Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Graveyards- A window on both the past and soul.

Often when travelling, I take the opportunity to visit small country graveyards. At the time, I always intend to return and make some rubbings of various grave stones, to record their weathered faces before the ravishes of time obliterate their existence. One of my favourites is the early settlers burial ground at Ross, an early Tasmanian town in the midlands. The last time I visited, the sky was bleak and overcast reenforceing its feel of Scottish heritage. This picturesque Georgian village, built from hand cut sandstone is both historic, and a living testerment of the pioneering spirit of its early settlers. The substantional European trees that line the main street add to the impression of  permanence and Scottishness.

My purpose at the time was to climb the hillock behind the town  and visit the original early settlers burial ground. Perched on top of a rocky hill ,it was only accessible via a narrow stone walled track. The wind blows with force up here, so  many grave markers acti as weather vanes. The graves date from the early 19th cent., when death during childbirth was very prevelant, plus a good overlay of accedental death suffered by settlers extending their strength beyond endurence. One feature of interest, was that all the grave stones facing the prevailing wind had their faces eroded, while the lee sides were still able to tell their stories.These were mainly on the southen side were text and textured stone jostled to make their presence felt.

One grave stone caught my eye, it had a relief sculpture of the "Tree of Life" with an ax embeded half way through the trunk. It is possible to speculate about the meaning as the text had gone, did the relief refer to a life cut short or the finality of life itself. It could have refered to the life and effort of the early settlers, and the long back breaking work required to carve out a farm for themsleves. In many ways these stones are a symbol of the earth itself. After all the disintergation of matter is what provides us with the soil to mantain life.

When I make rubbings of these monuments to the past, I rework both text and abstract stone pattens to try to express the meaning of the present. To contemplate on the journy of life. To conect past,  presnt, and future. This morning I visited our local village graveyard, only to discover that someone had removed the heavy marble cover off a recent dug grave. I am puzzled as to the reason, I only hope grave robbing is still not alive!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Year of the Dragon.

European Dragon.

One of the attractive features of Dragons, is that no one knows what they look like, or for that matter, I don't believe anyone has ever seen one in the flesh. This has been a bonus for the freedom of artistic expression. Dragons of course
play a central role in Chinese cultural, from historic Emperors to Chinese horoscopes. This mythical being stands as a symbol of strength, health and good fortune. A lustful athletic type, not for nothing did Chinese Emperors require a hundred or so concubines! Records suggest the Ming Emperor Taichung apparently over did things one night and died of conjugal excess.

Dragon myths of course are not confined to the Orient, western cultural has more than enough stories about the exploits of knights and dragons. In western traditions he is often cast as the epitome of evil, due to a rather bad press in Revelations 12:7-9, were the dragon equates to the devil. There is a vast literary outpouring of White Knights doing battle with this symbol of evil. In many European epics the dragon is the last obstacle to be overcome before a quest is successful. This of course is not his only role, as he is also used in heraldry and is the National Emblem of Wales.

To returning to his Oriental roots, the dragon is claimed to represent both male and female principles because of his unlimited powers. My personal interest in dragons, stems from my collecting Japanese netsuki were stories of this mythological being abound. In  Chinese traditions the dragon is known to rule the four seas were he is known as the Four Dragon Kings. Each of these Kings has special duties in relationship to the human world.

The Celestial Dragon.
Here he is the guardian of the mansions of the Gods, hence his reputation as a protector of wealth.

The Spiritual Dragon.
Here he  causes the wind to blow and produce rain, that hopefully ensures a good harvest and good luck.

The Earth Dragon.
Represents the rivers that at times break out of their confined course. In this case the dragon for what ever reason performs bad things.

The Dragon of hidden treasure.
Here he protects hidden wealth from mere mortals. Most probably should be the patron saint of geologists and gamblers.

What sort of year can we expect from this year of the dragon. This mythological being capable of both good and evil, all this sounds very human.People born this year will enjoy a show of glitter and sparkle, and will love to impress others. They will be athletic types and exercise to retain their youthful composure. They love to talk, but tend to be tactless. Enjoy casual flirtations, so to cheer up a dragon inject a bit of romance. So there you have it, happy new year.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Roman New Years are quite an experience, sometimes used to dispose of discarded lovers or spouse. This event is carried out at midnight. When else , to throw an offending party out of the window, upper stories are generally best. I had only been living in Rome for a few months, when my first New Year's Eve experience occured. Still suffering from languare shock, so I knew few people, I decided to take a strollto see what kind of action was taking place. Christmas of course had been a disappointment being very family focused. Boxing Day sstartedeemed to be the main event when presents were distributed to the city's poor children in Piazza Navona. An Italian Christmas proved to be far a  more religious affair than experienceed in most Anglo Saxon countries.

At first as I strolled along, it must have been around 11.45pm, I noticed the odd item falling from the sky. They were fairly light, cusions, clothing that sort of thing. As midnight approached heaver things started to fall, flower pots, small furniture, framed pictures of out of favour lovers were popular. The down pore became so heavy I found it necessary to walk in the middle of the road for fear of injury. All sorts of household items were now raining down onto the street, rubbish of all sorts, empty on my head as wbottles, old plates, it seemed that what ever could be thrown out the window was fair game. it was a torrent. Even wardrobes were hitting the pavement with force and shattering into many pieces. Many of these items were falling from several stories up, some six floors or more. The Roman motto, out with the old, in with the new was taking on a new meaning. If I had known better I would have put a saucepan as I did during wartime air raids

By morning the central city blocks looked more like a war zone, rubbish as far as the eye could see. You had to step overobjects everywhere just to reach the corner cafe for breakfast. It seemed that it would take days to clean up the mess, unfortunaeely in some of the poorer quarters it took weeks. The papers were full of how many wives had been thrown out, no mention was made of husbands, no doubt they were too heavy to move for the wives. How many broken bones there were I have no idea, nor do I know whether manslaughter charges were laid for deceased lovers, but there was no questioning the intent.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Italian Tax. When one and one does not add up to two.

Aspects of Italian Taxation.

One of the most annoying aspect of living in Rome as a foreigner in the 60’s,  was the constant requirement to purchase the famous 90 lire sheet of paper every time you had to make a request or apply for anything.  Only by doing so was the application or document legal. These lined sheets of foolscap paper could only be purchased at a  tobacco kiosk, along with stamps and a special breed of cigarette called Alfe. They were a product in their own right, you had to hold and smoke them horizontally for fear the tobacco would fall out. My friends used to joke that they were made with the factory floor sweepings, which no doubt contained a degree of truth . I  remember considerable coughing followed each  puff, so in hind sight it was just as well I didn‘t settle permanently in Italy, as I had intended. But to return to the famous official paper issued by the government, each sheet, if memory serves me correctly  had a pretty little blue crest at the top to indicate its official nature. I often thought this was the greatest revenue  raising devise ever thought up by a  national government. Everything had to be written on these sheets , requests for a student pass, to having the electricity turned on in your flat. Even unofficial documents had to be written on the famous sheets to make them legal.

Another major source of income for the Government [ they changed on a monthly bases] was the flexible nature of tax assessment. One plus one does not necessarily add up to two. Not that this worried me personally on my megaer resources, but several foreign friends had all sorts of tax troubles. Simple addition could result in any number the tax department decreed. Generally any stated total would be doubled to arrive at a person’s income. My partner worked for an American/Italian  film script writer. Every day she would travel out along the Via Apia to his country villa and write down everything he said. These performances were highly entertaining as he would burst into the room, changing parts as required with a full display of emotional interpretation, while changing gender as required. However our script writer earned the bulk of his income overseas and paid tax in that country . This was of no interest to the Italian tax authority, who claimed he would have to pay tax on the total amount no matter were it was earned. This could be arrived at  by increasing his Italian income several fold to a figure considered satisfactory to the authority. He did very little work for Cinicita, one of Mussolini’s worthwhile contributions to 20th cent culture. Our script writer refused to pay the large amount arrived at and received a year’s jail sentence for his trouble.He could of course have paid a suitable amount of under table consideration, but he was a person  integerity.

The Art Academy,  I was attending also ran courses in film direction,  opera, costume and stage design. Such people as Fellini taught there, so the course was very popular with students from all over the world. The Italian film industry at the time was at it's peak winning accolade internationally. Many of these foreign students obtained work as extras a few days a week in Italian westerns and gladiator films. The pay was very good as they would earn in a day what I was trying to live on for weeks. The Afro /Americans were always in demand for the gladiator films. A Scot’s friend of mine would discuss for hours on end how we could somehow break into this new highly lucrative business. We thought  westerns would be best, but my Scot’s Glaswegian accent proved to be a major drawback. Unfortunately these students had similar tax problems to my script writer friend, corruption seems second nature to Italian life . When you realise that some 39% of the country’s GDP is related to Mafia controlled business, it is not surprising Italy has it’s current financial  crises.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The hidden pleasure of Netsuki collecting

Hotei with his bag of  gifts


Shortly after reading Edmund De Waal’s prize winning book “The Hare with Amber Eyes”,  the Tasmanian  Museum & Art Gallery received a gift of some seventy seven netsuki from a generous donor called Janet Gale. I purchased my first netsuki in my twenties, an ivory Hotei, one of the Seven Immortals. He is excessively fat, exhibiting shamelessly a generous belly, generally laughing. He is looked upon as the God of Contentment. He carries a large bag in which he stores precious gifts. Half Taoist, half Buddhist, he is understood to have been a Chinese priest in the 10th cent. A great lover of children , who could sleep in the snow and infallibly predict the future. He seemed to be a highly desirable person to have in your team.

Unfortunately, I could only purchase the odd  little sculptures  spasmodically over the years, one of the reasons being my concern at the wholesale slaughter of elephants in the wild. Not that ivory is the main material for netsuke carving,  many different woods being the most widely used material.

It is possible to learn a lot about Japan, its history, religion, legends, dances and so on from the netsuke. Famous sites, fauna and flora, customs and games are all represented. The TMAG collection has representations of Dutchmen dressed in European clothing. These examples refer to the small Dutch trading post on the island of Deshima were half a dozen traders were allowed to carry on business during the years of Japan’s isolation.

Note warn holes on Hotei

The original netsuki was a toggle used to tuck under your belt , the end of which was thread  through the two holes on the underside of the netsuke, so the wearer could carry a small purse ,tobacco pouch or seal and keep their hands free. Genuine netsuke holes vary in size and old ones are sometimes lined with bone to counter wear. Women found them very useful for carry their little embodied bags in which perfume and medicines were kept. Netsuki are unfortunately among some of the most copied art objects, so if you intend to collect original ones great care is required. Always look for patina, has it been used as a clothing item, examine the design for its true purpose, are there sharp points to catch on cloths are all things to look for. In recent years the netsuke market has been glutted with cheap inferior imitations.

Bone inserts to stop wear.on holes

Many mythological animals are represented, particularly the signs of the Zodiac. The Dragon has been represented over the years in many different formats. He is viewed as a lustful animal and in a Chinese context symbolized the Son of Heaven, no doubt this was why he need such a large harem. Animals with supernatural powers best symbolized by the fox, he has the ability to change into a human. There are many stories and legends revolving around the fox as an evil creature. However in Japan the fox is also seen as the god of rice culture and may be seen on the gateways into Shinto shrines.

One of my favourite stories about supernatural animals centres around the Japanese idea of the hare on the moon. The legend tells of a hare, monkey and fox travelling together. They meet an old man who begs for food. The fox runs to the river and catches ,the monkey climes a tree and brings him some fruit, the hare however does nothing. When reproached he asks his companions to build a fire and as the flames take hold flings himself into the fire in order to provide meat. There upon the old man took the form of Indra, quenched the fire, and took the hare with him to live on the moon as an example to all creatures the true meaning of sacrifice.

I shall not attempt to retell all the stories surrounding netsukes, but shall mention the subjects of two of my own. The Hotei I have already mention, the other two are the dog and rooster. The cock is the symbol of valour. When depicted on a drum he is regarded as an emblem of peace, because in China  drums were beaten as a  warning against invaders.

Dog & Rat netsuki
Often the two zodiac signs of newly married couples are combined and given as gifts.

In Japan the dogs is looked upon as a friend, unlike China. When an infant is presented to his ancestors at the local shrine, he receives from his relative and friends paper Mache dogs as emblems of good luck. These are placed at the head of his cot to ward off evil influences. Finally , one of my favourite s is the octopus. It is possible to carve him in so many different designs. In folklore he is known as Umi Bozn, the priest of the sea, this is suggested by the resemblance of his smooth belly to a shaven head of a priest. He is considered extremely amorous as expressed by the firmness of his embrace. The subject is vast and highly rewarding. The pleasure of holding these little sculptures in your hands lifts your spirits. Happy collecting.

The Cock [late 19th cent. [note light colour of carved material]

Back view of Hotei with his textured clothing.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What value do you put on Art?


Unlike the price of a bacon pig, putting value or price on works of art proved to be a lot more murky.
Value has different meaning to different people. There is the value in an aesthetic sense, the value in terms of what it is worth monetarily in the market place and of course, culturally and spiritually. I do not intend to deal with all of these issues here, but rather discuss the prices paid by  individuals and corporations in terms of their tax advantage.

A few years ago ,while running a modern print gallery in Hobart, I found  it necessary to carry out valuations for the Australian Taxation Office. Our gallery acted for some three to four hundred artists of various nationalities. We imported graphics mainly from Japan, Europe and America. Those of you who are not familiar with the expression limited edition original prints, it covers such items as etchings, lino and woodblocks, silk screen, litho images and any other printed image produced by artists in a limited number. The general public then, as now ,tends to confuse the term print with reproduction. Unfortunately English, unlike German doesn’t have a special word, which is unfortunate. I had selected original graphics as our speciality ,because they are light, easy to freight, and they offered me the opportunity to deal in the best current art works available in the world.

On face value, you would think the task  of valuation would be fairly straight forward, but taxation departments don’t operate that way. The reason of course is ,that there is no such thing as value for works of art, other than their inherent aesthetic and cultural value. The price of any art work is very arbitrary. The price is simply what a person or organization is willing to pay at any given time. Prices change not only in a historic sense, but vary from country to country depending on their different cultural values.

Why is all this important? Well in Australia ,a person or corporation may donate an art work to a public galley or institutions and claim the value [price] as a tax deduction. In the tax department’s view this required a professional valuation. Now you may feel this is straight forward, but in reality there are many valuations. There are auction prices, but these may vary depending on whose there bidding, there is the gallery or dealers price and the artist’s price. These prices are constantly changing depending on how popular a given artist is at any given point in time. Many 19th cent Victorian artists who commanded high prices during their life time, now arouse little or no interest with the buying public.  If you are looking at fine art as an investment be aware that fashions change ,and the chances are you are paying an inflated price in the first place.

I have seen a Dali litho sold at auction ,signed within the  print, not after the image has been printed. This means that you have no idea how many copies have been made, whether they are authorised by the artist or not, part of a deceased estate, or simply the plates or stones have been acquired by a third party who are just printing money. Then there are artists who will sign reproduction and even number them for sale to a gullible public.

Early Australian art collections were full of competent copies of the old masters ,and well known art works, sent out to the colonies to eager settlers wanting to establish some cultural identity. I still remember in the early fifties , when Rudy Kirmann tried to sell paintings door to door around Sydney ,being told by the occupant they had all the art works they required ,pointing to reproductions hanging on the wall. Gratefully times have changed.

However to return to my topic, the correct price or value of work. We have all heard of paintings being sold for two, three times or more above the estimate at auction. With original prints there is the unknown  edition size. I have found a supposed edition of 100 copies being released three times! In some countries print makers are required to run off a cancellation print and register the copy with the relevant authority. Such prints are produced by scoring the etching plate for example diagonally from corner to corner ,so it can not be used again.

All these issues were major problems when doing valuations for the Tax Department. The bureaucrats in Canberra continually challenged the valuations .They assumed that the valuations were always greater than claimed. They seemed to suggest that I was receiving some sort of under the table payment, so that the donor could claim a greater tax rebate . In the end I decided the task was not worth the stress, and refused to continue valuations. Over the years ,I had always attempted to arrive at some average price. The reality is that the true value of art works is in their aesthetic worth, not some newspaper headline price or the name at the bottom. It’s what we feel about the work. Does it speak to you in some way. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pigs Farmers Diary

Attentive audience.

Pigs do have an ear for music.

One big surprises with my new piggery enterprise was the discovery of their musical taste. Each morning when I would visit the piggery to feed and clean out the pens,  I would leave the radio  on a high volume, so as to listen to music  while working. The sows would run across the paddock to sit and listen for an hour or so. Much to my amazement, they seemed to be very fond  of J S Bach, and other classical composers. Whether this was due to the mathematical structure of Bach I never ever found out, but one thing was certain, they didn’t like loud hard metal music or music without melody. They would quickly depart from their prime position ,whenever this type of music was played.

 Our first farrowing came and went and I found myself with some one hundred  pigs to feed. Each gilt [ young sow] produced from eight to sixteen baby piglets. I noticed that the sows with well defined udders and nipples, evenly spaced gave birth to the greatest number of offspring. This enabled them to feed a larger litter satisfactory. Often I would have to move one piglet from one mother to another so they received enough milk. The first few days were critical, as antibodies were absorbed from the sow’s milk. Even so, piglets are born with very low iron ,requiring iron shots to boost their metabolism. This had to be done at a few days old to stop scouring. Even so, I would lose piglets over the first few critical weeks.

Piglets receiving their iron shots

Young piglets at supper.

Running a piggery is not unlike being a duty nurse in a hospital or health clinic, every day something needed attention. All the sows were not necessarily good mothers,  one I remember called Lulu ,when ever she felt peckish would simply stand on one of her young and eat them. I did not keep her very long! It was very interesting to observe all the different personalities, no doubt that is why pigs are considered closest to humans in the animal world.

The babies naturally needed toys, I would put stones into empty drink cans that they would roll around the floor with their noses. At times they seemed to be playing a pig version of football! Then I  would have to hang chains in their sleeping quarters , which they would tug on in the way a dog pulls on a rag. The scene often looked like a snapshot of preschool. Another early childhood job was the clipping of the sharp points on their teeth, when feeding  their would bite the sows nipple causing infections and  sometimes causing the mother to reject them altogether. In order to counter bullying the piglets were graded for size on a weekly bases, this made sure each received the correct amount of food, every pig had it food requirement weigh each day. This was critical, as I wanted bacon pigs with minimum amount of fat, prime bacon only allows less than half inch. The piglets were weaned at four weeks, firstly to give mother a break. Secondly they seemed to make better progress on a high protein diet. Like many small things they are very fond of sugar, so this was not a difficult task.

With time I became quite apt at caring for pigs, attending to their various ailments from colds to mastitis. I really enjoyed the work, there was never a dull moment and great satisfaction in producing a first class product. Contrary to popular belief, pigs are very clean, they do the necessary in the same spot ever day ,which is more than can be said for some people I have known! Pigs are really more intelligent than dogs and it is not hard to see why some people like them as pets! There is an old saying that I love.

A cat looks down on you.
A dog looks up to you.
But only a pig treats you as a fellow human being.