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Documenting Visual Arts in Australia

In 2006 the Research Library at the National Gallery of Australia, in collaboration with the National Library of Australia, digitised around 100 interviews with Australian artists. These were undertaken by notable Surrealist artist James Gleeson in the late 1970s. The James Gleeson Oral History Collection was inscribed on the Australian Register in 2008.

The James Gleeson interviews demonstrate that an artist’s engagement with the visual world does not hinder his or her ability to speak about the experience of creating art. From the interview, the listener gains a clear sense of the creative process and the context that has led the artist to create the work. The storytelling in the oral history interview captures both the pleasures of memory and the act of creativity.

Oral history has an interesting place in a museum and gallery context. It revolves around the power and reliability of memory and the spoken word in an environment that values the written word, and the physical document and object. Oral history is able to capture the emotions, ideas and what it means to be a person living in their own time. It tells the experience of an artist with the potency of the present tense.

Interviews with artists discussing the works acquired by the National Gallery provide an immediacy of experience that can be lacking from written documentation. For research and interpretation they can offer a profound and personal insight into how they created their works. They also provide an additional context – the story of how the object was created as well as the story the artwork provides to the public in the gallery space. They are also the story of their acquisition by the National Gallery and how the works form part of the history of its collecting activities.

In one interview, James Gleeson asks the painter Brett Whiteley about the ‘symphonic’ quality of a particular painting and Brett Whiteley responds:

Yes, yes indeed, Yes, but I felt…after a while I just started to feel the picture as being almost like music. That so many of the forms are similar in the element of curvature and there is very…it is very, very subtle where lines are straight, where geometry is hard and where it’s softened. There was the droning of bees that were perpetually around; wasps and the whole creaking sound of summer, you know, in a sense started to become the music of the picture.

In this very evocative description, Gleeson and Whiteley’s voices are animated and engaged. The use of musical metaphors to capture the visual process of painting highlights the ability of an oral history interview to capture the essence of the process of creation by the artist. The ability to hear the excitement in Whiteley’s voice is what makes an oral history interview different from a written one – the use of the human voice itself as the primary source material.1

An individual who broke new ground in the visual arts in Australia, Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, is the only visual artist to date to have a stand-alone inscription on the Australian Register. His archives, held by the State Library of South Australia and the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne, demonstrate the revolutionary changes that this Polish-born immigrant brought to the world of Australian visual art.

Ostoja-Kotkowski’s artistic output encompassed many disciplines, and included painting, photography, film-making, theatre design, stained glass, kinetic and static sculpture, murals, vitreous enamels, op-art collages, computer graphics and laser art. He is recognised as a pioneer in the development of experimental arts in Australia, combining scientific technology with artistic works to create virtual realities.

Adelaide people in the 1960s flocked to his early laser/light shows teamed with contemporary electronic music. In 1967, while travelling on a Churchill Fellowship, he had discovered lasers at Stamford University in the USA. Ostoja-Kotkowski developed an installation using a laser beam whose sweep synchronised with voices and/or electronic music to produce images on a screen, which became his first ‘Sound and Image’ production at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1968 – possibly the first time a laser had been used in a theatre. Ostoja-Kotkowski was exhilarated by the effect of the laser beam, declaring that ‘The blue green is so brilliant that an aquamarine stone reflecting in the sunlight appears dull in comparison.’2

His archives, inscribed on the Australian Register in 2008, document the impact of a man of tremendous energy and talent who combined science and art to produce work of great innovation, beauty and diversity, and who contributed an extraordinary amount to the artistic life of Australia.


Jennifer Coombes, ‘Art and Words: Conversations from the NGA Archive’, Museums Australia Magazine, February 2006, pp. 10-11.

Adrian Rawlins, JS Ostoja-Kotkowski: explorer in light, Art and Australia, Autumn 1982 Vol 19 No 3.

A woman by Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski

(Detail) A woman by Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski; on canvas without stretcher. Possibly painted while he was at the Maribyrnong Migrant Hostel, Victoria in 1950, with the influence of Picasso’s Cubist style. PRG 919/61/1.

Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia

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