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Juan Davila

Sentimental history of Australian art  1982

oil on canvas

202 × 263cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Loti Smorgon AO and Victor Smorgon AC, 1995

1995.153

About the Artwork

Juan Davila’s Sentimental History of Australian Art was exhibited in the 1983 Sydney Perspecta, and became almost at once an iconic work of Australian postmodernism. Its appropriation of a number of cultural references presents a history of Australian art that is as much provocative as it is sentimental. Davila constructs a model of Australian masculinity that combines the body of an Aboriginal man with the head of the white colonial renegade Ned Kelly, in the style of the homoerotic illustrations of Tom of Finland. His postmodern pastiche of styles and cultural markers also borrows from Australian artists such as Arthur Boyd and neo-expressionist Peter Booth, and the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. These ‘high art’ references are staged against the kitsch of everyday Australia, represented in the shower-curtain’s pseudo-Aboriginal design of boomerangs, strung between the broken columns of a cobwebbed temple of culture.
Davila combines these cultural markers with sexual imagery, scatological humour, caricature and a range of graphic styles to explore art’s relationship to history, culture, politics and identity in his work. He draws parallels between Latin American and Australian modernism, based on their shared experiences of colonisation and cultures transplanted from Britain and Spain. Davila’s challenging juxtapositions of imagery in Sentimental History of Australian Art draw on surrealism and its distinctly Latin American form of magical realism, employing the images and impulses of dreams and the unconscious mind to express desires and libidinal urges otherwise repressed by social convention. Davila uses this imagery to critique what he considered to be a lowbrow and culturally conservative Australian society of the 1980s, and to shock it out of its complacency. The complex relationship between art and politics is intertwined throughout Davila’s practice, questioning both the impact of politics on artistic and cultural life, and the role of art as an agent of social comment and change.
Updated and approved August 2016.

Juan Davila

– About the artist

Born 1946, Santiago, Chile. Lives and works Melbourne.


Over the last three decades Juan Davila’s paintings have interrogated cultural, sexual and social identities, resulting in a rich, complex and provocative body of work. Davila’s work has been shaped by the political upheaval during the Pinochet dictatorship of Chile in the 1970s, conveying the violence and psychological turmoil its citizens experienced. A distrust of nationalism and state control has formed a strong thread in Davila’s work ever since, extending to stinging and often hilarious critiques of the Australian political system, aspects of government policy, and public figures in Australia and Latin America.
Davila has exhibited widely throughout Australia, South and North America, and Europe since the 1970s and was included in the Biennale of Sydney (1982, 1984); Popism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1982); and Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (1983, 1987). Other exhibitions include The Moral Meaning of Wilderness, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane and Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra (2011); Premonitions: Monash University Collection 1961–2007, McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park, Langwarrin, Victoria (2008); Andy and Oz: Parallel Visions, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (2007); Documenta 12, Kassel, Germany (2007); This & Other Worlds: Contemporary Australian Drawing, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (2006); and Arte Contemporaneo Chile: Desde el Otro Sitio/Lugar, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul and Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Santiago, Chile (2006). Davila’s work was the subject of a retrospective at the MCA, Sydney and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne in 2006. A substantial monograph on his work, Juan Davila, was published by Miegunyah Press, Melbourne in 2006.
Davila is represented in numerous major state, regional and public collections in Australia, as well as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo in Spain.

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