Vale Edmund Capon AM OBE (1940 – 2019), former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), you were a man for all time, one who empowered millions to know, to learn and to appreciate what art meant in both society and life.
Your determination to keep the pleasures of the collection of the AGNSW free for all, and for all time, helped my generation to visit often, to look and to expand our knowledge of the past and self, while stimulating our imagination, helping us admire innovation and to accept change; we were all enriched and enlightened by the experience.
A graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, Edmund Capon’s career started in the extraordinary Victoria and Albert Museum at London having majored in Chinese art, archaeology and language from London University
Capon began his career in 1966 and by 1973 was assistant keeper in the Far Eastern Section of V&A, from where he undertook three cultural tours to China between 1974 and 1978.
His timing was perfect for he was in Xian to witness the initial diggings, which revealed the now world famous entombed warriors buried along with the First Emperor of China in his tomb.
The Australia Council and Art Exhibitions Australia, aware of his broad-based knowledge of his subject, commissioned him to write and publish a book, Art and Archeology in China, to be sold during The Chinese Exhibition: a selection of recent archaeological finds of the People’s Republic of China which toured the state galleries of Victoria, NSW and South Australia in 1977.
Appointed Director of the AGNSW in November 1978, Edmund Capon was the first internationally-trained art historian and curator to be appointed to the role, one he held for 33 years, retiring at the end of 2011.
During his first decade, he more than doubled the NSW Gallery’s annual attendance, and was often criticized for popularizing the gallery and its art works.
On any given day, you could take a chair and sit outside the gallery and watch as people from all walks of life and all ages and backgrounds flocked through its doors, changing the whole future of art and indeed, Australian society and its cultural development.
Edmund Capon helped to make art not only visible, but also accessible to all. He brought into being the splendid Asian Gallery, which offered a cool, elegant place for inner contemplation.
David Gonksi, president of the gallery’s board of trustees, described Capon as an outstanding leader. “He was inspirational, decisive, innovative and totally on top of all the issues relevant to the Gallery at the time. Everything he did was done with love for, and devotion to, the Gallery,” Mr Gonski said.
Edmund Capon’s major blockbuster exhibition was The Entombed Warriors (1983), which broke all records, recording over 800,000 paying attendees.
The discovery of the buried terracotta army guarding the entrance to Qin Shihuang’s tomb have been considered one of the marvels of ancient China since they were found. Within the history of early Chinese art, the findings were regarded not only as revolutionary, but also revelatory.
It was acknowledged the finding ‘… heralded a new sensibility of realism, which contrasted the symbolic values dominant in the previous art of Bronze Age China’.
The questions asked subsequently were ‘what gave rise to this realism, what was it meant to communicate and what was its impact on the subsequent history of Chinese art?’
Edmund Capon and his colleagues answered a great many questions around these themes during a Symposium at the Art Gallery of NSW in December 2010, which I attended. It is the last time I saw him in his teaching element, discussing Innovations and Creativity in the Ancient Quin (dynasty).
He and his colleagues asked the question Is the terracotta army art or artifice? Should they be displayed in an ‘art’ gallery or in a Museum, the latter whose premise is about presenting stories of cultural development and history.
Melbourne visitors to the Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2019, will have an opportunity to answer this question.
Acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang will provide a contemporary setting to showcase the warriors; a far more dispassionate forum for the community at large to assess them by.
Edmund Capon was both ‘loved and loathed’ for his famous bravado as well as applauded for his mismatched socks and love of giraffes.
They helped keep his active imagination and innovative spirit rolling along.
During his lifetime, he was heaped with much-deserved honours for his contribution to the evolution and growth of the world art and culture in Australia by our country and his own, Great Britain.
His success meant he transformed a small provincial gallery into a major Australian institution, one that is now recognised as a significant player within the international museum fraternity.
Edmond Capon was an advocate for, and an active conversationalist about the role of art in our lives. A man of true influence, he has indeed earned both our respect and our gratitude for his outstanding contribution.
May he rest in peace; his legacy of expanding a love for art through knowledge will be ongoing.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019
Tuesday 11 June 2019
Art Gallery of NSW,
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney
Members of the Public welcome to attend