In Defence of Lawrence Alma-Tadema

On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I admired the fine details of the painting A Juggler, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This painting shows the figure of an Egyptian juggler performing in front of an audience of patricians in the peristyle of a villa in Pompeii. As I stood in front of the painting, observing the careful rendition of the villa’s interior, its murals, architectural details and furniture, I asked myself the question “Why has it become embarrassing to admit that you like Alma-Tadema’s paintings?” There are some obvious answers to that question, for instance Alma-Tadema’s obsession with subjects from Classical Antiquity and his idealistic treatment of these subjects. But there are many other 19th century artists whose work could be criticised in the same way but whose reputation hasn’t suffered in the same way as Alma-Tadema’s (Frederic Lord Leighton anyone?).

Even though Alma-Tadema was extremely popular in his lifetime, his work fell out of favour after his death in 1912. As the avant-garde emerged, there was no place for Alma-Tadema’s ‘pretty pictures’ in the art world anymore. But surely we are now in a position where we can appreciate 20th century Modernism without feeling the need to reject everything that came before its advent. There are also some who say that Alma-Tadema’s art is vacuous, that it has nothing to say, but following this line of thinking couldn’t the whole Aesthetic Movement and its precept of “art for art’s sake” be discounted on similar grounds? Admittedly, the fact that some Hollywood producers used Alma-Tadema’s paintings as the basis for the design of their movie sets (most notoriously, Cecil B. DeMill for The Ten Commandments) would not have encouraged art scholars and academics to take his work seriously. But the finely crafted details in Alma-Tadema’s works are a testament to the extent of the archaeological research he must have conducted to design his paintings, and it is unfair to discredit an artist on account of who endorses his work after his death. Nobody rejects the Pre-Raphaelites for the reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber is an ardent collector of their works (or do they?).

Perhaps what Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s reputation needs the most is a retrospective exhibition, to let the works speak for themselves once again and enable a new audience to discover his wonderful visions of an idealised antiquity.


A Yoko Ono Survey Exhibition at the MCA – War Is Over! (If You Want It)


There is no need to introduce Yoko Ono, most people will know her as the wife of the late John Lennon, her art however is somehow less familiar. Being sometimes in two minds with regards to conceptual art, I originally approached War Is Over! (If You Want It), a five-decade-spanning survey of Ono’s work at the MCA, cautiously. I should not have worried, the exhibition turned out to be a complete success.

I wasn’t aware of the participatory nature of Yoko Ono’s work before visiting War Is Over! (If You Want It) and was therefore pleasantly surprised by Play It By Trust, one of the many participatory works featured in the exhibition. This work invites visitors to play a game of chess, the pieces however differ from the standard black and white sets, in this game both players play with white pieces. The idea behind the work is to eliminate the principles of competition and opposition from the game, indeed it is only possible to play for as long as each player can remember which pieces are his or hers.

Another work relying on audience participation is My Mommy Is Beautiful, a wall on which visitors can stick a note addressed to their mother. The many notes vary in tone and range, from the comic to the sad, visitors can read declarations of love, expressions of regret and many other emotions. If it somehow sounds naïve when written down, the actual work is extremely touching.

Yoko Ono also deals with the violence inflicted upon women and their body in Touch Me III, this work consists of silicone body parts in wooden casings, after wetting their fingers viewers are asked to touch the various ‘body’ parts. This work serves as a reminder of the plight and suffering of women all around the world.

I won’t detail every work in the exhibition so as to leave some things for you to discover when you attend it. Suffice to say that in a world where conceptual art sometimes basks in its own vacuous self-importance, Yoko Ono’s work, its participatory nature and her message of peace come as a breath of fresh air and will have you reflecting on important issues in the most accessible and unpretentious way.

There is only a little bit more than a month left to catch War Is Over! (If You Want It) so put on your shoes and run to the MCA as soon as you can!

War Is Over! (If You Want It) is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until 23 February 2014.