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.

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