For the first time in over twenty years, the National Gallery of Victoria is presenting a major retrospective of the work of John Brack, widely considered one of Australia’s greatest twentieth century artists. This important exhibition surveys John Brack’s complete career, incorporating over 150 works from all of his major series.
John Brack 1920 – 1999
For artists and designers, this exhibition of the art of John Brack is a very special event. As an artist, Brack was a skilled draughtsman, and a master of composition. These expert technical skills were matched by an intuitive use of spectacular colour and a sharp eye for detail. His work has inspired comments such as these:
‘a great observer of the absurdity of the human condition’
‘an explorer of social rituals in suburbia’
‘a graphic portrayer of the universal experiences of political struggle, religious difference and war’
‘a painter of modern Australian life’
‘the quintessential Melbourne artist’
The artist in his work
For John Brack, interpreting and documenting the social behaviour of others was an ongoing preoccupation, but occasionally he gave us a glimpse of his private self – by actually appearing in a painting watching others, as in Latin American Grand Final (1969), or by using mirror reflection as in Self-portrait (1955). In this work John Brack looks at both himself in the mirror, and beyond the mirror at the viewer, with the same penetrating, scrutinizing gaze. This painting could perhaps be seen as encapsulating his approach to the world which so strongly informed his art. It may also explain why each piece in his oeuvre is not only the artist’s personal appraisal of the subject matter, but also an opportunity for Brack to indulge his curiosity; to try to understand how other people’s lives, so different from his own, were playing out. As the artist, he was in a position of privilege; to be able to wonder, but to remain at a critical distance. Brack believed that art should be scrutinised. He wanted those who viewed his work to wonder about it, to question the artist’s intentions.
We are told that he was an intensely private person, that he did not enjoy crowds, and neither did he like going to gallery openings. He was also dismayed by some reactions to his work. He wanted people to take time to look more closely, to see how the work could operate on different levels, and he was often disappointed when people reacted superficially. We also know that he destroyed a number of his early works because he did not think they were good enough. His wife, Helen Maudsley, a fellow art student, whom he married in 1949, has commented:
‘He was a serious person. He thought that taking art seriously
as a way of thinking about the world was worth doing.
He was impatient with bad faith and triviality.’
Helen Maudsley (Brack) in The Art of John Brack, by Sasha Grishin,
Oxford University Press, 1990, Melbourne.
While Brack took a serious approach to his art, and the subjects of his works were often judged by him, he also displayed sensitivity linked to a fond sense of humour. In the work entitled Third Daughter (1954), Brack has captured a young child’s frustration and rage with great effect. Brack not only creates a wonderful image, but also strongly communicates mood by means of texture. The medium – drypoint etching – is an immediate and tactile method of seizing a memorable moment. The scratchiness of the lines which make up her hair, her jumper and the crosshatching of the floor under her feet, serve to emphasise her agitation and the pricklyness of her displeasure. Brack’s intuitive understanding of his subjects has produced insightful portraiture: of family members, unknown individuals, and celebrity personalities.
Context and Culture
Informing the artist’s work: Life in the early 1920s and 1930s
John Brack was born into a Melbourne working-class family. He grew up in the period between the first and second World Wars, 1918 -1939. It has been said that despite his family environment providing very little in the way of music, pictures and books, John Brack was an avid reader. He was also a curious and perceptive observer of people and the environment around him. The early 1920s in Australia was a relatively prosperous and relaxed time, but it was followed by a period of radical change, of global dimensions. Culminating in the 1929 Wall Street crash, but initiated by a progressive world-wide collapse of commodity markets and high levels of overseas debt (similar to current global conditions), Australia’s economy fell victim to The Great Depression of 1930. Affecting every family, Australia experienced acute rising unemployment. At the worst stage, 29% of the nation was out of work. With unemployment came poverty, the inability to buy goods, long dole queues, and fighting over jobs. Soldiers returning from war became homeless. In an effort to provide funding for pensions and unemployment benefits, governments increased taxes on simple pleasures which made daily life harder to bear. Many public works projects were initiated to create jobs, but without a formal plan for economic recovery in Australia, progress was slow. By 1939, when World War Two broke out, recovery was still incomplete.
Collins St, 5p. m.
By the age of 16 years, John Brack was working in an insurance office in Melbourne, one of a crowd of daily commuters who trod the pavements to and from their offices. On one occasion in the city, he saw a Van Gogh reproduction in a shop window, and he was so captivated by it that he enrolled in night classes at the National Gallery School. He went on to paint Collins St, 5 p.m. (completed in 1955, and acquired by the NGV in 1956). It is a graphic example of his ability to observe and to communicate not just a scene, but its mood. It is a compelling image. It invites us to wonder about it. John Brack’s intention was to have the painting work on different levels of meaning while appearing deceptively simple. Collins St, 5p. m. is described as having iconic status, and in view of Brack’s impatience with the superficial, one wonders how he felt about this description of one of the NGV’s most popular works.
Painted in 1954, The Bar is widely regarded as the companion piece to Collins St, 5p.m. and was only acquired by the NGV in March 2009, with the assistance of the Victorian State Government. Director, Dr Gerard Vaughan, considers it to be one of the NGV’s most important acquisitions of 20th century art. The painting marks a time in Melbourne when hotels were forced by law to close early (first introduced during World War Two and continued until 1966 when 10 o’clock closing became the norm). The phrase ‘six o’clock swill’ was used to describe the behaviour of patrons who crowded around the bars to get a last drink before closing time. In this work, John Brack cleverly uses the device of a mirror behind the bar to make it possible for us to see both sides of the bar at the same time. We stand with the patrons facing the barmaid as she waits on her customers. She looks tired and seems resigned to deal with this unruly crowd and the urgency of their demands – ‘One more beer over here, love!’
John Brack’s curiousity about his fellow human beings lead him to explore all kinds of popular activities. He painted a series of works documenting his great attraction to the theatre of horse-racing. These images clearly demonstrate his fascination for the racing carnival atmosphere, its rituals and its colourful characters. One of these images, Jockeys heads (1956), is a strong statement, rendered in bold drawing style. The jockeys’ faces are angular and closed with a hint of being part of a culture of secret understandings. Brack was intrigued.
Dance was a developing popular social activity when John Brack was growing up. Between the two world wars (1920s and 1930s), originating in America, dance marathons became a national craze. These marathons, proclaiming: ‘outlast all others!’, and ‘dance till you drop!’ were physical, emotional and overtly sexual dramas which took place in dance halls, where women went to meet men. These social rituals played out on the dance floor to a hot jazz rhythm. Dance was the new ‘in’ thing; everyone was doing it at Australian dance halls – Ragtime preceded new dances such as the Foxtrot, The Charleston, and the Black Bottom. The 1930s was the era of the Big Bands and Swing music. In the late 1960s it was ballroom dancing competitions which prompted John Brack to create a series of works. He was intrigued by the willingness of human beings to try and master absurd ritual movements to a strict dance tempo. What was this strange behaviour really about? Brack’s stunning use of fluorescent colour highlights the theatricality of these farcical events. In the painting, Latin American Grand Final (1969), Brack can stay behind the canvas no longer, and he paints himself standing at the edge of the dance floor continuing to observe.
John Brack’s first series of nudes were painted in 1957 in his North Balywn home. These early female models seem very awkward and uncomfortable in their nudity. They sit or lie in unrelaxed poses. They are not beautiful women, nor are they sexual or sensual. They sit on the edge of chairs communicating an overwhelming sense of unease, which is almost tangible. They are obviously not professional models. They are ordinary human beings who seem not to be enjoying this experience. John Brack, the perceptive observer, records the human condition, not without sensitivity, in all its naked vulnerability. Later studies, such as Nude with a dressing gown (1967) also lacks eroticisim, but Brack has charged the painting with an overlay of brilliant fluorescent green which transforms the image, and removes it from reality.
Abstraction, 1973 onwards
The suburbs of Melbourne had long inspired Brack with a vast landscape of human subject matter for his work. These finely produced images operated like a collection of mirrors, devices which Brack used often in his work. However, these reflections were all skillfully scrutinized by John Brack, and he hoped that the viewing public would think beyond ‘simple images’ and consider how the images could be read . In 1973, John Brack and his wife Helen Maudsley travelled overseas for three months, visiting London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Mexico City. When Brack returned home, his art underwent a dramatic change in form, from representational to abstract – from comparatively minor suburban happenings to universal issues of major scale. Previously, the human figure had been rendered by Brack in literal form. However, in abstraction, he substituted utensils of all kinds such as cutlery, pens and pencils, playing cards, and others for the human form. These were meticulously positioned on canvases which were underpinned with masterfully gridded frameworks. Mankind en masse was represented metaphorically by these everyday implements with riveting symbolic effect. These images about political struggle, religious difference and war, remain relevant and very powerful today.
Drawing, grids and increases in scale – a superb draughtsman
John Brack studied at night at the National Gallery Art School under Charles Webber, from 1938-40, and took full time classes from 1946-49. Fellow students included Sam Fulbrook, Yosl Bergner, Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams and John Perceval. Brack’s painting Men’s Wear 1953, his first major work after leaving art school, includes mirror-reflection, which creates another dimension, allowing the painting to be read, as Brack intended, on more than one level. From 1952, for the next ten years, he held the position of Art Master at Melbourne Grammar School, leaving there in 1962 to take on the position of Head of the National Gallery Art School until 1968. Under his management, the school was modernised and its status improved.
John Brack was a very workman-like artist. For the fundamentals of construction of a work, Brack was strongly influenced by Georges Seurat. Rick Amor, one of Australia’s leading painters, was a student of John Brack at the National Gallery Art School (1966-68). Amor learned Brack’s method of working – starting off with rough ‘scribbles’ or sketches in journals, trying the same ‘scribbles’ in different media, gradually increasing the scale and building up the composition. By increasing the scale of the work, everything is placed in an organized space on the canvas. Brack used grids like engineering underpinning to position elements of each compostion. As Rick Amor has commented about his own work -
‘ … that grid I do is terribly important … it is about organizing things on a flat surface … it’s what artists have always done. The use of grid lines gives the work a sort of inevitability inside that rectangle (canvas).’
(extracts: Rick Amor in conversation with Anne McCurdy, 2000).
John Brack’s painting, Up and Down (1971-72), a study of four male gymnasts, is a clear example of his technique of designing a skeletal structure over which the figure layers are intentionally and strategically positioned. The composition of the work is both visually dramatic and satisfying because of the balance created between foreground and background figures in organized space.
John Brack was a skilled and disciplined artist and designer. Understanding the way he worked, makes viewing his art an awesome experience.
24 April–9 August 2009
Open daily 10am–5pm and until 9pm every Thursday
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Galleries 17 – 20, Level 3
Admission fees apply
2 October 2009 – 31 January 2010
Art Gallery of South Australia
- Anne Paterson