Will Sydney ever see the best of John Brack? The National Gallery of Victoria held its first Brack retrospective in 1987. Following artist’s death in February 1999 there have been further surveys held in Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide. Exhibitions have looked at Brack’s portraits, his paintings of the nude, and his relationship with Fred Williams. Now the NGV is holding its second Brack retrospective, and – surprise, surprise – it will be viewable only in Melbourne and Adelaide.
It’s hard to know where to point the finger. The Art Gallery of NSW was certainly remiss in not securing the show as soon as it was proposed, but it seems the NGV put little effort into persuading its Sydney counterpart. Brack (1920-99) is the main loser, because his work will not be seen by a very large part of the gallery-going public. Sydney misses out on a show by an Australian artist of undeniable historical importance, while Melbourne misses a valuable cost-sharing arrangement and a chance to consolidate the reputation of one of its favourite sons.
With due respect to Art Gallery of South Australia, the small audiences it commands for even the greatest exhibitions make it a disappointing second venue. Nevertheless, Christopher Menz and his curators obviously wanted the show more urgently than Edmund Capon and his team. All credit to Adelaide, because this is the most comprehensive overview of Brack’s work ever attempted, and we will probably never see another of the same magnitude.
If it seems that twenty years is a brief time between retrospectives, one cannot discount the influence of Brack’s recent successes at auction. When his painting, The Bar (1954), sold for a record price of $3.2 million in 2006, followed by the sale of The Old Time (1969) for $3.36 million in 2007, Brack’s status underwent a rocket boost. The former painting was bought by the Tasmanian collector, David Walsh, who was persuaded to sell it to the NGV in March for the price he had paid for it. Before this, it seemed that the work was destined for Walsh’s own eagerly anticipated Museum of Old and New, just outside of Hobart.
In an ideal world the monetary value of Brack’s paintings would be of no relevance to the way public galleries assess his work. In the febrile, cash obsessed society in which we live, the price tag seems to exercise a more powerful attraction than the painting. Every press release nowadays is full of dollar signs.
I expect this would have been a depressing thought for Brack. While no artist ever regretted seeing his paintings sell for high prices, Brack would have hated having his works reduced to the status of valuable commodities. While his close contemporary, Sidney Nolan, is said to have left more than 39,000 paintings, in Brack’s catalogue raisonné of 1990 there are 313. Only a few more were added to this total. Not only was Brack a slow and deliberate painter, in 1950 he made a bonfire of his early works which he saw as embarrassing juvenilia.
The current retrospective brings together some 150 pieces, including oils, prints, watercolours and drawings. It is the portrait of an artist who never seems to have made a rash or unconsidered move. Brack was happy to describe himself as a cerebral painter, but he did not simply illustrate ideas and theories like some of the tedious avatars of the contemporary avant-garde. A typical Brack painting admits multiple layers of interpretation. What begins with a simple act of observation may be complicated by a twist of irony and a subtle reference to art historical precedent.
Brack was frequently described as a satirist, but he resented this label. There is little direct satire in Brack’s paintings, and no laugh-out-loud humour, but his irony is keen and insistent. He was an ironist of Olympian proportions – the all-seeing, all-knowing observer with an unerring eye for human foibles. Patrick White deferred to Brack as an even greater pessimist than he was, but this was not true. Whereas White’s view of Australian suburban life was withering, Brack retained a more compassionate aspect. Looking back on his iconic picture of 1955, Collins St. 5 pm, Brack found it to be “totally unsatisfactory”, because of the condescending attitude he adopted in relation to the people in the street. “I should have known,” he said, “that their lives were just as complex as mine, if not more so.”
Nevertheless, that painting has retained its forcefulness as a vision of the fifties. Blank-faced office workers hurry by like sleep-walkers, thinking only of the pubs or their homes in the suburbs. It bears comparison with the crowd in Evening on Karl Johan’s St. (1893), by one of Brack’s favourite artists, Edvard Munch. Yet where Munch’s figures look like wide-eyed zombies exposed by artificial light, Brack’s office workers are hard-faced, grim and grey. Munch’s crowd may still be grappling with the idea of a Godless universe, but in Collins St. it is a fait accompli.
Although the painting may eventually have felt too much like satire for Brack’s own taste, it was based squarely on observation. The same might be said of The Bar, his homage to A bar at the Folies-Bergeres (1882), in which Manet’s highly feminine barmaid has been replaced by an angular, no-nonsense, Aussie sheila. In the mirror behind her we see an infernal scenario of dark, beer-swilling clones, trying to get smashed before six o’clock closing.
One of Brack’s persistent themes was the way we turn our pleasures into urgent tasks, sources of neurosis and social anxiety. A quiet drink after work becomes a fierce contest as to who can drink themselves most quickly into a drunken stupor. In his Ballroom Dancing pictures the pleasurable release of the dance is transformed into a series of stiff, ceremonial gestures. With the drawings he made at the racecourse in the late 1950s, Brack wrote how he was unprepared for “the total absence of gaiety”. What Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec had depicted as a festive occasion was transformed into “a solemn ritual” in Melbourne.
In many ways Brack is the most misunderstood Australian artist of the twentieth century. Called a satirist, a pessimist, and a social critic, he could be more credibly characterised as one of those rare beings who suffered from an unusual sense of clarity. Unlike the vast majority of us, Brack could not convince himself that dull things were exciting, or that mindless things were brilliant. His greatest works are masterpieces of compressed and controlled emotion. He admired the works of many artists, but was habitually skeptical about the grand claims made on their behalf. He would have winced to read Sasha Grishin’s description of him in the catalogue as “an intellectual giant”. Everything in Brack’s work reveals his distaste for flattery and hyperbole, his inability to partake of the usual forms of self-delusion.
His wife, Helen Maudesley, says that Brack’s temperament was melancholic. This found expression not only in his paintings, but in the heavy drinking that finally destroyed his health. His irony was a mask and a shield that made the real world more bearable. It was a way of filtering its invincible stupidity.
One often reads how Brack “de-eroticised” the nude, which makes him sound rather dry and puritanical. Instead, we might emphasise the way he humanised the nude, treating his subjects as personalities rather than passive objects. The most telling example is The Boucher Nude (1957), in which the subject is a thin, bony women with severely cropped hair – the only model that responded to Brack’s advertisement. With characteristic irony he decided to paint her in the pose of Mademoiselle O’Murphy, in Francois Boucher’s L’Odalisque (c.1745), who lies on rumpled sheets, exposing her pink bottom to posterity. Brack’s latter-day counterpart is awkwardly pinioned on a hard green sofa. Her skin is a sickly yellow, and her face betrays her extreme discomfort. Brack undermines the erotic theatre of Boucher in a picture that betrays the model’s self-consciousness, the tawdriness of trying to generate fantasy in a suburban lounge room.
In this work, as in so many others, Brack asks us to step back and think about the image, refusing to play the game of seduction that is second nature to most painters. This analytical approach is played out in the masterly works of the 1980s, with their table-top allegories of pens and pencils, postcards, mannequins, knives and forks, all enacting an oblique commentary on human life. This reaches a crescendo in Evening dance (1989-90), in which a host of small wooden mannequins dance frenetically on a table top, bathed in a sepulchral light. It is an echo of Edvard Munch’s The Dance of Life (1899-90), and an allusion to the medieval Dance of Death, in which skeletons celebrated the carnage of plague and war. The painting is given added pathos by Brack’s consciousness of his own fading powers. For him, the dance was almost over, as in time it will be for us all.
John Brack, Art Gallery of South Australia, October 2, 2009 – January 26, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2009