Hear author Peter Manning and artist Janet Venn-Brown take an in-depth look at the life and work of an intrepid and passionate artist.
Transcript of ‘Lecture/Launch: Janet Venn-Brown’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (AMS), Peter Manning (PM), Janet Venn-Brown (JVB), Audience (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
AMS: To Janet Venn-Brown and her family, Peter Manning, distinguished guests and dear friends, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Library’s Director General and it’s my pleasure to welcome you on behalf of my colleagues. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
We are gathered for the Canberra launch of the book, Janet Venn-Brown, A Life in Art by Dr Peter Manning published this month by NewSouth Books. As you will hear Peter has captured an extraordinary life in his new book. Janet is an Australian artist who is not widely known because she lived and worked in Rome for four decades, returning to Sydney in 2008. Although her life in Rome revolved around her art practice and she managed to make a living as an artist the course of her life was sharply deflected in 1972 through the sudden death of the man she had been about to marry.
But let’s start at the beginning. Janet was born in Sydney and traces her ancestry to the second fleet. Completing her schooling during the war years she did essential office work while taking evening classes in painting. Janet ended up working for the publisher, Samuel Smith. One of the sidelines in her story is that it was she who recommended the firm publish John O’Grady’s parody written as Nino Culotta, the very successful, They’re a Weird Mob.
Like many Australians of her time Janet sailed to England in 1952 stopping briefly in Italy on the way but then returning and remaining for more than 40 years. Moving in artistic and cultural circles in Rome she became the partner of the exiled Palestinian intellectual, Wael Zwaiter. After his shocking death she edited a memorial volume first published in Italian in 1979 with the English edition of For A Palestinian published in 1984.
Janet’s art has been exhibited throughout Italy, in London, Amman, Baghdad and Sydney, her last exhibition being at Tap Gallery on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Would that we are all so productive. Janet’s work is held in the collection of Sydney Living Museums and I’m delighted to say the National Library as we have recently acquired Janet’s papers, a very significant addition to our manuscripts collection.
And so now to Peter. Peter has had a distinguished career as a journalist working for many years at the ABC where he rose to become the head of TV news and current affairs, responsible for bringing us programs such as Lateline and Foreign Correspondent to name just two, and for beginning the ABC website. Peter was also head of current affairs at the Seven network. In 2000 he switched to academic, teaching journalism at Monash and the University of Technology Sydney where he wrote a PhD and where he is now a research associate in the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre. Peter has published widely on aspects of politics and the media and his books include Us and Them, Media, Muslims and the Middle East and Palestine and Israel, 60 Years of Refugees, War and Suffering. Please join me in welcoming Dr Peter Manning.
PM: Thank you, Anne-Marie, for that lovely introduction of both of us and for giving it the broad context that it needs. And I’ve got to say I’m very proud to be sitting beside a ... or standing beside a wonderful image of Janet painted by herself as a self-portrait and to have had the trust I suppose of Janet to produce this very intimate book about her.
So just let me start by saying that it’s been a joy to do this book, it’s unlike anything I’ve done in journalism before. My normal mode for most of my life was investigative journalism mostly in television and mostly in the ABC. This book came about because of a strong relationship that flowered between Janet Venn-Brown and myself over the last eight years. I felt that Janet’s story had to be told and I refused to take the rejections of various publishers including Routledge and Pluto in London as the final word. I am forever grateful to NewSouth Publishing and in particular Elspeth Menzies for taking up the cudgels of telling the history of this little-known woman artist and not being put off by the entanglement of Janet in the long-running Israel-Palestine dispute.
In fact the story of Palestine which intersects with Janet’s in Rome in the 1960s gets a full airing in the book and for that I sing NewSouth’s praises for their courage and commitment to the truth. It’s not often the murderous deeds of Mossad’s hit teams of extrajudicial killers is told in Australian book publishing. But this is overwhelmingly an art book celebrating the work of a fine Australian artist but it does so at three different levels. The most obvious was writing about Janet’s life in art. For me this was a new and interesting experience. I claim no expertise in art criticism but I was taken with the beauty of some of Janet’s works when Carol Lawson and I went to Janet’s first exhibition on returning home to Sydney. It was in the Mint Gallery in Macquarie Street. I was taken by the sense of comfort and cosiness of Janet’s painting of her lounge room in her Rome apartment, by the gentle, slightly abstract version of her picture of Jerusalem and by the much more abstract geometrics of the walls of Oman in the Persian Gulf. The absence of human figures seemed to add something to the architecture.
My much more knowledgeable fine arts partner, Carol, was taken with them too and so were the wonderful women at NewSouth when they saw more and more of Janet’s work from Italy and the Middle East. And so were the enthusiastic fans and friends of Janet’s who’d bought other paintings of hers over the years or commissioned her to paint their rooms. So this was to become the first layer of the book, my gradual move away from seeing Janet as an activist for Palestine to understanding her lifetime commitment to art. Janet was focusing on the tragedy of the death of her Wael Zwaiter and the lawless actions of Israel but I came to see another story, Janet herself. In an interview in the book Janet refers to her shyness ...
In an interview in the book Janet refers to her shyness as a young girl and to her shyness about painting in Sydney once she had finished her art course. I think that shyness remained, Janet was reluctant to become the centre of attention. And in truth the more I dug for Janet’s paintings for this book the more splendid they became. When I went back over all the catalogues for her exhibitions in Sydney and tracked down the owners of the paintings a huge variety of works from every decade appeared, abstracts from the 1950s and 1960s, streetscapes of Rome and landscapes of Italian villages from the 1970s and ‘80s. And then a cornucopia of Roman interiors of wealthy Italians’ lounge rooms, bedrooms, village getaways and studios in the 1990s.
Once the book was underway I asked Janet if I could go through her packed lounge room in Glebe and look at all her catalogues, folders of water colours, boxes of slides and Kodak negatives, folders of photos and see what was revealed of her painterly life over 50 years. Janet ... thank you ... gave me full access. It was ... became clear for instance there was a distinct Arab period in the years following Wael’s death in 1972, a time when many Arab governments offered her the opportunity to paint their countries. There followed precious paintings of Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Yemen. It also became clear that hundreds and hundreds of paintings of Janet’s of Rome would now be decorating homes throughout Italy. There are 93 paintings in this book. I suspect that there are 400 or 500 or more paintings by Janet in Italian and Middle Eastern homes today. What this meant is that Janet was not painting Australia, she was not present in Australia, she was not selling herself in the Sydney art world. Her more well-known friends who also painted in Italy, Jeffrey Smart and Justin O’Brien, were far more present in Australian art circles. Janet had permanently settled in Italy with Italian friends, speaking Italian perfectly, with only occasional visits to see her family in Sydney. Her good reception in Italy from Italian art critics counted for little in Sydney.
So this book is designed to redress that balance and to give a voice to Janet in Australian art circles. Far be for me to make a judgement on her work but in this book I take the democratic approach. See for yourself some representative samples from each decade of Janet’s paintings and ask whether at least some of these should be hanging in the major art galleries of our country.
The second level of the book is of course political. When I’ve been asked what the book’s about my training from the populist Sun Herald many years ago comes into play and I answer it’s about art, politics, love and murder. Janet’s partner of eight years, Palestinian translator Wael Zwaiter, emerges from this book as a classic innocent bystander. The Palestinian Black September group kill 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Within weeks Zwaiter is shot dead after leaving Janet’s house in Rome one night to go home. He was the first on an Israeli list of Palestinian intellectuals to die. The internal workings of the Israeli Cabinet and the murder that October are described in this book.
Twenty years later the general who recommended Zwaiter’s death breaks ranks and tells the BBC that Zwaiter had nothing to do with the Munich Olympics. Another decade on an Israeli journalist for Time magazine describes Zwaiter’s killing in 1972 as quote a mistake unquote. Finally in 2015 to get the Israeli point of view I spoke to a very senior Israeli journalist for this book. He is writing a book on the history of Mossad. He told me quote of all the people I have spoken with during the time I have been working on the book none of them is trying to claim that Mr Zwaiter would be any way involved in that. Meaning the Munich Olympics killings. I don’t think there is any debate nowadays on Zwaiter. Unquote.
So this ... in this theory Zwaiter’s death was a mistake, just part of Israeli collective punishment for Munich. Many Palestinians do not accept that conclusion. They go further; they believe Israel killed Zwaiter not because they thought he was a violent terrorist but because he wasn’t. He was a much more dangerous figure, a prominent nonviolent Palestinian voice along journalists, politicians and intellectuals in Italy and his removal was convenient for Prime Minister Golda Meir. This is the theory that Janet believes as well and she has maintained that stance for the past 44 years. Janet has spent her life holding a candle for her slain partner. Her 1982 book of essays on Zwaiter’s gentle, nonviolent nature by some of the world’s most famous intellectuals of the day, John Jeney [? 16:28], Alberto Moravia, Edward Zaed [? 16:28] and many more is a powerful tour de force. She has carried that book around with her ever since.
Janet’s book inspired Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist who appeared in the 2006 Sydney Biennale, won the prestigious Leone D'oro Golden Lion Award at the 2007 Venice Biennale and then won the Hugo Boss Award at the New York Biennale in 2008 for an installation on Wael Zwaiter. Later that same year an Italian documentary-maker, Giacomo Dertzy [? 17:24], also interviewed Janet for his film, Numero Uno Enlista [? 17:24], an Investigation into Zwaiter’s death in Rome for Italian television. Slowly, slowly but with determination Janet was turning the tide of opinion just as her beloved Wael might have wanted.
The third level of my book I think is simply a celebration of Janet’s resilience and strength as a woman. Despite losing the man she was about to marry and enduring a long period of mourning Janet picked herself up and continued to paint. Her daily discipline carried her through. I know this because Janet granted me access to her voluminous six diaries from the 1980s through to 2008. I read Janet’s ups and downs, her joys and her fears. In a sense therefore my book is quite intimate. It watches for instance as the ripples of trauma from the Israeli assassination engulf first Janet then her closest friends in Rome then her family in Sydney then her niece, Louise, who comes to visit her and then the wider community of Italians who have been part of Wael’s network of friends and supporters. The trauma lasted many years but Janet never gave up. Her psychological strength was remarkable. Her painting flowered again in the 1980s and ‘90s, the period Janet once said to me was her best. And Janet certainly never gave up on Palestine. If anything she upped the ante. Even today she rarely misses an event in Sydney about Palestine. She believes their cause is just.
I want to wind up now by praising the senior staff of the National Library of Australia. Janet’s papers are now from today, as you’ve just heard, being held in trust by the NLA in perpetuity for others who follow Janet to learn about an adventurous, brave and exciting Australian woman artist who had the courage to embrace other cultures, both Italian and Arab. And to keep painting every day no ... what the slings and arrows brought to her life. The Library’s Director General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, and her Deputy, Margie Byrne, were quick to recognise Janet Venn-Brown was a hidden gem of Australian social history and culture. In the best tradition of the public service Janet’s quiet determination is rewarded. Thank you.
AMS: Peter, thank you very much and congratulations on a beautiful book. We are all indebted to you for introducing us to the life and the art of Janet Venn-Brown, to this great Australian talent still painting today and a significant figure internationally for the quietly persistent work that you have described for us so thank you very, very much. And thank you also for recognising the significance of Janet’s personal papers both by putting them to such good use in the book but also for recognising and suggesting that they ought to be in the National Library. We’re delighted to have this significant collection; it runs to more than 18 boxes which Janet brought back with her to Australia from Rome. And, Janet, we are honoured that you can join us tonight with members of your family. Thank you for your generosity in donating your papers to the National Library where they will be a really significant research resource about your life and your art and will serve to perpetuate the memory of Wael. And so now may I invite you to say a few words?
Those few words on your lap. Yes? Everyone would really like to hear from you.
JVB: I didn’t prepare a speech for today
AMS: This is the one. Now do you want me to take these? Would it ...
JVB: What, you ask me questions?
AMS: No, no, just while you read this I’ll hold this.
JVB: Well I’ve never been so unprepared as I am tonight but I’ve got here a speech here about my life of art but [unclear 22:49] really about Wael Zwaiter. Wael Zwaiter I met one day when he offered to carry my paintings home for me [unclear 23:02] and we remained friends ‘til ... well ‘til he was killed. He was translating A Thousand and One Nights. I’m not prepared. There was a translation of it but he didn’t consider it a good one so he decided he must do something better. He was killed before it was finished so it was never done [unclear 23:35]. He went to the university to the foreigners in Italy and he took lessons he singing. And the teacher said that she’d never had a pupil with such a perfect ear for sound and so he was really quite musical but that of course was excluded from his life. When he left the university and he ran out of money he had difficulty in finding a way to make money to live somehow. He took other people’s problems to heart and he used to meet the poor people in the Arab bar and try and find a way that they could get something to live on. He was a ... his father had been a revolutionary and the tragedy of Palestine for him included the English hanging three Palestinian partisans and that also remained in Wael’s memory. He wanted to be a musician and his father said you can always study music but you must do something more useful, practical and so he went to Kuwait and enrolled in engineering and that was ... he was working. He also made a bit of money, he wasn't used to having and he decided he’d come down to Italy.
Do you know I’ve really forgotten what I decided to talk about and I’ve got these notes and ideas but I can’t remember how I prepared the speech.
After the six days’ war he gave up his life of art and literature which he’d been trying to get involved in and the last few of years of his life he had to go out and work. And he got a shipment of books that would help the Palestinian students to get a bit to know about European culture. And he started a library in Rome which he was very happy about it especially when the students began to come. But in fact in his heart he wanted to be a musician and ... but when he heard about the Israelis wanting to kill the Palestinian intellectuals he knew that he couldn’t really do anything else. And I think without saying he waited until he was killed. In fact I was woken up in the night by the police telling me that he’d been wounded or ... they didn’t tell me he’d been killed and they took me. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience in my life to find him.
When his friend from Paris came to the funeral he said he was next on the list and in fact when he went back he was also killed. I’m not quite sure why I’m telling you these things but I’ve got them down here, it’s a [unclear 27:54]. I hope you’re interested.
Yes, I had several interviews with the police and they confirmed everything and at a certain point they said well you knew more about these things than you do and it seemed that they were washing their hands of the whole thing, I don’t know.
But anyway when his friend from Paris came to the funeral he told me himself he was next on the list and so he was. And they went ‘round killing all the Palestinian intellectuals and that’s why the Palestinians in fact have got in such a mess, because they were all killed.
In his last day ... I don’t know if you’re interested in these things ... when my ... when he was killed after he left my house the women in my building came to tell me how they missed him, always so polite in the lift and opening the doors for them and so on. And the last day in my flat he was reading A Thousand and One Nights and I had to go out and get some food. When I came back he was laughing and I said if you know that book by heart can you still be laughing? And he said this is my culture, I will always laugh at it. He said anyway I’m going home now to write the afterthought and I hope you’ll enjoy it. But in fact he never reached home. It was the beginning of the time when the Israelis went ‘round killing all the Palestinian intellectuals and we’re still ... haven’t got any ... or too many of them. Haven’t got enough, shall we say? Acting for them now in the world.
I don’t know that I have anything else that’s very interesting to say.
AMS: That was wonderful.
AMS: Now don’t go away, don’t go away. Janet, thank you, thank you so much, it has been wonderful to hear from Peter about your life and then to hear you talk about Wael and I think everyone in this room has been delighted to almost be able to see you, the lectern blocked quite a lot of you but to hear you and would you and would Peter be ready to answer a couple of questions if there are some in the room?
JVB: I’ll be prepared.
AMS: Okay. What I would ask you is if you do have a question, if you could put your hand up so that we can bring a microphone to you. We are recording this evening because we very much wanted to have Janet and Peter recorded and we would like you to be recorded as well and if your voice is very soft in the microphone I’ll repeat the question for Janet or for Peter.
A: I’ve got a couple of questions. Firstly, Janet, did you visit Palestine at all? And also perhaps are there any of your paintings here in Australia that can be seen?
JVB: I didn’t hear that.
A: The first one is you did visit Palestine?
JVB: I have visited Palestine, yes. Oh yes, I have visited Palestine and I knew people there including members of Wael’s family. It’s a long time ago now and when you get to 90 your memory’s not very good, I warn you.
A: And the second question is about your paintings and where can we see them in Australia?
JVB: Ah that’s difficult. I’m still painting but as I get to know fewer people I don’t have many people who ask me to come and paint a room in their house so if anyone would like ... I don’t have a car so you’ll have to pick me up and take me home.
AMS: And there is one painting here at the National Library, you can see it here.
JVB: Yes and ...
PM: Can I just add to that? First of all there’s a book called ... which has got 93 of them in but if you want the real thing Janet sometimes does sort of partly retrospective, partly new exhibitions. The last one was a couple of years ago though but they certainly have happened and we are thinking of having a major ... a more major retrospective that brings a lot of those ... which aren’t for sale because they’re in Sydney homes and you know so on. In the ...
JVB: Yes, I go to that, I’m always looking for new subjects and at my age you know I don’t go out to many parties so not many people. But I’m there in the telephone book.
A: Janet, thank you for coming first of all because it’s so wonderful to have you here to make the book alive and real but I’m wondering if you could tell us just a little bit about what is your artistic muse? What inspires you to paint? What excites you in painting?
JVB: What I ... I didn’t quite hear that, did you?
AMS: What inspires you to paint? Where is ... what is your muse?
JVB: I like to paint the interiors of houses, interiors of rooms. When I was younger and had a more social life I met many people and I always had a subject. Now I’m in my 90s and it’s ... I don’t get invited out to dinner every night so I’m always looking around for new subjects. If you’re interested in any I’m in the telephone book ... I think I’m in the telephone book, aren’t I?
PM: You are.
JVB: And I will always be willing to come and paint. I do like a bit of help with ... if I’ve got to go a long way that someone will come and pick me up in the car because I’ve got to carry my paints but in any case I can always get there. And it takes me two days.
PM: Can I jump in and say if I had to answer the question what is Janet’s muse it would be architecture. And I think one of the great contributions that Janet has made is to the ... is painting of architecture ... not necessarily in a you know completely realistic photographic kind of way but looking at buildings and looking at homes and looking at landscapes and streetscapes and so on and painting those. Yeah.
JVB: Yes well I could add to that, that I had hoped to be ... to study architecture at the university when I decided I couldn’t go to school of art but the war was on and my father said please get a job first and then you go to the university later. Well you know those things don’t walk out and I never got to the university. If anyone like their house you’ll let me paint it?
AMS: Well I think we’re done with the questions, I think we’re done.
PM: Okay, thank you.
JVB: Thank you.
AMS: On behalf of us all can I say thank you again to Peter and to Janet. It is now time to bring the formalities to a close, to encourage you all to gather downstairs outside the bookshop very cunningly to enjoy refreshments but most importantly to buy this beautiful and important book which for tonight is available at a 10% discount from the recommended retail price. And I’m sure that Janet and Peter will be delighted to sign your copy downstairs. But before we descend please join me in saying a big thank you to Peter and Janet again and you know don’t forget, Janet is ready to come and paint for you. Thank you.
[End of recording]