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10 June 2009
DR BRIAN KENNEDY: When Jackson Pollock's painting, his last great monumental abstraction of 1952, 'Blue Poles', was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973, it's undoubtedly the most famous painting in the gallery because everybody in Australia knows about it. It created an enormous furore when it was acquired for what was then a world record for a 20th century artist of US$2 million in 1973. It came to Australia and there were, of course, great discussions and deliberations over whether it was any good because it was abstract. There was a suggestion, in fact, that it had been made while the artist was drunk. All that was absolutely untrue. It is the late, great work of the artist who is generally considered the most important American artist of the 20th century.
REPORTER: On the stroke of 1:00 they began to arrive and the gallery soon began to fill up, with the curious, the bewildered, the doubtful, but mainly the disgruntled.
MAN 1: Waste of taxpayers' money. My money, in particular. I'd like a refund of my bloody percentage that I paid for it.
MAN 2: If a drunk chimp can do it, it's not art.
WOMAN 1: I don't like it. That's all about it.
REPORTER: Why don't you like it?
WOMAN 1: I don't like those paintings.
WOMAN 2: Well, the man, he did paint it while he was under alcohol, didn't he? And that's just how I think it looks too, you know. Yes.
REPORTER: What are you doing here?
MAN 3: Calculating how much the painting cost per square inch.
REPORTER: What has it cost per square inch?
MAN 3: Approximately $83 a square inch, which is not a bad investment.
REPORTER: Do you think it's worth it?
MAN 3: It's an awfully expensive painting, I must admit.
MAN 4: I'm not very impressed.
REPORTER: Aren't you? Why not?
MAN 4: Well, I don't know.
MAN 5: I don't know whether it's worth the money they've paid but I'm certainly impressed. And I don't think anybody could do it.
MAN 6: I enjoy it. I think it's exciting. It's stimulating in colour, it's got intricate line forms. Doesn't matter how Pollock painted it or why he painted it, whether he was high or drunk or rolling around with friends. He created something.
DR BRIAN KENNEDY: It required a decision of the Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, in the early 1970s, to buy this painting. It was an enormous price. It was very much a confrontation to society to pay the money for an American painting and pay it for an abstract painting, $2 million. He actually said $2 million and disclosed the price. The decision to let everybody know was a very brave and forward decision. And it's little surprise that Gough Whitlam later became the chairman of the National Gallery of Australia and, of course, he was the prime minister who saw into being the legislation of 1975 which founded the place. It's a painting which, for me, represents the spirit of its time. The spirit of a time which was just post the atomic age and the atomic bomb. And this terrible catastrophe and the possibility for the world that we could actually destroy ourselves, to me, is in this painting. Also it's a time of beat poetry, it's the time of questioning, of existentialism, our very existence, what did this mean in philosophy, and Pollock presents us with a painting which is an absolute violent explosion. It's an explosion of colour. It's sort of like chaos represented on canvas, and then on top of that, at the end - and it was a long process to make this painting - he puts down these poles, these pieces of timber in blue which seek to put order on this painting. We've got one of the best paintings of American art of the 20th century in Canberra.