Rewind: How Much Beauty Can I Stand?

By Sue Cramer

How Much Beauty Can I Stand?, Contemporary Landscape Painting, installation view, ACCA, 1986. Work by Amanda Tillers. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Landscape seen through the eyes of culture was the central theme of this exhibition, which looked at a 1980s revival of interest in romantic painting, viewed through the sceptical lens of postmodernism. A reconnection with art history as valid subject matter for art was typical of the ethos of this period. The contemporary artists in How Much Beauty Can I Stand?, I argued as its curator, ‘are more likely to derive inspiration from other paintings of nature, or reproductions of those paintings, than from the experience of actually looking at the landscape’. The picturesque and sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and Eugene Von Guerard were of particular relevance to the exhibition’s theme and to works in the exhibition.

The show’s rhetorical title came from a sadly never-to-be-completed painting promised to me by the German artist Volker Tannert, who was resident at Victoria College, Prahran. (Tannert’s failure to finish the painting was a keen disappointment, part of the young curator’s steep learning curve.) As a title, How Much Beauty Can I Stand? summed-up the ambivalence of artists at once drawn to ‘the awesome beauty of the sublime’ whilst being irredeemably aware of it as an historical construction, the notions of a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ vision being very much under question at the time.  ‘It is no longer easy to believe in the utopias of beauty or truth’ I observed.

How Much Beauty Can I Stand?, Contemporary Landscape Painting, installation view, ACCA, 1986. Work by Geoff Lowe. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Looking back I still think it was a clever idea for an exhibition, (I was devastated when certain critics thought otherwise) bringing together four contemporary Australian artists with two internationals – both of them ‘names’ on the international scene – who happened to be visitors to Melbourne. (British artist Thérèse Oulton had been recently resident at the Victorian College of the Arts.) At the entrance to ACCA I hung an 1897 landscape by Von Guerard borrowed from the State Library of Victoria Collection, not exactly the one I had wanted, but close enough. Its panoramic vista typified the kind of transplantation of European vision onto the Antipodes that the Australians in the exhibition were newly exploring with fresh and knowing eyes.

“How Much Beauty Can I Stand?” Contemporary Landscape Painting
19 March – 20 April 1986.

Exhibiting artists: Tony Clark, Geoff Lowe, Susan Norrie, Thérèse Oulton, Volker Tannert, Imants Tillers, Eugene Von Guerard

Sue Cramer was Curatorial Assistant at ACCA 1984-86. She subsequently became Director at the Institute of Modern Art, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and is currently Curator at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.