One of These

A few months back I was in Berlin. At least I think it was Berlin. It was a city, at any rate, beginning with ‘B’.

Whilst in this city, this mysterious city, I stumbled upon an exhibition of works by a young photographer, Wilma Heffeger. I say ‘stumbled upon’: in actuality, I am no stumbler. I move gracefully through life, propelled by the soft winds of destiny. And so on and so forth.

The important thing to take from all of this is that I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. Heffeger’s work moved me in ways I had never imagined I would, or could, be moved. It also moved me in ways I find rather hard to explain. Take, for instance, the following work, entitled One of These Trees is a Sculpture:

The title, I should note, is typical. Other works of Heffeger’s include One of These Fish is a Sculpture, One of These Clouds is a Sculpture and One of These Toasters is a Sculpture. Her series of tree works, however, work best for me, for reasons I cannot even contemplate explaining.

All of the above begs an obvious question: is one of those trees a sculpture?

Heffeger is, of course, silent on the subject. As for me…

Henry Hunt

After posting Graham Brickstaff’s short biography of D H Laven (see below) I see the need to re-consider many of the statements contained therein, a fair few of which lean heavily on the gnarly trees of nonsense. Before then, however, I would like to share with you a few images related to a recently republished article by the great art historian himself. The article can be found here. The images follow.

As you will no doubt know, these images show discarded palettes belonging to the late great artist Henry Adolphus Hunt. A few years ago, these would have been worth almost nothing. Now, thanks to Laven’s work – and a few progressive art dealers – they are sold for thousands of pounds. Hunt’s ‘other work’, unfortunately, has had less success. His ‘actual’ paintings, it seems, are as unpopular as ever. But who wants a meticulously painted canvas when you can have a scrap of oily cardboard instead?

On Laven (2)

Part Two of Graham Brickstaff’s short biography of D H Laven:

In 1979, a year before he finally packed in his job at the bookstore, Laven published his first article – a quaint Morellian deconstruction of the Romanian medal-making tradition in the sixteenth century – a subtle work which ought to have rocked the art historical world, but in lieu of the fact that it appeared in the lowly Australian Rabbit and Art-Historical News, never stood any chance of reaching a large readership. By a stroke of luck, however, it did attract the attention of Frans Golmuth, the director of Basel University (whose wife was a closet rabbit-fancier). This led to Golmuth commissioning further work for Laven, which was published in the slightly more prestigious Die Baseller Kunstsammler. Over the next year, Laven produced work on topics as varied as contemporary sculpture in Southern Germany and performance art in the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). As is evident, Laven eschewed traditional art historical practice from the very beginning, refusing to be drawn into study of those works that might be said to be part of the ‘canon’. His interests were elsewhere; the rigorous pursuit of which has led him to the unique position he holds today. In retrospect the decision to concentrate exclusively on neglected art and artists might be considered a tactical move, but let me assure you that it was in fact a dangerous risk which led to Laven being isolated in the early part of his career. Even now, there are many art historians who consider him an uncouth charlatan, though this may be as much due to his personality as his methodology. According to several sources, when the late Ernest Gombrich met Laven at a conference on Landscape Theory, he was welcomed with a kick in the shins. Later that day, Gombrich claimed to have caught Laven spitting in his complementary champagne. As many as fourteen eminent art historians have made similar claims.

Where some reserved their judgement on his worth, Frans Golmuth believed in D H Laven from the very beginning. In 1980 he offered him a position at Basel University, where he was to teach for the next four years. Though the constraints of the syllabus required that Laven should lecture on the work of well-known artistic figures and periods, his students have since revealed that he regularly went off the subject. Most famously it has been claimed that in a ten week course on Velasquez the name of the artist was mentioned only once, with not a single slide of his painting shown. Students maintain that these diversions were both enjoyable and educational, but ultimately they would rather have stood a better chance of passing their exams.

During this period Laven continued to publish articles in many periodicals. He is also said to have started researching the project on which he continues to work: the legendary Story of Forgotten Art. As well as this, he found the time to marry – twice. He is currently on his fourth wife, but like a true artist would rather it were said that he was married to his work.

In 1984, Laven left Basel. It is uncertain whether he resigned from his position or whether he was sacked, but either way it is generally considered that this was a move that was probably for the best. Whilst Golmuth never lost any faith in Laven’s abilities as an art historian, he doubted his proficiency as a teacher, especially in a situation in which he could not be allowed complete control. Indeed, D H Laven has never been a man with much respect for authority. Even when given greater control of the courses he could teach, as he was when he rejoined the Melbourne Institute of Arts for the second time in ’85, he showed a propensity for minor anarchy. Students who attended his courses at his time tell of being examined on periods of art history they never studied, of taking multiple fieldtrips to places with absolutely no artistic relevance (the Fosters brewery) and of long intervals in which Laven made no appearance whatsoever, offering as a teaching replacement a wallaby called Gainsborough. Unsurprisingly, he soon relinquished this teaching position as well, beginning in 1987 a long period of self-employment.

From 1987 to the present, the story of D H Laven is relatively simple, if not often obscured. Most of his time has been spent writing in his house in Melbourne, though he has travelled a fair extent, as is his wont. In terms of output, he has been fairly prolific, producing a book at least every two years, jumping from subject to subject with frightening ease. It is an enormous credit to Laven that he is not associated with a single aspect of art history. He is as much at home in modern times as he is in the ancient. His major works from this period are: Heja Ceja! The current state of Venezuelan art (1988), Pygmy Pot-painters (1990), Baroque Modes (1991), The Great Spoon-makers of Sheffield (1993), The Acrylic Revolution (1995), Modernist Post: A Dead Letter Office? (1998), Michelangelo’s Niece’s Daughter (2001) and Shocked to Boredom: British Art Now (2004). He has also been working steadily on the aforementioned Story of Forgotten Art, the publication date of which is now projected as being around the year 2014, due to an unforeseen re-evaluation of semi-colon usage in the already completed chapters. If the books listed above have helped cement Laven’s place at the forefront of art historical discourse, The Story of Forgotten Art is likely to propel him a few miles beyond this position. I doubt that I am the only person who simply cannot wait for that day.
Before I end, however, I sense a small shit-stain of questions lingering around the toilet bowl of my readers’ minds. What kind of a man is D H Laven? What is he like to talk to? What does he look like? What drives him?

A single answer will suffice. That is – I don’t know. Ultimately, D H Laven is an enigmatic man. He does not give away his secrets too easily. I have met him several times, and each time I have come away with the impression that I have met someone I have never met before. On one occasion I thought him a humble and affable man, on another selfish and irritable. I could not even pretend to sum up his physical appearance. He manages to be both ordinary and extraordinary at once. In the end, I am only certain of one thing. That is, he is a man of singular skill: a unique talent, a maverick and, in many ways, a pioneer. Long may he live.

 

On Laven (1)

Though our friendship spans a couple of decades, there are plenty of things I don’t know about the notorious Australian art critic D H Laven. I am not alone in this. Laven is something of a lone wolf, not given to introspective ponderings. Someone once said of Laven that ‘nothing is off limits for him, except his own self’. To say that he isn’t career-minded, meanwhile, would be an understatement. I don’t think the word ‘career’ has ever crossed his mind – not recently anyway. Which is not to say that he isn’t chasing greatness in his own strange way. Rather that he isn’t the self-conscious sort.

Of course, I may be wrong. People usually are wrong about Laven. Such is his charm. No one really knows what is going on with that man. I feel, however, that I ought to give my patient readers something: a glimpse, if you will, of the person behind the prose. To this end, I have unearthed an article I once cut out of a newspaper. It purports to be a reliable biography of Laven, written by a journalist going by the name of Graham Brickstaff. One doubts the veracity of all of its comments; nevertheless, there may be crumbs of truth in it.

Here, then, is part one of the piece. Part two will follow shortly.

D H Laven was born in Melbourne in 1952, the fourth and final son of Edgar and Matilda Laven. His father was an untutored housewife; his mother a skilled mechanic. They were an honest couple, with few ambitions, save the dream that their four sons might grow up to form the entire relay team for their country’s Olympic swimming team. In the end, they had to settle for seventy five percent, as it turned out that their youngest son had little talent for swimming, let alone staying afloat. As broken dreams go, this wasn’t the most horrific tragedy and though both Edgar and Matilda bore it well, there was worse to come. At the age of seventeen, D H announced to his family that he wished to be an art historian. Though his father had long been resigned to the possibility that his youngest son might grow up to be involved in the arts, he had nevertheless been holding out for something better than this. A musician, perhaps, or a painter. But an art historian? For the next fourteen years, Edgar refused to speak to his son. When at last he did break his silence, it was only to make an insulting comparison between his son’s career and a dead dog he’d found in his backyard. And though it is suspected that D H’s mother secretly approved of his occupation, she nonetheless tended to express her admiration in contradictory terms, frequently describing her son as a ‘rotten time-wasting and egg-brained pommy-nerk’.

By all accounts, D H Laven was, then, a dreamy child. Unlike his brothers, he was no athlete. And he hardly seemed to sparkle academically either. In fact, he was to gain poor to average marks throughout his school career, with the exception of a single ‘A’ in a Geography examination in 1963, which has since been interpreted as a printing error. As well as this, the young Laven was ostensibly what can only be classified as ‘a social misfit’. He once told me that between the ages of two and sixteen he never met anyone that could be considered ‘the slightest bit interesting’ and that most of his friends were either ‘characters in books, or books themselves’. Thus he spent a large proportion of his childhood alone, periodically gorging on the beery delights of an almost unhealthily overactive imagination. Books were his main pleasure, of course, but he was also an amateur collector, specialising in interestingly shaped rocks. The ten inch lump of granite that involuntarily resembles the figure of Christ from Ruben’s famous Antwerp altarpiece sits on Laven’s desk to this very day, though he may have long since fallen out of love with the original painting.

It seems that the future academic prowess of D H Laven was hard to detect in this absent-minded boy. For a long time many doubted that he had any sort of talent at all, save for sleeping.  Nevertheless, what his family and school didn’t know was that, when they weren’t looking (which was most of the time) the young Laven was in fact busy educating himself, picking up extensive knowledge from scrappy second-hand books that he bought in exchange for packed lunches and stolen surfboards. Maybe he wasn’t educating himself in mathematics, or physics, or foreign languages. However, he had long learnt that these things were not worth learning. He was instead educating himself in art. And what better education could a young boy receive?

In 1970, long after his family and community had given up hope on him, D H Laven joined the Melbourne Institute of Arts, where he studied under art historian Hendrik Helson. It was to be a steep learning curve. He was the Dutchman’s only pupil and complained so vigorously of his teacher’s lack of knowledge that he not only got Helson sacked, but two days later replaced him also – becoming the youngest University professor in Australia (narrowly beating Steve Rollinsberk, who had recently become dean of Brisbane College at the mere age of twenty). To show that there were no bad feelings involved Helson responded to his dismissal by enrolling onto the very course he had once teached, thus becoming Laven’s first pupil (just as Laven had, two months earlier, become his). Though Laven was nineteen and Helsen fifty five, it is said that they had a healthy teacher-pupil relationship. Unfortunately, however, Helsen was not a healthy man. Within four weeks of the new term, following a particularly strenuous seminar on Caravaggio, he died of a heart attack. Since Laven no longer had any pupils, he was sacked to save the Institute money. As an apology, he was awarded a first class degree.

            Ashamed to go back home, Laven travelled instead to Sydney, where he sold his degree to a middle aged man in exchange for fifty dollars, a packet of chips and a polemical pamphlet on the Northern Renaissance. When this money ran out, he got a job at a small bookstore, from which he stole the majority of the books that now make up his extensive library. Not unjustifiably, Laven has always defended his multiple thefts with the argument that they were all born out of a profoundly pure love of art.

            The ‘bookstore’ years lasted from 1971 to 1980. During this period Laven read almost every art-related book he came across, backing up what he learnt from his reading with a series of short trips to important artistic centres such as Venice, Paris and Reykjavik. How he managed these brief excursions on such a pitiful salary is a mystery and some have suggested that Laven made money on the side by writing erotic novels under a pseudonym. Having known several of the women that have shared a relationship with him, I am inclined to believe that this story is highly unlikely. A source I cannot reveal once described Laven as having ‘the sexual imagination of a small rock’. My best guess is that either his mother was sending him money, or he was stealing it.