Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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So you married Amina whom you loved. What part has she played in your life since then, has she contributed more than you expected at the time ... what sort of a marriage have you had with Amina?

Well, Amina is a tremendous element of stability in my life. Firstly because we got a completely different education, different standard of life, the kind of civility that I didn't have and still now don't have, the kind of affection, natural affection, that was probably missing in my system, in my life, so really has filled my life immensely, even if I have not been naturally grateful to her, as I should have been, or demonstrated to her. Certainly the education to the children, while on one side I have been responsible for a certain kind of roughness, and guidance and caution or discipline, she has always been on the other side of the fence and she has been a great complementary element to me, that's Amina.

With your view of tough discipline for the children and the way you have been brought up yourself, was there ever conflict with Amina about bringing up the children?

Oh yes, constant. Constant conflict, no doubt about that, and we are still on the opposite side of the fence and in reality there are different kind of tastes, I must admit, even now. Sometimes it is surprising that, after 40 years, we still have these big differences of views on many subjects and sometimes I am probably, say, thanks for this fact that we are still together, or probably because we have been able to build together what we have at present.

Now in the question of how the children should be raised — the boys who are now part of your empire — who won over that. Were they brought up as tough as you wanted them to be brought up?

Well, I think this is a pretty good complementary type of results, because I could recognise on them element of social behaviour that are typical of my wife and a certain kind of tough character that, I would say, probably come from me. I mean, the children of the three, they are different, in between themselves, each one, they really reflect very much, I could see, the input that came from the two parents.

So you think your sons are more rounded human beings than you? ... [interruption] ...

So you think your sons are more rounded human beings than you are?

Yes, no doubt. I am even able to recognise in, at least two of them, a kind of character, a tough character that I found in myself and there were certain clashing in many kinds of cases. I could see that there are a good element of stability for the type of school ... complex ... that I have made a contribution in Australia.

So the contribution you have made is this huge, huge empire and three sons with diverse characters to run it. Do you feel confident that it is going to go from strength to strength?

Very hard to make a prediction for the future, but there are pretty good parameters that I could see keeping, they could do, at least some of those could do better than I could do at present. Their knowledge, much rounder in area than I am particularly (a very beginner) — talk about financial type of economics, type of engineering. Their knowledge is more up to date, probably I've made a contribution, a sort of primitivism that was typical with improvisation, typical of me. I could see their preparation is certain rounder than mine, so I have great confidence for their continuity in the system, no doubt about that, so ...

This very simple, as you say direct but very tough-minded, approach that you have had to business over the years, can we find some evidence of the origins of that in the life and landscape and world of southern Italy into which you were born?

To pinpoint element that I could see, south Italy — the land that gave me birth — and Cassano delle Murge in the south part ...

You're drifting off, Franco, can I get you to answer that question, I won't put it again, just with more energy and focus ...

Yes, certainly the element of toughness in my character could have been identifiable from the land I was born and [how] I seem today. South Italy on the tip, east part of south Italy, where very harsh country called [Cassano] delle Murge, where really outcrops of rocks really are more prevalent than the soil and my knowledge and experience also as a kid was that the farmer had to steal practically the soil from the stone. That this is really south Italy called delle Murge and I could see my relatives, when I was a kid, to go early in the morning and work toiling during the day, come late in the evening — that kind of life that is certainly a touching experience in my early childhood. That was Puglia. But on the other hand, Puglia itself must have had tremendous civilisation as a link between Greece and Rome. Puglia was part of what was the Magna Graecia, one of the colonies of Greeks at the time, and subsequently when Rome took over and eventually conquered Greece and adventured further, there was a good passage between Brindisi, the little town south further, and Taranto, where Romans must have gone in their voyage of conquest south and remnants of civilisation that were left there and subsequently, eventually the Moors and the Saracens and why not, the Arabs, and the other type of conquests, the Spaniards, the Zwebi [sp?], talk about the Germans ...

So it was very harsh country but there had been civilising influences?

Certainly the land had a complex of great civilisation and, in a way, I am pretty sure they must have left something on me, as a mixture of all these people put together, no doubt about, and how you can discover in yourself any of these elements is very difficult, but I feel that I belong to that land.

Well, there is an interesting paradox in you, isn't there, because you had this harsh upbringing, a childhood that was affectionless in many ways and the tough side has been there in your career, but then there is this other side of you that has been a great nurturer of the arts?

Well, let that be some sort of element that is as surprising to me. Is that part of instinct or part of ... [coughing] ...

... that is my type of weakness, the arts now.

Yes, but we still want the energy you've got ...

Let's see what happens.

So there's this paradox about your personality. It's very easy to trace the tough pert man from his rather affectionless gritty sort of childhood, through his military training and his life as an engineer, but there is another side to you which surprises people, which is the one who has been the great nurturer of art and artists in this country. How do you explain that and where does it come from, and what satisfaction do you get out of your involvement in the arts?

Just as it is a contradiction in terms — art and discipline, toughness and military inclination and creativity — all these things are just on the opposite side of the fence, and I would not know where really I got that kind of inclination. If I think of my father, he would try to entertain us with some sort of distracting element. When I was a little kid, I was sent to Gioia del Colle, he had the property, the house that he built himself, and who was going to do the painting to the windows? He had to send his son, probably I was 10 or 12 at the time. I had to mix the paint, I had to buy the linseed oil, put the compound for drying and put the lead oxide to mix the white, put a bit of black to make the necessary grey and certainly I was going to paint the windows. Still I remember, I was just 12 or even younger when I was doing this for my father. Did I develop this inclination for painting then? I don't think so.

When did you start painting pictures?

Certainly I started getting landscape or doing landscape or all sorts of flourish type of stuff as part of the house decoration, if that is the case, little artefacts that were part of the normal, let's call toys, type of ingredient of any house, that I was painting very young. But you cannot develop an artist only starting that way and even now, after many years, I like to paint, not the level of artistry, but becomes part of an enjoyment more than anything else — even that period of [age] 16 to 18, I have been doing landscape painting, portraits. In the concentration camp I had a very good chance of meeting artists of authority and trying to monkey what they were doing, camouflage or copying or whatever, and even now some of the painting they still have, not my collection, my leftover of years of wandering around, I could discover good talent, I could see some good talent, eventually in that world of art around myself even now. So ...

Do you think that if your life had gone differently, you might have been a painter, an artist?

Well, in looking background, if I had a formal education in the art that I'm sure that I could become a good artist. I have a good hand in drawing, a good feeling of colour and just a few weeks ago I was indulging in an entry to the Archibald and I did a pretty good sky, plus a little bit of sculpture. So the basic of any art I believe is still the drawing, if you could draw, and great sculpture or painters or whatever these people, first of all, they should learn to draw.

But you haven't become an artist, or not a professional one, you've become a patron of the arts, so what made you decide in this new land of Australia to get yourself so involved in the art life of the country.

Well initially it could be just a gimmick, or whatever, you never know when you start playing and eventually do things seriously. Certainly the first arriving in Australia, I didn't have any chance even to know, even to dedicate time, but it was around the '60s when already Transfield was in a good industrial position of respect, that the idea of an art prize to, mainly, publicise the company, so that the Transfield Art Prize became a big thing in the country, for more than 12 years. We eventually became a polarising element for many artists in the country was mainly for and around Australia, and I, together, a lot of artists that became friends, critics, and through that kind of initial exercise it was a fantastic array of contacts and, myself, I became more involved in the arts, not as an artist myself, but mainly studying and exploring the inner world of the art and that was to me a great time, great experience.

You did more than offer the Transfield Prize, though, you also offered facilities for sculptors to work in your foundry and you had a lot of personal contact with them. Did you enjoy the company of the artists?

The fact that behind me there is a company of that size, it was very easy to give hospitality, to give facilities available. We had a foundry for a period, but artists going to any of our workshops utilised our facilities, it was always joy to see these people really playing with real things. Most artists, they don't see even the size of what they could build if they give them a chance, and great sculptures were made in some of our workshops, and even now you can see around the cities or landscaping here and there. The fact of having the chance of helping artists and understanding the mentality and try to respect their creativity, was in itself a joy. To me it has been really great to discover this people and to make a lot of friends as a consequence.

So what do you think they think of you, this Italian engineer, millionaire, who comes and gives the prize?

It is almost natural for people to think that an Italian ... of course Italy with a great ... thousand years of civilisation and artistic achievement was obvious to identify me with a sort of Medici. Therefore the patronage became also and in time I myself started getting [a] bit of fun out of it, and this kind of patronage that [is] also a glorious experience to give a chance to artists, to give them the facilities, money or type of facilities, was always a reciprocal symbiosis with an artist and Transfield and myself, and even now whenever I have a chance to give a practical grant for the experience that artists try constantly themselves to develop.

So you feel that Transfield has got as much out of it as the artists have?

I won't say that Transfield did need the art, in a way ...

I mean, in publicity, has it been a good thing for Transfield?

It's been a very good thing for Transfield and I have been insisting many times that art has been a good business, so instinctively it has been a good business not only for our staff, for our offices, for our own surroundings, but also for the company. I mean, we have been identified as great benefactors in the art and in a way I've been playing quite nicely my role with a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction.

What made you get involved with the biennale and set that up?

Well certainly, the biennale would be the second step, almost a consequence of the Transfield Art Prize and it would have been a great pity when there were so many art prizes in the country that we would have discontinued the art prizes, as it was suggested at the time. But the link between Italy and Australia, and Venice and Sydney, you see the concept of transferring the Biennale of Venice to a Biennale of Sydney was too great a captivating idea and initially was a very shy ... the suggestion of making it the Biennale of Sydney. The first biennale was almost an anti-climax, no-one believed that it could be done, everybody says 'difficult, can't be done', but sometimes the result of the thing can be done, could be much better than suspected. And the first biennale was at the Exhibition Hall at the [Sydney] Opera House, Mr [Gough] Whitlam was there, then he was also very much in love himself with the art because he was the Minister for the Art Department and the Prime Minister. Therefore that was another first for him. It was another first for us and for me.

So do you think that the climate of the times with the whole new interest in Australian culture happening was something you were able to mesh with and that it was the right time for you to be involved in all this?

Well, Australia at that time — talk about early in the ‘60s — was a sort of cultural desert and if you compare with what happens today, it is just a miracle what has been done for the development of conscientious, conscientious of art in the country, and in a way not only was I able to ride this type of wave but I think that I made also a contribution to this kind of development in a country. The concept of insularity in Australia even on the arts was pretty obvious and the idea of having an international type of context of the type of biennale, that now is sort of accomplished and now looks sort of almost obvious — at that time to consider that artists from overseas will come here and show their wares and vice versa, the Australian artists would be able to show what they could do overseas, that had been a fantastic experience and to me unbelievable type of association with a movement that now has put Australia on the map so far as the art is concerned.

What do you personally get out of art, what does it mean in your life, could you imagine life without it?

Well, the fact that I am sincerely in love with the art and the artist because I am always so much more or less activated by the creativity of artists. While I'm in love with science and engineering, I don't put them on the same level — the ability of scientist with the ability of an artist — and I am a great admirer and am constantly captivated by this kind of Jungian exploits and art still remains for me one of the greatest phenomenon that is making mankind alive. And Australia had been insulated by this distance, is really a shortening these distances, and now it has become part of the great family of nations, mainly because through the cultural exchanges, we are reducing this kind of tyranny of distance that was a character of Australia in the early ‘50s.

So, do you think that cultural diplomacy is as important as, say, business opening up in other countries? Do you think that it is very important for Australia to have a strong, strong cultural policy and a strong cultural movement?

Well, Australia needs to improve the contacts with the rest of the world and business, commerce, economy are other aspects of the nations, but I think it is more pronounced the presence of the art and the artists, and I am sure that Australia is also making a good business out of it. I understand that Australia, in the balance of payment, is taking to account also the sale of music, the sale of pop, the sale of theatrical performance, ballet and the other ones, quite apart from the masterpiece of visual art that are coming out of the country, so Australia now is becoming probably more prominent in the world for the artistic ability that ... not for the industrial or commercial capacity.

Now you're leaving behind in Australia an extraordinary legacy of engineering achievements spread right across the country, you've left your mark, but you've also been able to sponsor and support a tremendous amount of artwork. Of these two legacies you'll leave behind, which makes you the most proud?

Well of the two, quite frankly, while I'm pretty proud of the contribution, industrial contribution in the engineering field, the many aspects all over the area and outside Australia, particularly in the last few years, I think we have become probably more relevant, my presence in the arts, strangely enough, coming from an engineering background. I'm sure that people will probably remind me more for what I have been here and their propulsive element in the art, particularly visual art, that is not engineering, and I'm pretty sure that even my children will like to see me more in the type of patron of the arts that not as a sort of builder or engineering type of pioneer.

This assessment would have been very surprising to your father, I think, he wouldn't have felt that, would he?

I beg your pardon?

This assessment of art being so important in human life would have been very surprising to that tough man, your father. He wouldn't have put the same value on it, would he?

I don't think so. I don't think my father would have spent much time in the art arena, at least my perspective of him was very practical man, a down-to-earth type of operator that would not waste his time too much in the art world.

Why have you come to the conclusion that art is so very, very important in human affairs?

Well, partly because through my complex succession of events in my life, my mental formation has gradually changed and matured in so many directions that eventually, if I could make a type of conclusion, I would say that it is not technicality, not engineering, not science, is the basic element that will shape mankind. I think it is essential that the culture, the social structure, the relationship between humans, is much more important.

[end of tape]

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