In response to Menzies and his conservative supporters, modernist artists formed the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne in July 1938.
Bergner, Pumpkins, 1942,
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
However just one year later, in 1940, an exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society evoked a virulent attack upon foreign artists via a letter from Sir Lionel Lindsay to the Sydney Morning Herald. And it was reiterated in Lionel Lindsay’s book Addled Art. The art Establishment could be very vicious indeed to Jews, foreigners and refuges, even in the middle of a hideous world war.
I read about the 1942 Anti-Fascist Exhibition, held in Melbourne’s Athenaeum Gallery, in two separate sources. The first was Melbourne Art & Culture Critic. This source provoked a question - why did this exhibition move on to Adelaide and not, for example, Sydney or Brisbane? Perhaps because the Angry Penguins (a group of modern literary scholars) were founded in Adelaide in 1940. Or perhaps it was because Lionel Lindsay had become a Trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was soon knighted for his services to Australian art. He may have been influential enough to ruin the Anti-Fascist Exhibition, had it attempted to open in Sydney.
The second source was Painting the Town: A Film About Yosl Bergner 1987. Bergner, a Polish Jew, arrived in Australia in 1937. Bergner had grown up in Warsaw where he took painting lessons and was inspired by European modernism. In Melbourne, he sought out and befriended painters like Albert Tucker, Jim Wigley, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Danila Vassilieff. He continued his studies at the National Art School in Melbourne and joined the new Contemporary Art Society.
The New Order, 1942
In his paintings, Bergner used his memories of Warsaw and observations and experiences of Australia. His depiction of refugees, ghettos and the destruction of Europe were exceptional, but most extraordinary were those of urban Aboriginal people. When the Contemporary Art Society of Australia mounted the anti-fascist exhibition in Melbourne and Adelaide, Bergner drew parallels between the dispossession of urban Aboriginal people and that of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
Finding details about the Anti Fascist Exhibition has been difficult. I have included paragraphs from each artist’s biography, if he/she participated in the exhibition, but I would love to have seen a contemporary, published catalogue.
Going to School, 1942
The exhibition had pieces from other artists who saw their work as having an important social and political role in documenting the suffering of the oppressed. James Wigley (1918–99) participated in the exhibition after he became friends with Noel Counihan and other social realist painters and writers. Noel Counihan and James Wigley clearly shared Bergner’s social conscience.
A founder of the Contemporary Art Society in 1938, Noel Counihan (1913–86) initiated its 1942 anti-Fascist exhibition. The New Order, one of the few paintings that he preserved from the show and perhaps the best of them, was influenced by one of William Gropper's paintings also entitled The New Order (1942). Later Counihan helped organise an Artists' Unity Congress, receiving awards for his paintings of miners in the Australia at War exhibition in 1945.
Other young contemporaries in Melbourne had already asserted the intellectual and imaginative freedom of the artist and his/her independence from political doctrines. But we can say that matters came to a head with the Anti-Fascist Exhibition produced by the Contemporary Art Society.
Reason in Revolt noted that Albert Tucker had been called up in April 1942. It was a critical time for him since he held deeply anti-war sentiments. It was the Communist Party's shift to an all-out support of the war effort after the invasion of Russia that placed him at greater odds with the party. Yet four months after the invasion, he still cited himself as a member of a neo-realist group that included Bergner and Counihan. Although he was doubtful about the wisdom of the Anti-Fascist Exhibition when it was first mooted, he did contribute 6 paintings and several drawings to the show. He was in fact, with Counihan and O'Connor, one of the three major contributors to the exhibition.
The Herald Sun said Sidney Nolan's reputation rests on a handful of masterpieces, including the famous Going to School 1942, shown at the anti-Fascist exhibition.
Once embarked on her art course, Ailsa O'Connor became involved in all the highly charged meetings of the period. She identified with the radical forces supporting modern art against Menzies' push for a traditionalist Art Academy and joined the Contemporary Art Society at its first meeting in 1938. She became increasingly politicised and was the only woman to exhibit in the 1942 Melbourne Anti-Fascist Exhibition, where she showed crayon drawings.
Death of an Aviator, 1942
I wonder if the Australian artists had seen a 1942 poster painted by Ben Shahn and printed by the USA Government Office of War Information. Shahn was referring to Lidice, a Czech mining village that was obliterated by the Nazis in retaliation for the June 1942 shooting of a Nazi official by two Czechs. All men of the village were killed in a 10-hour massacre; the women and children were sent to death camps. The destruction of Lidice became an anti-fascist symbol everywhere.
This is Nazi brutality, 1942, poster
After all this time, I cannot be sure if the Australian Anti-Fascist Exhibition was directed to the fascists plundering their way across Europe, Africa and Asia OR to the right wing artists, thinkers and publishers in Australia. Clearly the Contemporary Art Society had been created by young radical artists to loosen the grip of the conservatives who dominated the Australian art establishment of the time. To me, these artists were stating that art had a role in expressing political and social criticism; this was a time when the conservatives HERE bitterly opposed the exhibiting of art inspired by social concerns. Yet Reason in Revolt thought differently. They said that most of the paintings exhibited in the Anti-Fascist exhibition of 1942 had been urgent responses to events in Europe, grounded in feelings of political outrage.