Major Sydney art benefactor's artistic acclaim revealed
24 September 2012
JW Power is best known for a fortune left to build Sydney's Power Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and now a University of Sydney exhibition highlights his work as early 20th century Australia's most interesting avant-garde artist.
"We all knew Power, but we knew him as an artist not as a doctor or a rich man," Pablo Picasso's art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler once said of the Sydney-born doctor who, after World War I, gave up medicine to paint in Europe.
In 1962 Power bequeathed his family's fortune to the University of Sydney to "bring the people of Australia in more direct touch with the latest art". Lesser known is the bequest of his wife Edith; on her death she left more than a thousand of her husband's artworks to the University.
Drawing on these works, the University Art Gallery has recreated Power's 1934 exhibition at Abstraction Création in Paris to mark the bequest's 50th anniversary. Both a gallery and an art movement, Abstraction Création boasted Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky among its membership but Power was one of only two artists invited to hold a solo exhibition in the gallery.
"Remarkably, we have 26 of the 28 canvases shown in Paris, so when I stumbled across a plan of the exhibition in an archive box I knew we could restage it," says Senior Curator Dr Ann Stephen.
"JW Power and Abstraction Création is like a time capsule; it's as if you've walked a gallery off the Champs-Elysées in 1934."
Guest curator and artist ADS Donaldson says the exhibition belatedly reveals a neglected Australian artist.
"Abstraction Création was home to the international avant-garde and Power was at its centre. He was at the crossroads between surrealism and abstraction. The sad irony is the work of the greatest benefactor of Australian contemporary art has until now gone under the radar."
Australian art critic Robert Hughes also spotted the irony. "Had he painted these pictures in Australia between 1927 and 1938 he would possibly be now regarded as the most important figure in our early avant-garde," he wrote in The Nation on the announcement of the bequest.
A free symposium on Power's work at Abstraction Création and the contexts in which the movement's artists worked will be held at Lecture Theatre 101, Sydney Law School from 2pm on Friday 5 October. Professor in the history of modern and contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London Sarah Wilson is the symposium's keynote speaker.
When: Until 26 January 2013
Where: University Art Gallery, War Memorial Arch, northern end of the Quadrangle, University of Sydney. See map
Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10am to 4.30pm; 12pm until 4pm on the first Saturday of each month. Closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Contact: 02 9351 6883
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