24 September 2011

Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition, Melbourne 1942

When he opened the new Victorian Artists’ Society exhibition in 1937, Robert Menzies (Australian prime minister from 1939-41 and 1949-66) said: “Great art speaks a language which every intelligent person can understand, the people who call themselves modernists today talk a different language”. The metaphor that Menzies chose to protest about the incomprehensible visual coincided with the complaint by Anglophone Australians thatthe “Refujews jabbered away to each other in their own tongues, plotting sabotage for all one could tell”.

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

In 1939, a Melbourne newspaper sponsored a show of the very best of modern European art. Called The Herald Exhibition of Modern French and English Painting, the works were exhibited in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. It gave Australian audiences the opportunity to view original and modern works by Cezanne, Picasso, Seurat, Van Gogh, Vuillard, Gaugin, Matisse, Dali, Ernst, Leger and others. Modern yes, but it was politically neutral and not really radical in artistic terms.

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

Presumably, by 1942, influential figures in the social realism movement were horrified by the hardship caused by the Depression and the war. Bergner and his fellow artists were determined to paint the life of cities and the ordinary people around them, which brought them into opposition with both the art and political establishments of the day. They were painters with a message who wanted to deal with the injustices of the world in their work. But more than that. By 1942 news of the extermination of Jews, gypsies and communists in Europe was becoming available in the West.

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.

Sidney Nolan, 
Going to School, 1942

The first 3 publicly exhibited paintings by John Perceval were shown at Melbourne's Contemporary Art Society in 1942. John Reed loved the 19-year-old's audacious work and published them in the Angry Penguins magazine .  Perceval's work was included in the Anti-Fascist Exhibition in Melbourne later that year, helping to establish the young man's reputation in the national art scene!

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

June Tuck and Dorrit Black certainly participated in the same exhibition the next year when it moved to the RSASA Gallery in Adelaide. And one of Jacqueline Hick’s paintings from this period, Landscape, 1943, was exhibited at this exhibition in Adelaide, and subsequently purchased by the National Gallery of SA.

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.


Anonymous said...

bravo Hels - a great post. I have always loved Albert Tuckers work and after first seeing it in about 1962, I aped his style in all my high school art.
How opposite your illustrations are, when I recall the 'art' promoted by the NAZIs - rosy cheeked grinning uber-aryans, the very ones who would obliterate an entire town.
regards, Annie

artlover15 said...

I like the idea that modern art was seen as an expression of individual freedom everywhere, as radical and even anarchic. As Europe armed up, modern art was seen as anti-Fascist and aligned with left wing politics (Art Gallery S.Aus). Robert Menzies was not at all pro-Nazi, but he would have had a heart attack if he visited the Anti-Fascist Exhibition.

Travel France Online said...

I am always in two minds about contemporary paintings as they tend to 'send a message" when 'classical" pieces seem to just capture a "moment of life". Even if representations of revolutions and massacres were bloody and horrendous in the concept, they were colourful, well balanced and still "attractive" when 20th century's paintings, especially by the east European artists were filled with anxiety and dullness, very depressing to look at as they reflected social, political and economical issues of the time. I think that these artists didn't benefit the exposure that the rest of Europe had, they did not benefit from the Renaissance and their great patrons in the previous centuries as they did in Vienna.
A very interesting post again, thank you for shading some more light on this topic.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
This is a most interesting account of the background to the Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition of 1942. Several of the artists you mention here and show examples of their work are new to us but we are most taken by the work of Tucker and shall be interested to investigate more about him.

We often look for examples of social realist paintings here in Budapest but they are remarkably few and far between. Without doubt countless hundreds would have been destroyed but we are still surprised that what was so commonplace for so many years now seems to have almost disappeared.

Hermes said...

No real comment but thanks - I can see many names being pursued. I really try to open my mind to see what these artists were trying to convey.

Hels said...


I had often given lectures on so-called Degenerate Art, so one day the students said "ok, but what would acceptable art look like?" So I found a list of the paintings displayed at the Great German Art Exhibition, held in Munich 1937.

You are quite correct! They were not poor quality paintings but they were bland - fertile women, brave strong men, devout Christian families etc. No wonder far more people wanted to see the Degenerate Art Exhibition, also held in Munich in 1937.

Hels said...


Robert Menzies, Lionel Lindsay and other conservatives certainly did regard modern art as the art of socialists and pacifists. But how accurate was that? Picasso and Dali weren't socialists and yet they were certainly modernists. Emile Nolde was a paid up member of the Nazi Party, yet he too was a modernist.

I agree that Menzies was utterly behind Britain during the war and not at all pro-Nazi. But he seemed to be more offended by leftist politics in Australia than he was offended by Fascism in Europe.

Hels said...


agreed. East European artists WERE filled with anxiety and dullness as they reflected social, political and economical issues of their era. I expect they knew their works were tough for audiences to look at.

Sometimes artists presented anti Fascist or anti war works that were very bright eg Albert Tucker's "Victory Girls". But viewers found that painting even more garish and confronting than the earlier anti-Fascist art.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

What an interesting reply. Why were countless hundreds of social realist paintings destroyed in Hungary? Because the Germans thought they were Degenerate and anti-German?

Hels said...


Probably it was the same everywhere. I imagine that modernist, anti-Fascist artists and left wing thinkers in Britain would have been facing very similar circumstances as their cousins in Australia.

One example that I would love to have seen. The Modern German Art Exhibition, which was held at the New Burlington Galleries in London in 1938, apparently faced a great deal of official hostility.

Hermes said...

Thanks Helen. This is totally new to me and fascinating. The Wiki article on Degenerate Art has several fascinating pictures of Nazis at the Berlin exhib and this is interesting at the Tate:


There is a long reply on:


but this is probably well known to you. But I'm learning loads.

Mandy said...

What a fascinating post. I was especially interested in the Ben Shahn poster as I had never really given much thought to the people not in Europe during WWII and how many must have worked to spread the knowledge of the atrocities going on over there.

Thank you for introducing me to the works of Bergner and Tucker. I really like them both (especially Tucker) but then I love art that has strong political or psychological messages.

Hels said...


Thank you! I had no idea that _in 2005_ the Tate Modern did an analysis of the Nazi regime’s hostility towards modernist art. The 2005 show must have been like the Degenerate Art show that had started in Munich just before the war.

Of course the times were different and the location very different. So with hindsight, were 2005 visitors able to understand the fear that lay behind the Nazis’ 1930s decisions on art?

Even now I am struggling to properly understand the fear that modernist art _might have_ overturned traditional values, of its attraction to socialists and free thinkers.

Hels said...


good point. Countries like Australia and New Zealand made enormous contributions to World War Two, as measured by the proportion of their soldiers killed or permanently wounded.

So it was essential, especially once conscription came in and young men were placed on battle fields without volunteering, to explain to mothers why their sons were being taken. Yes a lot of it was blatant anti-German propaganda, but much of it expressed the true conscience of the artists (and writers) involved.

jeronimus said...

Very interesting post. Sad to reflect on how little times have changed. The same kinds of comments about refugees are still being said in Australia.
I think Picasso may have been a member of the communist party at one stage, but since he considered his art an act of self-discovery, he was not an ideologue. Simplistic cultural conservatives in the US often bring up Picasso's youthful political sympathies in order to write him off.

Hels said...


isn't that the sad truth. Even today, we make desperate refugees feel like criminals, locking them inside isolated prisons or sending them back to their dangerous homelands.

I think Picasso was totally apolitical. Not just because he said so but because his closest friend and dealer Kahnweiler said so as well.

Talking about American conservatives. Paul Robeson was arguably the greatest singer and most active black man in the USA's history pre-WW2. He was tireless. Yet once the House Committee on Un-American Activities got hold of him, he could just about kiss his career goodbye.

Amber Crumer said...

I have always loved Albert Tuckers work and after first seeing it in about 1962, I aped his style in all my high school art.

Hels said...


Good to hear from you - you are the fourth person to specifically mention Albert Tucker. And I am not surprised.

His years painting in hospital were filled with pain and loss. Then back in Melbourne he was angry, leading to a series of paintings called Images of Modern Evil. I am not sure what he was responding to - current depression? loss of hope for the future?

Clearly 1940s visitors were not impressed. Nor were the critics. I suppose it takes a long time for people to catch up.

Ambyrd said...


Real Estate Video Ads said...

agreed. East European artists WERE filled with anxiety and dullness as they reflected social, political and economical issues of their era. I expect they knew their works were tough for audiences to look at.

Hels said...

Mr or Ms Real Estate,

Nod. Deebee said the same thing - the east European artists were filled with anxiety and dullness, very depressing to look at as they reflected social, political and economical issues of the time.

It certainly was a miserable time, for Europe and the world. The War to End All Wars, followed by a nightmare depression, followed by another catastrophic world war. Even so, the Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition was a brave project to hold in Melbourne in 1942.

Wendy1947 said...


This is a link to the State Library of Victoria (Australia) facsimile of the catalogue for this exhibition. You mentioned being interested in seeing such a thing. I hope you are still blogging and still interested.
I came across this as part of my research into writing about a woman who was a founding member of Contemporary Art Society, friend of Tucker, Nolan etc. Alannah Coleman. She was involved to some extent with this exhibition

Hels said...


many thanks - your timing could not have been better. This week I have a scheduled post called "The Angry Penguins: art in war-time Melbourne 1938-45" and in February I am giving a conference paper on Bergner, Tucker, Nolan, Boyd etc.

I love blogging and other bloggers :)

Wendy1947 said...

Very interesting, I hope you meant the post was up and I don't have to wait!! I am immersed in those years, re reading Kershaw's Hey Days, just listened to a recorded interview he did with Hazel de Berg's daughter (NLA). I am particularly looking for any reference to Alannah Coleman, the subject of past research and current biography. Love to know more of what you are looking at in these interesting years.

Hels said...


Just as well I wrote the post and scheduled it for the 24/12/13. I have the flu just now and am lying on my bed going "woe is me"... "ring the children and tell them goodbye".

I could not get your last url to work. Am I doing something incorrectly?