22 July 2017

Mae West - anyone for sex?!

Mae West (1893–1980) was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of a professional boxer. She made her first ap­pearance in Vaude­ville at 14, under the name Baby Mae. But although she always wanted to work in show business profess­ion­ally, her parents had her trained for a career as a garment worker instead. Per­haps that was why underage lass and the vaudeville song-and-dance man Frank Wallace were secretly mar­ried by a justice of the peace in Milwaukee in 1911.

Mae West got her big break in 1918 in the revue Sometime. Her character, Mayme, danced the shimmy, a brazen sexy dance that shook the top half of the female body. As more parts came her way, West began to shape her characters, often rewriting dialogue or character descriptions to better suit her roles. She eventually began writing her own plays, initially using the pen name Jane Mast.

Fame arrived with the play Sex, a provocatively titled Broadway production that “Jane Mast” wrote, produced and starred in. Mae cast herself in the role of a prostit­ute named Margie La Monte who wanted to improve her life by finding a well-to-do man to marry. 325,000 people flocked to the theatre to see Sex, once the season debuted in late 1926.

One night in Feb 1927 the puritanical New York city authorities decided to raid the theatre and arrest West and some of the other actors. Apparently fearing that Sex corrupted the morals of the youth, West was charged with obscenity, and sentenced to ten days in gaol on Welfare-Roos­ev­elt Island. She travelled there in style, garlanded in roses and riding in a limousine.

The sentence went re­m­arkably well: She dined with the warden, who she charmed; excited the press with cheeky tales of how she wore her silk undies in her cell; and was even all­owed out two days early for exemp­lary behaviour. In fact, she attracted so much media attention that her career was greatly enhanced, not diminished by her prison days.

Her great gift was her ability to satirise the prevailing soc­ial attitudes then, particularly America’s prudish public att­itude towards sex. That West had become a glamorous American sex symbol of the inter-war years suggested that she never shied away from taboo-breaking naughtin­ess. And got away with it!

One of Mae West's spectacular costumes in the film
I'm No Angel, 1933

West found further notoriety from her three sub­sequent plays: a] Drag 1927 (later renamed The Pleasure Man for Broadway), a play dealing with homosexuality; b] Diamond Lil 1928, which established her signature character in her later career; and c] The Constant Sin­ner 1931, which was shut down after just two performances by the district att­orney. The Pleasure Man ran for only one showing before also being shut down after West and the cast were arrested for obscenity, but this time getting off thanks to a hung jury.

Her plays showed how West could claim power within the con­fines of being a woman and a sex worker in the 1920s. In the plays, every woman was reduced to offering sex – that’s why it her first play was called Sex. But claiming power was not only ON the stage. Mae West was such a big star that she really did control­ her own image. If she could hold control in her own hands, then other women stars could do it too. Iron­ic­ally her naughty plays made the rising star not only fam­ous, but also one of the highest paid women in the USA.

Her controversies and successes soon drew the attention of Hol­lywood executives and it was only then that she took her bawdy app­roach across the country to Hollywood. Despite being 38 at the time, when glamour actresses started to wind down their car­eers, West found herself starting a movie career. Para­mount Pic­tures off­ered her a contract at $5,000 a week!! They also let her re-write her lines in the films.

Mae West looked wonderful and sounded witty

Night After Night, her first film, started in 1932.  A young handsome Cary Grant was her leading man in her second film, She Done Him Wrong  (1933) I'm No Angel (1933) was Mae West's third motion picture, again with Cary Grant. West received sole story and screenplay credit! Made before the "Hays Code" landed with a shudder in mid-1934., these were the three Mae West films that were not heavily censored. Thus it was on the silver screen that West reached the greatest heights of her fame.

Even on radio in the mid-late 1930s, her clever double-entendre lines and sly delivery got Mae West into trouble eg when she appeared alongside Don Ameche and Charlie McCarthy in 1937 in a popular NBC radio variety programme. The Radio Act had given the Federal Communications Commission the power of grant­ing licenses to broadcasters, which in turn largely controlled content. Featuring Mae West on a Sunday evening radio show tested the limits of what The Legion of Dec­ency and others were prepared to tolerate. In response, the FCC opened an in­vestigation and reprimanded NBC on the grounds of indecency. So NBC barred West from ANY network programmes; she would not return to radio again until 1950.

Nonetheless Mae West was still performing in her old age, with her last major production being the 1978 Sex­tette musical. She died in 1980 at 87 from a stroke.

Her sex appeal influenced culture all around the world, and can still be seen today: her image appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; her lips inspired Sal­vador Dali’s iconic Mae West Lips Sofa; and during WW2 the life vests worn by Allied Air Force personnel were nicknamed Mae Wests. I love the name of her 1959 autobiography - Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It. And I loved her explanation for her success - “I climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong”.

18 July 2017

Who should own the Koh i Noor Diamond - Britain, India, Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan?

Britain and India are not the only nations making claim to the amaz­ing Koh-i-Noor diamond. Half the nations in Central Asia have been, or will be in court over this treasure.

Up until 1304 the diamond was held by the Indian Rajas of Malwa. By 1304 the diamond came into the possession of the Emperor of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji. Then in 1339 the diamond was taken to the city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), where it stayed for centuries.

Clearly the diamond variously belonged to all the Indian and Persian rul­ers who fought bitter battles throughout history. In 1526 the Mog­­ul ruler Babur mentioned the diamond, gifted to him by the Sultan Ib­rahim Lodi of Delhi, in his writings. At 793 carats, it must have looked superb.

Shah Jahan (1592–1666) was the ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal mausoleum. But he also commissioned the very glamorous Peacock Throne, the Mughal throne of India in Delhi. The Koh-I-Noor was mounted on this very special piece of furniture. When he was imprisoned by his son Aurangazeb, Shah Jahan could only ever see his beloved Taj Mahal via the reflection in the diamond.

Aurangzeb might have been cruel to his own father, but at least he protected the diamond by having it cut down by a Venetian specialist to 186 carats, then brought the Koh-I-Noor to the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. Aurangzeb passed the jewel on to his heirs but Mahamad, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was not a great ruler like his grandfather. Sultan Mahamad lost a decisive battle to Nader.

Queen Alexandra's corontation 1902, 
with the Koh-i-Noor in the centre of her crown

Emperor Nader Shah, Shah of Persia (1736–47) and the founder of the Afsharid dynasty of Persia, invaded the Mughal Empire, event­ually attacking Delhi in March 1739. So Nader Shah took the diamond back to Persia and gave it its current name, Koh-i-noor/Mountain of Light. But Nader Shah did not live for long, because in 1747 he was assass­in­ated and the diamond went to his general, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

The defeated ruler of Afghanistan Shah Shuja Durrani brought the Koh-i-noor back to the Punjab in India in 1813 and gave it to Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire. Durrani made a deal: he would surrender the diamond to the Sikhs in exchange for help in winning back his Afghan throne.

Most of the Punjab region (including Delhi and Lahore) was annexed by Britain’s East India Company in 1849, and then moved to British cont­rol. The last Maharajah of the Sikhs, the 10 year old child Duleep Singh, wept when land and treasures of the Sikh Empire were confiscated by governor-general of India, Lord Dalhousie, and taken as war compen­sat­ion.  The diamond, the most tragic theft of all, was formally transferred to the treasury of the Brit­ish East India Co in Lahore! Even the Treaty of Lahore specifically discussed the fate of the Koh-i-Noor, in writing.

The diamond was proudly shipped by Lord Dalhousie to Queen Victoria in July 1850. It was a symbol of Victorian Britain's imperial domination of the world and its ability to take the most desirable objects from across the Empire... to display in British triumph.

And then it was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crys­tal Palace, in the south­ern central gallery. World Fairs were of­ten used to display a country’s greatest treasures. So, as expected, there was enormous excite­ment in Crystal Palace when official com­mentators and the general public first saw the jewel. Although there were 100,000 other exhibits displayed in Crystal Palace, the queues to see Queen Victoria’s diamond were the longest of all.

In 1852 the Queen decided to reshape the diamond and it was taken to a Dutch jeweller to re-cut it. The Koh-i-Noor had originally been one of the world’s largest uncut diamonds, but by 1852 the size had been reduced again, this time down to 106 carats. Queen Victoria wore the diamond occasionally afterwards. She wrote in her will that the Koh-i-noor should only be worn by queens.

After Queen Victoria died, the Koh-i-Noor diamond was crafted into the Crown Jew­els and displayed at the Tower of London.

The Koh i Noor diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown
106 carats during Victoria's reign.

In 1947, the partition of India led to the Punjab being divided into the newly created Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan. This partition has influenced the cases brought in Brit­ish courts over the last few years. Recently the descendants of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire said they were forced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British; they launched a court action in the UK to get the diamond back in Sept 2012. The case depended on the diamond being one of the many artefacts taken from India under ugly circumstances. The Indian lawyers claimed the British colon­isation of India had stolen wealth and destroyed the country’s psyche. Their court case failed.

But India was not the only nation with a historical claim to the diamond – it had passed through Persian, Hindu, Mughal, Turkic, Afghan and Sikh owners centuries before it was seized by the British in the C19th. So expect the British to face another legal battle, after a Pakistani judge accepted a petition de­manding that the Queen hand the $200 million stone back to them. Mind you, in 2013 the Prime Minister David Cameron said that returning the stone was out of the question. Will the next prime minister say the same to Persia/Iran?

Historians last question is "what is the proper response to imperial looting?" Read the brand new book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. The history of the Koh-i-Noor, that was accepted by the Brit­ish, is no longer a glorious piece of the nation’s colonial past. That history is finally challenged! The resulting version, now pub­lished, is one of greed, murder, wars, torture, colonialism and approp­riation.

15 July 2017

3 fake Brett Whiteley paintings: the nation’s biggest art fraud?

Australia's most famous modern artist, Brett Whiteley, married Wendy Julius in 1962; their only child Arkie (1964-2001) became a talented actress. After the traumatic law case over her late father's will, Arkie developed cancers in her lungs and liver, tragically dying aged 37.

In the meantime, Brett’s career as a painter blossomed. His Sydney Harbour scenes appeared in the collections of all the large Australian galleries, and was twice winner of the presitigious Archibald Prize. He held many exhibitions, living and painting in Australia, Britain and Italy.

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in the USA. There he met other artists and musicians while he lived at the Hotel Chelsea New York, befriending musicians Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Perhaps in New York, Whiteley became increasingly addicted to her­oin and alcohol.

Back in Australia his work output began to decline, al­though its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to elim­inate drugs completely, alas unsuccessfully. In 1989, he and Wendy, whom he had always credited as his muse, divorced. Al­th­ough they div­orced three years before Brett’s death from a heroin overdose in 1992, Wendy Whiteley al­ways controlled Brett's estate, including the copyright to his works. She went on to play an imp­or­t­ant role in the estab­lishment of the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Mark Russell discussed two art men in Melbourne who were found guilty of Austral­ia's biggest art fraud, after selling forged paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley for a total of $3.6 million. In April 2016, the Crown claimed art conservator Mohamed Siddique painted the artworks in his Collingwood studio. Art dealer Peter Gant then passed them off to unsuspecting buyers as or­iginal 1988 Whiteley paintings. At some time in the past Mr Gant had indeed bought a real Whiteley painting, View From The Sitting Room Window Lav­ender Bay for $1.7 mill. This authentic work was then sent to Mr Siddique a short time later, to use as a blue­print to create fake paintings.

Theirs was a joint criminal enterprise for the creation of paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley: Big Blue Lavender Bay, Orange Lavender Bay and Through the Window Lavender Bay. Blue Lavender Bay was sold for $2.5 million to Sydney Swans chairman in 2007 and Orange Laven­d­er Bay sold for $1.1 m to a Sydney luxury car dealer in 2009. The Crown claimed the third fake, Through the Window, was offered for sale by Mr Gant for $950,000.

Brett Whiteley
Blue Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $2.5 million. 
Was it a fake?

Brett Whiteley
Orange Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $1.1 million. 
Was it also a fake?

The men's defence barristers argued that the sold paintings were Whiteley originals, bought from the artist's manager by Mr Gant and kept in storage for nearly 20 years. And photographer Jeremy James told the court that he had snapped both Big Blue and Orange Lavender Bay for a 1989 Gant catalogue. While the two art dealers readily admitted that the three paintings were not Whiteley's best work, they explained to the court that Whiteley had been a heroin addict in 1988.

Yet no art dealers had the same intimate knowledge of Brett White­ley's work as his widow, Wendy, who was adamant the paintings were fakes. Having lived with Brett’s art since 1962, she was shocked and stunned by the defendants. Her worse fear was that had Gant and Siddique been found not guilty, Brett's real legacy would be negatively affected.

When the 2016 trial heard the evidence, the jury was not allowed to hear about artists Bob Dickerson and Charles Blackman’s successful court case against Peter Gant for selling fake copies of their works. Unfortunately for the artists, Gant was soon declared bank­rupt and wasn’t able to pay them back for their losses.

In the Whiteley case, Justice Michael Croucher ruled the lack of proof had so seriously damaged the Crown's case, the jury could have leave to immediately acquit the men. However the jury still found them guilty: Mr Gant was guilty of two counts of obtaining a finan­cial advantage by deception and one of attempting to obtain a financial advantage by deception involving the three other artworks. Mr Siddique was found guilty of two counts of ob­taining a financial advantage by deception and one count of attempt­ing to obtain a financial advantage by deception.

At the pre-sentence hearing for the two men, Gant got five years and Siddique got three years. In the meantime Justice Croucher provided a detailed report to the Court of Appeal on why he bel­ieved the jury should have acquitted Gant and Siddique of the nation’s biggest alleged art fraud.

Brett Whiteley
Self Portrait in the Studio, 1976
Art Gallery of NSW.

In 2016, both Gant and Suddique had unsuccessfully professed their inn­ocence. So imagine the shock when, as Rebecca Urban reported,  the case fell over in April 2017. After a last-minute concession from prosecutors, the three presiding judges returned to the court and quashed the convictions of Mr Gant and Mr Siddique. The two men walked free from Court of Appeal.

The decision by the Victorian Court of Appeal sent shock­-waves through the art industry. And yet I still cannot find any police officers in this country specifically responsible for tracking art crime nor can I find an effective database for record­ing stolen art. The Whiteley, Dickerson and Blackman cases were not the only art crimes in Australia of course:  in 1977 twenty-seven works by Grace Cossington Smith were stolen from the Macquarie Gallery in NSW and have never been recovered.