A draft for a section of Meanjin to Brisvegas: Brisbane’s journey from colonial backwater to new world city

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Brisbane 2006

Art too often takes  itself too seriously. It takes itself even more seriously when it feels  unappreciated and when experimentation is frowned upon. It was ironic  then that that most staid of institutions, the University of Queensland,  should have been   poking  benign fun at it in the august portals of the Great Court at St Lucia,  in Brisbane. There, nestled around the archways above the cloisters that  enclose the two and a quarter hectares of the Court are 48 ‘grotesques’  – carvings of heads of interesting people and animals – and several  friezes.

The choice of St Lucia for the University  campus in the 1920s was controversial. Many saw it as being too far  from town. But once decided and eventually acted upon, in 1935, the  government-appointed architects, Hennessy, Hennessy and Co, designed  what a University pamphlet describes as  a  ‘great semi-circular quadrangle around which the various buildings are  arranged, all connected by means of an arcade, enabling students to  reach any portion whatsoever’.

The Government of the day, under Premier  William Forgan Smith – who had the main building named after him –  decreed that the buildings were to be ‘original in conception,  monumental in design and embodying the Australian spirit of art with  English culture’ to reflect the progress that had been made in  Queensland.

It must have been the directive to be  ‘monumental’ that led to the grotesques and the statues. The ‘English’  no doubt led to statues of Shakespeare, Darwin, Chaucer and the quote  from Disraeli used in the British parliament when he was leader of the  opposition to Prime Minister Gladstone. He was critical of a proposal to  exclude some subjects from a university curriculum to avoid sectarian  tension. A university, he said, should be ‘a place of light, of liberty  and of learning’. This inscription is carved in the stonework above the  main entrance to the Forgan Smith Building.

The buildings of the Great Court are clad  in distinctive sandstone that was quarried at Helidon, 140 kilometres  west of Brisbane. The builders made no attempt to match the sandstone so  that the effect is a range of colours – purples, lavenders and violets,  creams, yellowish beiges and browns – that are seen to best effect when  the stone is wet from rain.

All told, it took 40 years for the Great Court project to be completed.

The grotesques and the statues represent  the Very Great and the Good. As well as the English ‘greats’, there’s  also Plato, Justinium, Mendel and Lavoisier. But with apologies to those  great ghosts, it’s the more cryptic grotesques that capture the  imagination or tickle the fancy.

About half the grotesques were sculpted  by John Muller, clearly a man with a keen sense of humour. And I  believe, without any evidence, that he took it upon himself to inject  the ‘Australian spirit of Art’ the government had called for into his  work. The life and humour he injected into his work on these caricatures  in stone is suggestive of and certainly reflects Australian humour.

Muller had developed a sound grounding in  carving and stonework in his birthplace Dresden before arriving in  Brisbane in 1911 at the age of 38. He worked on the Treasury Building  and the Brisbane City Hall before starting work on the Great Court in  1939 when he was 66 years old, beyond retirement age.

There’s no record of the instructions  Muller was given and a fire that burnt down his house in 1952, a year  before he died, destroyed all his own paper work. Many of the grotesques  are anonymous, with a suspicion they represent someone. But without any  records, identification is now done by supposition. Anyway, the  University thinks he was given a free hand. He also worked on a number  of friezes that depicted Queensland history and university history but  managed to keep his impish humour well in check on that section of the  work.

It was on the grotesques that he let  himself roam more freely. So there are various grotesques on the Main  Tower identified by the University only as ‘a scholar with a scroll’ or  ‘an unidentified academic wearing a mortarboard’, or ‘a musical horn  blower’.

Then there is ‘a gloomy scholar or  teacher, possibly meant to represent J.D. Story, the University’s Vice  Chancellor from 1938 to 1960’. Clearly not a man renowned for his sense  of humour.

Above the Arts Building entrance there’s a  grotesque of a man with a hammer, believed to be a construction worker  on the site. Next to him there’s a man with an umbrella, believed to be  Mr Bell, a clerk of works who was regularly on site and who always  carried an umbrella whether it was raining or not. This is alongside one  showing a jovial man in a hat, thought to be Dr Colin Clark, one of  Australia’s most distinguished early economists – he had worked with  John Maynard Keynes in London.

At the Law Building site there’s a  bespectacled man with a beer mug in his hand. It’s believed this was  based on a Mr Robinson, a crane driver on the construction site who was  always joking with Muller about beer.

There are several grotesques that might  be called generic. There’s a footballer, a sailor, a monk, a warrior, an  old man laughing and a scribe, among others. There’s a mythical  reptilian creature and a frog holding a University of Queensland shield.  There is also a philosopher with his face bandaged. The University  reckons this either indicates toothache or, since it is close to the Law  entrance, that it’s a talkative advocate with jaw ache.

And was Muller having a dig at university  life when he carved a sage of Laputa, a character from Gulliver’s  Travels who pursued visionary projects to the neglect of practical  concerns? Perhaps it was more of a warning.

Muller died in 1953 at the age of 80.  He’d been working on the site until the end. By then about half the  grotesques had been done and carving stopped for 20 years. In 1976 the  University decided it wanted a few more on the newer buildings. They  selected Rhyl Hinwood to take over Muller’s work. She didn’t get the  same freedom of choice enjoyed by Muller, but fortunately the University  maintained the mood and style set by the earlier Dresden master.

One of Hinwood’s first sculptures was  that of Muller who she did at the Law building, apparently using a small  clay model that Muller had himself done. Otherwise Hinwood’s work  mostly represented particular academics who had graced the University,  like Geology Professor Dorothy Hill, in 1960 the first woman appointed  to a full professorship at an Australian university. There are a couple  of exceptions. One is a grotesque of Donald Russell who had joined the  university as a cleaner in 1946 and soon after became the caretaker.  Another is of William McKenzie a member of the Jinabara tribe (his  Aboriginal name was Gaiarbau) who assisted in University research and  helped in recording music and legends.

I guess because Hinwood was working in an  age that took itself more seriously and maybe she had to report to a  committee (and they only deliver impish art by mistake), but her work  seems to be more accurately representational of its subjects and less of  a caricature. Her work is very good but it’s not as much fun as the  earlier work by Muller and his helpers.

There’s another marvellous aspect to all  this art around the Great Court. It does not shout out for attention. It  is there, in the same sandstone as the rest of the building. You have  to look for it. It seems much more in keeping with the spirit of enquiry  and perhaps that’s also representative of traditional Australian  spirit.