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Opening of O Soul O Spirit O Fire: address.

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22 NOVEMBER 2001

The idea for the retrospective came from the director of the QUT Art Museum, Sue-Ann Wallace, who believed the Blake Prize to be an important barometer of change in Australian art and society.

When it was established half a century ago, by Jesuit priest Michael Scott and Jewish businessman Richard Morley, its aim was to encourage better quality art for hanging in Australian churches.

From the beginning, the Prize attracted entries from top Australian artists: Donald Friend, John Coburn, Kevin Connor, Arthur Boyd.

Over time, although the Blake committee continued to push for recognisable religious symbols, the artists started to submit increasingly abstract works, reflecting the trends in art of the times.

Committee member Peter Kenny wrote in 1956 that the main threat to the Blake was that it “should be allowed to fall into the clutches of modern artists who glory in the unintelligibility and bigoted subjectivism of their effusions”.

There ensued a prolonged controversy which can only be imagined in looking through the half century retrospective.  I am old enough to remember and my predecessor Felix Arnott was a long-term judge.

Clearly, the Blake did not collapse. It chose to “go with the flow” and having had a brief look through the exhibition this evening, I identify with a point made by its curator, Rosemary Crumlin.

For those of us with a formal, religious background, observing fifty years worth of so-called “religious” Australian art, is a personal and challenging experience.

The flyer for the Blake Prize exhibition for 2001 asks: “Is art religion?” and “Is religion art?”

Looking through O Soul O Spirit O Fire, my answer to both of these questions would have to be “no”, although this is probably not the time nor the place to expand on that response except to say that each contains vital elements of the other, thereby making them aesthetic and ascetic partners.

Writing last year in The Australian newspaper, Sebastian Smee also tried to explore these questions and another, more specific one about whether the Blake Prize was about religious art at all these days.

“What are we to make of a religious prize that so nervelessly embraces the secular?” he asked. “And why is ‘religious’ dangling so tentatively there in inverted commas?”

Whatever the answer, Rosemary Crumlin believes that while people around the world are searching,

more than ever, to find meaning in life and security and hope for the future, the Blake is more pertinent than ever.

She said in a recent interview: “Great artists will continue to push at the edges of meaning and that is what religion is about. It pushes at the edge of meaning. It raises questions and it calls into question.”

Rosemary points also to the strong presence of women artists over the past two decades of the Blake Prize, and more recently of Indigenous artists, to argue that the exhibition has become more relevant to, and reflective of, Australian society.

These artists have undeniably brought a broader and different emphasis to the Blake.

But aside from the debate about the Blake’s content over fifty years, there is no question that the mounting of O Soul O Spirit O Fire is a tremendous achievement for Rosemary Crumlin and Ihor Holubizky, who applied remarkable detective skills and diplomacy to locate and borrow the works on display.

The result is an exhibition which will stimulate broad discussion about the big issues, and that is enormously positive and worthwhile in itself.

It is my pleasure to declare it open.