Friday, 1 July 2005

Statuary Friday #14

Golly, it's Friday already. Time for a bit of statue blogging! Melbourne public outdoor statue blogging, even!

#14 Redmond Barry

State Library of Victoria forecourt, Swanston St, City

Having done exactly what I intended not to do, & injudiciously and greedily run through many of my favourite Melbourne sculptures much too quickly, I'm going to try to make amends by dedicating the month of July to real, honest-to-goodness, "actual statues". Meaning, a bronze or marble famous/important/deceased dude, gazing nobly into the distance, and ever so nobly poised upon a nice big imposing block of stone engraved with lashings of gilt and Roman capitals, and maybe a nice bronze bas-relief or two if the person is extra-special. I know, hardcore. I've more or less avoided these statues, and Melbourne has loads and loads of them, partly because addressing them seems to require historical erudition (or the patience to fake it) and partly because if you've seen one, you might just have seen them all. Not to get too far off-topic, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that any boring and/or trivial old rubbish can be made scintillatingly interesting by exposure to the fierce force of the critic's (or perhaps pundit's) personality. I think that's rather arrogant. (Except, maybe, when Roland Barthes did it.) So my challenge to myself is to look at these sculptures and see what (if anything) they have to say, without piling my own stuff up around them. (I sound a little confused,hee hee, probly because I am rather. Lucky this is a weblog and not an address to the United Nations, eh.)

Redmond Barry then....hmm. Look at this picture, first:

Now how bad-looking are those horrid banners they persist on hanging between the pillars of the SLV? If you've ever stood about out the front waiting, in Melbourne wind and drizzle, for the ten o'clock opening, you'll know that they do in fact serve a useful secondary purpose. But they look awful - really, really wrong. All part of the depressing, bad direction the SLV is headed in; management is trying to make it a tourist site and not a working library any more. They are well on the way to achieving the latter with little hope of getting anywhere much with the former.

Barry would probably not have liked the banners, nor what's happening to the library. (Even though the new-ish reading room where the big dinosaur-bone gallery of the Museum used to be, is named after him.) Among other energetic, bold, farsighted, important deeds, Barry started the colony's first public library in the 1850s, shortly after Victoria got its independence from NSW. Apparently before there was a public library, Barry would let citizens use his own personal library, presumably for books they could not get from the paid subscription libraries.

I gather he worked astonishingly hard (and successfully) on establishing central institutions in this city. (He was a Judge, too, and also had a hand in setting up the University of Melbourne.) It's tricky to know what honestly to make of such a person. On the one hand, you have the monumentally bad post-Foucault karma attached to being such a complete and utter Founding Father. On the other, there is the fact that the library in particular, (and UniMelb too, she says grudgingly) is such a brilliant thing to have created for a city. It's all the more amazing, when you consider what Melbourne Town would have been like in the 1850s, that the library building is so large and ambitious and utterly superb. That degree of provision for the future, is it about confidence, or about wishfulness, or is it a sort of gamble perhaps? Then there is the Neoclassical-ness of the building, another thing I have very mixed emotions about. Compared to Sydney's key early public buildings, it expresses a distinct lack of interest or faith in the development of an Australian architectural style, it's totally Eurocentric - but strangely, it's Eurocentric without any sense of cultural cringe. More like, calmly claiming the heritage that's ours by right, just as it's everyone's whose culture can be traced back to Greece.

The statue was put up in 1887, seven years after Barry's death. I find it interesting that it's in front of the Library, rather than say somewhere at Melbourne Uni or in the vicinity of the courts. He's wearing scholarly clothes (mortarboard in hand) not judge clothes, and holding a book. The statue is High Victorian in style, the sculptor (whose name I can't find) has been careful to decorate the plain austere surfaces of his academic regalia with little bits and bobs, embroidery and braid and buttons and lacy trimmings. He is shown as a rather fat man, but with broad, strong shoulders. On first look, the statue sits well with the building behind it - but only on first look, I think. After that it looks like something from a more refined and genteel and luxurious and over-the-top era. The more I look at it, the more doubled and split this statue seems, down to the incidentals. Redmond has a number of wires sticking out of the top of his smooth skull, they look a bit like incense sticks, or perhaps bunny ear antennae. I hypothesise they're there to stop the gulls landing and depositing Gorbachev marks on his wide brow, and he is unusually free of birdshit. The antennae sure do look weird, though.

As every Australian child at some point is told, it was Judge Barry who condemned Ned Kelly (a fellow Irishman, but surely the antithesis of Redmond Barry in every other possible way) then promptly died, indeed before Kelly's death sentence was carried out.
“His Honour then sentenced the prisoner to death in the usual form, ending with the words, “May the Lord have mercy on your soul.” The prisoner: “I will go a little further than that, and say I will see you there when I go.”

Today, you can go look at Ned Kelly's armour in the State Library of Victoria. In fact, you can take seven hundred school children to see it: who cares if they make a little bit of noise?


Ampersand Duck said...

I bet you care when they make a lot of noise!

Such a big head, such a little body! Such a big emphasis on the word ERECTED. Maybe the wires are there to transform him into a man of the future, something akin to My Favorite Martian? Are they really necessary -- maybe a little gull guano would be evocative of the judicial wig?

Well done again, anyway.

Anonymous said...

The reading room in the SLV is named after Redmond? Since visiting Melbourne a couple of years ago I've been telling every Swans fan I meet that there's this big room named after Barry Hall...


Mallrat said...

The rear view makes it look like he's about to start flashing.

Anonymous said...

Light bulbs behind the eyes. YES!

It would be easy to organise you know. Coupla lights, small battery, some glue.. dark night during the film fest and instantly we have THE LIBRARY VAMPIRE.

Oh yes.

- barista