Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) was a remarkable and unusual sort of artist. While basically a self-taught non-conformist, in many other ways she was an establishment artist - backed by some of the key players in the Australian art scene, including James Mollison, Daniel Thomas and James Gleeson and featured in key exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and major shows in institutional, national and state public art galleries in Australia.
She may have been 57 before she held her first solo exhibition in 1974, but for the remaining 25 years of her life she exhibited frequently and to considerable critical acclaim. According to this book, Gascoigne exhibited her assemblages before she knew the meaning of an 'assemblage' and she created her early boxed assemblages in 1973, before she became aware of Joseph Cornell, who forged his reputation with boxed assemblages and who had died the previous year in 1972. As a person, she was disarmingly frank and honest and would draw the listener into her narratives with her captivating accounts of her work.
This book is an insider's account of the work of Gascoigne, written by her son Martin Gascoigne. Although I generally have reservations about family biographies with their tendency for sentimental deification of their subject, this book has not even a whiff of sentimentality, save for the occasional, "I gave mum this book on her birthday" or "I introduced her to this or that person". It is not an interpretative monograph or one that seeks to place an artist's oeuvre within some sort of evaluative context, it is a detailed empirical account that documents the life and work of this artist. The author succeeds in making himself almost invisible and allows his subject and the piles of assembled data to do the talking.
It is a detailed, brilliantly researched account that documents the artist's biography - in New Zealand where she was born and spent her early life, and in Canberra where she lived for most of her life, first on Mount Stromlo and subsequently in Canberra suburbia, in Deakin and then in Pearce.
The book also, and more importantly, documents Gascoigne's development as an artist, precisely noting where she did what and when, who she met, what she saw, what she said and what was said about her work. This collection of data is extraordinarily detailed and forensically documents where she sourced her materials (largely pillaged at various rubbish tips) and when and how she distilled them in her art. This book may not be a definitive account of her art, but no book can now ever be written on this artist without extensively drawing on the foundations laid in this book. In this, it is one of the best books of its kind to be devoted to an Australasian artist.
Possibly the most important achievement of this publication is the catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. In other words, a listing and illustration of all 692 works made by the artist, with virtually all of the pieces exhibited in her lifetime. Each entry has a comprehensive account of each work's exhibiting history, ownership, the literature devoted to it and a general discussion of its positioning in the artist's development.
Here the scholarship is detailed, very precise and a godsend to future scholars. A good comprehensive catalogue raisonné is the perfect antidote to prevent forgeries on the art market and serves to protect the integrity of the artist's work. Just imagine what could have been achieved in Indigenous Australian art if a reliable catalogue raisonné could be produced on some of the key artists, instead of the present situation of paranoid uncertainty with the art market crashing with suspect offerings on the secondary markets. This problem has been permanently avoided for the art of Gascoigne.
It was in the 1970s that she developed the maturity of vision to see in her piles of scavenged junk new associative arrangements.
Something that I find a curious quirk of ANU publishing is that the book is available in hardback for the princely sum of $175 or it can downloaded for free as an attractive pdf from the ANU website. A former student of mine published her doctoral dissertation with this publisher to have about a dozen copies sold in hardback and over 100,000 downloads of her book as e-copies. For a catalogue raisonné, this is a marvellously good idea, so that basically anyone who should want a copy can have it as a reliable and handy reference without a major investment.
Gascoigne cut her teeth, as an artist, on flower arrangements in the mid-1950s and by 1962 was learning ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. By mid-1960s she started using rusted farm metal to make figurative sculptures and was looking at other artists' work, especially Ken Whisson, Pablo Picasso and Colin McCahon. It was in the 1970s that she developed the maturity of vision to see in her piles of scavenged junk new associative arrangements that could evoke landscapes, moods and new creations that others could view and find within them a newly transfigured reality.
She had the rare ability to create a new natural order - one that was convincing and intelligible to others - and to do this with a transparency of means. We may still recognise the cut-up road signs, beehive boxes or painted soft-drink boxes, but in their new reconfiguration they convincingly speak to us of a new reality that we can explore and experience.
- 'Rosalie Gascoigne: A catalogue raisonné', by Martin Gascoigne, Australian National University Press, 444pp, $175