Robert Wellington is an art historian and lecturer at the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory with a strong interest in the art of 17th- century France. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Robert about some of his experiences with art.
Shan Crosbie (SC): Firstly, what would you say is your specialty field of research?
Robert Wellington (RW): I work on 17th- and 18th-century French art, but particularly art from the court of Louis XIV. I’ve been working on ideas about the King as a patron, with a focus on images that relate to his reign. I’m particularly interested in the prints and commemorative medals from this time. I’ve actually got a book coming out on that subject very shortly called Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV: Artifacts for a future past
SC: What was your earliest (or most significant) experience with art?
RW: Goodness, I remember when I was about 10 or 11 years old at school we had an English assignment where we had to give a little talk in front of the class. I chose to talk about a painting and it was Rene Magritte’s Jeune Fille Mangeant un Oiseau (Young Girl Eating a Bird). It is a very strange painting of a girl biting into a bird – I had very odd tastes from early on. I was so enthused! There wasn’t a lot of art at home, but I discovered the painting in a book of surrealist art that my stepmother had. I used to draw a lot too. I did think I wanted to be an artist at one point, but I became more interested in other people’s work.
SC: So what lead you to be doing what you do today?
RW: Well it was a long journey, but certainly when I was about 16 I had a really fantastic Art History teacher, Barry Venning who sparked my interest in arts of the past. At the time I was very interested in contemporary art, I was also doing fine arts, majoring in sculpture. I was tossing up whether to go to an art school or study art history, and then I came to Australia. I worked in the arts for a number of years. I worked in commercial galleries like Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and after that, well I thought I wanted to be a curator. So I went back to do my art history degree. In the process of doing my art history degree I discovered 17th-century French art and then that was it.
SC: It must be amazing that moment when you know ‘this is it.’
RW: Well it was my first year and I was doing some advanced courses, and it was almost my first assignment when I looked at the work of Charles Le Brun and it just fascinated me. In a way I’ve never really stopped thinking about those paintings. So that’s how it started.
SC: In your opinion, why should people care about art?
RW: Well I think its one of the most human things about the world. I remember my old boss at Roslyn Oxley9 saying that we should always treat the art object carefully because it is supposed to be the absolute pinnacle of our civilisation. Even if you look back to the early Neolithic period or early indigenous Australian art, there’s something in human culture that drives us to represent and understand the world through pictorial or object based means. For me I suppose it is something fundamental to human life, something that we understand ourselves through.
The other thing I’ve always thought of about the importance of studying art is that it gives you an amazing intellectual freedom. You can look at any aspect of the world; you can look at science, law, politics or philosophy… Anything has expression in object or visual form because we are creatures of a material world. We’re creatures of an increasingly visual world. Outside of the fine art object, we are in a world that is constantly bombarded by imagery, and understanding this imagery in a critical way will help us navigate the world that we are in.
SC: If this is possible to answer, who would be your favourite artist or artwork and why?
RW: There really isn’t an easy answer to that. I am going to pick the medal from the front cover of my book that was made by Jean Warin, the most important medal maker of the period of Louis XIV. It’s such a fascinating object. The medal was made at the time that Gian Lorenzo Bernini came to Paris to redesign the eastern façade of the Louvre. In doing so, Bernini ended up in competition with Jean Warin who was not only a medal maker but also a sculptor and painter. There was a very famous completion between the two where both Bernini and Jean Warin created marble busts of Louis XIV.Warin is a fascinating figure. His medal was made to commemorate the foundations of Bernini’s designs that were never finished. A solid gold copy of it was buried in the foundations of the Louvre that would have been Bernini’s eastern façade. The thing I find most fascinating about it is that its an object that presumes the destruction of something that is yet to be built. It’s an object that imagines a history in the future, a deep posterity where nothing remains but ruins like the ruins of ancient Rome. It imagines the archaeologist that will dig up this medal, look at the reverse, see the design of the building and understand what was once there. That’s an object that really summarises the argument of my book and my way of approaching the medal, so it’s a good object to represent me.
Robert Wellington’s book Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV: Artifacts for a future past is out now. To check out Robert’s book follow the link: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472460332