State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 30 December 1982


The Revolutionary Years

This paper was presented at the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the La Trobe Library on 21 April 1982.
In 1947 a young Brisbane poet, Barret Reid, and an artist friend, Laurence Hope, hitch-hiked south to Melbourne. Their aim was to make contact with and to share, however briefly, in what they recognized as the most vital and promising art and literary events then taking place in this country. They chose to head for Melbourne rather than Sydney because that city had over the previous nine years given rise to the most radical movement amongst artists in Australia. Although branches of the Contemporary Art Society had appeared elsewhere it was the Melbourne branch which had consistently provided the thrust and energy to the movement. The artists who formed the intellectual cutting edge of this movement — Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd — had produced the most radical and controversial modernism to appear. Melbourne artists not only seemed to work harder they were also apparently more serious than their northern counterparts about the whole enterprise of art and a corresponding sense of a need for change.
Reid and Hope were also familiar with the magazine Angry Penguins which, as precious and precocious as it was, published the most advanced poetry and cultural comment of the times. They were also aware that the publishing firm responsible was a quite new kind of co-operative venture between artists, writers and their supporters. Its aim was to create the conditions for a new Australian art, a new modernism that took its cue from expressionist and surrealist modes then barely recognised elsewhere in this country.
Their first stop on reaching Melbourne was, therefore, the offices of Reed & Harris. The firm published not only the quarterly Angry Penguins and a monthly broadsheet, but had also begun publishing a new topical monthly called Tomorrow — and had an impressive list of books to its credit. To cite merely one such book, it had, for example, published Henry Miller's Murder the Murderer when it was still banned in America. The offices of this venture were not, as the visitors had anticipated, ramshackle or ostentatiously bohemian, but professional and coolly business-like. When they entered they were met by two men whom they subsequently identified as Albert Tucker and the American journalist and poet, Harry Roskolenko. On hearing who the newcomers were, Tucker's response was laconic and to the point — “You're too late, it's all over!”
What had finished, was, I venture to suggest, one of the most extraordinary episodes in Australian cultural history, one which took place moreover, against a background that was also one of the most dramatic in our history. The ferment had begun in the wake of the Great Depression, gathered momentum in the politically conscious years of the 1930s and culminated at a time of total war and a struggle for national survival. By 1947 the artists and writers who had fuelled the movement were well aware of how far they had travelled and what had been achieved. But they were equally aware of what had not been achieved — of the degree to which they had failed to change the society against which they had rebelled.
Albert Tucker produced his finest work between 1943 and 1947 in his portraits and the series Images of Modern Evil. Yet, in spite of this, not only had he gained no real critical recognition or approbation whatsoever, he had not made one significant sale outside a small coterie of supporters. While Sidney Nolan had achieved both, it was some years before his work gained wide acceptance — and then for an aesthetically less radical art than the Wimmera, St. Kilda or Kelly paintings. Much the same can be said in relation to the work of Boyd, Perceval, Vassilieff and Bergner — the other key figures.
This lack of response and recognition by a society whose character was in general repressive and philistine, was one factor in bringing about an end to a period of almost unparalleled and creative endeavour. There were other factors, both external and internal, that were equally if not more important: the
easing of war-time restrictions combined with a not unexpected restlessness after the war, group dissension, the maturing of individual talents, the political climate of the Cold War. Many artists left Australia; some like Arthur Boyd and John Perceval stayed, and went virtually underground. Nolan went north to Queensland and then to Sydney (a move which appeared in Melbourne as an exile more absolute than leaving the country altogether).
While there may be some who will challenge my Melbourne bias, few I think will dispute the extent of the achievement of the 1940s. As well as the artists already mentioned, one would also list Noel Counihan, James Cant, Joy Hester, Russell Drysdale, William Dobell, Sali Hermann, Peter Purves Smith, to name merely the most prominent. My aim here is not to offer a comprehensive account of the work of all of these artists but to offer instead some observations and comments on the kind of world some of them — and Melbourne artists in particular — inhabited and the nature of their responses to it.
During the 1930s Australians had only a secondhand knowledge of the spread of totalitarianism and militarism in Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, Australians did experience other more immediate realities of that ‘devil's decade’. The experience of the Great Depression, in particular, impelled large numbers of young intellectuals (often from the impoverished lower middle class) into the Communist Party. Its continued effects sustained most in the conviction that evil abroad had its face also at home in the conservative posturing and opportunistic policies of right-wing leaders like Robert Menzies. Committed card-carrying Party members were joined in this conviction by a large number of fellow travellers by the end of the decade. Rightly or wrongly, then, the Australian Academy of Art (the foremost product of Menzies’ cultural aspirations at this time) was seen as an attempt to enshrine the dominance of a crypto-fascist conservatism in this country.
The transparent mediocrity of the conservative landscape painting of artists like Ernest Buckmaster, whom the Academy honoured, was linked in the minds of radicals with yet another enemy. It was not that young artists rejected the vision, or indeed, the values of the early Heidelberg School, but rather it was a rejection of the debasement of those values in the late work of Streeton and in the hands of later popularizers like Buckmaster, William Rowell or Harold Herbert. The work of these men enshrined an image of an Australian pastorale that avoided the manifest reality of Australian life between the wars. Their work was also guilty of avoiding the challenge and the demands of serious art at every level. These men were self-professed philistines and their art was easily identified with the equally philistine values of an insular, pliant and conservative bourgeoisie.
There were, of course, a number of individuals and groups of artists in the 1920s and 30s who had begun a tentative exploration of post-impressionism and early twentieth century modernism. By the 1930s workers’ art clubs and left-wing magazines added to this early ferment. Notwithstanding this, it is fair to say, however, that the formation of the Contemporary Art Society in 1938 overshadowed and absorbed pretty well all such developments. The C.A.S. was in fact less of an art society in the traditional mould than a broad cultural movement. As such, its membership ranged from moderates like George Bell and his followers at one end of the spectrum, to committed revolutionaries like Noel Counihan on the other. For some its function was nothing more than the destruction of the Academy. For radicals, however, it was nothing less than a fighting organization on behalf of new values in art and in life; it was the means by which Australia's culture might be democratized and Australian society transformed. Their aim was a revolution in the arts that would parallel, and perhaps help pave the way for, the imminent and violent political change all radicals anticipated.
The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, its spread to South East Asia and the Pacific, the attack on Russia, and the threat of invasion to Australia made it possible for radicals to anticipate that revolution was almost certain in 1942. Against this climate of expectation the politics of painting in the war years takes on its real perspective, as does a great deal of the art itself. By 1942 the Melbourne C.A.S. was split in a bitter struggle for control between communist artists led by Noel Counihan, Yosl Bergner and Vic O'Connor, and a group that would become identified with the spirit and values of Angry Penguins. Foremost in this second
group were John Reed, Albert Tucker, Max Harris, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. The conflict was not resolved finally until 1945. It was a struggle fought not only within the C.A.S. in Melbourne and in Sydney, but also in literary journals and the left-wing press, as well as in other cultural bodies. In the end it was one of the major factors in the destruction of the Melbourne branch itself.
What was at issue in this self-destructive conflict? In the broadest terms it was the immediate future of radical modernism in Australia. Such an assertion may seem an overstatement but we need to bear in mind the conditions to which artists were subject at this time. It was almost impossible for non-established artists to exhibit independently as either individuals or as groups. Furthermore, by 1943 and 1944, both the social realists and the Angry Penguins were breaking through to their best and most important work. Access to and control over C.A.S. sponsored exhibitions was the only sure way to gain public attention. Moreover, the C.A.S. appeared to be the only vehicle that had the power to promote the values of this new art and its artists in the larger struggle for recognition against the prevailing view of a changing but still conservative art establishment. The stakes were therefore considerable; and the collapse of this wider struggle by 1947 helped ensure the dominance of conservatism in Australian public art institutions well into the following decade.
Before 1942 there is little to distinguish the radical and experimental painting of Yosl Bergner, Albert Tucker, John Perceval or Noel Counihan. After 1943 that of the social realists and of their rivals diverged dramatically in style and spirit. The left turned to the theme of the struggle of a people or peoples in whom goodness resided. Bergner thus addressed himself to the plight of Polish Jewry trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The series The Jews occupied him for three years from 1943 through to 1946. Overlapping this preoccupation was that of another group of paintings begun earlier on the plight of a race which seemed to Bergner comparable to the pre-war isolation of European Jews — the disinheritance of the Australian Aborigine. O'Connor turned to the disposessed urban poor in the inner city often to be seen around the Victoria market. Counihan did likewise but by 1944 located this social critique in the historical past by turning back to his own experiences during the Depression. These works were then followed by a number of paintings that were based on a visit to the Wonthaggi coal mines. The figures in this series are less society's victims than images of heroic labour comparable to those of Tom Roberts in Shearing the Rams.
One does not have to be especially astute, of course, to identify the moral thrust of these paintings; virtue is located in the democrative values and character of a ‘people’ struggling against oppression or engaged in an ennobling labour. The miners are also fighting fascism with a courage and strength comparable to their comrades in arms in the islands to the north. Populist virtues of class solidarity, resourcefulness and anti-authoritarianism thus identified were linked with an historical tradition and to the contemporary struggle of a crusade against fascism. In particular, such qualities were held to have their roots in the native democratic tradition of an Australian labour movement and reflected in the socially conscious writing of Lawson or Furphy, and, to a lesser degree in the painting of the Heidelberg School. This identification was also present in Bernard Smith's pioneering study Place, Taste and Tradition. It is not surprising, then, that Smith should have argued that the most fruitful direction in Australian art was to be found in the work of the Melbourne left-wing artists and in that of other socially conscious figures such as Russell Drysdale. He did not, and could not, extend any degree of approbation to the work or the ideas of the Angry Penguins.
For communists, the work of these artists was obscurantist, escapist, and defeatist. Their themes shared nothing of the left's preoccupations. They were concerned with the psychological dimension of childhood, the threatening and disordered ambience of urban life, the social destructiveness of war, the darker sides of love and sexuality, the role of myth in history, and the rediscovery of landscape. Whereas the left looked to a realism found in Daumier, the early work of Van Gogh and Picasso, the graphic art of Kollwitz and the protest paintings of American artists like Phillip Evergood and the Soyer Brothers, the Angry Penguins looked to Expressionism, the German Neue Sachlichkeit
and Surrealism. The modernism that emerged in opposition to social realism was as challenging as their subjects were ambiguous and disconcerting.
As their rivals well knew, artists like Albert Tucker or Arthur Boyd were committed to an art of social comment every bit as ambitious as that of the left. But these artists were unable, however, to locate evil or good within specific class terms. Morality was not something which could be ideologically prescribed and plotted on a class gradient. Australian society — human society and its history — was an infinitely more complex and fluid phenomenon than the left allowed. Nothing could be taken for granted; everything had to be tested and challenged; almost everything was found wanting. The only centre that might provide some measure of certainty was that of the individual sensibility; yet even that had continually to be examined and measured in the face of a constantly shifting reality.
During the 1940s, then, an emerging Australian modernism was inextricably bound up with an intense struggle between divergent conceptions of society, history, and the nature and role of art. The differences between the two positions were unbridgeable despite the efforts of figures like Max Harris who continued for long to strive for some kind of rapprochement. The Angry Penguins saw left-wing activities as populist politicising. In turn they were damned as elitist and subjective. Both sides were unrepentant; and if we leave aside the pejorative implications of these emotive words, the respective descriptions are accurate enough. The concern of the left was for an art that could communicate directly and without ambiguity to the mass of the people. This determined that it should be accessible and popular in all respects. The Angry Penguins on the other hand were unashamedly elitist as to the intellect and the creative spirit. The artist was not simply one member of a people; there was not necessarily any direct link between the language and preoccupations of the creative individual as an aesthete or social critic and those of ordinary men and women. There may, of course, be many points of connection but these stemmed from a common humanity and not from any special efforts on the part of the artist. The artist's obligations were to the demands of the creative imagination alone.
At the beginning of this paper I noted that the real enemy of the creative life was perceived in the 1930s in the populist Philistinism of an Australian petite bourgeoisie. A decade later it seemed to the Angry Penguins that the enemy had resurfaced in a new guise; it seemed to have appeared within the ranks of the radical movement itself. But what had happened was rather that the humanistic impulse which had so charged the revolt of the thirties was now shown to have more than one source. The conflicts of the forties were therefore part of a far-reaching debate about the nature of humanism and its values, a debate in which two key earlier protagonists were the art writers Adrian Lawlor and Basil Burdett.
By dwelling on the ideological issues of the forties one risks losing sight of the fact that the kinds of attitudes that I have been discussing attach to some of the most remarkable painting that Australia has produced — work that is arguably among the best Australian art. I would also assert, the efforts of one or two pioneers notwithstanding, that it represents the first modernism in this country to demonstrate a mature absorption of twentieth century idioms in the service of an Australian sensibility. The question remains whether the achievement of the 1940s holds any hope for the reality of an authentic Australian cultural tradition more than merely a sophisticated provincialism. The conservatives of the 1930s such as Lionel Lindsay, had viewed Australia's cultural isolation as a bulwark against the new. The left located national values in a democratic tradition of the past which was not isolated but part of a struggle that knew no national boundaries. Others, however, struggled to grasp a sense of the self and a critical understanding of that self's social, cultural and geographical sense of place. The best of our art and our writing has been, I suggest, predicated upon just such an open and non-prescriptive questioning. It was these artists and those who supported them who travelled farthest in the 1940s and who took nothing for granted in the quest for a new art and an ‘undivided self at one with an open, flexible, permissive and creative community. That quest did not cease in 1947 but those who had been among the most active and aware saw clearly that one chapter at least in that search had ended.