A conversation with Irena Zdanowicz

A page from the original interview in Imprint (Spring 2002 Volume 37 Number 3) featuring an image of Irena Zdanowicz with Rembrandt’s Woman with the Arrow, etching and drypoint, printed with surface tone, 1661. This impression was purchased by the NGV in 1998 with the assistance of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Photography by Predrag Cancar, National Gallery of Victoria.

‘Print connoisseurship has been ridiculed since at least the seventeenth century, and there is no one better than an experienced, cash-strapped, twenty-first century curator to defend it!’

Imprint Spring 2002 Volume 37 Number 3.
Cover image: Milan Milojevic, Two Worlds Collide #1, 2002, digital print and woodcut, 73.5 x 73.5 cm.

This interview was conducted by the art consultant, curator and writer Anne Kirker and published in Imprint Spring 2002, Volume 37 Number 3.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) will open its new home for Australian art in Federation Square, Melbourne, in late 2002. The redeveloped St Kilda Road building, which will display the collections of International art, will reopen in late 2003 and it is here that the Department of Prints and Drawings will be located. One staff member who has been linked at the helm of this Department for over twenty years, Irena Zdanowicz, will not be among the four full-time staff members who look after the 22,000 or so works on paper in the new building. Irena left her position in November last year to pursue independent research, consultancy, and freelance curatorial work. It is a turning point for this colleague and for the most well-known Print Room in Australia. I have known Irena as a colleague and as a friend for close on twenty-five (it may be longer!) years and I am keenly aware of the considerable contribution she has made to the area of print specialisation in particular. I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to ask some questions of her for Imprint:

Anne Kirker: Irena, what attracted you to the field of print curatorship?

I became fascinated with prints in the mid 1960s when, as a student in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne, I took Ursula Hoff’s course in prints and drawings in the NGV Print Room in Swanston Street. I’d spent long hours looking at paintings in the public spaces of the NGV, but I’d never before handled works of art. The experience was intriguing and thrilling. It was then that I became interested, and very soon, engrossed in the history of the graphic arts. I also responded to the physical qualities of prints: to the deepness of the blacks in drypoint, for instance, or to the delicacy of grey tones and the raised surface of the etched line. It’s a predilection I suddenly became aware of. I never thought I’d be a Print Curator but I knew then that I wanted to work in an art museum, working closely with works of art. I actually began my curatorial career at the NGV in 1968 in the Department of Decorative Arts in the metalwork area. There I had the opportunity to investigate the source of a design embossed on some seventeenth century silver. I had a hunch that the composition was based on a printed design and eventually after leafing through book after book, I found what I hoped I would in a series of seventeenth century Bible illustrations. The cultural importance of prints, specifically their function as conveyors and transmitters of information – both visual and conceptual – and the relationship of drawings and prints to works done in other media makes their study deeply engrossing.

AK: When did you start work in the Print Room of NGV? Who were your mentors? How did you educate yourself in the highly specialised field?

I was appointed Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1972 after Nicholas Draffin left to go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Sonia Dean was head of the Print Room at the time and I worked closely with her for some ten years. She taught by example, by delegating responsibilities and by virtue of her fine judgement in all matters administrative, artistic and literary. I was also extremely fortunate in being at the Gallery while Ursula Hoff was there. Though many circumstances in art museums have changed, Dr Hoff remains a role model and an exemplar for Australian curators and art historians. In fact, the Print Study Room at the NGV is named in her honour. You’re right in posing the question about self-education because that is exactly what happens throughout a curatorial career. You start off with the basics, and with a focus on a particular area, and you learn about the vast field along the way. Sustained work with a collection is essential and working with a collection like the NGV educates you. The literature on prints is extensive and extremely interesting and one always looks at prints alongside books. For the decade that I was Assistant Curator I prepared and supervised the Print Study Room on two afternoons each week. Doing that continually exposes you to a vast array of material that others want to see, and it keeps you on your toes. In 1978 I was awarded one of the Harold Wright Scholarships to the British Museum Print Room and was able to spend a year there studying, reflecting, reading, observing. It was the most marvellous twelve months not only for the access it gave me to the collections of the British Museum but also for the contacts it enabled me to make in the museum world. It was also important for another reason: during my year in London I was in close touch with Ursula Hoff who was working there at the time as Felton Bequest Adviser. She introduced me to people in the art world, including dealers, and invited me with her when she was selecting acquisitions; she would also occasionally come into the Print Study Room to look at prints with me. It was an invaluable opportunity. Before that, and subsequently, I’ve spent most of my holidays abroad, renewing professional contacts, seeing exhibitions and doing research on the collection and for exhibitions.

AK: Describe the collection you inherited at the NGV.

The range of the collection is vast, spanning the whole history of printmaking from the late fifteenth century to the present day. It includes Australian as well as European and American art and it has its particular strengths in all periods and schools. Care had been taken to acquire the best possible impressions. Apart from some instances of well-meaning but reckless over-exposure of certain major prints in the first half of the twentieth century (before the arrival of Daryl Lindsay and Ursula Hoff), the collection had been very well looked after both in the physical and scholarly sense. A brief survey of the collection would begin with the early Italian engravers and Dürer in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; Callot, Hollar, Van Dyck and Rembrandt in the seventeenth century; the British watercolourists, Blake, Goya, Piranesi in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century; French nineteenth century printmakers. In the latter half of the twentieth century we had the beginnings of a representation of the mid-twentieth century printmaking revival in the U.S.A. and this was soon to be vastly enlarged through the acquisition of Fred Genis’s printer’s proof lithographs. The traditional association of the NGV with British art and the English art market meant that the British school was pretty well represented in most periods. Not surprisingly the focus of the Australian collection was art produced in Melbourne, which is not to say that major artists working elsewhere in Australia were ignored. Buying had clearly been extremely selective though larger groups of works had occasionally been acquired.

AK: What brief did you set yourself for the collection? Did it change over time?

In the first instance it was to maintain and to develop the standards set by my predecessors, though I always thought of that as a responsibility and challenge rather than a ‘brief’. I’ve always strongly believed in the custodial role of the curator – a responsibility that depends on a good knowledge of the collection, a knowledge of the history of your subject and an eye to the future. Providing public access to the collection through the Print Study Room was always important to me, even when staff shortages made this difficult to ensure. But we have always had strong support for the Print Study Room from artists, who traditionally have been amongst the most informed and interested users of the collection. I wanted to encourage research into the collection, to disseminate information about it through exhibitions and publications. Since it’s impossible to do this single-handedly, we often worked in collaboration with our international colleagues and with those in universities locally; that too was extremely rewarding. For curators of works of art on paper there is a never-ending demand for exhibitions – it’s one way of making the collection available to the public. I also wanted to make good acquisitions across the board, of historical as well as contemporary art, an increasingly difficult assignment as the local commercial gallery scene reconfigured itself by expanding enormously, and as prices soared and the value of the dollar fell. The availability of first rate works on the international market also dried up. As for change, it’s nothing new; we’ve constantly been in the midst of it and have constantly had to adjust. The course of action recommended by curators is dependent on the policies and decisions of the current Director and Trustees. Throughout this time, however, we were able to continue researching and documenting the important parts of the collection through a series of collection catalogues, many of them sponsored by a great benefactor of the Print Room, Mr Robert Raynor: Dürer, Rembrandt, Master Drawings, Blake, Goya, Picasso, important parts of the collection of Australian watercolours. Several of these catalogues, I’m happy to say, are now out-of-date as a result of a number of major acquisitions that will be revealed when the NGV reopens its doors at Federation Square and St Kilda Road.

AK: What exhibitions did you mount that you are particularly proud of? Why?

Devising exhibitions, as well as installing those assembled by others, always presents a fascinating challenge and I found each exhibition totally engrossing at the time I was engaged with it. Visitors bring with them different levels of knowledge and differing expectations when they come to see a show and one is obliged to select carefully and to present the material clearly. The Dürer exhibition we did in 1994 to accompany the launch of the catalogue of the collection is one that stands out. People flocked to it and they made many repeated visits. Of course the material is first rate; it is a complete collection of Dürer’s prints with impressions of sparkling quality and it was therefore possible to choose exactly what was required. But it is also a very large collection and we had a whole team of people working on it: curators, conservators, mount-cutters, photographers, librarians, art historians and historians and everyone worked tremendously well together. To accompany the exhibition two of our academic colleagues – Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika – convened an excellent cross-disciplinary symposium at the University of Melbourne and subsequently edited the symposium papers for publication. The work was so intense at one stage that Cathy Leahy, who now heads the Gallery’s Department of Prints and Drawings, and I both got severe cases of repetitive strain injury in our writing hands during the exhibition and catalogue preparation, and we only just managed to survive! Another exhibition that comes to mind was that of Margaret Stone’s drawings; it stands out not just for the quality of the work but because it introduced me to the field of botanical science, a discipline and a system of knowledge that was entirely new to me. To learn in this way is a great privilege. The Rembrandt exhibitions I’ve worked on in 1988 and again in 1997 were special because of my particular interest in the artist. In the area of Australian art the same might be said of Fred Williams, an exhibition of whose prints I worked in 1981.

AK: And acquisitions? Which works did you chase and secure?

There are those acquisitions you chase and those that drop like manna from heaven. Of the latter there was Mrs James Evan’s gift of drawings and prints by a group of artists working in mid nineteenth century Melourne, including Edward La Trobe Bateman, Georgiana McCrae and Louisa Anne Meredith. She rang the Department out of the blue, a phone call that eventually resulted in the transformation of our collection of colonial art. Then, too, Lyn Williams and James Mollison have been systematically enabling us to build the country’s main research collection of Fred Williams’s prints, with many rare trial proofs as well as variant states and impressions; it’s now a great collection. We have acquired some very fine nineteenth century French prints, including those by Redon, two major works by William Blake – an early edition of the Songs of Innocence and a coloured version of the Night Thoughts. The Night Thoughts may have belonged to Alfred Felton himself, so it was of particular interest to us and we bought it at auction in London, through the Felton Bequest, having had less than a week’s notice of the sale. That really was a chase. Our first two etchings by Canaletto entered the collection in 1982. More recently we’ve acquired major Picasso prints, not all of which have yet been seen publicly. However, in the Old Master area, one acquisition stands out and that is the purchase of a group of three Rembrandt etchings from the Ritman collection. They will be seen for the first time in the opening displays in the St Kilda Road building. It was a very complex and long drawn out negotiation, but it’s a wonderful group of works and a great addition to the collection overall. Mr James Fairfax has put it on record, in an interview in the Art Newspaper, that he wishes to help the Gallery build its collection of Rembrandt etchings, so that is something to look forward to. While we’re in the seventeenth century I shouldn’t omit mentioning the wonderful old master drawing that was acquired through the Felton Bequest in 1981, the year I became head of the Department: a very beautiful sheet on pink prepared paper by Claude from the Wildenstein Album. These are some of the highlights or hard won chases, but what is equally important is the sustained purchasing of contemporary art. Acquisition funds are, to put it mildly, small, and the Victorian State Government doesn’t contribute to the acquisition budget. This budget also has to cover all costs associated with acquisitions, such as transport, insurance, mount board, solander boxes, framing etc., which, as you know, can be substantial. The purchase of a single work can blow the budget, so the whole area of acquisitions presented the greatest challenge and one that is always taken very seriously.

AK: What changes in approach to the print in particular have occurred in the Print Room from the days of Ursula Hoff to now?

The computer and, through it, the introduction of the dematerialised matrix (where the image or information is stored electronically or digitally, rather than in the physical form of a plate, block or screen) has been the single most radical technical innovation. What artists do with the technology is another matter and its mere use is no guarantee of merit. Nevertheless, there have already been some substantial achievements, for example the works of Patricia Piccinini in Australia or Richard Hamilton in England. It’s still early days, however, and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the existing forms of printmaking are obsolete. As for print scholarship, I think that perhaps greater emphasis is now placed on considering the individual impression, not simply the edition. For example, a closer examination of papers that Rembrandt used for his prints has yielded new information about how and when he published them. We now know that Rembrandt reprinted plates some years after they were first issued, a fact that can be dated fairly securely through an examination of the watermarks. Greater interest has also been taken in the procedures and the economics of print publishing. Alongside this we’ve witnessed a burgeoning interest in the history of collecting, though this is one area in which Ursula Hoff was a pioneer. The printed image is now much more frequently used by historians as cultural evidence, and their methodology has freed up the way art historians approach the subject. But that of course also characterises other late twentieth century approaches to art history, such as that which emerged from feminism.

AK: Is there still a place for a Print Room in our art museums? What function does it serve today, given that some curatorial departments are being restructured to eradicate media boundaries in favour of integration according to a set period of time (such as Contemporary Art)?

So long as substantial collections of prints and drawings exist there remains a place in the contemporary art museum for a Print Room. Only a Print Room can provide optimum conditions for viewing works of art, or, as the NGV’s current statement of purpose goes, of ‘bringing art and people together’ in ideal circumstances. This is not simply a matter of physical proximity but a matter, too, of intellectual proximity and engagement; it requires informed, specialist staff. But print curators cannot be blinkered and I don’t believe they are; everyone is acutely aware of the need to think not only of their part of the collection, but of the museum’s collection overall. Collaboration is absolutely essential and everyone is aware of it. The restructuring that has occurred in some places is one manifestation of economic rationalism in the museum sphere: you gain some things, but you lose an awful lot. Most especially you lose knowledge, and not just specialist knowledge about a particular part of the collection, but knowledge of how to assess the work, how to interpret it and how to present it to the public. A collection dies if research on it stops and it stops when specialists are got rid of.

AK: The word ‘connoisseurship’ is often unpopular in postmodern circles. How do you reconcile the fact that art history has moved on and that the visual arts are often used in highly speculative thematic ways?

Print connoisseurship has been ridiculed since at least the seventeenth century, and there is no one better than an experienced, cash-strapped, twenty-first century curator to defend it! Let me begin answering your question by posing some of my own: in a sale exhibition of many equally fine works how do you decide which one to propose for acquisition? What measures of judgment do you use? Do you buy something that you notice has a printer’s fault, or do you point it out and ask for another impression? Do you select a brilliant impression from a first edition, or go for the slightly cheaper, but dulled one from the second? Then again, do you go for the immaculately printed impression of a Gauguin woodcut printed by Pola, or the rough and unevenly printed one made by the artist? One must know the printing standards that apply in a given area or in the case of a given artist. There’s no question that connoisseurship is important; it’s a matter of knowing the facts and the context of production, rather than having some form of esoteric knowledge. The quality of the impression so often carries the meaning, meaning which may otherwise be diluted or even lost, thereby diminishing the impact of your thematic speculation. On the other hand, if these matters are not important to an artist, then that has to be accepted. For example such issues have no particular relevance to the documentation of performance art in the 1970s, though of course one wants the material record to be in good physical condition. As for thematic exhibitions, there have been good ones and bad ones. The good ones are carefully selected and include art that is inherently interesting, not merely superficially relevant.

AK: How should curators reconcile the fact that the print has a separate history from that of other art disciplines and that this history is often overlooked in integrated collection hangs?

There are many histories of art, and now many ways of approaching the history of art. There are also many different kinds of collections and different cultures in which they exist. Some major European institutions wouldn’t dream of integrated hangs, largely for the reasons you identify – prints indeed have a history of their own, and it shouldn’t be thrown out – but also due to the lighting and conservation requirements of the material, and to the visual disruption that can stem from a disparity of scale. It is also interesting that while the graphic arts have their separate history they are simultaneously most closely related to works in other media. In fact, there is arguably as much overlap as there is divergence to reconcile; it’s one of the very things that makes their study so fascinating. But it depends on how you deal with the issues. In the Australian situation there certainly is a place for integrated hangs, though the difficulties and dangers need to be spelled out, even at the risk of harping: continually recycling the same key works – which is in practice what usually happens in such situations – can threaten their long-term survival. There are probably examples in all Australian collections of prints and drawings that have in the past been damages through over-exposure to light. The staff of art museums must never forget that they are custodians, not owners of the collection they look after. A lively collaboration across departments is essential, and it certainly exists at the NGV. As for the loss of knowledge which occurs when specialist curators disappear, that is always to be regretted, because I believe that specialist knowledge is the most effective springboard to creative, speculative thinking. That having been said, I do recognise that institutions differ, and that what would be inappropriate for one collection may sometimes be reasonable for another. But I don’t think there’s a danger of the Department of Prints and Drawings disappearing in Melbourne. The collection is too substantial and there is a very strong curatorial staff who work extremely well together.

 

At the time this interview took place, Anne Kirker was Head of International Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane