The building itself is sculptural in quality with dove-coloured Buchan marbles from the state of Victoria, Caleula from New South Wales and Angaston marble from South Australia, all placed on a base of trachyte. Even the wood used comes from Australia including the black bean tree. Started in 1913, but not completed until 1918, the High Commission’s headquarters supplied these precious materials as ballast for ships returning to the imperial capital to collect bullets, as Michael Francis Cartwright pointed out to me when introducing the awesome exhibition entitled ‘journeys’ now on view within the monumental hall of London’s Australia house.
It’s rare that a whole family should be united for a sculpture exhibition in this way and the sensations the art works arouse are both intimate and extraordinary. ‘Journeys’ here not only signifies personal development towards a collective, but highly individual, expression of finding one’s centre of being; it not only means a spatial discovery into the heartbeat of three principal nuclei: the country of one’s birth and the discovery of the multiform cultures of Italy, Ireland and France. It also signifies a journey to reconnect with primal sources defining the concept of humanity itself.
Shona Nunan’s bronze ‘spirit guardian’ reminded me, in its almost Celtic wave-like curves, of the shield found in the Thames, not dropped by a defeated warrior but given to London’s river as a protective offering. There is a primal connection between the birth of art and creation itself. Art has a sacral function, indeed a need to express survival as the Lascaux cave paintings so vividly display. Simply put, without artistic creation, we become diminished into nothingness.
The same artist’s ‘earth guardian’ with its immaculately textured leaf-like shape could equally stand as a protean symbol and as a shape of exquisite beauty.
Shona’s ‘life’ clearly expands on her Irish experiences and such inter-stellar structures as prehistoric Newgrange.
Her ‘torso’, first viewed during those miraculous years 2013-15, when the Bagni di Lucca arts festival, largely envisaged by the same family, blossomed with an energy worthy of 1920’s Paris, combines intimation of the mother goddess with Christian symbolism – like our local church of San Cassiano, at the foot of the Prato fiorito Mountain, which is built on the foundations of a temple of Diana.
Here, too, there are connections with the steles discovered in Lunigiana, an area to the north of the artist’s location in the Lucchesia:
In this respect Michael has two pieces, one of which is directly inspired by the smooth green slopes of the treeless mountain dominating the family’s sojourn at Bagni di Lucca.
The cloud reminds me of Shelley’s fascination with its evanescence and the poet’s journey to those Elysian slopes.
The cloud appears as an exceptional sculptural tour de force in another of Michael’s pieces when it hovers billowing over the reddish rocks of another local village, Montefegatesi, whose name alludes to the liver-cerise of the surrounding ferrite stones.
Jacob, the family’s elder son, has undergone his own journey from sound to sculpture which, in so many respects, could be described as frozen music. He is particularly taken by the concept of the boat and his ‘boat over reeds’ stimulated a thousand thoughts in me. I was reminded of my journey down the Nile in a feluka, of my time with scouts canoeing down the river Arun, of my university days punting down the Cam…indeed, generally messing about in boats, not forgetting handling the ever-fickle English wind on a dinghy. Jacob’s boats took me into the mists of time with the Lady of Shalott and that journey of journeys, the wanderings of Odysseus across the Mediterranean sea to reach Ithaca and his faithful Penelope. The boat transforms, indeed, into a journey through life itself with the whirlpools and the rocks it meets being metaphors of life’s own obstacles and one’s faith that the goal of self-realization may be fulfilled before the vessel’s final course to the underworld.
Sollai’s sculptural works, for me, displayed perhaps the highest and purest form of self-expression. There can be few examples of such semi-abstract beauty than his ‘woman figure’.
How can something so geometrically pure be so flowing and so sensuous and yet bear within its womb the experience of cycladic art and those o-so enigmatic Pontremoli steles?
Although titled ‘abstract’ this one made me think feline but then I’m just crazy about cats.
This is an exhibition not to be missed, even in a city like London brimming with great sculpture from the Elgin marbles to Barbara Hepworth and beyond. Each of the four members of this prodigiously gifted family has achieved their own highly individual journey through time, space and inner-being and all four have come together in a sort of cosmic chat-room to give us the privilege of sharing their experiences in art’s most tangible form – a sculptural dialogue which resonates with memories of Australian primeval ritual sites, with Mycaenian Mediterranean waves, with Celtic convolutions of greenness and with mountains of marble formed by fiery subterranean forces, reinterpreted by a human imagination and recollected in breathtaking and transcendent forms.
The exhibition is officially open until 16th June although further viewings may be had upon request.
For more information do see
Ps All photographs are mine including those of Prato Fiorito and Pontremoli.