Brack attended evening classes at the National Gallery School from 1938-40. He enlisted in the army in 1940 and was assigned to the Artillery Corps in Western Australia. He was commissioned in 1943 and appointed to heavy artillery, later assigned to a field artillery unit bound for Papua New Guinea. Discharged from the army in 1946, Brack returned to the National Gallery School as a full-time student under the Commonwealth Retraining Scheme.
From 1947-48 he shared a Melbourne studio with Fred Williams, a fellow Gallery School student. In 1948 he married fellow student and in 1949, he started depicting the life he saw. In a stark setting portrayed in ordinary colours, the artist documented the widely-known scenes of life in Australia, painting with a sense of humour and a distinct personal comment on the matter. The paintings from this era were visual, satirical comments on the post-war years, striving towards the Australian Dream.
I wrote that Brack had a style that evolved into simple paintings filled with plain areas of ordinary colours. After WW2 we Australians were not a flashy people, so his style was appropriate to contemporary Australian culture. Brack’s priority was to paint the human condition i.e the effect on appearance of environment and behaviour. Note the chiselled planes on their faces and bodies.
More than any other Australian artist of his generation, Brack was a painter of modern life - its realism, self-reflection and a strong sense of alienation, marked by typically Australian dry humour.
John Brack, Yellow Legs, 1969,
74 x 99 cm,
sold for $1.2 million.
John Brack, Back and Fronts, 1969,
116 x 164 cm
sold for $1.8 million in 2014
In 1959 the Antipodeans Group consisted of 7 artists and art historian Bernard Smith, who compiled The Antipodean Manifesto, a declaration fashioned from the artists' commitment to modern, figurative art. The artists were John Brack, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh (all from Melbourne) and Robert Dickerson from Sydney. It may not have had an enormous impact at home, but works by group members were included in a 1961 exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Called Recent Australian Painting, the Antipodeans felt justified by this show which established a national identity for contemporary Australian art.
Giving an insight to the modern life in Australia, Brack’s 1950s and 60s paintings were personal, humorously and Australian. Some of his works demonstrated his special qualities as a draughtsman and some showed his fascination with the human body. But the generalised nature of Brack’s nudes was heightened by stylisation of the figure, reducing individual features.
John Brack, The Old Time, 1969,
163 x 129 cm
Tarra Warra Museum of Art collection.
Sold in 2007 for $3.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a Brack painting.
168 x 205cm, 1969
National Gallery of Australia
Although the ballroom theme had long sparked Brack’s attention, it was not until late 1967 that he began to seriously gather material for the celebrated series, subscribing to The Australasian Dancing Times and going to World Ballroom Dancing Competitions held in Melbourne. He was attracted to the subject for its sheer absurdity; he was fascinated by the idea of people who turned pleasure into the hard labour seen in professional ballroom dancing.
In 1962 Brack became Head of the National Gallery Art School, a position he held until 1968. When he resigned from that job, he supported his family solely by working a professional artist.
Note the works in the Ballroom Dancing series, namely Yellow Legs, The Old Time, Backs and Fronts and Latin American Grand Final, all painted in 1969. While Brack drew upon wide ranging photographic material for most of his Ballroom Dancing series, it was only in these key works that he employed two photographs spliced together. Backs and Fronts presented two couples whirling through space on the dance floor, with a judgmental crowd of onlookers waiting behind. It could well have been the same man or the same woman being presented from the back and front, thus possibly highlighting the faceless dancing ritual.
Beyond a purely literal analysis of Brack’s design existed an arguably more compelling commentary upon the dance as a visual metaphor for life itself an allegory of the human condition in the vein of great European masters such as Goya and Munch. Depicting his dancers poised in difficult and exacting poses, balanced over highly polished floorboards with their reflections inviting imminent collapse, thus Brack exposes the extreme vulnerability and precariousness of the participants. Moreover, that they were tightly bonded together in relationships that were merely a well-rehearsed ritual, full of superficial glitter but no deeper meaning. Note Brack’s obsessions about people being alternately attracted and repelled, together intimately but separated in intention. About the rituals of art and life, in contesting circumstances.
Brack didn’t do ballroom dancing himself. But he watched and painted ballroom dancing because it enabled him to satirise a very insular and self-important art scene. Perfect!
Thank you to Deutscher and Hackett and Menzies for their invaluable material on Brack's ballroom dancing paintings.