Thoughts On Launch of A Most Generous Scholar... ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

. . . .
Thoughts On Launch of A Most Generous Scholar...

Thoughts On Launch of A Most Generous Scholar...

A very gratifying response, both in terms of attendance and ambience, at the launch on 28 April of my book, ‘A Most Generous Scholar: Joan Kerr, Art and Architectural Historian’. Everybody – from art history academics, colleagues from the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA), fellow writers from the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, family members and friends generally – enjoyed Peter Alexander’s excellent launch speech.

Peter not only gave a scholarly yet entertaining picture of the academic world Joan Kerr inhabited but also created such a vibrant word picture of Joan herself that even those who would not usually read about an art historian (not exactly bestseller material) became so intrigued that they will now do just that! There were so many interesting people at the launch and so much to say to all of them that making sure I had a good photographic record quite escaped me. However I can treasure the afternoon in my mind’s eye of images and hope I have done Joan Kerr’s memory proud.

I first met Joan at COFA (the College of Fine Arts, UNSW) in 1992. She had come to give a lecture to Art History/Theory undergraduates, myself among them. A short figure, dressed in nondescript clothes, with large square glasses perched on the end of her nose – she looked anything but an eminent art historian. But when she began to speak: ‘For an hour we are treated to a deluge of images accompanied by perceptive insights into their provenance and context. It is not so much a structured lecture as a visual and verbal pot-pourri of artists, places, periods and mediums. In marked contrast to the formal language of art theory Kerr’s delivery seems understated, un-academic almost, her conversational manner giving the impression of a chat with a favourite aunt. Yet it was much more than that. Joan Kerr was showing us an exciting, democratic, vision of Australia’s cultural past.

The blue and yellow textured stone on the cover of A Most Generous Scholar… is derived from Catherine’s photograph of Edmund Blacket’s 19th-century Holy Trinity Anglican Church at Berrima, one of Joan’s favourites and about which she wrote lovingly. The red band is the texture on the National Gallery of Australia, which Joan Kerr loathed and wrote about quite entertainingly. The chipped concrete – bush-hammered – was an ‘extraordinary perversion of technology’ and ‘too expensive a price to pay for a surface against which to hang pictures or enjoy because of its subtlety’.

Catherine’s image inside the back cover was also taken at the National Gallery of Australia. Rather than a celebrated work of art, it is an image of one lone weed rearing its head defiantly through the crack between wall and floor. Joan edited two quite extraordinary dictionaries of Australian artists that have never been emulated, never reprinted. As I say, in the book, about the Dictionary: ‘like a giant monolith it rears its stately head above the variegated vegetation of Australian art history’s plot, alone, not one of the crowd’. The same could be said of Joan Kerr.

Next post will be about how I came to write Joan Kerr’s biography together with some thoughts on writing biography and how I resolved the problem of writing about – containing – the life and work of a most prolific and scholar.


Leave a Reply