The John Brack retrospective exhibition at the NGV is an opportunity to re-examine the issue of was John Brack (1920 – 1999) a modern Australian artist or a reactionary and what relevance his work has to contemporary art. If he just created popular iconic, albeit slight satirical, images of Melbourne then is he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design? Progress in modern art, along with the partisan struggle between the progressive modernists versus the ‘passéist’ (the Futurist term for passé art movements), was largely assumed. Although the questions of what direction the progress should take was under debate. Was the future of art primitivist, abstract, machine aesthetics, surreal, realist or what?
The issue of figurative painting versus abstract art loomed large in the early career of Brack. In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art. Does this mean that the John Brack and the Antipodeans were reactionary, figurative painters? The Antipodeans Group staged a single exhibition in August 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society. The Victorian Artists’ Society is still in existence and still teaches and promotes conservative painting. The Antipodeans were challenging Clement Greenberg claim of the centrality of abstraction to modern art. Had they recognized it as American propaganda or were they expressing conservative anti-American Australian attitudes? Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position encouraged the NGV to acquire several of his paintings early in his career.
Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art – Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (The University of Chicago Press, 1983) provides a very detailed account of American art and Cold War geopolitics. The unique individual (American) abstract artist painting pure art was removed from class struggles or other political discourses. It is worth noting in this history, that that the first pure abstract paintings were not done by an early 20th century avant-garde modern artists but by an English mystic, Georgina Houghton in 1861. Following in this trend was Annie Besent, a theosophist. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian would have seen Annie Besent’s abstract paintings, as both were members of the Theosophical Society. Abstract art might have remained the interest of eccentric artists and mystics were it not for geopolitics.
There are other elements of modernism in Brack’s paintings: his many cityscapes and his interest in the machine aesthetic in his paintings of slicing machines, sewing machines, surgical equipment, modern flat surfaces and shop fittings. However, there is no political nor references to any current events in Brack’s paintings.
The John Brack retrospective exhibition is certainly popular but it is not just for the history or the iconic images. There is much in the art of John Brack that is relevant to contemporary art in Melbourne. Brack’s illustrative narrative style is still popular and is now common in contemporary art. And a visually literate population increasingly understands his references to art history. Brack’s later still life paintings with pencils and pens show elements of post-minimalist sculpture, like Melbourne’s Carl Scrase or Tim Sterling. And his anti-abstract and pro-figurative painting position is similar to Stuckism that has supporters in Melbourne’s street art scene.