March 2006

Arts & Letters

‘Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs’ by Patrick McCaughey

By Justin Clemens

Coffee-table books about artists – especially when the artist is still alive – are an odd genre. Caught between biography and criticism, scholarship and accessibility, they too often try to resolve these tensions by recourse to adjective-laden hagiography. Patrick McCaughey, the high-profile former director of the National Gallery of Victoria, sidesteps such excess by leavening chronology with judicious detail.

Jan Senbergs arrived in Australia in 1950 as a ten-year-old Latvian refugee (for his part, McCaughey arrived in 1953 as a ten-year-old from Ireland). Senbergs’ father was shot in front of him one evening in 1944, and the family spent the next five years on the run, mainly in a succession of refugee camps in Germany. When they disembarked at Princes Pier in Port Melbourne, Senbergs didn’t speak a word of English. Given Australia’s resolute monolingualism, it couldn’t have been easy, and it’s tempting to trace the recurrent motifs in his work – homeless figures, machinery, unliveable seas, and environmental devastation – to these formative years.

There’s a lighter side to Senbergs as well. When the Queen and Prince Philip opened the High Court in Canberra in 1980, he found himself talking to the royal party. “My, that’s very big,” Her Majesty exclaimed, looking at Senbergs’ murals. “Do you do this often?” asked her consort. “Whenever I can,” the artist replied.

It is interesting to hear that some of Senbergs’ colleagues considered silk-screening a degraded medium, compared to etching and lithography. So too to hear of the abiding clamminess and claustrophobia of the Melbourne art scene. McCaughey identifies influences of all kinds: friends and colleagues, art and artists (surprisingly, Max Ernst isn’t mentioned). As his work develops, Senbergs shifts styles, often quite radically, but a vast, dark turbulence runs through it all.

The book is nicely designed and put together, a serious hardcover with high production values. The choice and deployment of images is superb.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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