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.



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