- The Legacies of J. W. Power, Artistic and Financial
It is fifty years since the Power Bequest to the University of Sydney was announced. Artist Dr. John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943), or J. W. Power as he is better known, left Australia's oldest university an amount that was then unprecedented in its history. Power's bequest, when acquired in 1962, was assessed at about £2 million, or over $42 million by today's standards. Power's stated purpose was educational: his gift was to enable Australians to expose themselves to the latest trends in art. In 1968, Power's bequest created the Power Institute of Fine Art, the Power Studio at the Cité internationale des arts Paris, and Sydney's Power Collection, which in 1991 evolved into the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).
Power, who was born in Sydney, trained in medicine at the university there and practiced in London from 1906 to 1920, but he abandoned medical practice when his father left him with an inheritance that enabled him to pursue his interest in art. He studied in Paris (1920-22), exhibited with the London Group (1924-1931), and had his work acquired by the Contemporary Art Society (1926). He returned to Paris in 1931 to pursue a "richer and more complete development," as [End Page 383] he wrote to his friend Anthony Bertram, the English art historian and critic (6). A confirmed cosmopolitan, Power engaged with Paul Éluard's poetry and the abstraction of Klee and Léger, using Léonce Rosenberg as his gallerist. Power collected the work of Picasso, Albert Gleizes, and Diego Rivera, and he became close friends with Vantongerloo, Gris, and Herbin. In 1932, Power joined the loosely organized, one-year-old Abstraction-Création, a group of abstract artists who continued to foster abstract art after trends turned back towards concrete representation. Piet Mondrian, already renowned for the geometrical severity of his paintings, was embraced as a model to be emulated, but the group's members came from both the geometric and surrealistic streams within non-figurative art, and Power's work embraced both streams. In April 1934, Power made his debut in their ranks when he exhibited a suite of accomplished paintings: Power's Paris exhibition was a survey of seven years of work that traced his departure from cubism and showed his synthesis of abstraction and surrealism.
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Curators A. D. S. Donaldson and Ann Stephen restage Power's exhibition in J. W. Power, Abstraction-Création, Paris 1934. Power's reconstructed exhibition, displayed in the compact space of Sydney University's Art Gallery, resembles the intimacy of the small gallery in avenue de Wagram where Abstraction-Création group members rotated their exhibitions over eighteen months, and the Sydney show even observes Power's own hanging plan, which he designed for the Paris show. Power measured and positioned miniature gouache versions of his paintings, and his map, the centerpiece of the reconstructed exhibition, is reproduced in the accompanying catalog (44-45). All twenty-eight works are also illustrated in the catalog, with two appearing in black and white; these last two are unfortunately absent from the exhibited suite because their present location is unknown. Donaldson and Stephen draw on Power's archives and letters to show his centrality in the Abstraction-Création group and to provide some context for his work.
In her contribution to the catalog, former Power Professor of Fine Art Virgina Spate looks beyond the works exhibited to consider Power...