In a world where we are bombarded by images, and images of images, it has been become increasingly necessary to classify everything that we see in an attempt to tidy the mess of it all. A trend of curatorial fantasy seems logical in such a world.
“Everyone used to want to be an artist; now everyone wants to be a curator,” says Humphrey Clegg III, the Acting Curator of Australian Art at the National Galley of Victoria (NGV). Quietly chuffed to have recently acquired this position, Clegg is one of the youngest of these classifiers at the NGV.
This Clegg is not the first arty Humphrey however. His ancestor, Humphrey Clegg I, is mentioned in a funny passage in Martin Boyd’s memoir Day of My Delight, wherein he lends Mr Boyd a pair of enormous knickerbockers for a shooting party. Humphrey Clegg II was apparently quite dishy and ran with the painting set in the 70s. The third Humphrey Clegg is currently driving me to a steel-and-concrete structure that is a holding place for the 70,000 un-displayed paintings in the NGV’s collection.
A basis of historicity is maintained by the chronological display of Australian Art at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre. In a position like Clegg’s, therefore, the enjoyment of selection according to personal taste is curbed – dramatically. At the storage container we look at a plaster relief from 1881 of a Romanesque man shearing a sheep by a J. Scurry. “This is not my taste,” Clegg says. “But it’s historically incredibly important. Curatorship must involve saying ‘I like this’ and ‘this is important’, and being able to draw the distinction between the two.”
This makes the gallery storage like a top-notch buffet, but one where selection must be determined by more than the curator’s own appetite. That said, much of what the racks hold do appeal to Clegg. Hugh Ramsay is a favourite, he reveals, as he pulls out another steel holding cell. “I really like this painting.” It’s Self Portrait (smoking in front of a piano) from 1902, four years before the artist died of TB at 29 – Clegg’s age.
We look at The Painter’s Mother (1944) by Eric Wilson. “Artists often paint their mother,” Clegg observes. It’s an image of a bespectacled woman in black. She is short, and seems squashed by a composition that fills the canvas with her form. He goes on: “Everything that’s done in painting is a choice.” I think he means that everything we see in a painting is a depiction of a certain time or place, and the artist has chosen to represent this.
Though this is something Clegg understands quite clearly, it wasn’t until university that he began to take a real interest in the art world. A country boy at heart, Clegg spent his summers riding his bike through the countryside depicted in Sidney Nolan’s Dimboola landscapes. A track of his curatorial destiny was set by the topic of his honors thesis at Monash: Power in Numbers: The Visual Expressions of Hip Hop Culture in Australia.
After completing a Masters of Art Curatorship at Melbourne Uni in 2006, Clegg ran a little gallery in Carlton with a group of architects called DireTribe. “We did fun things with no money but it didn’t last long,” he recalls. After successfully applying for a job at NGV the same year and working on the Australian Impressionism exhibition, he found a mentor in Senior Curator of Australian Art, Terence Lane. “We were in one of those wonderful situations where I think we both needed each other.” It seems a smooth entry into the workplace of an institution like the NGV.
In Clegg’s current post, he considers why artists made decisions, what was influencing them and what they can tell him about Australia at that time. He shows me Edwin Tanner’s modernist experiment The Public Servant. It’s a rendering of an office from the vantage point of a desk, not dissimilar from his own on the ground floor of the NGV building. Clegg’s desk is a catastrophe of pictures, papers and San Pellegrino bottles. He has a pin-board covered in images, including a photo of his grandmother as a five-year-old. His French homework is written up on his whiteboard.
“The public servant isn’t there,” he points out. “Which is of great relevance to me, being a public servant myself.” As in Tanner’s painting, Clegg himself isn’t always there (at his desk). “I need to be looking at other things to get perspective, not just Australian art. To look at my collection in a different way, I need to talk to people, the public. Somebody will say something and then suddenly I’ll get back to work and come up with an exhibition idea. It can be something someone’s said over a gin and tonic three weeks ago and something clicks in my head.” The relevance could be anywhere.