14 June 2009

Melbourne's own artist: John Brack

The Car, 1955
National Gallery Victoria, Melbourne

John Brack (1920-99) had a style that evolved into sketch-like paintings filled with plain areas of ordinary colours. We Australians after WW2 were not a flashy people, so his style was appropriate if he wanted to leave his mark on contemporary Australian culture. As meseon blog presented it, Brack’s own priority was to paint people; the human condition, in particular the effect on appearance of environment and behaviour. Note the chiselled planes on their faces and bodies.

At the John Brack Retrospective at the Ian Potter Centre, I was most interested in his early work, done in 1950s & 1960s. This was when he produced some of Australia’s best loved images. The paint­ing The Bar 1954 was said to be modelled on Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. But anyone who ever drank in an Australian pub and saw the frantic drink­ing just before closing time at 6 PM will under­stand The Bar. If I saw this painting for the first time in Paris, Berlin or Tel Aviv, and had never heard of Brack, I'd still guess that the crowd of men depicted in The Bar were Australians. Another iconic image was Collins Street, 5PM 1955, a view of rush hour in post-war Melbourne. Set in a dull palette of browns and greys, it was a comment on the conformity of  everyday life, with all figures looking almost identical.

The Bar, 1954
National Gallery Victoria, Melbourne

More than any other Australian artist of his gener­ation, Brack was a painter of modern life. He was a realistic analyser of the ordinary, filled with some sense of dismay, but definitely painting with a loving sense of humour about his own nation. Many of these early works were satirical digs at the Australian Dream. Brack didn’t go for Australia’s central landscapes; he either examined Australia’s newly expanding post-war suburbia or he looked at individuals and families going about their daily responsibilities.

Normally when I chose a blog topic to discuss, hardly anyone in the universe has written about that particular topic. Yet half the bloggers in Australia seemed to have viewed the Brack retrospective thoughtfully. I am delighted.

Collins St 5 PM, 1955
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Melbourne Art & Culture Critic asks a good question. If Brack just created popular, non-abstract and slightly satirical images of Melbourne, then was he conservative? Or did Brack have a critical view of Australian suburban life and other elements of modern content and design that made him progressive? sarsaparilla lite is uncertain. Tim wrote "Brack’s necrotic nudes, grimacing suburbanites and creepy shop fronts retain a good deal of popular appeal. This is explicable in a way; Brack’s early stuff is either iconic in itself, or it deals with iconic imagery, but it’s also slightly odd in that these paintings are consistently acidic and nasty".

Blog Home of Acoustic Eagle was spot on. He noted that John Brack, David Boyd, Robert Dicker­son, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh and other Australians wanted to uphold and represent the importance of the figurative image. This may have made them naïve (but not conservative), in comparison to the sophisticated abstract impress­ionists overseas. But the artists form­ed The Antipodeans art group and stuck to their unique Australian-ness. Just one disturbing thought. Hieronymous the Anonymous wrote that Brack came to disavow much of this early work later in his career. I hope this was not so.
The Girls at School, 1959, 
National Gallery Australia, Canberra

Undoubtedly there were artists in Europe and the USA who were finer draftsmen or who used colour better, but no-one reflected the truth of Urban Australia in the post-WW2 era better than Brack. And since I grew up in Melbourne in the 1950s, this is My Era and this is My Town. I wonder if a  Sydney-sider, the Sydney Daily Photo blog, agrees.

Men's Wear, 1953,
National Gallery Australia, Canberra


Viola said...

Thank you for this very interesting post, Hels. John Brack's paintings also remind me of Modigliani's.

The paintings shown on your blog certainly have a satirical, slightly nasty look about them. The girls at school look like rather mean girls.

I must read more about John Brack.

Hels said...

Hi Viola,

I've had a few days to think about Brack, since seeing the retrospective and I am still not certain.

That image of mum, dad, daughter and son in The Car (1955) was absolutely my own family: dad back from the war; they bought a block of land out in the suburbs; their first car being the pride and joy of the family; and 2 small children (so far). Brack observed it all!

But the question remains: was he gently poking fun at Australians Vs was he making a nastier critique? In Brack's art, it is far from clear. Short of finding his diaries, we may not be able to decode him with any certainty.

Viola said...

My family was similar too. It's hard to tell. It's really only the girls at school who look a bit nasty to me!

Hels said...

"Melbourne Art & Culture Critic" has sent you a link to a blog:

Thanks for writing this overview of what bloggers have written about the John Brack retrospective and for quoting my blog. It is great to be able to see an even bigger picture of the significance of John Brack.


Hels said...

To Mark, melbourneartcritic

What made art historians identify "Brack’s apparent conservative and popular position"? In the modern world artists and critics were reactionary by definition if they opposed progressive art? That was probably true for Lionel Lindsay and JS macDonald, since they were traditionalists and conservatives in their entire lives (not just their art lives). But was it true at all for John Brack?

I have created a link to your blog, many thanks, and posed the same question.

Hi Hels,

Good blog entry of yours. Thanks for writing that.

It is an interesting conundrum in the long term of history. Victorian Artists Society exhibition and figurative are the big pointers to apparent conservative. The majority of Australia was conservative at the time (if not crypto-fascist) and anyone who did not choose to label themselves as radical at the time was assumed to be conservative. I don't know if the naive artist line of Acoustic Eagle really works either because deliberate ignorance doesn't count a naive. Menzie's ban on the importation of modern art could help the naive or the conservative argument depending on how much independence of thought you want to credit Australians with (if they had none then they were naive, if they had some then they were at the time conservative in avoiding progressive art).

Thanks for the comment,

The Weekend Australian said...

When Barry Humphries and Margaret Olley were invited to choose their favourite paintings from Australian collections for a show in Sydney, Men's Wear (1953) was one of the Bracks picked by Humphries. The two men were friends.

Hels said...

Thank you.
I added the painting. It is perfectly dated (1953) and located (a smart Melbourne gentleman's outfitter).