I’ve always loved home movies. A few years ago, I fished out some 8mm film cans from the family shed and sent them off for digitisation. What returned were MP4s of my mum as a toddler dancing in a sailor’s suit on a back veranda in rural Victoria. A dog wanders into the frame. The pans are erratic. Splotches mark where the film’s emulsion has deteriorated over the years. Home movies retain all the things commercial films usually cut out: incidental details, camera glitches, moments of action – blowing out a candle, posing at a lookout – which don’t build into a narrative. That’s what makes them so revealing as documents of the past. In the 20th century everyone began making home movies, from my own family (and most likely yours) to celebrities, prime ministers and artists. The late, great filmmaker Jonas Mekas called them the folk poetry of the people.
At a time when we’re all Zooming into each other’s personal spaces, this miniature film series of home movies takes us behind the scenes with artists whose works are in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. These aren’t films of artists at work in their studios, but intimate glimpses of downtime spent cavorting with a kitten (Salvador Dalí), breastfeeding in the backyard (Joy Hester) and frolicking with friends at an artist enclave in 1950s Melbourne (Arthur Boyd, John Perceval). Also included is a clip from the home movie collection of Con Colleano, an Indigenous circus performer whose extraordinary career inspired Karla Dickens’ A Dickensian circus, currently installed in the Gallery’s vestibule as part of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN.
Special acknowledgements to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and curator Tara Marynowsky for the invaluable work in collecting, preserving and sharing these local home movie collections.
Watch Salvador Dalí showboat before the camera in this delightful home movie. The 50-year-old surrealist (whose work The Milky Way is in the Gallery’s Under the stars exhibition) plays with a kitten, makes an animal skull mask and larks about on the terrace of his villa in Port Lligat, Spain. Dalí is as exuberant as the Kodachrome colour film stock which preserves the olive groves and coastline of the Costa Brava with jewel-like intensity.
The 8mm home movie collection of Viennese-Jewish immigrant Gerty Anschel offers remarkable insights into the mid-century Narrm/Melbourne art scene. In this clip, we begin at Grosvenor Chambers on cosmopolitan Collins Street (Australia’s first custom-built complex of artists’ studios) and end up in Joy Hester’s backyard on the outskirts of the city. Hester breastfeeds her son, while fellow artist Charles Blackman, who lived next door, relaxes on the picnic rug. In a few frames, we sense the rapport that fostered Hester’s intimate ink drawings of friends and lovers, including the Gallery’s own Reclining female nude (Barbara Blackman) 1955.
Featuring garden parties and children at play, this footage gives an idyllic impression of the creative milieu that formed around the Boyd family property in Murrumbeena. Shot between 1954 and 1956, it shows an outdoor installation of John Perceval’s gnarled sculptures (see The acrobat angel 1958) and Arthur Boyd’s commission for the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium. Both artists’ ceramics practice was forged around the Murrumbeena kiln, which – as we see in this clip – was a space of family gathering. As narrator Philippe Mora (son of artist Mirka Mora and gallerist Georges Mora) reflects, the artists’ kids ran amok amidst the burning ovens, lead paint, knives and turpentine.
Have you heard of Con Colleano? Born in Lismore, NSW with Kamilaroi, Irish and West Indian heritage, Colleano was one of the most famous circus performers in the world in the 1920s and 1930s, billed as ‘the wizard of the wire’. His tightrope skills took him to big tents around the globe. Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’ installation A Dickensian circus takes its inspiration from the history of Indigenous circus performers. In her words, ‘When I started to research Con I became completely obsessed with his family’s story, including the fact that he dressed as a Spanish bullfighter – Con never said he was Aboriginal and at the same time never denied it’. See the star’s cape-twirling toreador act for yourself in this extraordinary home movie footage shot in Texas in 1928.