Warm Farewell, Edmund Capon (11 June 1940 - 13 March 2019)

Recently we lost an immensely subtle and decent man. Strangely enough, in my thirty years of living in Sydney I never really met Edmund Capon - at that time my knowledge of him was only through another stalwart of the Australian art world whom we’ve also lost, William Wright. The first time I met Edmund properly was in Melbourne in 1999, when he bought my Hermit Painting #3 for the Art Gallery of NSW through Anna Schwartz Gallery. Then, as I walked into the gallery from Flinders Lane, Edmund, with a young man’s fresh face and beaming smile, rushed up to me to hold my elbow and arm—it was a strange gesture of happiness and gratitude, as if he had finally found a painting that affirmed something in himself, or something that he wanted to achieve for the gallery. I barely understood what his feelings were.

Arrogantly, before I met him I thought of him as a Sinophile—how wrong I was. It took me another twenty years to understand Edmund’s ambitions and vision for Australian culture. Certainly he was a Chelsea soccer patron and culturally an Anglo-Chinese Mandarin, but there was also the passionate scholarship and a certain comprehension of life lived on the civilisational level that I came to recognise in him, as a civilised man; a man who comprehended time perhaps with a Spenglerian light.

A few months back, Edmund and Joanna were very generous in hosting drinks in their Sydney home for 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. As the chair of the centre, he was already gravely ill and could not attend. But it allowed me time to wander in their rooms, to find an extraordinarily passionate yet humble collection; a collection in which the choice of one Ben Nicholson would already have been a clear indication of appreciating painting at its best in Euro-American Modernism, but then there was yet another, and another hung modestly and illuminating the house, as if the corners of the walls needed these works. Edmund approached the acquisition of Western Modernist signposts such as Cezanne’s Bords de la Marne for the Art Gallery for NSW with the same insightful eye. In many ways, the Cezanne was acquired because Australia needed it. Of his many contemporaries, Edmund recognised something that they didn’t—he recognised and lived a resonance across civilisations, and a resonance of the Other. Without a person like Edmund, Australian art may have been poorly stuck in the infantile narcissism of macho-expressionism and the adolescent obsession with cynical populist kitsch and bad surreal caricature.

And then he read my Chinese calligraphy from a recent group of works. He read them not just as a scholar, but with an acknowledgement that contemporary art too, can house the songs of the past. Hence there was a great turn of luck, in that his vision matched with the meteoric rise and entry of contemporary Chinese art into the world. Perhaps it was really foresight. Over the past years as the chair of 4A he expressed moments of happiness with the direction of contemporaneity that the Centre was heading in. Of late we have turned outwards to West Asia, focusing on Iraqi artists, on Australian-Pakistani artists, and he has been no less supportive.

Edmund Capon’s worldview was indeed singularly deep, but also wide and inclusive. He always included Asian art and Aboriginal art at the gallery under the same roof; he wanted a cultural synthesis for everyone, not just for the converted. Perhaps he thought that if different buildings were given over to the Asian and Aboriginal, that it would have encouraged an incommensurability between the European, the Asian and Aboriginal—a building of walls presently being reinvested by the alt-right and the media—and he would have believed this to be totally wrongheaded. Edmund Capon was a man with a supreme philosophical decency and conduct that will never be erased in the DNA of Australian culture. This was a great man who added to our cultural context. Edmund’s vision and generosity, like his love for art and cultures, resonates.

John Young

Edmund Capon in front of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, December 2011. Photo by Diana Panuccio

The following interview was originally published in Art and Australia Volume 49, Number 3, Autumn 2012 Issue.

On 20 October 2011, in the final months of his directorship of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, Edmund Capon sat down with former New South Wales premier Bob Carr to reflect on his thirty-three years at the gallery—its exhibitions and evolution—and to touch on the future. What follows is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Bob Carr: Do you remember your very first impressions from when you came here to take over—be brutal.

Edmund Capon: Absolutely. The very first time was when I came out to Australia for five days when the gallery staged The Chinese Exhibition in 1977, the first major Chinese show with the jade suit. I had written a book [Art and Archeology in China (1977] which was being published by Macmillan in Melbourne and sponsored by Mobil Oil, which also sponsored The Chinese Exhibition. A delightful, wonderful man called Jim Leslie was chairman of Mobil Oil. Out of the blue Jim rang up our house in London at half-past five one January morning. Half-past five in the morning in January in London is not the most enlightening of times. I asked him what he was doing, and he said: ‘Well, it’s half-past six; I’m just going to pop down to the pool and then have a drink.’ He then said: ‘Why don’t you come out to Australia?’ I looked out of the window where it was dark, cold, sleeting and snowing. I took one look and said yes. We came out to Melbourne for two days and had memorable moments with Stephen FitzGerald [Australia’s first ambassador to China], went to Canberra for a day then came to Sydney. In one of those encounters that you never forget, I walked through the front door and there was this beautiful Vernon vestibule with two great arches and then cutting straight across it was the concrete beam of the then restaurant. I saw all these legs of chairs, tables and people, and I thought: ‘What a weird thing to do with two beautiful classical arches.’ That was my first image of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I had come to see the then director, my direct predecessor [Peter Laverty], and I walked into this very room and I sat down here and looked around and said: ‘Not bad.’ I recalled my little attic at the V&A which was up with the broom cupboards with a window that looked directly onto a brick wall, and I thought: ‘On the whole the view’s better here.’

BC: What did you think of the collection?

EC: When I settled here [in 1978] I must say I was in slight despair. On this level where our education and public programs department is now located was a small Asian art gallery, and I looked around and tried to find a few objects that had some familiar presence and quality, and there were one or two. Then I remember going down to the old courts to look for familiar territory and I saw the Bernardo Strozzi, The release of St Peter [c. 1635], a picture bought for this gallery by Kenneth Clark in 1965. Then I looked around and saw works by Sid Nolan—I’m of the view that he is the great artist of twentieth-century Australia—and I began to feel better.

BC: Were there any glaring inadequacies in the collection?

EC: Yes, that was why we then launched the Foundation. [At the time] I said it was like a building without enough windows or like a grand tent without the major poles to hold it up. I remember there was a lot of criticism about the general state of the gallery, and I had to contend with two slightly—how can I put it?—recalcitrant trustees in the form of dear Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and Harry Seidler, who were quite against my getting this job in the first place. But of course within six months we talked everything [through] and they actually became two of my greatest and most enduring friends, with great commitment, presence, imagination and knowledge too.

BC: Were you struck by gaps in the collection?

EC: Absolutely. Coming from a fairly objective position, what struck me quite early was the absence of those defining signposts of modern western art. There was no cubist art, there was no German expressionist art, there was no Picasso, the leading lights and signposts of twentieth-century western art were more or less totally missing. There was one Bacon and one Bonnard. The foundations of modern western art which contributed substantially to the foundations of modern Australian art were simply not here.

BC: In your thirty years here, who have been the standout benefactors?

EC: The first great benefactor whose name still reverberates was actually Mervyn Horton [founding editor of Art & Australia]. Mervyn had been a trustee and left his entire estate to the gallery. But there was a little bit of a hiccup—he’d been relieved of his trusteeship by Neville Wran so he was very cranky and changed his will. One of the first things I had to do was actually get Mervyn back on board. Mervyn died in 1983 and today if you look back at the development of our contemporary international collection, the Mervyn Horton Bequest has been the leading light. So that was the first big step, and that was a pretty major step.

BC: That is a generous tribute. Who would come next?

EC: The next was a dear, dear man—much less known—called Hepburn Myrtle. He was a very modest man, but he was the one great antipodean collector of Chinese imperial ceramics who left most of his collection to our gallery. If you go down to our Asian gallery and look at the Ming dynasty porcelain, it’s Hepburn Myrtle, Hepburn Myrtle, Hepburn Myrtle. He was a big influence. And coming back to the Asian collections, they have been largely founded on private benefaction; it is a collection that has been largely defined by private passion, probably more so than any other part of the gallery’s collections.

BC: There is really a buzz of private benefaction around the place now. How do you rate that extraordinary Kaldor Family gift?

EC: In terms of the number of works of art forming that collection—because all up it is over 200—and in terms of the dollar value, then you are looking at the largest single benefaction to probably any Australian public art museum. Then there are people like Ken and Yasuko Myer, the Sternbergs and, in recent years, James Fairfax, Mollie Gowing, James Gleeson, John Schaeffer and Ken Reed among many others. It is interesting to look at benefactors and where their interests may lie, because collectors can often become benefactors—not always but often—and collectors in one area are a different species to collectors in another area. Going back to Hepburn Myrtle, who was known around the world as a great collector in his esoteric pursuit of Chinese imperial porcelain, he was quiet, retiring and would absolutely abhor any notoriety or publicity. In comparison those collecting in the more contemporary area today tend to be much more visible and indeed are happy to be visible, which of course is fine. So the nature of the collection can tell you much about the nature of the collector. However quiet and retiring and private they may be, I think there is a certain side to everybody who likes to be acknowledged—even Margaret Olley. Margaret Olley was a huge and very special benefactor … But I believe everybody gives in their own particular way and probably wants some kind of recognition, but the overriding motive is invariably positive. Benefaction in whatever form is a positive action.

BC: Can I ask you about the great shows that you have secured. I think of German Expressionism that came here in 1989. I visited German museums with more relish after that. What stands out for you as the great educational shows that seem to have stretched peoples’ understanding about art?

EC: Let us say the great shows not of education but of revelation. I honestly think the best ones have been those where we have been the main progenitor of the show. German Expressionism was a good example and one I did with George Költzsch, the leading expert who was director at Essen’s Folkwang Museum at the time. The genesis of that exhibition was our purchase of the Kirchner [Three bathers, 1913, in 1984], which was the first Foundation acquisition. Another show that opened people’s eyes was Fauves’ [1995]. We had I think six London subject Derains and everybody said they had never seen colour as dramatic as that, so that was a revelation. Another memorable exhibition was Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee [1997–98], on the subject of the European and the Australian encounter with the exotic in the late nineteenth century—the exotic being anything east of the Mediterranean. Audiences had never thought about artists such as Conder, Roberts and Streeton going to North Africa, and suddenly works in our collection, including Poynter’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon [1890], were absolutely star pictures in a big international show. Another exhibition which was an absolute revelation and one which I enjoyed as much as any I have done was Michelangelo to Matisse: Drawing the Figure for that great year of running, jumping and standing still, the Olympics. I had seen an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London by artist Michael Craig- Martin called Drawing the Line [1995], and it was about how the sensibility of drawing and mark making was a constant story through art. I said: Let’s look at the human figure with the same approach, and Peter Raissis, Terence Maloon and I raced around and borrowed some of the greatest drawings—Bronzino, Michelangelo, Leonardo to Pissarro and Cézanne. We ended up with Tintoretto next to De Kooning; Luca Cambiaso next to Wyndham Lewis, drawings that may be separated by 350 years, but with almost the same sensibility at work. It was absolutely fascinating. There are hardly any Lorenzo Lotto drawings surviving but we managed to borrow one from the National Gallery of Scotland. Other drawings I had to work hard for were a Pontormo study from the Uffizi, an unbelievable Michelangelo from Windsor Castle and a Signorelli again from Windsor Castle—but it was all worth the effort. That was one of the great shows.

BC: This puts a premium on your relations with museum directors around the world. How hard is it to build trust?

EC: The gallery has acquired a reputation for doing shows that are not arbitrary but really well considered, and I think that is the most important thing. For example, the recent Mad Square exhibition was not a huge popular success, but it is a show that has brought to the institution great credibility and authority with the lending institutions around the world. We are very much a net borrower—for every hundred works we borrow for an exhibition we might lend one because we simply do not have the collections, so the question of what we do and how we do it is very important.

BC: Have you got a sense of what’s going to work and what’s not going to work in packing in the crowds?

EC: As with everything, there are certain blue-chip investments in the art exhibition business: the ancient world revealed, where there’s a pharaoh or an entombed warrior you’re on sure territory. Then the great and known singular figures: Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir, Cézanne, the names—Monet above all. Monet is number one.

BC: Have any shows surprised you because they have taken off unexpectedly?

EC: Actually one show that far succeeded our expectations was Bill Henson [in 2005 before the controversy]. To get close to 80–90,000 people through a monographic living Australian artist’s show was quite something.

BC: And flops?

EC: I must say that one exhibition I do recall with sadness was a quiet exhibition of Old Master drawings from the Albertina in Vienna [2002]—fabulous show, wonderful works. But Albertina, nobody had heard of and Vienna, oh yeah … But neither had the hook of instant appeal.

BC: The improvements to the building and infrastructure here are a tribute to your vision and your capacity to build support with government. How different is the building from what you inherited?

EC: The building that I inherited was about half the size of the current gallery. This has been much on our mind [in recent times]. It was four years ago that I sat [President of the Board of Trustees] Steven Lowy down and said: ‘Steven your big job is not to worry about tomorrow or next year, it is to worry about the gallery in twenty, thirty years time.’ And then you start to look back at the history of this gallery and you realise that it is a building that has had well over 100 years of perpetual evolution, sometimes even reluctant evolution. The first sections were built from 1897 to 1912, then nothing until 1972, the Captain Cook wing, and that’s the building I inherited. It was small but then in 1983 I started really pressing the government about the next stage of the building and we opened the Bicentennial wing [in 1988], which increased the space by about 80 per cent, and then the next was in your administration [the new Asian gallery in 2003]. But now you look at the building and say: Well, what can you do? The footprint on which we sit is pretty finite. Every single part of this building is occupied. So I’ve spent the last three years really focusing on the next fifty years. We have had well over a century of evolution and now it is the time to make a big bold step.

To put our case in context, this building is less than half the size of the National Gallery of Victoria. It is half the size of the National Gallery in Canberra, and it is half the size of the Queensland Gallery. And to give you an example of the impact of that: earlier in 2011 we had 306,000 people through The First Emperor show in our temporary exhibition gallery. The maximum occupancy at any one time was only about 300 people. Now there were days when we had well in excess of 12,000 people a day coming into this building, but considerably less than half of that number could get through the show. So that is why, for example, we have turned the building upside down to install Picasso in the permanent collection space – a first time for a temporary exhibition.

BC: So your options would appear to be twofold. One would be to win public support for a big extension, or to establish a gallery somewhere else.

EC: Yes, the practical arguments I won’t go into because that is a bit touchy, but the philosophy I can. Let us say we took Aboriginal art out of this building and created a Museum of Aboriginal Art, I’d argue that [such] specialist museums preach to the converted. [Instead], I’d argue for this great general museum, where people come to see everything, or come to see one thing but see everything. The classic example is Asian art—oh, let’s build a great museum of Asian art … The Guimet in Paris is a great museum of Asian art, but only people interested in Asian art go there. That is the problem.

BC: And another argument is one you touched on earlier—you would miss the opportunity for surprising juxtapositions.

EC: Yes, and also curatorial juxtapositions. [Here] you have contemporary curators working with contemporary Australian, contemporary international, contemporary Asian curators. Suddenly you have a curator of Japanese art talking to a curator of photography. It wouldn’t happen [otherwise]. So I think there is quite a strong argument for keeping this sort of milieu …

BC: A department store of art.

EC: Yes, I think it works. I remember having this discussion before I left London. Because in London there were three great Asian collections: the British Museum, the V&A and the David Foundation attached to the University of London where I was, and they are fantastic collections. Put them together and you would have the most spectacular museum of Asian art, but you would lose the audiences that go to the V&A and the British Museum.

BC: That takes us back to the beginning. I wrap-up this interview by thanking you on behalf of all the people of New South Wales for making this such a vital institution. My testament to its vitality is this: [during my premiership] I was able to stroll over from Parliament House across the Domain any lunchtime, and this place was abuzz—school children, young people on their own, city workers and the retired. A great mix. You brought that vitality to it and I want to thank you most sincerely.

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John Kaldor Family Gallery, installation view with (clockwise from front left): Richard Long, Spring showers circle, 1992; Gilbert & George, Dig, 2005; Ugo Rondinone, Clockwork for oracles, 2011; Richard Long, Southern gravity, 2011. © The artists.


Edmund Capon in front of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, December 2011


Diana Panuccio


Bob Carr and Edmund Capon


Bob Carr and Edmund Capon


Bob Carr and Edmund Capon

John Young Zerunge is an artist who’s work has been shown extensively for over four and a half decades, both nationally and through Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. His work is concerned with the transcultural experience, history, and human/technology encounters.

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