Gallery Days in the Realities of Marianne Baillieu

It was through the senior artist Roger Kemp. I was already at my easel when he walked through the art school, a little after 9.00 a.m. He was timetabled to teach us weekly. Roger’s eye took in the near-deserted studios that morning at a glance, then, turning to me, he asked if I was interested in some gallery work at the venue where he exhibited. The regular person who hung shows was away, and they needed a fill-in. Just temporary. Nothing complicated. Carry canvases, use a tape measure, hammer nails, square pictures with a spirit level, adjust lights, wrap canvas for shipping interstate. I could do it in my sleep. “Here’s the phone number, call and speak to Evi,” he said, “don’t lose time, do it in the next half-hour.” I went downstairs to a payphone, spoke with Evi, and clinched work for the next day. Here I was, a green art student, about to spend a couple of hours hanging an exhibition at the ritziest private gallery in Melbourne: Realities. Better still, I would be paid. This was, as far as my peers were concerned, the best job in town. And I had it! Well, for one show at least.

This memoir appears in a recent Quadrant.
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For young artists on the 1970s Melbourne scene you could count on your fingers the places where art was happening and you aspired to exhibit. Places like the trendy Powell Street Gallery, a converted Victorian home in leafy South Yarra, and Pinacotheca, a red-brick warehouse on the hill overlooking Richmond. They and several other revered venues defined the city’s artistic mainstream, and right at its commercial apex was Realities. Situated in ritzy Toorak, this prestigious gallery represented the point where recent art and the social set intersected, an invitation to the gallery’s select previews being ranked alongside first-night attendance at the opera and the ballet.

Realities was the initiative of the Danish-born Marianne Baillieu (1939–2012). Having settled in Melbourne upon marrying into one of the city’s foremost dynasties, and missing the vibrant European art scene, she resolved to start a commercial gallery modelled on venues overseas. Not for Baillieu a shopfront gallery among smart boutiques. Instead she renovated the old stables behind a dignified Toorak home, creating a late-1960s futuristic fantasy. That first manifestation of Realities—the very name signalled Baillieu’s counter-culture aspirations—was unnerving. Recalling the café in Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, its white interior was moulded like an immense plastic tube where shiny floors curved seamlessly into pristine walls. You had to remove your shoes when entering to protect the polished surfaces. Still, early openings there were a gas, the city’s gilded youth turning up in all the latest Mod finery and Mary Quant outfits to see sexy Pop Art nudes by George Baldessin and Les Kossatz.

Under Marianne Baillieu’s dynamic management, Realities was a rapid success, surging ahead with an unmatched program of exhibitions which balanced mid-career figures like Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams and Inge King with the rising young stars of the 1970s. Artists almost queued up at the desk wanting to join the gallery, because the Toorak venue moved an inordinate amount of work. It wasn’t indiscriminate selling either, Baillieu managing her artists’ careers in a European manner by steering key works into important private, corporate and public collections.

I landed casual work there in what was the gallery’s second phase—after Realities relocated to an ivy-covered former church hall in Jackson Street, just behind the Toorak Village shopping strip. A theatre stage had been removed and several windows blocked over to make the hall into a large contemplative room. It was the best commercial exhibition space in the country, much envied by the influential interstate dealers Rudy Komon and Kym Bonython. Generous pale walls ran up to a high raftered ceiling; there was an unobtrusive polished timber floor; and a comfortable upholstered bench in the middle where visitors might sit and soak up the exhibits. The office was through a door and up two steps to the right side of the space—with a smaller viewing room lit by leadlight windows beyond—and an ever-damp fern garden with table and seats through glass doors to the left.

The huge main space resembled a museum and directly compared with those salon-style European galleries of former centuries—a bay in London’s Royal Academy, for instance. It could present art on an imposing scale, and the gallery’s artists treated shows there as an opportunity to make a grand statement. This began with the very first flamboyant exhibit in 1976, a group of international-scale abstractions by Roger Kemp which set the art scene buzzing.

When I arrived as a temporary employee not long after the Kemp show, I had been regularly attending the gallery for years. Many of the commercial scene’s mainstay artists were associated with the venue, identities like those former 1960s stars George Baldessin, Andrew Sibley, Les Kossatz and Gary Samson. They brought people in, but you also visited each month because the shows had consequence. Like the Fred Williams exhibition Marianne presented, which has never been topped. It was mostly his Kew Billabong paintings, to my eye the best series he produced in the 1970s. Several issues were at play in those canvases: Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway was being built and the neighbouring Yarra billabong was under threat, which gave the work an environmental urgency; then again those images of shimmering luminosity reflected off the river’s surface were a sincere homage to Monet’s late work; and there was also such a joyous handling of the paint skin. This was unquestionably art of the first rank. Not only was it presented in a stately manner, but it was the kind of work overlooked by museums which had become fixated with a certain style of Williams’s planar landscape. This was the artist at his creative best, breaking his own formulas.

Marianne Baillieu and her capable assistant Evi Robinson had their hands full running the venue. Open hours were Monday to Saturday, and Realities was always busy: the phone never stopped ringing, and people were steadily coming in. Figures like the painter John Brack or the art historian Patrick McCaughey visited to see the month’s show, and there were identities like Len French, Brett Whiteley, sometimes even Sid Nolan when passing through Melbourne. Marianne moved back and forth between office work, greeting visitors and speaking with clients and artists, while Evi, the efficient, ever-stylish daughter of Czech émigrés, handled the telephone, typewriter and filing system. It was non-stop and demanded energy. The files on gallery artists were extensive, and there were constant inquiries. Someone would arrive who wanted to talk, meanwhile an interstate sculptor was on the phone, then there was a collector who had to be called back, or a company director with an appointment to view some stock in fifteen minutes time. There was little time for a break. Most days Marianne and Evi were on the go until after 4 p.m. when the phone, and visitors, eased off.

My task there was straightforward. I would take down a show, putting certain works in the stockroom and wrapping others for shipping. Then do a quick sweep of the gallery’s floor, and check the walls, filling any nail holes and seeing to grubby marks. Next thing was to arrange the forthcoming show under Marianne’s direction, and hang the works. Then up the ladder and—in the thick dry heat under the high ceiling—adjust the gallery’s lights. That was a rare treat in itself, because sometimes the view of the overall show from the top of the ladder was extraordinary. Last it was a general clean-up of the room. And then the show was done. Handling pictures in this way I learned the eccentricities of certain creative identities: such as how Edwin Tanner obsessively engineered his own canvas stretchers; and how Keith Looby layered thickened pigment upon each of his compositions. But I mostly observed the daily effort that goes into running a commercial gallery.

It took a little under a day to hang the average exhibition. The biggest job I handled was a superb display of modernist prints by top-notch European artists—Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Munch, Beckman, Mondrian, the whole box and dice—consigned from a New York graphics gallery. It was enormous. I had to hang over 150 exhibits, most needing to be fitted with brackets and fixed to the walls with security screws. The installation took three days, and I was dog-tired at the end (Marianne scolded me midway through one day, telling me to stop working because I simply must have some lunch).

I’ll carry that experience with me always. I remember opening the crates and taking out and unwrapping works with Evi and being overwhelmed. “Look, this one’s a Picasso minotaur composition, and here is a Matisse nude, and here is another Matisse odalisque, and is that a real Kirchner?” There was I, an art student, handling masterworks I had known only from book illustrations. I learnt so much: it was formative. We were still unpacking when the enthusiasts, Mark Besen, owner of Sussan Corporation and the most discerning private collector in Melbourne, and Alan McCulloch, the Herald’s respected art critic, each appeared, hungry to look before the show was even installed. What I couldn’t get over was that when we had all those prints unwrapped and leaning around the walls, Marianne turned to me and asked my opinion on the arrangement. And she readily accepted some of my suggestions on the hang: an entire section of wall with the clustered Ittens prints in the centre was my idea.

I had nearly finished when someone came in the door and silently surveyed the display. “Stop and enjoy the moment, Christopher,” came an avuncular voice over my shoulder, and I turned to find the senior sculptor Lenton Parr grinning at me.

The Marianne Baillieu I got to know when changing over those shows was open-minded and generous. Her Realities gallery mirrored her outlook. She was deeply interested in art that was “consciousness-raising and symbolic”—as we would say in the 1970s—which was mirrored by her gallery’s intriguingly mystical title, Realities. She had an enthusiasm for so many aspects of culture. When visitors came in, she would knowingly talk with them of books, of music, dance and opera (Maria Callas was a favourite). She had a piping voice, always a cheerful voice, with a hint of a Danish accent. Marianne was an accomplished networker before the word existed. Everyone knew and thought well of her. And she set high standards: even the invitations were well designed, and she printed lavish colour posters for special shows. Marianne also had that rare capacity of being able to cope with difficult commercial business, even in quite stressful moments, without ever losing her cool or raising her voice. She was balanced: there was a gentleness and warmth to her manner. Sometimes truck drivers or tradesmen would cautiously enter the door, curious to see an exhibit they had heard of in the media. Marianne greeted everybody, telling them the art was there to enjoy and assuring them they could return with their families to see the exhibit. She was welcoming.

What particularly stood to the fore was how Marianne was a consummate hostess. She treated gallery visitors as guests. Of course, the large fridge was well stocked with wine and gourmet nibbles, and there were more cases of bottles in a corner of the stockroom. They were steadily used, too. Clients or leading artists would visit, and out would come glasses. Many will recall her exhibition openings, crammed with people, sometimes with a small ensemble playing classical music. There were also the sunny afternoons when a small group would sit at a timber table and benches in the shady fern garden, slowly quaffing cold white wine. Collectors savoured the social intimacy of those unplanned small gatherings, just sitting and chatting with artists like Michael Shannon or Sandra Leveson, Inge King or David Rankin.

And there were the lunches. I was wrapping up a show one morning when, following a phone call, the gallery went into overdrive. James Mollison, director of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, was visiting in about an hour wanting to see some pieces in the stockroom. He would be coming with Fred Williams and his wife Lynn. Marianne invited them to have lunch at the gallery. While Marianne set the table in the side gallery and handled phone calls, Evi dashed over to the shopping centre for antipasto ingredients and other delicacies. For my part, after emptying the room of pictures, I carried from the stockroom and speedily hung several works the distinguished guests wished to view. Within forty minutes an excellent cold meal had been prepared from scratch, and an accompanying mini-exhibition faced the table.

On another day I had barely started hanging an Olsen graphics show when, bearing an expensive bottle of wine, the artist himself arrived in a taxi from the airport with a well-heeled couple in tow. Immediately several plates of food materialised from the fridge and the ebullient John Olsen, gesturing with a corkscrew while sipping from a glass of red, began explaining his pictures to his guests as I tried to get his latest framed prints and drawings up on the walls. Next thing he’d stopped the exhibition installation and sent me to the stockroom to pull out earlier pieces he had painted to show the young and expensively dressed wife. After carrying out several works I returned to find that the half-shickered Olsen, having spilt wine over some blank paper, had pulled out a black fountain pen and Mr Squiggle-like turned the claret blots into a drawing. “You can put the paintings back, Christopher,” he said, proceeding to bargain with the couple over the spontaneous ink-and-wine drawing’s price. As I was carting the pieces back Marianne came over and whispered not to follow John’s orders, but just hang his works. He would have me wasting time all afternoon.

Hanging works for those artists to inspect was an experience in itself. Olsen liked a busy wall, making me fill it with energised pictures at different heights, that work up on the left, another piece low at the right. In contrast Williams, quiet and introspective, preferred to savour a single image at a time, having it positioned at eye level in the wall’s centre as a moment of creative intensity. Then there was Inge King, who wanted the walls emptied of pictures before a private viewing for an important collector. For her, canvases on the gallery’s walls only distracted from her geometric black steel sculptures, which were set around the floor on white minimalist plinths.

After a couple more shows my job there was over. The usual bloke who installed exhibitions was back. But now I looked at local galleries—Realities especially—with a different, more measured eye.

Later the alarming news raced through the art scene that Marianne Baillieu was pulling out, her gallery changing hands. It signalled the end of an era. However, Marianne was not withdrawing from the scene. She changed roles. There were still her visits to artists’ homes and studios. Once I bumped into her at the Kemps’ place, where she and Merle Kemp giggled like schoolgirls as they teased old Roger about a massive, wall-sized abstraction he was working on.

Then we learned that Marianne had herself taken up the brush. This was now the mid-1980s and a transformation had swept through the Melbourne scene. The energetic Fitzroy gallery circuit was firing up and a new wave of competitive artists were moving to the fore. Conceptualism had fallen from fashion and younger artists were daring to make paintings again—indeed, the intensely gestural Neo-Expressionism was the hot new movement. I was also starting to write for local art magazines, and the pathway into criticism now lay before me.

Marianne made her solo debut at Reconnaissance Gallery in the geographic heart of the new scene, just off Gertrude Street, an eccentric creaky venue above some Victorian shops. Large and Dickensian, the rambling gallery was becoming a social hub for the next generation, younger painters gathering around a table there at all hours with the thirty-something Tony Oliver, its black-attired director, conducting a non-stop intense conversation over strong dark coffee and endless cigarettes. I was part of that group, too, spending countless afternoons talking with emphatic young painters, quaffing wine, and taking down notes.

The ambience was utterly different from Marianne’s former galleries, although her solo show there struck a chord. You ascended rickety stairs and entered a darkened room, light illuminating a large gestural abstraction on the end wall. Up close the thick painted marks seemed to be made with fingers, not brushes, a demonstration of expressive release. But what set the show off was an old paint-smeared dining table in the room’s centre, which was heaped with used paint tubes, the spotlights swivelled to beam directly down on it. There were hundreds of them, and the air reeked of linseed oil. What a stench. But what an exhibition! Many younger Melbourne painters were moved by that installation, an emphatic record of creative struggle. Marianne Baillieu, with her sure artistic eye and unrestrained sense of theatre, had astounded once again.

Christopher Heathcote is a regular contributor to Quadrant. His books include Inside the Art Market: Australia’s Galleries: A History 1956–1976 and The Exhibition Handbook: A Practical Guide for Organising Exhibitions

One thought on “Gallery Days in the Realities of Marianne Baillieu

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thank you Christopher for this window into the Melbourne gallery scene. My wife and I are minor collectors. We operate in the lower level auction scene rarely spending much beyond $100 but we have picked up many works which give us pleasure.

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