PROVENANCE Macquarie Galleries, Sydney Sir Reginald Marcus Clark Estate Late Sir Reginald Marcus Clark, K.B.E.: Catalogue 1: Australian pictures, porcelains, ivories, miniatures, articles of vertu and furniture, James R Lawson, Sydney, 15-16 June 1954, lot 391 Alan Bond Collection, Western Australia Private collection, United Kingdom Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Exhibition of Bronzes by Sir Bertram Mackennal, K.C.V.O., R.A., Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 7-20 October 1926, cat. no. 10 Australian Art, Colonial to Contemporary, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, May June 1995, cat. no. 128 (not listed in catalogue)
LITERATURE Diana de Bussy, The Alan Bond collection of Australian Art, Dallhold Investments Pty. Limited, Perth, 1990, p. 81 (illus.)
Circe 1893 was the establishing piece of Bertram Mackennal's spectacular career. His subsequent achievements remain unparalleled as he ranks as one of the most successful Australian artists of any generation. He was awarded major honours and his works stood in five different countries, attracting widespread critical acclaim internationally. Prestigious organisations and prominent personalities, notably the British royal family and social and theatrical leaders commissioned sculptures from him, in a career that lasted four decades. In a pre-digital age, only Sir Sidney Nolan in the 1950s and 1960s could approach Mackennal's achievements.
In his creative, non-public works Mackennal engaged with myth, fantasy, archetypes and the viewer's emotional response to his artworks. These elements have resonated across the generations. Circe's merits were recognised from the moment of its debut in Paris, 1893, and the full sized statue stood its ground on display in the National Gallery of Victoria for decades even when Victorian art was scorned by curators and academics. Bernard Hall, director of the National Gallery of Victoria when Circe was first shown in Melbourne in 1901, called the full sized iteration "a genuine work of genius very remarkable and impressive without doubt I should say Young Australia's chef d'oeuvre". 1
Mackennal's Circe was also an Australian style, "give it a go" endgame gamble, a desperate attempt by the hard up young sculptor to devise a single impressive work that would make his career. The sculptor's own early account of the work is as good any ever written:
'I am very busy on a large figure of Circe for next year's Salon. It is six feet high and represents the enchantress standing nude, very severe in pose, with her arms outstretched in the act of casting her spell on those near her. Of course in such a work, after the pose, the mystic feeling of the head and the character of the outstretched hands are my main points of interest. I am trying hard to make a big work of this figure and at present am full of hope. The plinth is to be very elaborate, being composed by a circle of figures and strange things with mystic meaning.'2
The calculation paid off. The work was given a prominent place and received an honourable mention at the 1893 Paris Salon, as well as being illustrated in the catalogue, unheard for an unknown let alone a young(ish) Australian without patrons or reputation. To this impressive cultural and intellectual achievement, a year later Mackennal added a subsequent fashionable sensation when showing at the 1894 Royal Academy exhibition in London, where the base of the work was regarded as mildly pornographic due to the swirling, entwined figures, and he became the talk of both elite and bohemian circles.
Without the immediate recognition of Circe's assured design and handling and iconic authority, Mackennal would not have reached the spectacular heights that he did, nor would he have had the steady stream of publicly visible commissions from the late 1890s onwards. Mackennal was still working as an assistant to the Scottish sculptor Birnie Rhind when Circe was applauded. "I am acting the ghost to a man who is making heaps of money and who has not talent except for getting work + making it pay. Still I am the beggar who cannot choose + and as my country cannot or will not support me for the present even with my success the work I am doing today will bear another's name. Still my Circe has brought me before the public + I mean to keep up to the front until I take my rank as leader of European sculpture." 3
The life sized Circe meets the challenge - as do other pieces from the radical British "New Sculpture" movement such as Alfred Gilbert's Eros - of making the sculptural piece not a self-contained object embodying a cool, ordered neo classicism, but a dynamic player in the milieu of the viewer, a piece of imaginative interactivity. This direct emotional force and a complex, even erotic, drama made the best of British sculpture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century including the works of Mackennal - far more compelling than the showy but schematised neo-Baroque works of Europe and America, which drew upon French practice. Circe's authority is expressed through the dramatic charge of the outreached hands seemingly turning a malevolent force on those who stand before her. Design, plastic dexterity and psychological acuity are all deployed effectively by Mackennal.
The small Circe talks of the radical desire in the late nineteenth century to take sculpture from the street and public plaza to a more intimate relationship of artist to viewer, such as characterises drawings or prints. As was Truth, a miniature Circe was shown at the key exhibition Sculpture for the Home in London in 1902 that sought to liberate British sculpture from civic ritual and commemoration. There are at least three different foundry marks observed on the small scale Circes, suggesting different issues of editions; many bear no markings beyond the signature. Mackennal exhibited Circe statuettes throughout his career.
The traditional narrative of Mackennal's career as a series of highpoints in the 1890s dwindling into selling out to the British Empire and conservative art practice cannot be held up. His decorative work extends into the 1920s and the abandonment of poetic allegory in some works reflects changes of taste beyond Mackennal's oeuvre, rather than him losing competency. Other significant tranches of design interest are less discussed than the symbolist goddesses: the series of hooded or cloaked figures perhaps drawn from Vedder or Saint-Gaudens and the rise of male nudes as a new symbolic and expressive element in his art in the 1900s reflecting the work of Alfred Gilbert and John Havard Thomas. Finally the 1920s brought the acceptance of a new dynamic modern woman seen in his portrait busts. Mackennal's sculptural vocabulary was complex, dynamic and finely judged to the context of its commission and function, reflecting a sagacious, versatile and fertile creative imagination.
The dominance of landscape paintings and nationalist sentiment in Australian public memory has obscured Mackennal. However the expanded vision of Australian art history developed from the 1970s at such institutions as the National Gallery of Australia, characterised by a greater acceptance of figurative imagery, European influences, design and decorative arts, alongside pastoral and labour scenes, recognised Mackennal's true merit. Simultaneously since the 1970s private collectors, following renewed interest in art nouveau and nineteenth century decorative arts, have sought out Mackennal's early and mid-career statuettes of female figures for their often supremely elegant design and handling.
1 Quoted in Leonard B Cox "the National Gallery of Victoria 1861-1961" p. 50 2 Letter from Bertram Mackennal to James Smith, 23 September 1892, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS21214 3 Letter from Bertram Mackennal to James Smith, 30 May 1893, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MSS21214
Please note the provenance of this lot should read:
Private collection, United Kingdom
Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne
The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers- Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
The exhibition history of this lot should read:
Australian Art, Colonial to Contemporary, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, May-June 1995, cat. no. 128 (not listed in catalogue)
This example is not the work illustrated in Diana de Bussy, The Alan Bond collection of Australian Art
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