Now open at the State library of Victoria, Bohemian Melbourne is a stunning exhibition devoted to celebrating the lives of a select group of individuals whose artistic legacies have helped mould the character of this city.
Curated by Clare Williamson, Bohemian Melbourne shines light on a rag-tag bunch of artistic rebels including Marcus Clarke, Mirka Mora, Vali Myers and Nick Cave; mindfully exploring history’s backstreets and smoky salons, while sharing the stories behind the daring poets, artists, visionaries and rock stars who changed Melbourne’s cultural landscape forever.
Inspired by Tony Moore’s Dancing With Empty Pockets: Australia’s Bohemians, the planning of this exhibition started around 2 years ago when Williamson began securing loans from private collections and accessing the State Library’s rich list of resources. The accomplished curator happily confides to Makers of Melbourne that her greatest struggle involved short-listing the chosen few who would end up being featured in the final display.
Clare: “It was tough and as a curator it’s always painful when you have to pick and choose. I could have made the exhibition twice the size that it was, it could have been huge but we always try and angle our collections so that its 80% library collection and about 20% major loans. We always look at how a story can be told visually and sometimes it might be that we have a fantastic person with no material culture to tell their story in a visual way.”
The library’s exhibition, which closes on the 22nd of February, includes a range of “must show” characters (Barry Humphries, Mirka Mora and Vali Myers) as well as lesser-known creatives like the flamboyant Val Eastwood, proprietor of Val’s coffee lounge. Arguably the birthplace of Melbourne’s ‘camp’ culture (as it was known) in the 1950s, Val’s Coffee Lounge was a meeting place for artists, performers and musicians seeking momentary freedom from society’s conventions.
Eastwood, a well-known figure in the bohemian demimonde of 1950s Melbourne (often seen wearing men’s tailored suits and carrying a silver topped cane) established her café in what is now a Hare Krishna restaurant on Swanston Street. Creating a sanctuary for cultural misfits, Val’s played an integral part in the development of Melbourne’s café culture - To this day hundreds of cafes, bars and coffee shops generate opportunities for people to meet up and share ideas.
Bohemian Melbourne has been created as a place for visitors to engage. The exhibition includes interactive displays and video monitors’ playing exerts from feature films, documentaries and rare footage, designed to bring the subject matter to life. “There’s great footage of Vali [Myers] in her hotel room at the Chelsea,” Williamson shares, “And [footage of] people coming and going including Debbie Harry.”
Clare: “Vali Myers was a much-loved figure, a lot of people met her in her open studio in the Nicholson building where people were welcome to come and buy a print or have a dance. People talk about how she was such a down to earth friendly character even though she had travelled the world and had met amazing people, she lived in Paris and Italy and met Warhol and Dali and tattooed Patti Smith’s knee.”
Sydney born Myers (who passed away in 2003 at the age of 72) was drawn to her adopted hometown of Melbourne’s strong artistic scene – It’s a creative culture that has been encouraged and supported since the gold rush, when thousands of foreigners flooded into the state of Victoria seeking gold, fame and fortune.
What followed was an influx of performers, poets and free spirits drawn to the hedonistic lifestyle surrounding the financial boom. An element of Australian history rarely explored in secondary school reference books.
Clare: “We tend to make a point of things like the 1920s Paris or the Beat Poets or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s, but we tend to not be as familiar or know that we had people here, like Marcus Clarke back in the 1860s who was living the life of a young dandy and starting up bohemian clubs where he and his mates would get together and smoke clay pipes, drink beer from pewter mugs, and recite poetry.”
Bohemian Melbourne offers fascinating insight into the history of our great city and into the lives of a group of artists not afraid to march to the beat of their own drum.
Clare: “Melbourne is a city that loves to celebrate the people who have the courage to express themselves through their art, whether that was through visual art, literature, fashion design, music and performance. The more that we looked the more we discovered just how rich Melbourne’s history was and how we love to celebrate the individual. Melbourne is a city very proud to embrace and celebrate individual expressions of culture.”
Bohemian Melbourne runs at The State Library of Victoria until February 22nd. Entry is free.