Michaela Boland, in The Australian , October 2017, where the title reads “Art of Darkness”
He was a self-confessed paedophile. But does that mean Donald Friend’s art should be erased from our cultural landscape?
Bali was an exotic tropical getaway in the 1970s, a sultry land of endless beaches and lingering sunsets ripe for the influx of foreign visitors. Tourist facilities were rudimentary but the gentle and obliging locals were renowned for ensuring nothing was too much trouble for visiting foreigners, who could enjoy being pampered like royalty while paying like paupers.
ABC broadcaster and columnist for this magazine, Phillip Adams, was an early tourist in Bali, and on one holiday he recalls visiting the home of one of the island’s best-known residents, Australian artist Donald Friend. Adams, host for the past two decades of chat show Late Night Live on Radio National, was in the 1970s a filmmaker and advertising executive. He was also a cultural adviser to the government, and it was in this capacity that he looked up the artist who’d settled on the Indonesian island.
Adams recalls that Friend’s house was “full of attractive Balinese people and at the time there were a few young kids there as well”. The lush compound, which these days is rented out to holiday-makers for $1800 a night, consisted of a series of open-air, thatched-roof pavilions surrounded by gardens with water features. The lord of this beachfront manor had adopted the local habit of wearing a sarong and batik shirts; he’d also come to admire the art and crafts of his adopted home and numerous fine sculptures and artworks were installed around the estate. His household staff swelled to as many as two dozen Balinese; in addition to a cook, cleaners, a housekeeper and gardeners, his payroll included up to 20 boys, occasionally as young as nine, who had little in the way of obvious responsibilities.
The local population, having been ravaged by civil unrest, were eager for work and this lavish staff roster was interpreted by visiting Australians as a sign of benevolence from the peripatetic artist who had landed in the Hindu enclave after stints of living in Italy and Sri Lanka. “I didn’t really [understand what he meant],” says Adams, “but while sitting with him at his beach house, seeing lots of these boys around, he said: ‘One day they’re going to come down here and kill me’.”
Most of the broadcaster’s memories of that visit long ago have faded, but the image of the beautiful children orbiting the Australian artist, and Friend’s enigmatic prophecy, remained with him. Over the past decade, following the publication in 2006 of the fourth volume of Friend’s diaries, wherein the artist admits to numerous sexual acts with children, Adams has come to believe the artist was admitting his paedophilia and expressing awareness that it upset the children’s guardians. At the time, however, Adams grasped neither the gravity nor the depravity of Friend’s crimes.
The diaries reveal that Friend believed the children, whom he describes as his “lovers”, were there for his pleasure:
January 1967: “Last night [Dolog] quietly arrived and stayed again and to my slightly horrified delight and surprise made passionate and expert love.”
February 1967: “I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises like Dolog and that I will always be delighted and surprised, he goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace, gaily, affectionately and enthusiastically and in these matters he is very sensitive and not at all sentimental.”
Dolog was then 10 years old; Friend was 53.
Now, 28 years after Friend’s death, questions are being raised over his status as one of the nation’s most celebrated artists. A talented painter, he remains arguably the finest figurative draughtsman that Australia has produced. For two decades from the 1970s he was the subject of several books; exhibitions of his pictures were staged by important public galleries and handsome prices were paid by collectors keen to own some of the tropical beauty that found its way into his work.
But in the 11 years since publication of the final volume of Friend’s personal diaries, his artworks have been wiped from view by the nation’s public galleries. His work is being driven underground, slowly erased from our cultural landscape. When his paintings or sketches come up at auction they are often passed in or bought anonymously, at prices that would have been considered cheap 30 years ago. In June, Mossgreen auction house removed from sale a Friend sketch that appeared to depict a sex act between a man and two minors. The company’s CEO, Paul Sumner, said it had slipped through amid the thousands of items his staff catalogue each week but when brought to his attention he admitted it “crossed a line”.
Whenever the topic of the artist’s paedophilia is raised, Friend’s apologists respond by citing a long historical list of creative crims. Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl, Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys. But it’s Paul Gauguin with whom Friend is best compared. The French postimpressionist, whose artworks sell for eye-watering figures on the rare occasions they come to auction, is in the process of being reappraised now that it is apparent his life in Tahiti was not merely an adventure in adultery. Many of the naked women in his pictures were underage girls with whom it now appears Gauguin was having sex. As with Friend, those works are intertwined with his crimes.
Forty years ago, Friend was undeniably in vogue. The Sydney-born artist had taken up residence in Bali a couple of years before Adams’ visit. Friend believed he’d found an erotically charged tropical heaven there, and his creativity flourished. His work from the era often features images of naked Balinese boys, just as Gauguin populated his paintings with Tahitian girls during his sojourns to French Polynesia about 80 years earlier. “For nearly 12 years he lived like a lord in Bali,” the former director of publications at the National Library of Australia, Paul Hetherington, wrote in his introduction to the fourth volume of Friend’s frank and detailed diaries, which he edited. Friend’s social circle came to include diplomats and foreign executives, artists and the growing ranks of opportunistic developers clamouring to capitalise on Bali’s tourism potential.
Foreign journalists propagated Friend’s fame as a notable Bali resident and his roster of visiting artists, curators, millionaires and writers grew, among them Mick Jagger, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, Henry Ford II and a Rothschild. Friend wrote in his diary: “I am probably at the peak of my powers as a painter, and at the lowest ebb of my inventive faculty. Success and reputation bring me, instead of jubilation, hosts of interruptions, mental fatigue and lots of money.”
As the ’70s ticked by, Friend’s health faltered, requiring him to make frequent trips to Australia for medical procedures as well as for art business. He finally left Bali in 1980. At first he stayed with his friend Attilio Guarracino in Melbourne but then settled in Sydney, eventually living in the comfortable eastern suburb of Woollahra until his death in 1989 at the age of 75.
Friend’s daily habit of diary writing and sketching resulted in 44 handwritten volumes, which he donated to the National Library of Australia. They were edited by Anna Gray and Hetherington into four volumes, culminating in the 2006 Bali volume containing Friend’s most detailed confessions of child sex abuse. Academic Frank Campbell, who reviewed the volume for The Australian, has described Friend as “the last British Empire paedophile”. “He’s someone who should have spent half his life in jail, it’s as simple as that,” he told documentary maker Kerry Negara. “He’s an untried criminal.” In his review, Campbell rebuked Hetherington for failing to declare Friend a criminal. “Hetherington politely observes, ‘Friend was entirely unsuited to a life of heterosexual monogamy.’ Well, it’s all right Paul, he’s dead, so it’s safe to call Friend a paedophile,” Campbell wrote.
At the time the volume was published, Negara was in hot pursuit of Friend, having heard rumours of the artist’s sexual abuse of children while making a documentary about western tourists in Bali. Negara, an Australian, was married to a Balinese man and her children are half Balinese, so she feels a degree of protectiveness towards the island’s children. Negara has pored over Friend’s original diaries in the National Library of Australia and is familiar with the fourth volume. She has concluded that the artist was a rapacious paedophile and says the extent of his confessed abuse of children has been whitewashed by the volumes published by the NLA.
Negara’s documentary A Loving Friend, about Friend’s paedophilia and what she perceives as the art establishment’s protection of him, was completed in 2008 and toured the nation’s film festivals but failed to find a television broadcaster. It contains remarkable interviews with some of Friend’s victims, now men, who are still struggling to understand what happened when they were in his care, and interviews with art figures who seemed to be in denial about the extent of the offending.
Barry Pearce, then the Art Gallery of NSW’s Australian art curator, says in the documentary, “I don’t think it’s a matter of black and white, I don’t think there is a hard line on the subject of paedophilia. I think there is penumbra.” Pearce declined to discuss Friend for this article.
The late art historian James Murdoch says in the documentary: “Friend is a self-declared paedophile but the reality is [the children] seduced him.” Hetherington adds: “I don’t think Friend behaved in a way that would attract much criticism from people today, which at the time didn’t attract particular criticism either.”
Hetherington now says his comment was taken out of context. “I was referring to a range of his books but not the diaries [that] were edited and published … they are a rare documentary resource about the mid-20th century here and overseas. This does not mean that those involved in editing and publishing the diaries endorse all of Friend’s activities.”
It could be that some in the art world were unaware of the extent of his physical relations with the children. The late artist Margaret Olley says in Negara’s film that the boys were “very fortunate” to have Friend; artist John Olsen jokes with Friend about his reputation for being “wicked”; and publisher Lou Klepac, a champion of the artist and author of several volumes on him, describes the diaries as the greatest insight into the mind of an Australian artist.
Negara agrees the diaries are remarkable: hundreds of pages filled with colourful prose and sketches. They are also a very important insight into the mind of a paedophile. “I’ve done my best to expose disturbing attitudes within the Australian arts elite about sex with children and the notion of a benevolent, caring paedophile,” she says. “Unfortunately, these attitudes are entrenched with certain people. I’m happy I made A Loving Friend; the explicit interviews stand as an historical testament and will never ‘go away’. The commissioning editors at the public broadcasters are the ones who will have to answer to themselves for not screening it to a wider Australian public.”
Only a few thousand people might have seen A Loving Friend and even fewer are likely to have read the diaries, but Friend’s reputation has taken a hit since they were published. Klepac’s Beagle Press back catalogue, as promoted on its website, no longer features the volumes on Friend published with great fanfare a few decades ago. Klepac recently told this magazine: “I’m disappointed at what’s happened; it’s one of those witch hunts, people kind of spitting at him. It needs 20 years of silence; it’s not worth making comments, it adds fuel to the fire.”
The fire to which Klepac refers is the gradual erosion of the collectability of Friend’s artworks; their prices and the fact they’ve all but vanished from display at public art galleries. Key institutions and many minor ones around the nation own paintings and sketches by Friend. Almost none has any of those works on display. A planned biography by Ian Britten has never been published. In 2016, art dealer Tim Olsen announced he would publish a book of interviews with the late artist titled What They Don’t Teach You at Art School; he jettisoned the plan because “it’s not worth the angst”.
A portrait of Friend was in 2016 removed from Tweed Regional Gallery in northern NSW and a biography of the artist was removed from sale in the gift shop following community concern about Friend’s paedophilia. In May this year, Tamworth Regional Gallery took down 12 Friend artworks, hung as part of a recent bequest, after the artist’s pederasty was pointed out. There are no works by him on show in the major galleries of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or Adelaide. In the auction world, however, pictures and sketches of naked Balinese boys still sell to anonymous bidders.
A spokeswoman for AGNSW declined to say if Friend was not on display because of concerns over his lifestyle. “The most recent displays of Donald Friend’s works included a group of 1930s drawings of African objects in 2013 and the paintings Ex Voto and The Fortune Teller in 2014, but no works by Donald Friend are currently on display nor scheduled for display,” she says. “Given the large size of the gallery’s collection and limited space there are always works, artists and art movements not represented in our collection displays.”
A National Gallery of Victoria spokeswoman said: “In all our exhibitions and programming decisions, the NGV strives to be responsive to the needs and expectations of the community.” Only the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is prepared to articulate its stance. A spokeswoman says the NGA has not displayed any of Friend’s artworks since 2007 and has no plans to do so because of the revelations in the artist’s diaries.
Friend’s fall from grace is the biggest story nobody’s talking about because, Klepac says, the art world is hoping it will go away.
“I feel like I was a very lone voice,” says Negara, “but every time A Loving Friend is shown I get loads of support and people thank me for making it.” She does not want to see Friend’s work mothballed, however — like Klepac, she knows it will resurface eventually. “I don’t believe in pulling them down; it’s an opportunity for community education,” she says.
Gallery directors traditionally baulk at displaying artworks alongside explanations of their historical context, but Negara says in Friend’s case it’s important to understand his art in the context of how he lived. “This is a perfect example to set a precedent,” she says.
Or, as Adams argues, just as the church has been forced to face historical child sexual abuse and film director Roman Polanski was held to account for historical rape, the art establishment must now own Donald Friend’s crimes.
Readers of this item should visit the web page of THE AUSTRALIAN bearing the inTernet version: therein one finds a raging debate on the topic. I t provides an insight into the power of a current of secular fundamentalism that has swept into the dominant reaches of the Western world. however, the comments indicate that they are not totally dominant
- Anthony Funnell: “Our favourite Paedophile: …,” http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/home-design/prestige-property/arts-at-the-heart-of-paula-nagels-home/news-story/dc9500557e55ba68482d3b50b41fc1ec
- Paul Hetherington: “The Artist as Writer: Donald Friend Diaries as Literature,” 20 October 2010, https://thuppahis.com/2010/10/20/artist-as-writer-the-donald-friend-diaries-as-literature/
- Michael Roberts: “Donald Friend’s Imaginings,” in Norah Roberts, Galle as Quiet as Asleep