Above image: Peter Kingston, Passing Ferries, 1999, Oil on Canvas
Jayne Cheeseman: Lou – I heard you have a wonderful collection of art, especially Australian art. You’ve published beautiful Australian art books, you’ve been the director of galleries such as the Art Gallery of Western Australia . Where has your affection for Australian art stemmed from?
Lou Klepac: I went to university in 1955 in Western Australia. In the art department there were 13 paintings by Sidney Nolan which the Professor of English bought for something like 50 pounds each. No one liked them and they were not hung, they were leaning against a wall, facing the wall. I was actually weened on Nolan paintings over 1949-’50 at the University of Western Australia. Before that, I was only interested in European art, Italian artists. I became very, very keen on these paintings, and also, I was the art critic for the student newspaper in ’55, ’56 and ’57. As a matter of fact, my name, before I went to university was Louie Klepac. The editor of the student newspaper, “The Pelican” said, “The art critic can’t be called Louie Klepac. We will actually change your name to Lou Klepac” and I thought, “That’s a very nice name” and I’ve kept it ever since. I was a critic and I wrote “Know Your Nolan” in 1956. That’s very early to write about Nolan.
Peter Kingston: What were they?
L: Fantastic paintings. If you get the catalogue of the Nolan retrospective that Barry Pearce did and I worked on as well, I pointed out that in 1947, Nolan decided to use this incredible paint that Picasso had said was very good. Ripolin. He read that in a book about Picasso, written by Gertrude Stein. So he ordered Ripolin from England. Ripolin is a house paint. He put his pictures flat down on the table and he painted with house paint. Another painter also read about Ripolin in that same book, and his name was Jackson Pollock. Now the interesting thing – the National Gallery in Canberra, the two greatest things that they own are the Nolan paintings of Ned Kelly in Ripolin and ‘Blue Poles’, by Jackson Pollock – both things in Ripolin, and no one has made this connection at all. It’s fantastic stuff. I didn’t know anything about this when I first saw the pictures, but when I looked at them as a university student, I picked up this stuff and I became interested in Australian art. Then I went to England and I came back and I became a curator of paintings at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. I have a very good memory. I remember everything I’ve ever seen.
J: That’s incredible
P: That’s quite good.
J: Let’s talk about Destination Sydney. How did the idea come about?
L: Really easy. I opened an exhibition at Manly of Bernard Ollis and James Jackson. They said to me, “Lou, you like doing exhibitions, can you think of something for us?” So I said, “Yes! Destination Sydney. Three exhibitions, all in different locations. A big blockbuster of the energy of the artists of Sydney, not the views of Sydney.” It’s not Sydney, it’s the fuel that makes the painters paint. Manly has huge walls, so we’ve got huge paintings. Before I even did anything else I went to the Art Gallery because I wanted the big blue Whiteley painting, which is huge.
J: How did you, or why did you choose these nine artists in particular?
I chose Whiteley because, the sea, Manly, water, big blue painting and his greatest hero was Lloyd Rees. So they go together. Elizabeth Cummings is a living artist who also came from Queensland like Lloyd Rees, so she fitted in. In Mosman, Olsen recently gave them a picture as a gift. What goes well with Olsen is Kevin Connor, because he used to live in Balmoral. He’s a Mosman person. Then the ferries go past and you have to put him in (Lou points to Peter). The S.H. Ervin Gallery is a big gallery with small screens and needs smaller pictures. You have to fill the gallery, so there are a lot more than ten paintings by Cossington-Smith, a lot more pictures by Margaret Preston, and a lot more pictures by Cressida Campbell.
J: Peter, you’re right next to the Whiteley home.
P: Yes, Brett was a good mate.
L: Peter’s made a wonderful film. He’s done everything! He makes comics, he saves ferries and he also made some wonderful films done in the 1970s called “Brett and Butter”. It’s a wonderful film!
P: Oh, Lou!
L: He has got so many talents. Peter doesn’t realise he has been charged by the energy of Sydney. If he lived in say, Wollongong, he’d be just a little old man.
J: What was Brett Whiteley like and were you competitive at all?
P: Oh, never competitive! Never. I mean, I wasn’t really painting. I was making a movie about Brett, that’s how I met him. I loved his zoo paintings, those lithographs from London Zoo, the hyena. That was absolutely top draw. He was very, very alive and very funny and very charged up. He was a live-wire.
L: If you have a lot of space and compress it into a little ball which is about to explode – that’s Whiteley.
P: And he was fearless! I was nailing a board on the front of my veranda way up high and he grabbed the hammer and held on with one hand and lent out and banged it on. He had no fear, at that stage, anyway.
L: A remarkable person.
P: I’ve always tried to figure out why he died, you know?
L: It had to be. He couldn’t be an old man.
P: He didn’t want to be old. He put blonde strips in his hair.
L: It was sad, but you couldn’t see him as a Lloyd Rees. (Sidenote: Rees died at 93).
P: Still, it’s a shame, all those paintings we didn’t see.
P: What’s your favourite picture in the three Destination Sydney shows?
L: It’s very difficult. I’ll tell you what it is and the reason way. It’s an Olsen painting. It’s a picture I wanted to have in the exhibition which belonged to a great collector in Canberra. I wanted the picture in his collection, I knew that he had died and I knew that his collection was coming up at an auction. I discovered to my horror that he had left a number of pictures to the National Gallery in Canberra as a bequest. You have to ask 12 months in advance to borrow a picture, so I thought, “Shit! I will never be able to get this picture.” By pure chance for a function here for the National Gallery, Gerard Vaughan the director asked me what I was doing and I said “I’m doing an exhibition called ‘Destination Sydney’. I’m devastated that the picture that I wanted, I was waiting for it to be sold and borrow it from the buyer, is now at the National Gallery. It’s on your wall.” He said, “Lou, if you write me a nice letter, you will get a nice reply.”
J: Why is it so important to do this show about artists that have been attracted to Sydney as a subject?
L: Sydney has an incredible energy and when you plonk an artist in the middle of Sydney, they automatically pick it up. It’s like when you’re running out of petrol, nothing happens. But if you’ve got a place where you can keep topping up your petrol, you can go anywhere you like. So in other words, the energy that Sydney has actually inspires. I think Sydney is the most incredible place. Coming to Sydney is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
J: Peter, you presently live overlooking Lavender Bay, one of my favourite parts of Sydney. Sydney Harbour has been an inspiration to so many artists, from Streeton, to Tom Roberts, to many of the artists that Lou has put together in the exhibition. What inspiration do you get from the Harbour?
P: Well, you’ve got to be passionate about things and I’m very passionate about, at present, those two ferries, the Lady Northcott and the Lady Herron. I just love the way they cut the water. They’re not just metal – they’ve got souls, those ferries. At present, whenever I can, I rush down to the Quay with my smartphone and I’m making yet another film about them. When you zero in on them, there are so many things you can lie and wait for. It’s the beautiful, blunt end front and back, it’s the people that sit in them. That’s what draws me to photograph them, film them, paint them. They used to come to Lavender Bay, but they don’t anymore. Every hour, I used to hear the ding of the rope hitting the post.
L: It’s the poetry of the place that you love. If Sydney Harbour was a country, he (Peter) is the patriot for that place. He would lay down his life for it. He is actually making sure everybody is sharing his patriotic feelings.
P: These ferries are much beloved.
J: They are much beloved, especially by the crews that run them. They’re beautiful. Tell me, what makes Sydney such a special place?
P: When I’m in my boat, I have a little 1965 wooden half cabin. I always think the worst thing that could happen is that, the water would close over my head if I fell in, which makes me feel at home. I don’t find it threatening. If that’s the worst thing that could happen, then it’s pretty good, isn’t it?
L: He’s got a wonderful house. If anyone lived in his house, they would become Peter.
P: (Laughs) They would!
J: Peter, you did this wonderful book called Shark-net seahorses of Balmoral. It celebrated all sorts of places around Sydney and you collaborated with the poet Robert Adamson. What do you think are the most special places in Sydney?
P: The Opera House and the Opera House and the Opera House. (Laughs) I can’t go past it. I think it’s so durable and it’s so timeless. I look at Frank Gehry’s buildings, I’ve seen the Disney Hall in Los Angeles – not a patch on the Opera House, it’s gimmicky. It’s sort of like coating a choctop, you just coat it with silver stuff. The Opera House was so difficult to make, and it borrows from all over cultures, like Gothic arches, Persian tiles that sit on the outside, Mayan platforms. A very cultured man, Jorn Utzon was. When I told him I was studying arts before architecture, he said, “That’s the way all architects should start out. To look at what’s come before”. How lucky are we to have it in this city?
J: How do you feel about the architecture throughout the rest of Sydney?
P: Not much. They’re like old hard drives.
L: Sydney is a wonderful place, but it’s a materialistic place. The difference between Melbourne and Sydney quite easily is that Melbourne is run by families who had money – old money. Sydney is run by people who make money. It’s the working class, rich people who run Sydney. That in a way is creating geniuses like Peter and Whiteley.
P: The Opera House is in such three dimensions. As you go around it on the ferry, the peaks all change and get higher and lower. The colour of that roof reflects the weather. Oh, it’s marvelous.
L: You could do a thousand views of the Opera House.
P: I better go and do them!
J: What is your favourite ferry route?
P: Oh, easy! Whatever route these (The Lady boats) are are on! I mean, the ferry is the thing.
P: The history of Sydney is something you clearly care deeply about. You’ve been described as not only an artists, but a chronicler. Has it been your intention to chronicle Sydney through your work?
P: I love putting things in books. You know, tearing things out of magazines or newspapers. I am a chronicler. And I’m giving all of my archives to the Art Gallery of NSW through Stephen Miller. One of my favourite things is the Wipe Project, which has been going for fifteen years – an international thing with toilet paper from all around the world. This guy in Geelong, people send him 40 leaves of toilet paper and every month he puts out a booklet with 40 leaves in it and people embroider things like light bulbs on single sheets, they use stamps. I love the ephemeral thing of one leaf of toilet paper. I’ve got the only full collection in Australia and it’s up to 93 little booklets over fifteen years. I’m submitting stuff for Martin Sharp, because he gave me drawings that no one’s ever seen. Even after he’s dead, he will be featuring in this book.