Some people may wonder why my family donated this little painting to the Art Gallery of South Australia. It sits here quietly in this corner, in its palette and forms nicely complementing the work of Ralph Balson and Grace Crowley. The reasons are several. Firstly, it is one of the earliest abstractions made by my father, certainly in a style that was not entirely expressionistic. It was also one of the earliest paintings of this nature made in Adelaide, and it tells a great deal about a hidden history of adventurous and creative activity in South Australian art. When you read most histories of Australian art, you get a distinct impression that not much happened in Adelaide in the 1950s. But nothing could be further from the truth, and this little painting was one of the foundational pieces in that movement.
The dating of Calligraphy can partly be determined, even though there is no date included with the signature, because of the signature “Dutkie”, which usually designates a work painted before 1954. After that time he usually signed his work “WD”.
The artist held 7 solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne from 1951-55; 10 group exhibitions including in Regensberg (Germany) and London from 1946-55; and unfortunately he did not retain catalogues of all these exhibitions. No catalogue of the period with this work can be found. However, very similar work from the period has been dated and catalogued. Most pertinent is an oil on canvas slightly larger than this titled Bush (1951), which is an abstracted landscape, virtually reduced to a series of vertical brushstrokes evoking the colours and dryness of the sclerophyll forest. Calligraphy has a similar treatment in the background, but the artist has taken a small yet logical step on by suspending a series of lines over the backdrop.
The dating can also be determined by comparing it with other works in similar vein from the period: Composition (1953); Television (c.1954); Bird’s eye view (c.1954). The Shapes in Space series of 1954-55 was the most mature manifestation of this approach in his early painting. Indeed one of these works, which was reproduced in the first editions of Alan McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, has been captured in two different photographs that indicate the changeover in his use of signatures. One photograph has the early longhand signature, while the other, presumably after a few minor alterations to the picture, shows his initials.
My father’s related Colour-Music paintings, especially For Stravinsky (1954), Concrete Music (1954) and Toccata (c.1955), extended on the ideas struck upon in the earliest abstract works, such as Calligraphy, but were expanded upon and writ large (around 5 x 8 feet).
Another reason we donated this work was that it resembles a mural in one of the earliest modernist homes of the 1950s, designed for his family by the architect Brian Claridge. The mural was photographed in black and white and also included in the film Quest for Time, made in Adelaide in 1955, I think, by Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski and Ian Davidson, in a shot that prophesies the famous image through a convex mirror in Losey’s The Servant. If you’ve got the time or inclination you can see this image in Davidson’s self-produced volume Art, Theatre and Photography: Remembering Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski (1922-1994) in the AGSA Library.
As far as I can tell from the records, the painting Calligraphy was not exhibited again until the 1970s. So that’s the research into its provenance.
When I look at Calligraphy I think of two things. My initial question, of course, is why is it called Calligraphy? An answer comes if one considers the background as a wall of rock, and the lines represent the first carvings of a primitive person in that rock wall. One can see the beginnings of shapes that underpin the early alphabets. There is also a suggestion of a mathematical diagram.
I know that at around this time my father was producing a series of paintings based on his encounter with Aborigines in Western Australia shortly after his arrival in this country. In 1953 he exhibited the series, including work such as Churinga , which clearly showed he had absorbed the use of line and the kinds of information recorded on Aboriginal artefacts and in their representations of mythical, human and animal forms. It is likely he developed his interest in depicting scenes from an aerial perspective through his study of Aboriginal art, as much as his interest and awareness of Malevich’s Suprematism. It was quite usual for modernists in central Europe to explore regional folk art to underpin their work, just as Picasso, for example, delved into Iberian and African art to develop his Cubism.
So, the title might not only suggest a background of a cave wall and the first steps towards writing and the semblance of letters, but also an aerial view and tracing of a journey of some kind over or through a landscape. It might represent the flight of a bird, a kite, glider or plane. One interpretation is that the background refers to the high-rise skyline of a city. The lines then might record a series of excursions, a tracing describing his journeys around the city on a particular day or series of days.
A second thought is that the lines might also suggest some proposals for new forms in an architectural plan, a new architecture that breaks up the tyranny of rectilinear forms. In his own way, in this type of work my father was not only experimenting with line and form, but also conducting a dialogue with art movements such as Suprematism and other geometric painting. For example, in Sydney up until then Balson and Crowley in their Contructivism had relied on Platonic geometry and flat, untextured planes of colour in their paintings. My father would not have liked the more fussy and pedantic versions of modernism that celebrated rectilinear form. He always tried to avoid obvious solutions in his art.
I’ve mentioned the very interesting comparison with the contemporary work of Balson and Crowley, and others such as Frank Hinder, in their so-called “Constructivism” that emerged in Sydney from around 1940. The artists who tackled Constructivist ideas in Adelaide in the early 1950s were mostly migrant artists: Wladyslaw and his younger brother Ludwik Dutkiewicz, Alexander Sadlo and a little later, Ostoja-Kotkowski. Until their arrival, only Douglas Roberts and David Dallwitz had touched on this territory in Adelaide. Frank Hinder was a Futurist as well as Constructivist in Sydney; and similarly, Sadlo was more inclined to Orphism, Futurism and Op Art, as he became interested in representing movement, rather than compositions of abstract shapes.
One of the interesting shifts in the work of Sydney Constructivists was their changing palette. In the 1940s, their origin lay in the work of Mondrian rather than Cubists or Futurists; and their palette reflected his emphasis on primary colours (sometimes with an added dimension of reflective metallic paint). As the decade proceeded, Balson, in particular, devised subtleties in secondary and tertiary blends by overlapping planes of colour. By the early 1950s, however, there was an inclination to investigate more monochrome or tonal paintings, often based in earth tones, similar to the kinds of colours we see here in Calligraphy and other work by the Adelaide Constructivists.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to differentiate the two strains, as the Adelaide artists who operated in this territory were doing something quite different, with colour but especially with form and line. We can see in this painting the twisted and curving of the straight lines that dominated most of Balson’s canvases. So I decided to call it “Organic Constructivism”, as the Adelaide artists were more grounded in Expressionism and the theories of Kandinsky, initially in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In Point & Line to Plane Kandinsky described a line as the movement of a point in time and developed this idea and how it might be used in abstract painting. The Organic Constructivists’ method involved a fusion of gestural, “calligraphic” expressionism and more conventional constructivism in painting; and it was concerned with visual representations of space-time.
At the beginning of the 1950s the idea of The Fourth Dimension began to circulate in Adelaide as a concept central to much modernist art. The then director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Robert Campbell, even delivered a lecture at the Contemporary Art Society of SA in which he mentioned this idea, which was in the first years of last century invoked by Apollinaire in writing on the Cubists. It was regarded as “the dimension of the infinite” or “a higher dimension” and in modern art it often became code for visual transformation or the attempted manifestation of the sublime in art.
It seemed to develop three different meanings for artists: the first stemmed from 19th C geometry as a higher dimension of space; the second was based on Einstein’s science, referring to time (in turn based on his mentor Minkowski’s notion of space-time); and thirdly, the “hyperspace philosophy” in which the Fourth Dimension was a true reality perceivable through the attainment of higher consciousness. The latter emerged from the “philosopher” Ouspensky, who believed that humans experience an incomplete sense of space; and through the cultivation of a new kind of logic (Tertium Organum), a new and higher consciousness could be experienced. His ideas were particularly influential on the Russian Futurists and Suprematists.
I know my father was interested in these ideas at the time of painting Calligraphy. In the next few years, with the help of Brian Claridge, he even developed a “manifesto” around the idea of synthesis in art. It proved to be the basis of a strand of his painting throughout his career, and was most evident in his sculptures, such as the street decorations he made for the 1968 Festival. His understanding, according to a WEA lecture (c.1960), of this concept was more in line with Einstein than Ouspensky. In an interview with Hazel de Berg (1962) he indicated he saw the Fourth Dimension as an idea that could be applied to art in an imaginative way to move it forward into new territory. He used the metaphor of a plane flying to Darwin to explain his ideas on how he built images in his art that moved on from purely abstract representations.
The Fourth Dimension is an idea underpinning much modernist art: perhaps some of the best and most widely known examples are Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending the staircase (1912) and The Large Glass (1915-23) and Max Weber’s Interior of the Fourth Dimension (1913). It was crucial in the development of the art of Len Lye, who around 1930 connected the Fourth Dimension and the Dreamtime in his art, and Lucio Fontana in his White Manifesto (1946), to name two major figures.
Calligraphy offers a local insight into this rich vein that brought forward so much interesting activity in modernist art, and shows the conceptual territory and the attempted connections between art, mathematics, physics and even metaphysics in Australian art in the early years of the Cold War.
Finally, I should add that if you are interested in finding out more about Adelaide’s progressive modernism of the 1950s and 60s, you might read chapters 5 and 6 of my thesis Raising ghosts, which inserts Adelaide’s post-war modernist history into the story of Abstract Painting in Australia. If you want to know more about my father’s life and work, you might investigate my biography, titled Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz: A Partisan for Art (Moon Arrow Press, 2013).
Notes for a talk for the Art Gallery of South Australia, Tuesday 22 April 2003, 12.45pm
1. “I am doing just a simple thing. For me the imaginary starting points are very essential. The starting point, I mean, can be here – my bus or this cigarette, as the first one – the second can be probably Port Adelaide or even Darwin; and if I join these two points in a first line, a straight one, my imagination is directed strongly towards each one; then the second line, it will be a curve, it will be probably, for example, to fly by the aeroplane, and if I combine these two lines with my starting points, the sphere in between starts to design for me a picture, in essence, and if I still found more points and dislodged them, I have more and more that is coming as an image.”
Wladyslaw Dutkiewicz, Interview with Hazel de Berg, 10 August 1962
2. Sadlo’s influences lay with Kupka and later Albers, rather than Kandinsky, and his early experimental work at times resembled a fusion of Picasso’s cubism and Duchamp’s penultimate and most famous paintings.
3. Brad Ricca, “Signifying Nothing: the Fourth Dimension in Modernist Art and Literature,” http://www.cwru.edu/artsci/engl/VSALM/mod/ricca/paper.html [obsolete link].
4. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, “Mysticism, Romanticism, and the Fourth Dimension”, in Maurice Tuchmann et al, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abbeville Press, 1986), 219-37.
5. W. Dutkiewicz, [“Cosmic Theory of Light & Line”(after N. Claridge)], submission for Kultura, Paris, c.1955, TL & TM – see dutkiewiczarchive
6. [The Fourth Dimension & Minkowski’s Geometry]
“From the point of view of geometry according to Hinton, the question of the 4th dimension may be examined in the following way. We know geometrical figures of three kinds:
Figures of one dimension – lines;
Figures of two dimensions – planes;
Figures of three dimensions – solids.
A line is regarded here as the trace of a point moving in space.
Let us imagine a straight line limited by two points, and let us designate this line by the letter a. Let us imagine this line a moving in space in a direction perpendicular to itself and leaving a trace of its movement. When it has traversed a distance equal to its length, the trace left by it will have the form of a square, the sides of which are equal to a line a squared.
Let us imagine this square moving in space in a direction perpendicular to two of its adjoining sides and leaving a trace of its movement. When it has traversed a distance equal to the length of one of the sides of the square, its trace will have the form of a cube.
Now if we imagine the movement of a cube in space we will achieve a trace which we will call a figure of the higher dimension.
If we examine the way in which figures of higher dimensions are constructed by the movement of figures of lower dimensions, we shall discover several common properties and several common laws in this formation.
If, in fact, when we consider a square as a trace of the movement of a line, we know that all of the points of this line have moved in space; when we consider a cube as a trace of the movement of a square we know that all the points of the square have moved. Moreover, the line moves in a direction – perpendicular to itself; the square in a direction perpendicular to two of its dimensions.
Consequently, if we consider our fourth figure as the trace of movement of a cube in space, we must remember that all the points of the given cube have moved in space. Moreover we may deduce from analogy with the above that the cube was moving in space in a direction which is not contained in the cube itself – a direction perpendicular to its three dimensions.
Summing up, I did say that the properties of [the] fourth dimension may be obtained by the movement of a cube in space. It is right to suppose that the assemblage of lines drawn from every point of a cube’s interior as well as exterior, the lines along which the points approach each other or retreat from each other constitutes the projection of a four dimensional body.
From the practical point of view, the architecture of today is very near to these ideas, thanks to all the experimentation done by painters on canvas over the last one hundred years.”
W. Dutkiewicz, Lecture for WEA, c.1960, probably written with assistance by Brian and Nancy Claridge.
7. W. Dutkiewicz, in Hazel de Berg, op. cit.
8. “During his youth in New Zealand and Australia, (Len) Lye gained deep respect for the integrity of the aboriginals’ philosophy of dreamtime and their art. Dreamtime is the aboriginals’ belief that the visions of dream and trance represent a higher, spiritual dimension (a fourth dimension) that – true, perfect, and eternal – is superior to the corrupt reality of the waking state. Lye called dreamtime ‘the original Surrealism’ and blended its notion of the superior validity of dream and trance with old-brain/new-brain psychology and automatic writing (Tusalava, 1928) based on aboriginal sacred drawings as they appeared in his dreams and a series of drawn-on-film abstractions (beginning with Colour Box, 1935) that metamorphose continually into new unexpected realms.”
William Moritz, “Abstract Film and Colour Music” in Maurice Tuchman et al, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890-1985, p. 309.
9.“After several millennia of analytical artistic development, the moment of synthesis has arrived. Prior to this moment, specialization was necessary. Now however this specialization amounts to a disintegration of the unity we envisage.
We imagine synthesis as the sum total of the physical elements: colour, sound, movement, time, space, integrated in physical and mental union. Colour, the element of space; sound, the element of time and movement, which develops in time and space. These are fundamental to the new art which encompasses the four dimensions of existence. Time and space.”
Lucio Fontana, “The White Manifesto” (1946) in Charles Harrison & Paul Wood,
Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas.