From Justinian, April 1994
The Geoffrey Proud painting belonging to the NSW Bar Association once again has been the centre of some terrible grief.
Old friends have spoken savagely to each other, some don’t speak at all, while other relationships remain permanently damaged.
It is all over the decision by the association’s president Murray Tobias, not long after he took up his office, to order the removal of the painting known as Untitled from the bar common room.
Proud did the work in 1974 and it was purchased shortly after through the Watters Gallery and donated to the Bar Association by Meagher, Hope, McHugh, O’Keefe, Cripps, Morris, Poulos, Hely and Chapman.
The painting is of a young, semi-clad woman and it is not stretching the imagination too much to say that she is masturbating. As Clive Evatt put it in a 1988 review of the bar’s art collection, “a lady unaware of s.576 of the Crimes Act”.
It is described in the bar’s inventory as: “A fine Renoirresque (sic), soft, spray gun painted work … a seductive example in the neo-realist mode … comprehensible by the most benign barrister.”
Ever since it arrived at the Bar Association there has been trouble.
Janet Coombs struck back by donating a painting of an undressed male. However, it was rejected on aesthetic grounds.
Tobias had been attempting to rid the bar of an ambience that is an amalgam of a boys’ boarding school and the Australian Club.
He was conscious that some women members were affronted by the Geoffrey Proud painting. With what may have been a sudden attack of ideological correctness or New Ageism, he ordered the painting off the wall and placed it on extended loan with the Robin Gibson Gallery in Darlinghurst (returnable on demand).
There was immediate fury among some of the original donors.
Meagher resigned from the Bar Association. He wrote a vehement letter to Tobias accusing him of being beset by “strident harridans” and saying that he had no authority to move the painting.
McHugh in Canberra was also livid and Morris demanded an extraordinary general meeting of the Bar Association if the painting was not returned to the walls of the common room.
One donor was so upset that he said he would never speak to Tobias again.
A three person committee consisting of I. Barker, C. Evatt and R. McColl was established to review the situation and to make recommendations to the council on a location for the painting.
Evatt’s view, to a certain extent, was already known because of what he had written five years ago in Bar News:
“The painting is not neo-realist at all, but photorealist. It resembles a photograph because it appears sharp from a distance and out of focus close up. It is not a good example because the central figure should remain sharp from all distances…
The painting by Mr Proud ought to be taken in the context of the contemporary paintings which surround it. Artistically speaking, it does not warrant the attention it has received.”
One barrister said it looked like a copy of a smudgy picture from Penthouse.
The matter went back to the bar council, which voted 10 to 9 to bring it back from the Gibson Gallery.
Babette Smith, the chief executive and registrar of the Bar Association and one of the main forces trying to change perceptions about the bar, said the painting could hang in her office. It was a gesture to appease the angry factions, and coming from a women was grabbed by the council with both hands.
Smith said: “As long as I’m in the job, it’s staying there.”
Just after Tobias’ made his decision to remove Untitled, and the first angry roars were reverberating round Phillip Street, he penned this letter to the remaining donors:
“I am writing to you as one of the donors of the untitled work by Geoffrey Proud the display of which in the association’s common room, as I have no doubt you are aware, has been the subject of heightened controversy in the past twelve months.
Upon assuming the role of president, I decided to place the painting (quietly, so I thought) on extended loan with the Robin Gibson Gallery but returnable on demand. My decision was not intended to represent any slight to yourself, or any of the other donors.
The controversy to which I have referred has been a continuing one. I am not sure if you are aware that council minutes record that at the time the painting was donated, McGregor QC seconded by Herron, moved to rescind the council’s decision to accept the gift. The motion was lost.
Since then the issue has become a running sore. Motions to have the painting removed from the common room have come before the council consistently over twenty years. All have been lost.
Unfortunately, the concern among association members of both sexes has not abated and I have come to believe that it is inappropriate for the painting to be displayed in the common room at these times.
As can be seen from the duration of the controversy the issue is not one which has been motivated by recent notions of political correctness nor was my action one dictated by such notions.
Nevertheless, I cannot disguise the feelings of discomforture I sense that to retain the painting in the common room represents an affront to the women members of the bar whose full participation in all the bar’s activities I wish to encourage.
The bar is no longer a domain dominated by men and it should not be perceived by the public as such. Like the judges, we must be more sensitive to the attitude of our women members and take serious account of their feelings and attempt to understand their point of view.
Because of the strident views of some to my actions in this matter, I have no choice but to place the issue before the bar council on 17 February to seek confirmation of my decision.
I would be grateful to receive an indication of your attitude as a donor to my efforts to end an unedifying and destructive controversy. Times change and the bar must change with them or continue to suffer the damage and declining loss of influence in the community which it has experienced over the last few years.
Murray Tobias QC
Because Justice Meagher’s reaction had been most shrill, and he had tendered his resignation from the Bar Association, the president sent a special letter to him at the Court of Appeal:
I deeply regret your resignation from the association apparently caused by my action with regard to the Proud painting.
It would be quite wrong and unfair of you to assert that I have been overcome, as Barry O’Keefe has alleged, by notions of ‘political correctness’ or, as you put it more colourfully and just as inaccurately, by the calls of ‘strident harridans’.
Equally, to implicitly refer to those who oppose to hanging of the painting in the common room in such terms is as unfortunate as it is unfair.
Whatever authority I did or did not have is really not to the point. I think you know me well enough to appreciate that whatever I do in my capacity as president I do for the benefit and good of the bar as I perceive it and not for any personal reasons or for reasons inappropriately influenced by such catchphrases as ‘political correctness’.
The fact is that you are well removed and protected from the realities which face the bar today. We have a significant female membership and their voice is entitled to be heard.
What is more, and as a judge I am sure you at least appreciate the point, we are bound, as now, to assess the views of women from their perspective and not just from the stereotypical attitudes previously adopted by men towards the feelings and sensitivities of women.
I do not expect you to necessarily agree with the foregoing but I do expect you to understand it and respect the obligation I have, as a representative of the whole membership, to take such action as I consider to be in their best interest and in those of the bar as a public institution.
As you are aware, I am bringing the matter before the next meeting of the council on 17th February. I have considered it appropriate to write to the surviving donors of the painting and a copy of that letter is enclosed.
Roddy, I know you don’t agree with my action but I do ask you to consider the matter from my perspective. I equally know that you are committed to the bar as an institution and that you do not wish to harm its standing in the community.
We have been friends and colleagues for a long time – I value our personal relationship and I would be deeply concerned if it is damaged over this issue.
From the point of view of us all, I earnestly ask you to reconsider your letter of resignation from the association which you served with such great distinction for so long and which clearly owes you a great deal.
The council has not accepted your resignation and would very much hope that you withdraw it.
Linton Morris also sent Tobias a stern letter, telling him not to be silly, and demanding an EGM:
I am in receipt of your letter of 11 February in relation to the fate of the Geoffrey Proud painting in respect of which I was a part donor.
I am astonished by the lack of cultural maturity and taste which the actions in the letter so clearly declare.
In order that the bar council remains consistent in this matter, might I suggest that a cultural sub-committee be formed immediately.
This sub-committee should be directed to monitor all magazines and periodicals coming into the association’s rooms in accordance with the principles applied to the removal of the subject painting.
This action would no doubt result in the removal from those magazines of a large number of Whitley’s, Boyd’s, Picasso’s and Rubens’ etc., should they be the subject of an art critique.
Having completed this task, the committee should then turn its attention to the chambers of individual members. These chambers should be inspected in case they contain artwork or objects which may offend the female members said to be so sensitive to the painting which I partially donated.
Should the association have any spare time, they should then turn their minds to putting trousers on dogs.
I regard this matter of such importance that should the painting not be restored to the common room where it was placed by the receiving council, the matter ought properly be the subject of an extraordinary general meeting in order to determine what conditions are to be placed upon donations made by members.
Thank God we’re all concentrating on the main issue.
Linton Morris QC”
And thank God Roddy Meagher’s press release never saw the light of day. He drafted something to be released, probably through the Gibson Gallery.
However, the stink was resolved and his resignation from the bar withdrawn, so it was never issued.
Just as well, because it was a complete bombshell, saying that Tobias lacked taste and didn’t even realise he had no power to dispose of the painting.
He went on to say that it was little wonder the government had no trust in the Bar Association.