Archetypes and the genius loci: Norma Redpath, 1967-2013
Norma Redpath’s mature studio work, created in her forties and beyond, is one of Australian art’s best-kept secrets. Why should this be so? After two outstandingly successful exhibitions in 1963 with Gallery A, Melbourne, and 1970 with Rudy Komon, Sydney, Redpath concentrated on a string of public commissions while commuting between Melbourne and Milan. She was conferred OBE in 1970 for services to sculpture, particularly her five years’ intense work on Canberra’s Treasury Fountain, 1965-69. In 1972 she was appointed the inaugural H.C. Coombs Creative Arts Fellow at Australian National University. During the Fellowship she completed a commission for ANU’s School of Music (Extended Column, 1972-75) and developed a proposal for a major environmental sculpture: Piccola Cità. This ‘small city’ was a reworked version of an earlier 1962 work of the same title, but the individual elements were slightly altered in form and spaced further apart to create a walk-through environment for the university’s forecourt. Prohibitive costs meant the work was never realised, but it did generate two editions of maquettes: one in silver (1976) and another, slightly larger, in bronze (1978). After this Redpath retreated to her Milan studio to develop a new series of ideas, which resulted in 1982 in her third solo exhibition, opened by Sir Rupert Hamer at the Collins Street showrooms of Tecno – the prestigious Milanese design firm, founded by Osvaldo Borsani, who collaborated with many leading artists including Redpath’s friend and colleague Arnaldo Pomodoro. Tecno fabricated two of Redpath’s sculptures in gleaming laminate: Door to the Unknown, Monolith, and Door and Column, testifying to her interest in experimenting with different media as well as the esteem in which Redpath was held in Italian art and design circles.
During the 1980s she continued to develop proposal for major commissions, most notably Paessagio Cariatide, 1980-85. Architect Rod Macdonald of Eggleston, Macdonald & Secomb commissioned this for the State Bank Centre foyer (corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, Melbourne), where the branching bronze forms swept upwards as if supporting the concrete triagrid ceiling. This effect was radically altered in 2003 when the work was gifted to the McClelland Gallery, Langwarrin, and the ‘landscape’ that the sculpture metaphorically supported was no longer concrete ceiling but sky. Water and Cloud Landscape: Maquette for the NGV Moat Sculpture, 1982, was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria’s trustees and the Fountains Trust of Victoria but again not realised owing to cost; black and white photographs of the since lost wax and wood model show it to have consisted of multiple arches supported on partially eroded columns that tapered away to nothing. Nevertheless, an invitation to design a work for the remodelled foyer of Melbourne’s ICI House prompted her to return to this theme in Cloud Landscape, 1989: this time with the bronze elements suspended from the ceiling in a form of descending wall relief. The scale model is included in the present exhibition.
After returning to Melbourne permanently in 1991, Redpath oversaw the conversion of two historic cottages and stables in Carlton into an elegant inner-city home with dual sculpture studios as well as office space for her husband, the Milanese engineer Dr Antonio de Altamer. Earlier works were occasionally included in group exhibitions (Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2000; McClelland Gallery, 1995, and the Charles Nodrum Gallery, 1987 and 1989), but her studio works from 1982 onwards remained exhibited. In 2002 Redpath explained to one interested dealer that she had spent recent years realizing ‘multiple concepts in scale model form’, and asserted there were approximately 100 maquettes in her studio. Yet the majority of these small wax maquettes remained uncast at the time of her death; only nine were realised in bronze while plaster moulds were made of a handful of others. It is a major gap for such a significant sculptor.
Many of the works in the present exhibition draw upon Redpath’s longstanding interest in archetypal architectural forms such as arches, doors, gates, capitals and columns, which she interpreted in Jungian terms as capable of reconciling the alienated urban dweller with their surroundings. For instance Sculpture Column, 1968-72, for Brisbane’s Reserve Bank (now Grant Thornton House, 102 Adelaide Street), was conceived as ‘a modern sculpture capital’, threaded on a slender steel pole in the double-storey atrium, visible both at street level and in the mezzanine reception area. Similarly the Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial, Flying Capital, 1970-74, for the forecourt of Melbourne University’s Microbiology School, is a deconstructed Corinthian capital whose fragments are reassembled in a modern streamlined arrangement, hinting at new scientific discoveries. Maquettes for both of these major commissions are included in the present exhibition. Sentinel Column, 1980, is an inverted and flattened ziggurat, spliced symmetrically and arranged as a pair of mirror opposites. The distilled precision allows for potential enlargement. Door to the Unknown, c. 1982, exists as a series of maquettes in which the archetypal portals vary in number and sequence, as well as a 2.06-metre-high fabricated aluminium version that was realised posthumously for Swinburne University in 2015. Gate of the Black Plumes, Flag Gate and Gate of the Suspended Sun, all c. 1985, are self-declared architectural forms that combine the 1960s imagery of the sun’s trajectory with a new concern to simplify forms and dispense with texture, facilitating future enlargement on a 1:24 scale.
A second consistent feature of Redpath’s thinking is her desire to respond to a site’s genius loci, or spirit of place. This was crystallised by her reading of Christian Norberg-Schulz’s Genius Loci: Paesaggio ambiente architettura (1979 Italian edition), which confirmed her long-held view that public sculpture must respond to both the physical and spiritual qualities of a particular site. This thinking extended to work that was developed with no preconceived site; the desire was to bring awareness to the shifting tangible and intangible qualities of any given location in which the sculpture was sited. The Ecce Locus series (translating approximately as ‘here is the site’) is a direct product of this thinking: they consist of standing tablets or lapidi designed to mark a particular site like ancient menhirs or milestones. Similarly, the Sipario Nero (‘black curtain’) series relates to Redpath’s ‘theatres of the mind’ concept, in which the sculpture becomes a site at which psychological states are enacted as if on stage.
Small in scale though many of the works in this exhibition may be they are undoubtedly large in concept and ambition. They point to a new understanding of Redpath as a pioneer in the field of environmental sculpture and site-specific art. Whether responding to a particular site for a commission or designing for a hypothetical site, she consistently underscored the importance of human scale and the relationship between the viewing subject, the surrounding built environment and the artwork. Former histories that relegate Redpath to a narrow period of late modernist triumph in Australia clearly need revising; her mature works should be considered alongside the environmental sculptures of her younger colleagues, such as John Davis, and arguably belong to a much broader story about sculpture’s evolving relationship with installation art and site specificity. It is a story yet to be told.
University of Melbourne