In October 1970, a disgruntled student penned a letter to the Union Recorder. [note]A then-great student publication, which has since succumbed to Voluntary Student Unionism. Its disappointed ghost has been rumoured to haunt the PULP Content Management System, causing the occasional listicle to be published at odd hours of the morning.[/note]
“First the McCallum Room, then the Holme and Sutherland Room,” it began, “now the dark blue and purple evil-eyed obscenely hideous apparitions are slowly darkening the refectory”.
The letter writer’s name was William Maurice Holliday, and he was not experiencing hallucinations. The apparitions he referred to were the emerging brushstrokes of an immense mural, measuring approximately 25 metres in width and five metres in height. It was to span an entire wall of the Refectory, a grand hall in the University of Sydney Union’s Holme building best known these days as the backdrop of the kind of USU events you have to google dress codes for.
In 1970 the Refectory was still in use as a dining hall. It was on these grounds that Holliday proceeded to lambast the emerging work of art – hideous apparitions were “not the sort of painting for an eating room. Union food is bad enough without this!”. As a solution, he proposed nailing a petition opposing the artwork to the base of the artist’s scaffolding (he estimated it would fill six sheets of foolscap paper), and furnishing the artist with a tin of white paint to cover the mural.
Two months later, however, Holliday was the one wielding the white paint in a desperate attempt to erase his hasty artistic criticism from the pages of the Union Recorder. The November 2 Recorder reported that, largely as a result of Holliday’s comments, the artist had stopped work. In the December 1 edition, Holliday wrote that the artist’s solicitors had approached him alleging defamation and threatening court action. The artist’s complaint appeared to hinge on the understanding that “obscenely hideous” suggested that the work was indecent.
Holliday groveled. Like the Icarus in the emerging mural, he had flown too close to the sun. Shortly afterwards, work on the mural resumed.
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The 1970 mural was actually the third mural by Vergil Lo Schiavo to grace the walls of the Holme Building. The first two were themed (one celebrating Shakespeare, the other Dickens); the third sensibly restrained its subject area to “Mankind”. Together, the murals cover three internal walls of the building, constructing a grand amphitheatre of two-dimensional figures with facial expressions ranging from matronly disapproval to pre-orgasmic contortion. [note]Sometimes both at once. I did not believe it was possible until I saw the mural.[/note] No one in the painting looks truly happy or fulfilled, per se – all the faces share a kind of tension that’s either an artistic quirk or a comment on what fifty years stuck on a wall observing undergraduate antics does to a person.
Describing the murals to someone who has never seen them requires linguistic calisthenics: they’re an orgy of colour and orgy-esque in their tangle of interlocking limbs; an extended-family portrait of the entirety of human history as perceived by one guy with a paintbrush, featuring the usual mix of posturing and intra-familial tension and that one weird cousin who turns up naked and flexes his abdominals so hard you think he’s going to shit a brick.
But don’t take my word for it – the Sydney Morning Herald described the murals in 1971 as a “neo-classical” endeavour which “slashes” across the wall in “all the bright colours of union food – mainly tomato sauce red and pie-crust yellow”. In an explainer published shortly after the mural’s completion, the Union Recorder identified highlights such as “a blinding white flash which might be either the beginning of Mankind or the explosion of a nuclear bomb”, the “BHP [Billiton] section of the painting” and “the upended birdman who will never fly but will always try” – an inspiration to us all. Not all of the painting can be so easily explained, however. As the artist himself told the Sydney Morning Herald, “the student [at the centre of the mural] is holding a book, but whether it is Karl Marx or the Bible, I am not saying.”[note]The artist died before revealing the answer, meaning the Marx/Bible question looms to this day.[/note]
I jest partly because I can – the artist is now dead and can no longer sue for defamation. But in seriousness, the murals are equal parts impressive and weird, and omitting either quality does them a disservice. They are a sufficiently vast piece of art to sustain both my childish jokes and the Sir John Sulman Prize;[note]Like the Archibald, but for subject painting, genre painting or murals.[/note] to induce both Chancellor and Vice Chancellor to attend a dinner upon their completion[note]Imagine a University with that kind of support for the arts today.[/note]and to continue to creep out the young journos who sit outside Union Board meetings waiting for confidential business to end.
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Behind every mural is a wall and an artist. The artist, Vergil Lo Schiavo, began as a humble USyd student in the 1930s, where if the 1971 Union Recorder is to be believed, he was once suspended for a year in a mixup involving a conga line, a war memorial, and a garbage tin.[note]The short, totally un-fact-checked version (blame the Union Recorder if we’re wrong): Commemoration Day shenanigans led to a conga Line past the Cenotaph at Martin Place. A garbage tin was kicked over by accident by another student, but anti-Italian sentiment at the time meant Lo Schiavo copped the blame. The whole thing should have been a non-issue, except that some nearby veterans perceived the incident as disrespectful to vets and (legend has it) marched on USyd, leaving administration with no choice but to throw the book at Lo Schiavo.[/note]The wall came about out of necessity – as the University of Sydney Union president wrote in 1971 to explain the Board’s approval of the mural, “Mr. Lo Schiavo points out that as an artist he is at a direct disadvantage: he needs walls, and walls are not easy to come by”.
So desperate was Lo Schiavo for walls that he offered to paint his final mural free of charge – the only cost to the Union was scaffolding. Lo Schiavo bore all other costs, both paint and physical – in his sixties at this point, he had had three coronaries and was in ill health. At one point (whether it was during the construction of the mural is unclear) the Union Recorder reports that he “once ‘died’ for a couple of minutes. Black began to close in on him and he claims that he was then able to realise that his body was dead and that those around him saw this – but he did not want to die then. Light fought back.”
Light fought back until the mural was done, but not much longer. Three months after its completion, the Union Recorder reported news of Lo Schiavo’s death. The Chancellor of the University penned an obituary that afforded the artist the highest praise: “of few men can it be so said that, in the current idiom, he ‘did his thing’”.
And of the mural: “so soon do yesterday’s controversies abate into today’s acceptances that this mural came to be part of normal experience for countless undergraduates, so normal that it must ‘always have been there’: and the name of the artist, save by a few, was forgotten.”
Honi remembers. Students of USyd, go see the mural.