a more obvious narrative, Mona Lisa exquisitely exploits the communicative mutuality between the sitter and the spectator, using the complex language of nonverbal communication. Turning in her chair at the viewer’s “appearance” in her loggia, Madonna Lisa directly answers their presence with a smile; as the sitter seems to react to the spectator, so the spectator is placed, physcially and sympathetically, in relation to the painting’s imagined space, and not the reverse.

Renaissance spectators would also recognise in Madonna Lisa’s smile the literary conventions of the day, inextricable from the conventions of painting. Influenced by the Classicist vocabulary of humanism, both arts increasingly portrayed women not as people but in terms of abstracted qualities. While individualising his female sitters to varying degrees, da Vinci’s portraiture nonetheless remained true to the pictorial formula of the ‘Florentine beauty’, illustrating the Neoplatonic idea that feminine beauty was the outward manifestation of virtue.

With their outlook shaped by perceptual conditions very different from the modern era, sixteenth-century audiences would understand the sitter’s smile not as an eternal enigma, but simply an expected indication of inward virtue to match outward beauty. Of course, given renaissance society’s enthusiasm for games with portraits, contemporary viewers would also appreciate Gherardini’s smile as a clever play on her husband’s name, giocondo meaning ‘smiling’ or ‘lighthearted’.

No, for the contemporary audience, insight into the artist’s interests and aspirations was found in vista beyond Mdonna Lisa’s loggia. In the sixteenth century, background landscapes were less important than semiotic narrative, considered mere ornamentation; the artist was thus free to indulge his interests as he developed the image. Easily discerning the tensions of realism and fantasia, the renaissance spectator’s “surprised eye” would establish the interdependence between the meaningful layers of the painted image.


The atmospheric landscapes which frequently recur in da Vinci’s works are commonly regarded as indicating his scientific interests. Multiple analogies closely connect the sitter and landscape in Mona Lisa, suggesting the figure may be seen as a philosophical metaphor for the physical systems of the world, and vice versa. The landscape’s placement on the panel responds to the sitter’s height and pose; the rivers meet at the level of her heart, and although the horizon line is unclear it corresponds roughly to her eye level. Similarly, the gradations of originally intense colour ranging from fiery ochre in the mid- ground to the clear blue sky behind the sitter’s head resonates with Classical associations with the body and intellect.

Da Vinci’s untiring investigations into anatomy developed his understanding of how the microcosm participates in the macrocosm, discovering affinities between the mechanisms of the human body and the body of the earth. The worldly body is implicit in the imposing landscape; against pictorial convention, the upland lakes are bent into an arc suggesting the curvature of the earth, the “sphere of water” which echoes the three-dimensionality of Gherardini’s form.

The presence of the feminine element of water is apparent as the sculpting force of the craggy geological formations, and in the rivers’ function as ‘veins of the earth’ : the watery currents of the background are consciously mirrored in the sitter’s rivulets of hair and the cascading drapery of her camicia and veil. Laid bare to the gaze, the geological and hydrological cycles which shape and vitalise nature seem to flow between the microcosmic sitter and the macrocosm of landscape in an intertextual narrative recognisable to a renaissance audience. These visually eloquent meditations are not didactic but function as a paragone, awakening a sense of surprised wonder as does poetic metaphor while revealing the far-ranging intellectual intensity of the artist.

The portrait’s play of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) similarly reveals the artist’s interest in optical theories. Da Vinci’s demonstration that vision becomes more sensitive when the eye is dark-adapted is seen in the dim studio lighting he preferred for portraiture, especially the hues favoured by dark-adapted sight found in Mona Lisa. His optical understanding makes the shared space of the portrait even more realistic: the optical possibilities and limitations of the painting are exactly as if the viewer were standing in a pre-calculated position before Gherardini, in a more deeply shadowed part of her loggia.

Conscious of living in a society that defined itself in opposition to its past, renaissance viewers were nonetheless keenly aware that their new visual language was formed around persistent elements of medieval art. More than most artists, da Vinci was a gothic artist, drawing heavily upon the gothic tradition in his oeuvre, becoming genuinely progressive by looking backward. Mona Lisa’s smile gives fresh currency to the medieval formulae common in fifteenth-century Netherlandish art. Similarly, the otherworldly fantasia of the rocky landscape is common in late gothic illumination and panel painting; the portrait’s exploration of man as a microcosm of the world derives from Ristoro’s thirteenth-century cosmology. While more complex than its precursors, da Vinci’s luminous textures and chiaroscuro recalls the natural play of light found in the burnished gold of medieval religious works. The potency of these underlying gothic traits is renovated in Mona Lisa by their fusion with the humanist intellectualism of the sixteenth century.landscape-drawing-for-santa-maria-della-neve-1473
It is uncertain why Mona Lisa remained in da Vinci’s keeping until his death. More lucrative commissions meant that work on the portrait progressed slowly; da Vinci likely considered it unfinished, indeed, the background landscape is based on drawings made as late as 1515. While the patron or recipient might have lost interest in the finished work, it is far more probable that da Vinci retained the painting as a reputation-enhancing showpiece of his formidable skill. Presumably given to his apprentice Salai before da Vinci’s death in France, the portrait subsequently passed into the collection of Francis I, thus becoming a touchstone of French culture.

Mona Lisa need not be regarded a mysterious image that has irreversibly lost its historical context. Viewed as its intended audience would. Mona Lisa is revealed as a typical – albeit exceedingly sophisticated – product of it time, articulated by da Vinci’s matchless technical skill. For centuries, scholars have seen the painting as something more than just the representation of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times. Da Vinci himself may have understood it to be nothing less.

An Active Imagination

Just as ‘private’ devotions like books of hours had a public dimension, displaying their rich fittings and decorations, so too the great ‘public’ religious art of the Middle Ages contained a private aspect that activated spiritual awareness on a very personal level.

Even in mercantile, bourgeois late medieval cities, religion and salvation were prime concerns for people at all levels of society, and the majestic religious works over the altar would have been seen on an almost daily basis, becoming deeply engrained in the ordinary person’s consciousness. Yet discerning the messages held in those works did not take place as part of public worship: indeed, attendance at mass was neither regular universal or fervent, and individuals displayed varying attitudes toward piety, just as they do today.  Rather, it occurred during completion of the altarpiece and panel paintings, works which were in turn geared to elicit that shape that contemplative engagement.

In the bustling urban setting of Flemish religious art, with its tensions and exchanges of wealth and status, public benefaction and artistic patronage became a civic and social ritual along the affluent middle class, merchants and bankers who eagerly mimicked the aristocracy’s culture of lavish display and largesse. Gifting to the church was especially savvy patronage, combining concerns for charity and salvation with the display of the donors’ portraits or coats of arms.

One of the most magnificent examples of this is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432. Stretching more than 5 metres wide and soaring 3.6 high, the multi-panel work is a tour de force of closely observed realism and densely complex symbolic iconography. Yet its ambitious scale and overwhelming opulence tends to obscure the subtlety with which it directs the religious sensibilities of the viewer.

The closed exterior panels of the triptych depict the patron Jodocus Vijt and his wife Lysbette Borluut, kneeling prayerfully before trompe l’oiel statues of Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The portraits of the donor couple are fascinating for the purpose the artist makes them serve, actually standing in place of and standing as examples for the viewer, indicating the bodily attitude of devotion which draws the worshipper to contemplation of the religious mystery.

Subtly but significantly, there is no eye contact between the donors and the statues. They do not see the sculpted saints, they see the representations of representations. More so, they are not kneeling before the statues in supplication, but metaphorocially beside them. The Vijts’ abstracted gaze indicates they are not literally addressing the saintly archetypes, but engaged in a more active imagining of the mystery.

There is also tension in their placement: at the same moment as their relentless realism places them ‘within’ the viewer’s space, their architectural framing removes them from that space, a signal to the viewer that the intellectual contemplation of the divine is enacted within a ‘different’ reality, a space created by their devotional actions. Once the body sets the stage for contemplation, the spirit is free to imagine the mysteries.


Above the donor’s heads is a contiguous scene of the annunciation set in an ordinary Flemish home; at the top, Biblical sybils and prophets peer down at the domestic scene. The medieval audience was very familiar with the popular visual trope of miraculous happenings taking place in a homely setting, bringing the divine into the everyday and investing the most domestic objects with spiritual symbolism. But looking at the annunciation scene above the donors, van Eyck’s realism seems jarred. Although the chamber is spacious, with a view over the city, the ceiling is too low, and for the intimacy of what passes between angel and Virgin, the space is too wide. The figures literally do not fit the domestic space. The unreality of the scene is strengthened by the wings of the angel, a startling arpeggio of green and orange that visually overwhelms the pale figure of the Virgin, drained of colour. It is clear van Eyck does not offer a simulation of the Annunciation in the same sense as the lifelike simulation of the donors: the scene is deliberately made unreal, and littered with fictional signals such as the sculpture-like dove above Mary’s head, as clues that it is not intended to depict reality, but an imagining of the event.

In the upper register of the scene, Prophets and Sibyls contribute the theological imagination of the Annunciation, of the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament covenant; again, a concept central to public religious art since late Antiquity.

What van Eyck presents in the Ghent Altarpiece is not a conventional image of an ‘actual’ miraculous Annunciation (whether literal or symbolic), but a sophiscated depiction of the mystery being imagined, visualised and intellectualised through the worshippers’ prolonged contemplation of the work. Van Eyck’s visual cues reward time spent alone with private thoughts before the altarpiece; once they are discerned, the work comes alive with dynamic interactions that extend far beyond the picture plane, engaging internalised religious knowledge and sensibilities of the individual in a way not well understood today. The viewer receives not only the rewarding experience of ‘decoding’ a symbolically erudite work of art, but achieves a level of heightened level of imaginative consciousness and spiritual clarity in doing so, harnessing the body and galvanising the imagination through the complex, enactive symbolism.

Pilgrim’s Palm

The gentle arc of a palm leaf seems to float before the gallery wall, its lower frond teased into a delicate fringe, its upper skillfully woven into the contours of a reclining, silhouetted figure. Untitled (palm leaf) (2002) is a characteristically poetic work by South Australian artist Hossein Valamenesh. Unlike the strident demands for attention that typifies much of contemporary art, Untitled (palm leaf) quietly reaches out to enfold the viewer in its meditative and deceptively simple presence.

The palm leaf engages the imagination, conveying a wealth of exotic symbolism redolent of Valamanesh’s homeland. In the middle ages the palm was carried by pilgrims in token of their journey to a shrine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the palm was collected as an exotic botanical specimen, cultivated  as a curiosity in Europe and still seen planted, isolated and separated from its environment, along the drives of suburban Australia. It is an age-old sign of sanctuary, offering rest, shade, water and fruit in a desert oasis to sustain the traveller, suggested by the sleeping silhouette shaped from the leaf.

Exploring themes of belonging, memory and identity with rare deftness and delicacy, Iranian-born Valamanesh has come to capture the dialogues of place and otherness in postcolonial Australia. Valamanesh emigrated to Australia in 1973; visiting the Aboriginal communities at Papunya shortly after his arrival, he was deeply affected by the spirituality and connection to the land in Aboriginal art, finding commonalities in response to the desert which surmounted his own childhood memories.

Valamanesh explores his personal and cultural identity in relation to place and displacement, delving into his own heritage to create a symbolic language that is at once intimately personal and yet easily understood. In doing so, he eloquently expresses the conditions of loss, loneliness and change felt by the thousands of Australian emigrants and refugees separated from their homes. The signs of the body in its absent traces- shoes, clothing, silhouette- reflect the migrant’s experience of displacement and sundered identity, and the struggle to re-negotiate heritage within a new context. By incorporating native and found materials in his work alongside Persian objects, Valamanesh is able to directly explore a sense of place as both an insider and an outsider, forging a bond with his adopted homeland which plays on the connections between nature, culture and memory.

The materiality of the palm leaf links the work to an earlier companion work, Homa (2000). Here, a plaited palm frond hangs beside a photograph of Valamanesh’s grandmother, an important figure from his childhood. Suggesting a woman’s plaited hair, the plaited leaf becomes a deeply personal, and deeply tender, evocation of personal memory, made universal in its appeal. To look on the photograph of the artist’s homa, an intimate object offered in a public context, we are inexorably reminded of our own family relationships, drawn to think about those people who have loved and shaped us, who gave us our first and most personal sense of belonging and planted the seeds for our wider perspectives of identity. Like a pilgrim’s relic, in this work and Untitled, the palm leaf comes to stand for the memory of family love, of belonging to a home and a culture, of those things which sustain us, émigré and native alike, in the search for our sense of identity and meaning in a world of constant change.

Although embracing contemporary forms such as installation and assemblage, Valamanesh’s work slips away from easy categorisation. His work is postmodern in its address of the translation and filtering of memory, undermining boundaries and recovering identity within the processes of imperial colonialism; yet is not characterised by referential mimicry or subversion of artistic heritage, nor by engagement with a narrative of cultural dispossession, commodification and fragmentation typical of postmodern artists such as Imants Tillers. We immediately recognise that his work, in concept and execution, is not self-consciously and drily rational. We sense that it is tactile, connected, and genuinely heartfelt, and respond instinctively to the communication of that genuine quality.  Valamanesh instead imbues his work with memory and desire, yearning romanticism paired with the melancholy of loss. It goes beyond simple didacticism and cultural interpolation, to still the viewer, the natural, communicative aesthetic drawing them into a reflective state and a numinous quietude.

The sociopolitical contexts of multiculturalism and postcolonialism circle like sharks around Valamanesh’s oeuvre. Surface similarities do exist,  in Valamanesh’s identification solely as Australian (though his Persian filiation is fundamental), the quest for points of commonality in his work’s symbology and materiality, and its capacity to facilitate communication between cultural viewpoints. These attributes, however, occur on a more personal level than the disingenuous state-sponsored “celebration” of fetishised and culturally inauthentic otherness promoted by Australian multiculturalism; a policy which in its inception was in reality intended as a cynical governmental mechanism to manage inter-ethnic relations rather than foster a truly pluralistic dialogue of cultural interaction which would aid in the re-conceptualisation of Australian identity.

(Although nominally a progressive embrace of cultural diversity, multiculturalism was hamstrung by its political framework, which privileged existing government structures and accommodated the interests of the ethnic middle class. The legitimacy of art produced in alternative traditions was negated by arbitrary distinctions between “contemporary” and “traditional”, a differentiation which did not allow that migrant and ethnic artists were capable of working in contemporary artforms. Being unable to truly question privilege, the celebration of multiculturalism achieved little in the short term beyond providing colour and movement for White Australia.)

Valamanesh’s work deftly avoids these entanglements, standing quietly but confidently on its merit as work by a contemporary artist, regardless of his ethnic origins. The understated and redemptive aesthetic of his work resonates across cultures and social backgrounds. It speaks to us all on multiple levels, broadly and yet intimately and individually, to questions of personal, cultural and national identity. It subtly leads us to reflect on how we see ourselves, how we see others, and most of all, what makes us who we are.

Published Artemesia, 2010

Going Dutch

From the dark ages until the advent of steel nibs and fountain pens in the nineteenth century, the quill pen dominated western writing. Although now the domain of the hobbyist, the quill nonetheless retains its romance, artistic flexibility- and the skill needed to handle it as a writing implement.
In handbooks for the modern scribe, there are invariably instructions for heat tempering quill pens, a process called ‘dutching’. As with most aspects, the assumption is that this was a historical practice. Yet curing a quill with sand is a relatively modern phenomenon, dating only to the mid-eighteenth century: throughout the great ages of the medieval manuscript, pens were prepared by ageing, selection and cutting.

In common with many professions, manuals and treatises were written throughout the later middle ages: the earliest printed book to appear Sigismondo Fanti’s Theorica et Practica in 1514, dealing with handwriting and lettering. None mention dutching, but agree that age curing is needed to turn feathers into pens. Giovanbattista Palatino in 1540 recommends selecting a quill that had already become hard and clear with age, from which the fatty membrane should be scraped away with the pen knife, and also not to rub it with a cloth. Juan Vives in 1538 suggests this be done by rubbing the quill inside the jacket or on the thighs of the hose. Fanti and Tagliente (1524) both recommend scraping with a knife. Hamon in 1567 talks about selecting a barrel which is clean, dried and not greasy; Scalzi in 1581 specifically warns not to use quills that are too fresh, recommending a year old. This continues right on with Billingslie in 1618, the same method in Shelley in 1714: even Bradbury writes in 1815 that ‘it is age best mellows and meliorates a quill’.

It is notable that air dried quills seem quite durable: in 1630 Philemon Holland poetically claimed that he wrote out the whole of his translation of the Moralia without needing to recut his (pre-loved!) quill: “…This Booke I wrote with one poor Pen, made of grey Goose quill, A Pen I found it, us’d before, a Pen I leave it still.” pens
The first references to heat curing occur in 1760, referring to quills shipped from Holland in an already clarified condition: the newly-invented process, soon adopted elsewhere, became known as “dutchifying” or “dutching.” These quills were prepared by being placed in a moist cellar for several hours, their points in the damp earth, or wrapped in a wet cloth. A hole about six inches deep was then made into a coal fire; the quill was then inserted into the space. After a few seconds the quill was placed on a metal plate and draw beneath a dutching hook, a flat metal tool that flattened the barrel, removed the outer covering and any oily surface, and shrivelled the inner membrane. The heat and pressure caused the explosive release of heated air form the tip of the quill, accompanied by a sharp sound, known in the trade as ‘snapping’. Any remaining oil or membrane were removed by rubbing with the skin of a dogfish.

By the 1830s, a simpler method had come into use wherein the quill was soaked in water for several hours, before being plunged into hot sand or ashes, and is the basis for the method used by modern calligraphers, Quills were sold in small bundles ‘dutched’ but uncut, or purchased from pencutters ready for use. Mechanical nibbers appeared in France around 1820, with the most popular being patented by Joseph Rodgers in England in 1835, meeting “the decided approbation of the first penmen in this Kingdom.” 1883_Quill_pens_adx