Senator Penny Wong’s fur-ball moment during last week’s Senate budget estimates hearings was a cross between Jane Fonda’s Cat Ballou and James Bond’s lady, Pussy Galore, as she managed to wreck the big press build-up to Ross Garnaut’s final report on climate change. Then again it did manage to sideline the extraordinary business of sending illegal immigrants (including children) to Malaysian refugee camps. Why Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen didn’t just settle for North Korea is anyone’s guess, but don’t dismiss that option. Anything’s possible.

The greatest moral challenge of our time suddenly shifted from climate change to moral indignation, from glass ceiling to glass jaw, and the media loved it. It had an opening for everyone. Senator Bushby, by day’s end, looked like the dog that had got the cat up the tree — but was now in deep doo-doo with its owners.

Confected outrage isn’t anything new, particularly in Senator Wong’s home-town of Adelaide, when, in the early 1900’s, the grandmother of political correctness, Victorian morality, struck gold with an attack on one of Australia’s least known ‘political’ paintings. The painting is called Sowing New Seed, done by the Irish artist Sir William Orpen. It’s a corker.

Sowing New Seed should be the nation’s iconic image in the fight against the Orwellian constriction that present day attacks on freedom of speech, thought and expression, by the Left, represent. Sowing New Seed uses that wonderful weapon, satire, which the dark angels of political correctness have failed, so far, to eradicate. The painting can be seen in the extraordinary art collection owned by the City of Mildura. It’s worth the trip.

Orpen painted Sowing New Seed as a protest against the repressive attitude to art that the gatekeepers of artistic endeavour in Ireland were placing upon young Irish artists. It was finished by Orpen around 1913 and after being on display in London for a while it won the attention of two young Australian artists in London at the time, Will Ashton and Rose McPherson (Margaret Preston), who were looking for artworks on behalf of the National Gallery of South Australia. The price they negotiated for the gallery was 700 pounds. At the time London’s Westminster Gazette remarked:

We would give a trifle to hear the comments of unsophisticated colonials when Orpen’s picture, Sowing New Seed, is placed before their admiring gaze.

The fun in Adelaide actually started some time after Sowing New Seed was placed on display in the National Gallery of South Australia. Unlike the instant reaction by Adelaide’s Senator Wong, to Senator Bushby’s meow, the build up of affront to Orpen’s painting was slow in coming, but when it came, was equally out of proportion.

According to Angus Trumble, former curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Sowing New Seed went on display towards the end of June 1914. Within a few weeks gallery attendances shot from 486 people a day to an unprecedented 5,000. In the first week of July the Mail newspaper estimated 25,000 Adeladians had peered at Orpen’s painting and by the third week the figure had reached 87,000.

A certain Reverend Herbert Edwards got things underway by writing a letter to the Register expressing his disgust at the gallery for exhibiting Sowing New Seed as it constituted a “libel on the ministry”. He mistook the farmer in the painting for a minister of religion. Off went the press and Adelaide’s indignant letter writers.

The poor farmer, and his milkmaid wife, in the painting, soon became a “poor, half-demented curate and a milksop woman”, an “undesirable wowser person”, “a super-annuated old parson dressed like a scarecrow”’ and “Dr. Crippen and his Morganatic typist” of all things. Anonymous letter writers included “Humiliated Australian”, “Teck-Neek”, “Humility”, “Ignoramus”, “Disgusted”, “Another Disgusted”, “Quack-Quack”, “Father of Two”, “Father of Ten” and grew to “Father of Forty-Two”.

Then the issue rapidly changed from the so called “parson” to the nude woman. One suggested hiring an artist to paint out the “shadows”. As Trumble points out “the trickle of protest soon became a stream then a torrent, eventually obliterating the original question as to the meaning of the subject”. As with the Wong affair the meow suddenly became a roar.

To add to the excitement (remember the start of World War One was a few weeks away) local businesses joined in with advertising campaigns based on Sowing New Seed for gardening, seeds and manure. Short movie films were made sending up Orpen’s painting while comments like the painting should be hung on a clothes-line “so the painting could be viewed without the risk of catching meningitis”, appeared. The naked girl in the painting was described as “naked, misshapen wanton who is scattering freely the seeds of lust and licence, foul seeds which will have all too prolific a crop.”

The painting was eventually attacked by a vandal who stabbed the naked girl’s genitals and Sowing New Seed was taken down for repair. It was never re-hung in Adelaide, but offered to the National Gallery of Victoria in exchange for a portrait of a general. The painting was eventually returned to Orpen’s agent in London where it remained until an Australian Senator, Robert Elliot, purchased it in London and brought it back to Melbourne. On the death of Elliot’s wife the painting was given to the City of Mildura, together with Elliot’s vast art collection.

Senator Wong has managed to continue a grand old Adelaide tradition.

Meow!

An excellent article by Angus Trumble on Sowing New Seed can be found here…

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