In this series, we look at under acknowledged women through the ages.
Born in 1749, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was a supremely talented painter who forged her career at a time when the Parisian art world was dominated by aristocratic and male institutions and networks.
She was independent and resolute in the face of hostility from some of her male rivals, and successfully manoeuvred through the deadly twists of the French Revolution. Her portraits of prominent men and women in the revolutionary period of 1780-1800 are of unusual quality and breadth.
Early life and education
Adélaïde was one of eight children in the Labille family of haberdashers. Like many other women far distant from the pinnacle of high art, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, she made her way through artists’ studios and the Académie de Saint-Luc, a painters’ guild formed in Paris in 1391.
There she polished her craft as she moved from miniatures to full portraits and from pastels to oils. Of critical importance as a teacher was the well-connected and decorated François-Élie Vincent, as was the friendship of his artist son François-André.
Painting the French court
In 1783, after intervention from Queen Marie-Antoinette, Adélaïde was finally admitted into the Académie Royale, at the same session as another brilliant, younger woman, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (born 1755). They were two of only a dozen women admitted since 1648. Over the next six years the two of them would become wealthy, sought-after painters of the royal family and members of its court at Versailles.
Labille-Guiard experimented with using matt backgrounds to her exquisite portraits, often eschewing the common practice of surrounding sitters with symbols of their status.
The two women were receiving fees of tens of thousands of livres for each portrait at a time when most priests, for example, were paid about one thousand annually. Vigée-Le Brun was the Queen’s favorite, painting her 30 times; instead Labille-Guiard painted King Louis XVI’s aunts, but her best portraits were of an unknown woman, her friend Vincent, and a self-portrait with her prize pupil and close friend Marie Capet.
Like so many talented women in the creative arts before and since, Labille-Guiard suffered from snide allegations that she could not be capable of such brilliance. An anonymous poem of 1783 attacked her in sexual terms:
‘François-André Vincent touches up this woman … His love makes your talent. Love dies and talent falls.’ She had supposedly had 2000 lovers: ‘vingt cents [a play on Vincent’s name], or 2,000, it’s all the same’.
The independent and strong-willed Labille-Guiard was outraged:
One must expect to have one’s talent ripped apart … it’s the fate of all those who expose themselves to public judgment, but their works, their paintings, are there to defend them, if they are good they plead their cause. But who can plead on behalf of women’s morals?
In the summer of 1789 the opulent, privileged world of Labille-Guiard – and of all those at Versailles – fell apart, as Louis XVI and his ministers mismanaged a deep financial crisis.
The commoner delegates to an advisory assembly – the Estates-General – effectively seized the political initiative in June 1789, proclaiming themselves the National Assembly, and were supported by waves of revolutionary action in Paris and the provinces. What was previously thought the most stable and confident absolutist regime in Europe was replaced by constitutional government based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
She welcomed the revolution
Unlike the royalist Vigée-Le Brun, who fled from revolutionary France to Italy in disgust in October 1789, Labille-Guiard welcomed the Revolution and with others made substantial “patriotic donations” to support the reformist work of the Assembly.
She continued to paint vigorously, from portraits of Madame de Genlis, the governess of the children of the royal family, to the most uncompromising of the revolutionary Jacobins, such as Maximilien Robespierre, whose portrait was one of 14 politicians she painted for the Salon of 1791.
But Labille-Guiard was vulnerable. How could a court painter, the favourite of the king’s aunts, be trusted? Her rival Jean-Bernard Restout attacked her in 1791, mocking her sarcastically for doing “the arts the service of giving us the portraits of Mesdames the king’s aunts … and which would only cost the people 60 or 80 thousand francs.”
Men from the studio of the most powerful figure in the art world, the Jacobin revolutionary Jacques-Louis David, went further:
The rewards destined for artists cannot be without danger for women [since art requires] long and hard study … incompatible with the modest virtues of their sex.
The roles of “mother and wife are more precious for them and for society than their success in the arts … Strong in their virtues, justly respected, they will inspire their husbands and their children to love and serve the nation.” The reformed Academy in 1793 would exclude women altogether.
Once war with Europe broke out in April 1792, and the constitutional monarchy was overthrown by a new revolution in August, Labille-Guiard’s personal safety was at greater risk. Could her republican affirmations protect her from popular suspicion of all former courtiers? Her dreams of establishing a school for women artists were dashed and, with François-André Vincent and Marie Capet, she fled the capital for the village of Pontault, 20km to the east.
There she kept her head down during the great revolutionary crisis of “the Terror” in 1793-94, saying nothing when told her earlier portrait of Louis XVI’s brother, the émigré Comte de Provence, was to be destroyed and her fee of 30,000 livres left unpaid.
However, she used the Revolution’s 1793 marriage reforms to divorce her husband, Louis Guiard, a clerk she had married at age 20 but from whom she had separated in 1777.
After the revolution ended
Labille-Guiard was lucky to survive. Once “the Terror” was over in 1795, she re-emerged and was granted a modest state pension. She began producing brilliant portraits again, this time of revolutionary administrators, dramatists and her partner Vincent, whom she married in 1799.
She and Capet re-established their atelier, the first set aside for a woman in the Louvre and depicted in a later study by Capet.
She did not live long, dying in 1803, soon after her old rival Vigée-Le Brun returned bitter and rancorous from 13 years of exile painting in the counter-revolutionary courts of Europe.
Unlike Vigée-Le Brun, the subject of four biographies in the last 20 years and major recent exhibitions in Paris, Ottawa and New York, Labille-Guiard has rarely been celebrated. A superb study of her by Laura Auricchio in 2009, only the third since her death, was a step towards recognition of a prodigious talent expressed in revolutionary times.
War is often seen as a death knell for the arts, but during the first world war the Australian government mobilised some of the country’s most renowned expatriate artists to paint the conflict. Hired essentially as eyewitnesses to war, these men were stationed at the front and tasked with creating art on the battlefield.
The idea of using art to interpret and commemorate the war was first raised by Will Dyson, an Australian expatriate cartoonist working in Britain, who went to the Western Front as Australia’s first official war artist in late 1916. Dyson drew candid studies of Australian soldiers. In images such as Coming Out on the Somme (1916) he deftly captures the glazed detachment and vacant stares of the men who had just returned from, as he described it, “gazing on strange and terrible lands”.
Perhaps sensitive to the public at home, most Australian official artists avoided sketching the graphic violence of the war. But there were some exceptions. Will Longstaff’s sketchbook, for instance, contains an image of a dismembered leg, bone protruding from a mess of flesh and cloth. His composition shows the severed limb in the centre of the sketch with a grassy field of poppies in the background, an arrangement at odds with the human evidence of the impact of war.
By 11 November 1918, the Australian art collection consisted of an eclectic array of images of the battlefield. But it represented a very narrow view of the Australian war experience. Most official artists had been sent to France and Belgium. The eyewitness role of artists – a position they did not challenge – meant they painted only what they observed at the front. As a result, the collection was dominated by paintings of the soldiers and battlefields in Europe. Other theatres of war, such as the Middle East where only George Lambert had been stationed, were represented by much fewer images.
The focus on the Western Front meant the army was privileged over other services, such as the Navy and Flying Corps. The absence of the Navy was particularly criticised by members of the Australian press at the time, who complained that while Britain and Canada had employed their best artists to paint naval pictures, the Australian Government had done nothing.
The Canadian and British art schemes also made concerted efforts to include the home front in their collections. And they employed women artists, albeit to paint women’s wartime labour, such as workers in factories. Additionally, the Canadian art scheme hired painters from a range of Allied countries, embracing diverse styles and interpretations of the conflict.
The Australian collection was more nationalistic in tone, employing only Australian artists. While some of the nation’s most eminent artists of the day painted for it, lesser known artists, many of whom had served in the Australian Imperial Force, were also commissioned.
Often images that less skilfully portrayed the war were included because of their eyewitness value, such as works by Ellis Silas, who had served as a signaller on Gallipoli in 1915.
The Australian collection also stood alone in its neglect of the war experience at home and of women artists. Missing from the collection were images of the preparations for conflict, the training camps, the embarkation of troops, women’s wartime efforts and experience, (including their roles as nurses and volunteers in the warzone and as paid or unofficial workers at home), and of the bitter political disputes that divided Australia during the war.
These lacunae in the collection were addressed to some extent in the decades after the war. But even then, the focus remained largely on a battlefield narrative – more narrowly defining “war experience” than either the British or Canadian art.
George Lambert’s iconic painting of the Australians climbing the cliffs on Gallipoli at dawn on 25 April 1915 is a fascinating example of post-war mythologising. Despite travelling to the peninsula in early 1919 to study the battlefields and create as accurate a representation as possible, he took some artistic liberties with this canvas.
Veterans complained that the soldiers should be depicted in the peaked cap of the early uniform they had actually worn in 1915. But Lambert painted all the men wearing the slouch hat, which had become synonymous with the Australian soldier, consolidating the painting’s distinctly Australian character.
Other images also show an emerging national mythology. Dyson’s cartoons and sketches, many of which were a powerful indictment of the conduct of the war, represent ideas about an Australian type.
He portrayed the humour associated with the larrikin soldier in images such as Small Talk (1920). Depicting two soldiers in conversation in a bomb crater, he captures their droll joking: “No Brig., I says send me back to the boys – the transport’s no good to me I never joined the war to be a mule’s batman!”
Arthur Streeton painted the battlefields where Australian soldiers fought. He saw in soldiering life a deeper and more meaningful example of the development of a particularly Australian masculinity: “It[̓s] extremely novel and exciting over here and it’s the only way in which to form any idea of Australian manhood.”
Many official artists drew on the devastated landscape of the battlefield as an allegory for the destruction wrought by war. Taming the Australian bush, a trope popular with Australian audiences before the war, became survival on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East.
George Lambert was the only official artist stationed in the Middle East during the war. He interpreted this theatre in terms of his experience painting the Australian landscape. The light and colours of Australia permeated much of his wartime work, framing the experience of the soldiers and their environment in familiar imagery that made the conflict appear more immediate for audiences at home.
Australia did not employ any women as official painters during the war, but female artists created numerous images of their wartime experience, and their images show what the collection might have gained had they been commissioned. Australian born artist Iso Rae’s painting of the military camps in France was later acquired for the collection.
Australia’s first world war art collection has been revised and reshaped across the last century and now represents a broader experience of the conflict from a more diverse range of artists. But the works created during and immediately after the war fed into a national mythology that privileged a narrative of the Australian soldier on the battlefield, coming at the expense of a more nuanced story of Australia in the war.
Since the beginnings of settler occupation in Australia, the kangaroo has been claimed at once as a national symbol and as a type of vermin to be destroyed en masse. In Kate Clere McIntyre and Michael McIntyre’s recent award-winning film, Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story, Sydney academic Peter Chen sums up this stark contradiction: “Kangaroos are wonderful, fuzzy, they’re maternal, and they’re also a pest that should be eliminated wholesale”.
The killing of kangaroos by Europeans began at exactly the same time that the species was first identified. Shooting, naming, describing, scientifically classifying, sketching, dissecting, eating: these things all played out simultaneously as soon as Cook’s Endeavour got stranded on a reef in far north Queensland in June and July 1770.
Lieutenant John Gore was the first to shoot a kangaroo; Cook noted that Aboriginal people called this animal “Kangooroo, or Kanguru”; the ship’s artist Sydney Parkinson produced two beautiful sketches of these creatures; and Joseph Banks went ashore to hunt with his greyhound and “dress’d” a kangaroo for his dinner.
Bits and pieces of dead kangaroos were shipped back to England, where Banks presented them to George Stubbs, an artist famous for his anatomical accuracy – and who had made his name as a painter of thoroughbred horses and hunting scenes. Stubbs worked with a stuffed or inflated pelt and drew on Parkinson’s sketches to produce the first painting of this newly-identified species, Portrait of the Kongouro from New Holland (1770).
An engraving of this painting – with the kangaroo gazing back over its shoulder (curiously? Is someone pursuing it?) – was used to illustrate the bestselling 1773 publication of Cook’s journal. As Des Cowley and Brian Hubber have noted, further engravings were made, the image began to circulate, and soon “the kangaroo had entered the European popular imagination”.
The kangaroo hunt quickly became a recognisable genre in colonial Australian art. Joseph Lycett was transported to New South Wales in 1813, a convicted forger. His Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroo (c. 1817) and Aborigines hunting kangaroos (1820) give us two early examples of “ethnographic” landscape painting where Aboriginal people hunt kangaroos in a fantasy precolonial space untouched by the impact of European settlement.
In other works, however, Lycett placed Aboriginal hunters alongside settlers as mutual participants in the developing social and economic life of the colony. In these early days of settlement, kangaroos were a vital food source.
Lycett’s Inner View of Newcastle (1818) depicts a settler, a convict and an Aboriginal man walking in single file with four kangaroo dogs (usually, greyhound, deerhound and wolfhound crossbreeds); the convict is carrying the carcass of a freshly killed kangaroo over his shoulder.
Lycett’s View on the Wingeecarrabee River, New South Wales (1824) takes us down to the Southern Highlands, inland from Wollongong – where a settler with a musket, an Aboriginal man with a spear and two kangaroo dogs are all chasing down a single kangaroo.
Augustus Earle was a freelance professional artist who had travelled around the world – with Charles Darwin, among others. He spent two and a half years in Australia in the mid-1820s, chronicling metropolitan and bush scenes. His painting A Bivouac of Travellers in Australia in a Cabbage Tree Forest, Day Break (1827) gives us an idyllic scene of Aboriginal and settler companionship in the wake of a kangaroo hunt.
A group of settlers and two Aboriginal men are arranged around a campfire, waking up, preparing breakfast, and tending to a horse. There are two kangaroo dogs curled up and sleeping, and in the foreground of the painting – in the shadows, lying beside a rifle – is a large, dead kangaroo.
S. T. Gill is probably the best known local artist to represent the kangaroo hunt as an organized recreational event. Colonial hunting clubs were established across Australia in the 1830s and 1840s; the first “meet” in Victoria, for example, was in 1839, organized near Geelong by the Indian-born military officer and pastoralist William Mercer. Squatters bred packs of hounds and wealthy locals and visiting dignitaries would be invited to join in the hunt and all the social occasions that went with it.
Foster Fyans was the Police Magistrate of Geelong and helped to oversee the dispossession of Aboriginal people across the western district frontier. “A noble pack of hounds was kept up by gentlemen squatters who met every season”, he recalled much later on, “hunting twice and thrice a week, and meeting at each other’s houses, where good cheer and good and happy society were ever to be met”.
Kangaroo hunting helped to consolidate squatter power and influence, lending it an available rhetoric of pleasure and merriment. No longer dependent on the kangaroo as a source of food, landowning colonists soon learned how to enjoy the thrill of the chase and the kill for its own sake, as a blood sport that came to define their social world.
Gill was a prolific chronicler of colonial life; his Australian Sketchbook (1865) included one scene, Kangaroo Stalking, in which a settler with a gun and an Aboriginal man hunt kangaroos together. In 1858 he produced a series of three lithographs under the general title Kangaroo Hunting. The first, The Meet, shows a gathering of men outside a rustic colonial homestead, with their horses and dogs (and some chickens; and a magpie on the roof). One of them has the conspicuous trappings of a wealthy squatter, tall, commanding, elaborately styled in black riding boots, yellow waistcoat, and scarlet jacket.
The second, The Chase, puts the squatter into the foreground, leaping over a fallen log on his powerful white horse. The reckless excitement of the hunt is obvious as the settlers gallop across the dangerous terrain, whips raised. The dogs are chasing a kangaroo, which is retreating into the distance.
But the third lithograph, The Death, seals the animal’s fate. A squatter stands beside his exhausted hounds as a hunter readies his knife to take the dead kangaroo’s tail. Another hunter lifts his hat, looking back; perhaps he is greeting a group of Aboriginal people who are approaching in the background. The leader of this group – a family? – is carrying a spear; he may also be returning from a hunt.
There is no sense of impending frontier violence here, but the lithograph does seem to register the differences between settler and Aboriginal relationships to the body of the dead kangaroo: who claims possession of it, and for what purpose.
Many notable visitors participated in organized kangaroo hunts: Charles Darwin in 1836 (“my usual ill-fortune in sporting followed us”), Britain’s Admiral of the Fleet Henry Keppel in 1850, the novelist Anthony Trollope in 1871.
The Duke of Edinburgh came to the colonies in 1867 – the first royal visit – hunting kangaroo in South Australia and then travelling out to Victoria’s western district for more sport.
The Russian-born colonial artist Nicholas Chevalier accompanied him on tour, staying at the squatter John Moffat’s luxurious homestead Chatsworth House at Hopkins Hill, where he sketched a number of hunting scenes. The Duke himself shot at close range over 30 kangaroos trapped in a yard; he got the locals to preserve the skins and claws.
A few years earlier, Chevalier had joined an expedition to the Grampians, producing two significant landscapes. Mount Abrupt (1864) shows an Aboriginal family peacefully camping on a plateau above a gully, with cattle grazing on the pastures behind and the mountain in the background. This family is not (yet) dispossessed from what is clearly settler property.
Mount Abrupt and The Grampians – produced the same year and published as a lithograph in Charles Troedel’s The Melbourne Album – gives us the same perspective of this mountain. But now there is no Aboriginal family. Instead, a group of settler hunters and their hounds ride roughshod over the place this family had once occupied, chasing kangaroos. It is as if the hunt itself has erased any trace of Aboriginal occupation of land. Its depiction is an expression of settler triumph over both native species (the kangaroo will surely be killed) and Indigeneity (Aboriginal people have been dispossessed).
Godfrey Mundy was another officer who had served in colonial India. He came to Australia in 1846, where he held a senior role in colonial military administration. He was also the cousin of Sir Charles Fitzroy, who by this time was Governor of New South Wales. Together, they went across the Blue Mountains on a month-long journey that became the basis for Mundy’s bestselling diary and narrative of colonial development, Our Antipodes (1852).
Mundy also illustrated his book; one of the illustrations is titled Hunting the Kangaroo. Here, two hunters are in hot pursuit of a kangaroo, with their hounds leading the way. One of the hounds has the kangaroo by the throat; the other lies injured at its feet. Interestingly, Mundy depicts himself as one of the hunters, with his initials “G.M.” branded on the shoulder of one of the horses.
On 30 November 1846, Mundy writes, “the resident gentlemen of the vicinity…attempt to show [us] the sport, par excellence, of the country”. But they find only one kangaroo, which eludes them. The landscape makes the kangaroo hunt difficult and dangerous, with uneven ground, tree stumps, and so on. Mundy rides “at full speed into the fork of a fallen tree” and has to “retreat”. But in his sketch, he is still proudly mounted on his horse and in full pursuit; and the kangaroo is about to die. This is the kangaroo hunt sketch as wish-fulfilment, a fantasy conclusion.
Sympathy for the kangaroo
Edward Roper was a keen naturalist and artist who travelled around the world, coming to Australia in 1857. His landscape A Kangaroo Hunt under Mount Zero, the Grampians (1880) has four hunters galloping through a woodland of eucalypts and grass trees, chasing three kangaroos. A long brushwood fence separates the hunters from their quarry. The riders and their hounds are approaching the fence at break-neck speed, highlighting the thrills and dangers of the chase; this is their land now, and they ride across it as a post-frontier expression of settler freedom and exhilaration.
Roper’s After the Flying Doe gives us a similar scene, although with a closer view of everything including Mount Zero, which now looms large in the background. There is no fence in this version: two hunters on horseback are pursuing kangaroos, with a couple of hounds racing along in front.
Unusually, the kangaroos themselves are in the foreground of the painting. The “doe’s” femininity is apparent in the delicate representation of her features, and possibly there is a joey peeking from her pouch. It looks like this painting wants to invite some sympathy for the female kangaroo’s plight by placing her in the foreground, emphasizing her gender and invoking her directly in the title.
What happens when male hunters kill a female kangaroo? “Colonial Hunt” is the first poem published in Australia on an Australian topic; it appeared in the Sydney Gazette in June 1805. Here, a female kangaroo (“Kanguroo”) is pursued and trapped by a hunter and his dog. “Fatigu’d, broken hearted, tears gush from her eyes”, the poet writes, as she realizes her fate.
The kangaroo that weeps when it dies offers a rare moment of sentimental identification with a native species that by 1805 is already a target for extermination. We don’t see kangaroo tears again until Ethel C. Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo (1902). In this famous children’s story, a female kangaroo’s sadness over the ecological toll of settlement is now shared by all native species: “Every creature in the bush weeps”, she says, “that they should have come to take the beautiful bush away from us”.
Organised hunts could kill any number of kangaroos; alongside hunting meets that pursued individual roos as game, squatters also organised large scale drives or battues, which could see thousands of kangaroos rounded up, slaughtered and left to rot.
Kangaroos are no longer hunted on horseback, of course. But small – and large -scale killing continues unabated. Recently, the New South Wales government relaxed kangaroo culling licences, consistent with the view of the kangaroo as a “pest” that competes with livestock for survival in drought conditions. If we add this to that government’s plan to expand and intensify forest logging, it’s easy to sympathise with the kangaroo’s complaint in Pedley’s turn-of-the century fantasy.
In 1825, Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld watched an Aboriginal Dance of Welcome at Newcastle’s East End Settlement. From the AusStage database – the research gateway to crucial information about live performance in Australia – we can learn it was held “in consequence of our coming among them”.
The papers and reminiscences (1824-1859) of Threlkeld, who trained with the evangelical London Missionary Society, were published in 1979 and can be accessed for further research. The singing and dancing he described may have looked like the Corroboree around a campfire painted by the convict artist Joseph Lycett in the Newcastle region circa 1817.
A simple search of the database using the term “corroboree” reveals hundreds of records of corroborees across the continent between 1816 and 1927, the earliest being 300 men and women singing and dancing at Main Beach opposite George Rocks in Tasmania. The early settler who witnessed this event also recorded the name of one of the male performers: Tolobunganah.
The first theatre production to be staged by white settlers in Australia appears in the database as well — the Irish playwright George Farquhar’s 1706 play, The Recruiting Officer.
A scan of this entry reveals convicts performed it in Sydney in 1789 “in a mud-wall hut in honour of the birthday of King George III”, and gives the complete cast list. Captains Arthur Phillip and Watkin Tench were noted as in the audience.
From its beginnings 18 years ago, AusStage is now recognised globally as the “gold standard” for open access records of live performance. Based at Flinders University, AusStage is the result of a pioneering collective research effort between 18 universities and industry partners. In May this year, the 100,000th record of live performance in Australia was added to it.
The database, which dates from 1789 to the present day, acknowledges the significance of professional and amateur performance for Australia’s performing arts ecology. Live performances in regional towns and rural locations are of equal importance to those in major cities; even animal and android performers are recorded.
Down the rabbit hole
Delving deeper into our theatre history is made possible through AusStage’s links to records on books and articles held in other collections and domains. Entering the database is like going down the proverbial rabbit hole. It has the capacity to inform complex journeys of discovery on Australian theatre history, the production and consumption of commercial and non-commercial performance, and audience analysis. It also enables researchers to track artists’ national and international careers.
For example, my current research on child actors between 1880-1920 is significantly helped by AusStage. Ivy Emms (1905-1949) was a hard working juvenile singer and dancer in regional Victoria during World War I. A search of the database reveals that 30 years after she performed patriotic songs in popular pantomimes, she was working as a choreographer at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre. (An obituary from The Argus states that she died after a brief illness.) AusStage makes visualisation of her creative relationships possible.
As of July 11, AusStage held records on 102,643 performance events, 142,285 contributors, 15,536 organisations, 17,170 works, 9,991 venues and 64,088 resources. During the period from 1st January 2018 to 11th July access to it has been from 138 different countries with 78% of the users in Australia.
AusStage’s goal is to preserve and retrieve Australia’s performing arts heritage, and make it freely available through digital means. Currently, research teams from 12 Australian Universities are developing visualisations of some of Australia’s historically significant theatre venues.
This floor plan of Newcastle’s Victoria Theatre is just one element contributing to a digital recreation and 3D experience of the theatre and its colourful neo-Grecian interiors during its first year of productions, 1891-92. The Victoria is the oldest standing theatre in New South Wales.
Remodelled in the 1920s when it was primarily a Variety theatre, the installation of cinema projection technology in the 1920s saw the Victoria host live performance and cinema for many decades more. Finally closed in 1999 and currently derelict, the theatre’s new owners, Century Venues, reportedly have plans to re-open it.
AusStage is also facilitating research on historical theatres, using virtual technology. Several projects are building VR versions of Australian theatre venues that no longer exist. From these models, we can understand how performance in them operated.
Ian Maxwell of the University of Sydney is looking at two lost theatres of Sydney. The Royal Victoria Theatre on Pitt St, which opened in 1838 with a production of Othello, was a grand, state of the art building accommodating 1900 spectators.
The Paris Theatre, with a façade designed by Walter Burley Griffin, was located on Whitlam Square. In 1979 the Paris was home to the Paris Theatre Company, the short-lived experimental precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company under the direction of Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn. The Royal Victoria burnt down in 1880, while the Paris was demolished in 1981 to make way for a residential high-rise.
These are just several of the dozens of projects that have been, or are, facilitated by the database. “Capturing lightning in a bottle” is the phrase sometimes used to describe what AusStage does. It sums up the fragility and excitement of the task.
The performing arts are ephemeral events, physically passing from the world once they cease to be presented to audiences. AusStage ensures they do not pass from our historical memory.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.
Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.
The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).
However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.
When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.
The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.
In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:
Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.
The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.
It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.
These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.
Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.
The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.
The phallus and fertility
Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.
The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.
A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.
A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.
Myths and sex
Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.
The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.
Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.
The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.
Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.
Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.
The link below is to an article (with photos) concerning the S.S. Gairsoppa, which was sunk by a Nazi U-boat in 1941. The wreck is deeper than the Titanic and salvage work has been removing its precious cargo.