by Sasha Grishin. The Miegunyah Press, May 2015. 570 p. col. ill. ISBN 9780522856521 (cl.) $175.00.
Reviewed August 2014
Erika Esau, former Librarian, The Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, email@example.com
More than twenty years ago, this reviewer published in Art Documentation an appraisal of Joan Kerr's groundbreaking Dictionary of Australian Artists (vol. 12, no. 1 [Spring 1993], p. 27-28) at which time it was possible to write that "the construction of a history of Australian art is a relatively recent phenomenon," and to give in one paragraph a summary of the bibliography on the subject. Since that time, volumes of books, catalogs, and articles have greatly expanded and revised the story of Australian artistic practice, as art historians and critics uncover more intriguing facts and apply new methodologies to the historical record and to contemporary production.
One of the leading figures in this scholarship has been Sasha Grishin, formerly William Dobell Professor of Art History at the Australian National University and author of some twenty books and numerous articles over the last thirty years on a variety of topics about Australian art. Australian Art: A History is Grishin's loquacious magnum opus. Weighing in at more than seven pounds, 300,000 words, 570 pages, and forty-six chapters, the book means to provide researchers with as much information about Australian art as one could find in a single volume.
Magnificently illustrated with many full-page color reproductions, Grishin considers the entire history of artistic creativity on the continent from the earliest Aboriginal rock paintings to twenty-first-century practitioners, including not only painting and sculpture, but also printmaking, photography, craft, and some architecture.
The author's most convincing assertion is that Aboriginal and Western artistic styles have had equal creative power and influence from the beginning of contact and need to be integrated into a single aesthetic chronology. His chapter on the origins of contemporary Aboriginal art is a masterful synopsis of a fractious aesthetic issue, complete with appropriate quotations from artists and critics of the time (his inclusion of relevant scholarly quotations adds greatly to the text's significance as a research tool). Equally important is the attention he pays to the central role of women artists in the development of modernism in Australia, a factor often downplayed in other histories.
Grishin chose a unique method to decide which recent artists to include: he asked eighty Australian artists to list fifty figures they felt were significant, and to make another list of fifty artists they felt were overrated. Based on these suggestions, he felt he could avoid personal bias in his choices. While Grishin's stance on the minutiae of critical opinion and specific artistic debates may be of interest only to those immersed in Australian art politics, his readable, if lengthy, text presents an impressive level of scholarship, with indispensable endnotes and voluminous bibliography. Encyclopedic in its coverage and splendidly designed, this volume should be in any art research library and will serve as the definitive word on Australian art for years to come.