Censorship, paganism, fascism, vivid sexual displays—it isn’t an old Russ Meyer film. I am reviewing a brand-new book about Norman Lindsay! Even those unfamiliar with who Norman Lindsay is will likely be familiar with his works, such as The Magic Pudding. Building on Cameron Hurst and Jeremy George’s previous exhibition and symposium on Lindsay, Venus in Tullamarine is a pocket book that packs a wallop, critically exploring Lindsay’s many controversies and divisive position within Australian art history. However, this book is not an exhibition catalogue, nor a collection of lectures as one might imagine (or dread!). Included are five succinct and striking contributions from Ian McLean, Cameron Hurst, Soo-Min Shim & James Nguyen, Adrian Martin, and Jeremy George, followed by a collection of images from the Venus in Tullamarine exhibition. While each section provides its own fascinating insights, this review focuses on two particularly compelling segments: Ian McLean’s opener The Fate of an Aberrant Genius: Norman Lindsay in the Australian Canon, and Cameron Hurst’s pivotal piece Norman Lindsay is: Absolute Evil, Women’s Liberation, Queer?
        Nice, Norman was not. This idea is established in McLean’s contribution, which investigates the reception of Lindsay’s work. Through keen perceptions laced with wit, McLean explains how Lindsay’s work holds a peculiarly tangled and contradictory place in Australian art historical discourses. Lindsay has been termed a progressive radical and a blasphemer flirting with paganism—an artist who, for a time, captured the public’s imagination before falling duly out of favour. Important to understanding the success and scandal, McLean argues, is the significance of the nude for white Australian Impressionists. It is a gripping and, at times, sobering read, that reveals the complexities of the Lindsay phenomenon through an examination of how broader social and political currents favoured certain interpretations. Take for example, Lindsay’s rise as a progressive radical who ‘carved out a new sense of pictorial nationalism’. Then move to Robert Hughes’ declaration that ‘never was so much fuss attached to a sprint up a blind alley’. According to Hughes, Lindsay was out. The pictures didn’t change, but sensibilities and social politics did. Grandpa Simpson springs to mind: ‘I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it anymore and what’s it seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!’ It certainly happened to Norman. McLean’s critical examination is equally a musing on the reflexive nature of history-making, and how these historical narratives are reconstituted by subsequent sensibilities.
        Cameron Hurst furthers this examination. A mix of sharp scholarship and streetwise verve, Hurst focuses on three key years pertinent to Lindsay’s critical reception (1904, 1971, and 2022), making a case for how these interpretations/responses reflect the sexual politics of the time. We begin with one of the key scandals of Lindsay's career: the “vigorously condemned” Pollice Verso, a pen and ink drawing that depicts a crucified Jesus being ridiculed by a procession of onlookers, their thumbs down as they march past. Lindsay was a Nietzschean who favoured paganism to atheism, and displayed a fervent disdain for Christianity and religion in general. To quote Lindsay's son, Jack: ‘religion seemed to him to embody in the strongest form possible the rejection of earth and its potential happinesses [sic]’. This disdain was reflected in Lindsay’s work, and the divisive effect it had on audiences. Pollice Verso is rendered with Lindsay’s signature sensual flare. The image is, at once, unsettling and alluring. To this viewer’s contemporary sensibilities, the fantastical imagery and mix of violence and eroticism recalls the kind of unsettling affect aspired to by the Cinema of Transgression or similar underground movements (more on the countercultural later). However, as Hurst argues, my feelings of curiosity and discomfort may relate to film theorist Elena Gorfinkel’s concept of “dated sexuality”. It is a compelling argument, and one that Hurst wields well to explore the antiquated eroticism of Lindsay.
        In 1971 Lindsay’s art again sprang to public attention thanks to the OZ magazine obscenity trial—a pivotal moment in Australian and British counterculture history. OZ was the counterculture mag, and its editors and contributors (including the likes of Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and David Widgery) did not shy from controversy. As the trial loomed in London, OZ undertook a publicity campaign, invoking the former rebel Lindsay by using an illustration on the front cover of Rose Lindsay (Norman’s muse, impresario-of-sorts and wife) as Lysistrata—from Aristophanes’ titular heroine who led a sex-strike to bring an end to the Peloponnesian war.  This moment poses an interesting collision of ideals: Lindsay—the blatant misogynist and trailblazing champion of creative freedoms—becomes the emblem of a counterculture magazine advocating for ideals which he would have undoubtedly opposed. As Hurst argues, ‘the dominant feminine fetishism that animates Lindsay’s art did incidentally resonate with the countercultural zeitgeist’.
        The last stop along these three years contrasts two contemporary readings of Lindsay’s work—the exhibition Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection and the ABC TV show The Exhibitionists, commissioned to run adjacent with the Know My Name (National Gallery of Australia) exhibition. For Queer, Hurst proposes that Lindsay’s Petronius illustrations were selected for their technical quality and subject matter—hot, steamy and homoerotic happenings in male bathhouses. While in The Exhibitionists, Lindsay is ‘held up as an example of an undesirable and aggressively heterosexual figure in Australian art history’. Once again, a dialectic emerges, as Hurst remarks, ‘In Queer, Lindsay’s identity is superseded by his subject matter. In Know My Name, the reverse is true’. Problematic, eternally. So, what to do? Perhaps flick to the end of the book, to a selection of pictures from Hurst and George’s Venus in Tullamarine exhibition to make up one’s own mind.
        In their introduction, Hurst and George remark that this book ‘offers no cohesive, overarching position or final conclusion on the artist’. This may be true, but I think the statement sells the achievements of the book a touch short. Venus in Tullamarine offers an exciting collection of writings that examine the schemas through which Lindsay’s work has been interpreted and understood. The writing is bold, concise and witty. Arguably, the book is as much about the mechanisms of art history and the influence of politics on historicization, as it is about Lindsay. The tale of a tosser artist, whose dramatic rise to prominence was equalled by his spectacular fall from grace is a familiar one in art history. This volume offers an interesting and attentive template for dealing with such figures. Venus in Tullamarine is not solely geared towards Lindsay-lovers. It is for anyone interested in the history of sex and politics in Australian art. Best ignored by any wowsers.

Venus in Tullamarine is available from INDEX BOOKS.

Image credits:


2. Norman Lindsay, Pollice verso (detail), 1904, pen and ink, 47.6 x 60.6 cm. Photo: National Gallery of Victoria.

3. Dispatch Review.