National Gallery of Victoria and touring.
John Brack argued against abstraction having a place in Australian art in a provocative lecture dating from October 1953, a response to the massively influential touring exhibition French Painting Today, crammed as it was with abstractions from artists then based in France. The argument was advanced by subsequent contributions from the founder of the Blake Prize, the professor of theology, JP Kenny, S.J., and the artists Lloyd Rees and Maximilian Feuerring in Meanjin and Quadrant respectively.
Brack’s lecture was predicated on a scepticism that arose from “the developing maturity of Australian artists, not because of their naivete or conservatism.” Brack suggested that in an international sense abstract art was no longer radical but “commonplace” and by then was in a mannerist phase. The evidence presented to Brack in the exhibition, and his natural questioning, led to his refusal “to accept as inevitable the rise of Abstraction projected in modernist narratives” in Australia.
From the perspective of history both a case for and against his argument can be mounted in terms of its reception in Australia. By the end of the 1950s, especially after a significant input from post-war migrant artists with European experience, it had become a mainstream style in Australian art; and in recent times has been seen as the crucible of experimental art that emerged in the post-object era.
On the evidence of this survey exhibition, Brack seems to have been well informed about abstraction, especially by the 1960s, and used it to his own ends. But he was forever the Social Realist, even though in later life he did tackle big themes of civilization and human folly and vulnerability.
In the post-war 1940s his painting began, as usual, in a straight ahead fashion, the usual fare of portraits and landscapes, before veering towards cartooning in work such as Little boy lost (1947). By the early 1950s his art seemed a particular fusion of bleak parody derived from sources such as the Die Brucke expressionists and George Grosz’ satire. In work such as The Barber’s shop and The tram, both from 1952, one of the two or three figures respectively depicted is left rendered in a fuzzier style, even quite abstract in the latter, as a woman seated in the background remains out of the sharp focus of the artist’s gaze.
But in the foreground we see his mature style fully emerged. It is clearest to see what is happening in a small painting titled Man in pub (1953), in which the face of the character is constructed out of a series of intersecting, flat geometrical planes, while he uses a repetition of similarly bending lines to depict the fingers of the man’s hand holding the glass, which in turn is broken down to a parallelogram as it overlaps the nose and lips. The man has bronzed skin and wears darker brown clothes and hat, and is backlit by a stained glass window, a significant clue in the inspiration for his stripped back, flattened style of representation.
By 1955 this style was fully deployed in his first major work, Collins Street, 5pm – here revealed with all its background studies of individual faces and the peak hour, winter crowd filing past lamp posts.
In 1956 he spent much of the year chronicling the racing industry. His exhibition of November that year of 21 watercolours and accompanying etchings referred to the lack of gaiety in the industry, in contrast to the approach of French impressionists from an earlier time who tackled the subject, intent on festivity. This imagery reflected an expanding interest in industrial still life and perhaps an influence by artists such as Edwin Tanner and Yves Tanguy.
In the late 1950s Brack’s art focused on the trials of his family life, suburban dreams and the schooling of his children. The etchings of his four daughters are a highlight of his earlier work, while the portrait of his wife, Helen, shows her in a severe, drained condition. Mother and Son (1958) could have inspired the casting of Ruth Cracknell in the television series.
The last of the series of paintings of suburban settings, and his wedding paintings from the early 1960s, indicate a radical stylistic departure from his by then established method, into an investigation of more painterly methods. Indeed, in Summer in the suburbs (1960) he constructs the images as a duotone of bleached yellow light and sepia foliage, rendering his geometry of rows of houses, on a flattened vertical plane, to contrast with the organic texture of the vegetation. In The Golden Embrace (1960) he presents a surreal and abstract image of sex and physical entanglement, in which the figures fuse with the earth and rocks.
But this experiment with abstraction and texture was short-lived, as he was soon immersed in portraiture and depicting dancing scenes and more celebratory female nudes than his first foray into that territory two decades earlier.
Through his portraiture, from the early painting of Fred Williams to his 1969 portrait of Barry Humphries as Edna Everage, we see cunning visual tricks that allude to the character portrayed: Humphries’ forearms are enormously exaggerated in length, perhaps to signify the “reach” of the character, and he makes Kym Bonython’s shoulders much broader to carry the burden of promoting modern art. There are always areas in his portraits that capture his eye for detail and perfectionism, and they add to the visual drama and interest of the surface. John Percival is made out to resemble a Dalíesque figure, using a shrunken chair as a ridiculously tiny support to prevent his preposterously large head from toppling him over, while around the edge of the room his ceramic dolls are littered like carnage on a battlefield, and they tilt the horizontal perspective of the room under their weight.
In the 1970s’ nudes there are unusual perspectives at play, and Persian rugs and other props that are rendered with the kind of precision and the overall scale of his well-known work from the 1980s onwards.
In the later paintings Brack refers to the aforementioned big themes: often using postcards or the tools of his art as props for architectural constructions that allude to lost or ancient civilizations and even in his most monumental work, The Battle of Waterloo.
In these oils we see rigour and technical polish, and at this point, if not before, the viewer cannot fail to recognize that the artist deserves his place in the pantheon of great Australian artists.