Tag Archives: Contemporary Art Society

Lurid Beauty and Australian Surrealism

Although the island of Australia is included in the 1929 Surrealist map of the world, this is probably due to Australia’s aboriginal population rather than its artists. It is shown as smaller than New Guinea and about the same size as Borneo.

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What surrealism created by Australian artists was mostly an off-shoot of English surrealism. England being that black dot on the map between Ireland and Germany. Importing surrealism directly from the European mainland, in the case of the Marek brothers, was not well received. Surrealism in Australia was, like international art speak, poorly translated from French texts.

Lurid Beauty, Australian Surrealism and its Echoes at the NGV Australia is an awkward exhibition as most of the art in the exhibition is not surrealism. Lurid Beauty fails in distinguishing between being the current style trend and being old-school or hardcore, like James Gleeson or Eric Thake. These are important distinctions to make when you are considering something between an arts association and trend. Roy de Maistre painted in at least three other modern styles and his involvement in surrealism is like Picasso’s pieces working in the current trend and the exhibition’s mix of modern art with contemporary art is not resolved well.

Every generation needs a look back at surrealism in Australia and each time that they do the same small set of paintings are exhibited. Almost all the older work was last exhibited together in the 1993 Australian National Gallery exhibition Surrealism Revolution by Night section of Australian art. Lurid Beauty does include some great new James Gleeson paintings but only the series of Clifford Bayliss drawings have not been regular features of previous exhibitions of Australian surrealism.

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

Peter Daverington, The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh, 2014 (courtesy of Arc One)

There are plenty of great works of art to see in the exhibition but my question is did we need to see them all together? Did surrealism transform or have that much of an impact on Australian art? The relationship between the artists that would identify as surrealists and the contemporary artists influenced by surrealism is tenuous. For example, Peter Daverington’s The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh 2014 looks surreal but has so many other references to all of art history in this painting from Renaissance landscapes to modernism in the drips along the lower edge. For the surrealists there was only Freudian psychology but now there is a multiplicity of psychological theories.

There is no cross over between the old school surrealists and the contemporary artists because there were so few hardcore surrealists in Australia. Erik Thake’s Accidental Animal 1967-68 series of photographs of found paint splatters is as close as it gets.

The curators of Lurid Beauty only hint at the conservative Australian art world; the NGV, Australia and surrealism were all very different places then. Blink and you would have missed the important progressive role of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS).

It was CAS that advanced modern art in Australia in response to then Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies reactionary attack on modernism at the opening of the Victorian Artists’ Society show in April 1937. The evidence for the CAS transforming Melbourne’s art world is there, the first to exhibit photography as art in Melbourne and if you look carefully at the frame of Gleeson’s We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit 1940 you will see that it is “presented anonymously through the Contemporary Art Society.” (For more on the history of CAS in Australian art see my post on their 70th anniversary).


James Gleeson (1915 – 2008)

“’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’ might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilization.” Proclaimed James Gleeson in his paper “The Necessity of Surrealism” read to the Contemporary Art Society in 1941.

James Gleeson, the “father of Australian surrealism” has died after a long life and creating many great works of art. He enriched culture in Australia in many ways and I hope that his life and art serves as an inspiration for many more artists and critics. The world, especially Australia, still needs Surrealism; civilization is still in a desperate condition with war, imperialism, racism and repression. The suicide rate in Australia is still high, but this is rarely interpreted as an indication of a defective society or civilization.

My first encounter with Gleeson’s art was at the NGV when as an adolescent I saw his early small painting – We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit (1940). When I saw the Surrealism: Revolution by Night exhibition in Canberra I encountered Gleeson’s large impressive The citadel (1945). However, these early paintings with their apocalyptic ideas did not have big impact on me. Gleeson appeared to be another Surrealist inspired by Dali’s paintings.

This changed when I saw Gleeson’s post 1984 paintings; it was my first experience of Stendhal syndrome. The turgid liminal land-and-seascapes of these paintings created vertiginous sensations with their ambiguous details and subtle references to the composition of European masters. These large oil paintings were full of images created using classic Surrealist techniques of collage, decalcomania, automatic drawing and ‘psychic automatism’. Gleeson is the one Surrealist painter who can paint as well, perhaps better, than Dali.

In remembering the art and life of James Gleeson it is important to remember that he was not just an artist but also an important art critic, writer, teacher and served on the council of the NGA from 1976. As a critic for the Sydney Sun (1949-74) and Sun-Herald (1962-74). He also wrote several books, Australian Painters (1964) and William Dobell (1964). Gleeson was not a partisan critic arguing for a certain type of art, instead Gleeson described his criticism as a guide, an explorer in a new land. In this respect I hope that he will influence my own writing about art.

Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born and Gleeson carried it forward beyond the Cold War politics that shot at it from both sides; beyond the internal bickering of the Parisian Surrealism; to an international movement and into the 21st century. Gleeson’s late career paintings were his best and a demonstration that Surrealism is not a dead historical movement but a contemporary muse.


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