Silent Depths: An exhibition of artworks by Malcolm Carbins (1921–2002)
RSASA Gallery, 18 March – 2 April 2022
Malcolm Carbins was born in Kapunda, probably at his grandparents’ and Aunty Annie’s house in Havelock Street, on 5 March 1921. He died on 23 February 2002, aged eighty-one years. He was the only child of Emily and Arthur Carbins. Malcolm’s parents were then most likely living in the Riverland on a property given to Arthur as an ex-servicemen returned from World War One. As a young boy Malcolm contracted rheumatic fever and was bedridden for several months. He requested drawing materials from his parents, who thought that was a good distraction as he needed something to fill in the time.
From that time Malcolm expressed an interest in becoming an artist. This meant his parents would have to pay for his education at a time of great hardship in Australia, post-World War One. Both his parents found this a difficult concept and definitely wanted him to become professional in a more reliable field of work. In an attempt to dissuade Malcolm, his father took him to the National Gallery of South Australia (NGSA, now AGSA) to meet the Director, Louis McCubbin, hoping he would tell Malcolm, after viewing his portfolio, that he was not talented enough to study fine arts. Instead, and fortunately for Malcolm, McCubbin told Arthur that Malcolm should be trained and recommended the School of Fine Arts in North Adelaide, which was run by Frederick Millward Grey (1899–1957). So Carbins studied under F Milward Grey’s system, which concentrated then on drawing from the antique model. During those years he cited as influences Augustus John and George Lambert.
Carbins served during World War Two as a signalman in New Guinea, with the 2nd Australian Imperial Forces, but was infected with tropical diseases, suffering from malaria and rheumatic fever. On returning from active service he studied for one more year under F Milward Grey. The small pension received from the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS) made it possible for Malcolm to go to study at the East Sydney Technical College (ESTC). He was determined not to repeat the narrow studies he had experienced under F Milward Grey and his exposure to a broader programme in Sydney opened
his eyes to modernism in Europe. The principal was the well-known British modernist painter Frank Medworth (1892–1947). Discernible influences on his work from that time included Paul Cézanne, Georges Rouault, Pablo Picasso, Russell Drysdale, William Dobell, James Cant and Dora Chapman.
During his time of some three and half years in Sydney he worked as a newspaper cartoonist and, around 1947, travelled with Australia’s biggest circus, Wirth’s, drawing many of the clowns and circus performers. This kind of work became a mainstay of his practice there, and he first received recognition for it when he exhibited locally. He moved back to Adelaide, and by 1954–56 his painting style had gravitated towards the abstract.
Carbins held his first solo exhibition at Wentworth Galleries in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1961, and again achieved instant success, with the NGSA purchasing Landscape at Night. He held five solo exhibitions over the next decade, which reflected his status as a mature painter. In the 1970s the local lighthouse at Marino Rocks (built in 1962) became a favourite subject for his art, and in the 1980s he worked in more plastic, abstract forms.
The artist remains relatively obscure, even in Adelaide; however, his low profile fits the pattern for many modern artists of that era in South Australia, who were recognized in their day by being acquired by major national and state gallery collections and promoted in important survey and touring exhibitions, but through a peculiar confluence of factors their careers did not sustain momentum. By comparison, the once obscure inter-war South Australian landscape painter Horace Trennery was celebrated in 2009 through a retrospective exhibition and related publication by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Creative post-war artists have generally not received such recognition in Adelaide, with the exception of a set who were involved with the formation of the Contemporary Art Society of SA in the 1940s, and most recently the Czech migrant brothers Dusan and Voitre Marek. There is still much work to be done, to build on the the foundations laid by curators, art historians, and researchers like Jane Hylton, Elle Freak, and Dr Adam Dutkiewicz, who has produced a dozen monographs under the imprint Moon Arrow Press (2006–2021) and several publications for the RSASA since 2016.
In preparing the 2009 retrospective exhibition the prominent themes in Carbins’ mature output emerged clearly. In organizing the colour pages for the monograph titled Malcolm Carbins: Silent Depths, examples of these recurring themes were laid out in proximity over mostly double-page spreads, so the viewer could see how the artist explored his various subjects. This second survey exhibition follows the themes identified in the book, and also leans on the title of the monograph, which was taken from a small work Adam found in the artist’s studio and purchased from the 2008 exhibition. The Society hopes that on this occasion a new audience will be introduced to the artist, and that people will be compelled by the attractive pricing to purchase works for their homes, offices, and collections, to help the Society to raise funds to secure its future.
Adam Dutkiewicz (RSASA Historian) & Bev Bills OAM (RSASA Director)
assisted by Doris Unger (Collections Manager)