Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Posted: 10 Jul 2004

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was an extraordinary figure who inspired extreme emotions ranging from intense love to outright derision throughout his lifetime. Yet despite an international profile greater than that of any other Aboriginal artist, Possum's life and work remain a subject of controversy two years after his death. His name is synonymous with the emergence and success of the modern Aboriginal art movement, but his work rarely appears on the secondary market. The stature of a many of his works in public and private hands is diminished by the lack of investigation into his life.

Given the enmity and antagonism that exists between a number of people with axes to grind, reputations to protect, and large collections of his paintings to underpin in terms of authenticity and value, it's not surprising. In fact most of those with large holdings of his work express outrage at the current estimates being suggested by auction houses and retail galleries, and are apparently not interested in offering them for sale.

All this makes the current Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri retrospective, even more important. Curated by the Art Gallery of South Australia, and touring Australia, the Sydney opening at the Art Gallery of NSW in May was accompanied by a seminar by Dr Vivien Johnson, the highly respected author of two books on the artist. She knew the man well.

Clifford Possum, Carpet Snake Dreaming

A gifted carver, Possom was one of the three founders and foremost figures of the early Papunya Tula movement , along with Tim Leura and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa. He produced a number of major and profoundly powerful works in the mid 1970's and early 1980's most notably his 'Warlugulong' canvases produced during 1976 and 1977, one of which is in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, and 'Yuutjutiyungu' in 1979 which resides in the Santa Monica based Kelton Foundation.

These early masterpieces have a stronger ethnographic appearance and appeal than the series of absolutely stunningly composed works he produced during the early 1980's which culminated in what is, in my own opinion, his greatest work, the strikingly conceived and composed 'Yinyalingi - Honey Ant Dreaming Story, 1983' which resides in the collection of the Australian National Gallery.

Possum went on to compile a powerful body of work into the late 1980's. His art became notable for its brilliant manipulation of three-dimensional space and the introduction of strong figurative elements that stood out from a background of highly descriptive dotting.

Yet by 1988 something appeared to be going terribly wrong in his personal life, which carried through into his paintings. Like so many of the major artistic figures who followed him, including the great Emily Kngwarreye, the pressure to make money and to support a large and extended family seemed to grow intolerable. In addition, or perhaps because of it, he had become an alcoholic and an inveterate gambler, both manipulated and manipulative. Surrounded by his daughters, their husbands and extended family and an ever-changing array of hangers on, Clifford, the artist, retreated more and more into the background as they, or family members, completed canvases with varying degrees of input from Possum himself.

These 'School of Clifford Possum' paintings, signed by the artist, or bearing a forged signature, most notable for the tiny o's scattered through his name 'CLIFFoRD PoSSUM', were produced in quantity and fed to an ever growing small industry supplying a ready market. A widely publicised solo exhibition at a prominent Sydney art gallery, organised by the disgraced dealer John O'Laughlan (through unwittingly, the late Patrick Corbally Staunton), was exposed as being almost entirely composed of fakes.

Later Possum himself visited a number of prominent State and private collections pointing out the large number of works purported to have been painted by him, which were in fact painted by others. Throughout the 1990's and until his death in 2002 Possum continued to paint works entirely by himself, which were well documented and sold to a number of ethical dealers. But any comparison of these with his earlier emblematic works reveals, in my opinion, a lack of the integrity and grand vision which distinguished his earlier works.

Just recently, on the eve of the retrospective's visit to the Art Gallery of NSW, a very beautiful large work entitled Four Dreamings was offered to Lawson Menzies for its May Aboriginal art sale. On first inspection it had all the hallmarks of one of his great works of the early 1980's with a complex arrangement of three dimensional space and the interweaving of an number of important men's stories, all of which checked out as belonging to the artist. It was, in fact, a quite stunning painting and seemed to be a wonderful addition to the sale. The painting had been in the possession of a West Australian collector for many years after he purchased it through the Aboriginal Arts Australia outlet in Perth run by Mary Macha and her sister Betty Jones in the late 1980's.

Everything seemed to stack up until images were sent out to a series of Clifford experts including Vivien Johnson herself. Only then did it appear that there were a number of incongruities in the image including the way the footprints had been rendered, the asymmetric way in which the stories were interwoven, and telltale iconography indicating other members of the family had participated in the creation of the work. After a month of investigation it appeared that the majority of the painting was actually undertaken by the husband of one of Possum's daughters who, when shown an image of the work volunteered that he had in fact painted it in its entirety.

With this admission the auction house considered offering this none-the-less very attractive painting, in its sale with the attribution 'School of Clifford Possum' in the hope that it might stimulate debate around the issues raised by it, and other similar works, during the symposium at the Art Gallery of NSW.

It is a pity, though not surprising that the owner, informed that his work was not by the late great artist, and shy of any adverse publicity, withdrew the work from the sale. Until there is a complete reappraisal of his life's work, there is little doubt that the art of one of the greatest of all Aboriginal painters will continue to be clouded in controversy and virtually excluded from sale through the secondary market.

Image: Carpet Snake Dreaming, c 1991-92, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c. 1934 - 2002, Aboriginal), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 210 x 127cm. Copyright of The Estate of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Courtesy of Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

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Issue 38