Friday, January 15, 2010

Friend’s diaries found

Two missing diaries penned by Donald Friend, an Australian artist who led what some call an exotic lifestyle and who had few inhibitions about his homo-erotic interest in boys, have just been found and donated to the National Library of Australia which already owns most of his diaries. In recent years, the Library has deemed them worthy of being published in four volumes - causing some controversy in the process - and has suggested he is Australia’s most important 20th century diarist.

Friend was born in Sydney, and studied at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales as well as in London at the Westminster School of Art. He lived in Nigeria for a short while, but then returned to Australia at the outbreak of the Second World War and joined the army as an artillery gunner. He also served as an official war artist towards the end of the conflict. After the war, and some travels, Friend settled in Sri Lanka for five years and then in Bali for over a decade, living an exotically gay life, in touch with many other artists. Ill-health eventually forced his return to Australia in 1980. He died just over 20 years ago in 1989. Further biographical information can be found at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Friend kept diaries all his life, but only two - Gunner’s Diary (1943) and Painter’s Diary (1946) - based on his wartime experiences were published in his lifetime, both by Ure Smith in Sydney. Several copies of the former are available from secondhand booksellers, but the latter seems more difficult to find. Over 40 of the original diaries are owned by the National Library of Australia. Between 2001 and 2006, it published them in four volumes as The Diaries of Donald Friend, the first edited by Anne Gray, and the other three by Paul Hetherington.

This is what the Library says about Volume 4: ‘Donald Friend’s legendary years in Bali in the 1960s and 70s and his subsequent final decade in Australia, are revealed in detail in this fourth and final volume of The Diaries of Donald Friend. In Bali he lives luxuriously, like a lord - even keeping his own gamelan orchestra - and becomes an international celebrity artist. He welcomes guests such as Mick Jagger and the Duke and Duchess of Beford, entertains numerous other visitors who want to buy his paintings and drawings and socialised freely with friends, including many other artists. He engages in significant building activity and property development while also producing superb illustrated manuscripts and books. And despite increasing ill-health, Friend continues to revel in his life’s drama and creativity, remaining an eloquent, often charming and sometimes irascible companion. Including over 60 drawings from the diaries, many of them in colour, this volume confirms Friend’s quicksilver creative brilliance and extraordinary insight. He is perhaps Australia’s most important twentieth-century diarist.’

Publication of this latter volume, however, caused some controversy. Here is what Wikipedia says: ‘Following the publication of Volume 4, accusations were made that the publishers had not been granted permission to publicly name some of Friend’s sexual partners, who were minors at the time of their encounters with Friend. There were also accusations that Friend’s paedophilia had been whitewashed by Australian art scholars. Reported in The Age in May 2008, Bernadette McMenamin, chief executive of the child protection lobby group Childwise, said of Friend ‘He wrote diaries describing his sexual abuse of children and yet Australia still looks the other way because he produced beautiful art.’ Speaking on ABC Radio in November 2008, filmmaker Kerry Negara said of the publishers ‘instead of embracing those parts of the diaries where he talks about sex with male children and adolescents as young as 9, 10, 12 years old in Bali, instead they decided to go down that route of denying it and even kind of turning Friend into a nice culturally accepted paedophile, at best.’

Earlier this week (12 January), the Library announced that two of Friend’s diaries, missing for more than 60 years, had been found in the United States. Apparently, Friend sold the diaries in 1944 to the owner of Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in southwest Pennsylvania, where they had remained in a storage box. The diaries cover Friend’s time as a soldier in the Australian Army between 1942 and 1945, before he went to Borneo as an official war artist, and the years he spent in Nigeria where he wrote an anthropological study of a tribe. Both of the diaries have been donated to the Library .

Here are a few extracts from Friend’s diary, as quoted by Paul Hetherington in a National Library of Australia staff paper.

Aged 16
‘I am Donald Stuart Leslie Friend, and am 16-years-of-age, being blessed with a genius for art and a talent for writing. My mother, known in this and other writings as Adorable, is a lady of extreme beauty, wit and sophistication, it is from this gracious lady that I inherit all talents - she is the descendant of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was reputedly an illegitimate son of Charles I. This explains Adorable’s eyes - so magnetic and brown are they that an aged servant, unknowing of the descent said they were the laughing, lovely eyes of Charles Stuart himself.

I have a sister Gwen, and two brothers, the elder, my senior, called Harley, being monstrous grim of appearance and most unbelievably grown-up for eighteen. Ten is younger, fair-haired and good-looking. I have been told by sages and seers that in June or July I shall leave for England. July is almost over, and I have been disappointed for the last three years. All predict a brilliant artistic career for me.’

2 June 1943
‘You know, sometimes I rather doubt if people reading all this will credit truth to my record. But I assure you it is as true as anyone could expect. After all, one can never do more than translate the facts through the medium of one’s own personal perceptions. Thus many of the stresses may be false or exaggerated. I see things absurdly, because I am absurdly incapable of the state of mind that can seriously indulge in the very activities that I record. Somehow they appear to me as funny, sometimes monstrous, symptoms of wrong-mindedness. They are like the laughable antics of droll animals; diverting to those watchers outside the cage, but really solemn affairs to the denizens within.’

‘It stands to reason, nobody would keep a diary who did not find himself and his world absorbing.

As I do. And in this book I shall attempt to revive something of the spirit of those earlier diaries full of drawings and letters and the excitement of life-diaries which are already a legend, & generally assumed to be a unique personal exposé of our art world from the 1940s on. No more slipshod, neglected journals like those of my past five years or so.

Such is my resolution - or to be more realistic, my good intention. For I am aware that the essential ingredient for a fascinating diary is a fascinating life. And that in my rickety incurable ill-health, bodily feebleness etc, is hardly within my capabilities. A month of fascinating incidents would most certainly kill me. However, there remains the life of the Spirit and that of the Mind: the latter presents no problem at all.’

1 January 1983
‘It was diverting for a while to leaf through it reviving old memories until gradually the full horror dawned: I haven’t developed at all! - what seems quaint and even charming in a precocious adolescent is horrifying to find undisciplined and unimproved in oneself approaching one’s 68th birthday.

Self-centred, conceited, atrociously snobbish, frivolous, obsessed with aristocratic delusions, adept at self-deceit. None of that’s changed. Already I was infatuated with the spectacle of myself as a superior being, a genius destined for fame moving wittily around in a world composed of romantic subject-matter, arranged for my own delectation.’

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