Sydney Morning Herald Column

Misty Moderns

Published November 21, 2009
Clarice Beckett, Taxi Rank, 1931, oil on canvas on board, 58.5 x 51.0 cm

Max Meldrum did not paint masterpieces. This alone is enough to distinguish him from the ranks of Australia’s most celebrated modern artists, who will be forever associated with a few iconic works. Think of Nolan for instance, and one thinks inevitably of Ned Kelly. Think of Drysdale and the image that springs to mind is The Drover’s Wife or The Cricketers. Mention Meldrum and most people draw a blank, yet hardly anyone has exerted a more wide-ranging influence on twentieth century Australian art.
Meldrum (1875-1955) was the founder of a doctrine known as Tonalism. He believed that the principles of art could be taught along scientific lines according to a set of fixed principles. Like those New Age gurus who promise to reveal the secrets of health, wealth and happiness, Meldrum attracted a large group of students and disciples. He was a charismatic teacher who set out to unlock the mysteries of art. Denying the value of talent and temperament, he claimed that under his guidance anyone could learn to be an artist. Above all, Meldrum was a dedicated theorist capable of expounding his views with energy and intellectual authority
It sometimes sounds as though Meldrum actually invented the idea of tone, but artists had understood this quality since the days of Leonardo da Vinci and Velasquez. In brief, it refers to the lightness or darkness of colours and the way they relate to each other in a composition. Meldrum’s innovation was to make tone the defining feature of painting – the inflexible standard to which every other aspect of a work must conform.
Inevitably he attracted a good deal of criticism and derision. Some of his former students acted like refugees from religious cults or left-wing political groups, taking every opportunity to denigrate their former master. The truth about Meldrum and his school has been obscured by this tendency to treat him as either a prophet or a quack. He was, perhaps, a bit of both.
The exhibition Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950, was put together by Tracey Lock-Weir for the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2008 and has been touring the country ever since. It was shown in the Sydney suburbs, at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in May this year, and has now arrived at its final venue, the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. I’m glad to have finally caught up with this overdue survey that documents a neglected aspect of Australian art.
Meldrum was the subject of a retrospective in 1954, shown at the state galleries in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. His most notable tribute in recent years came with the publication of Max Meldrum & Associates, by Peter and John Perry in 1996. This book provides a more comprehensive survey of the ‘Meldrumites’ than the current show, which misses out a few notable figures such as Graeme Inson (1923-2000). Not only did Inson spend a decade as Meldrum’s assistant, he acted as the keeper of the flame in Sydney through many years of private art classes.
There is no rationale given in the Misty Moderns catalogue as to why some artists have been included and others left out. Curators have to make choices but it would’ve been good to see a more thorough listing of the artists who had studied under Meldrum.

It is Lock-Weir’s contention that although Meldrum was a staunch anti-modernist, his approach had a positive impact on the growth of modern art in Australia. In other words he was that paradoxical figure – a progressive conservative. The curator backs up her thesis by including works by artists such as Elioth Gruner, Lloyd Rees, Godfrey Miller, Roy De Maistre and Roland Wakelin, who could never be classed as Tonalists, but went through phases when they were receptive to Meldrum’s influence.
Their pictures are among the most striking works in this show. Look at Gruner’s breathtaking small study, Morning mists (1920), or Miller’s delicate House in moonlight (c.1929). Wakelin’s grey, blocked-in Self-portrait (1920) is so radically reductive one thinks of Picasso’s early Cubist heads.
It may be that a dash of Meldrum had a beneficial effect on artists who took only what they wanted and never became followers. By contrast, those who bought the full package seem to belong to a single family, sharing the same DNA. The true Meldrumites in this show are Colin Colahan, Clarice Beckett, Percy Leason, A.D.Colquhoun, Hayward Veal, Justus Jorgensen, A.E.Newbury, John Farmer and Polly Hurry. Most took part in the first group exhibitions of the Meldrum School held in 1919, 1920 and 1921, in which paintings were exhibited in uniform black frames and identified only by numbers. A photograph in the catalogue shows pictures crammed together like items on a supermarket shelf.
This was not simply a way of submerging the ego of the student into that of the great God, Meldrum, it was intended to demonstrate the futility of any personal, subjective approach. For Meldrum, learning to paint was largely synonymous with learning to look. In his first major public lecture, given in 1917, he argued:  “The art of painting is a pure science – the science of optical analysis.”
Needless to say there were numerous techniques to master, all of them expounded at great length in an anthology of 1950, titled The Science of Appearances – which has been freshly issued in a new (but expensive) paperback edition.
The Meldrumite palette was restricted to only five tones, with outlines being strictly forbidden. This was one of the master’s articles of faith from his earliest days. In his novel, A Curate in Bohemia, Norman Lindsay has the student Meldrum, in the character of MacQuibble, asking rhetorically: “Are there such things as lines in Nature?”

Meldrum’s famous method required a lot of squinting and stepping back from the canvas to compare one’s impression with the true tones of the motif. Some students wore sunglasses to get the appropriate frisson, some put their palettes on trolleys that could be wheeled back and forth. They cared so little for the subject that detractors thought the School motto should be: “Anything’ll do.”
The paintings that resulted were remarkably similar in their blurred edges and smudgy, atmospheric surfaces. Looking at a large number of these works side by side one begins to see the world as a dim, misty, melancholy place.
Even though Meldrum despised the word, this penchant for gloom seems to have been a temperamental preference among his students. They liked to paint on rainy, overcast days, which may explain why Melbourne remained the heartland of the movement.
Despite the self-imposed bondage of Meldrum’s method many of these artists were exceptionally talented. Painting in a doctrinaire style that eschewed individuality, squinting at the most ordinary scenery in the rain, they still managed to produce beautiful and poetic pictures.
Following her rediscovery in recent decades, Clarice Beckett is firmly established as a significant figure in Australian modern art. By almost universal assent she is now considered the greatest of the Meldrumites; her previous obscurity being caused by her early death at the age of forty-eight in 1935 and the misfortune of having many of her works in storage eaten by possums.

Colin Colahan (1897-1987) is still awaiting his day in the sun, but he is another artist whose merest daub reveals a sureness of touch and a natural flair for colour and composition. He left for Europe in 1935 and would never return to Australia, although he lived another fifty years.
One could also make cases for Percy Leason, who migrated to America in 1938; for Farmer, Hurry and Colquhoun. Each of these artists has impressive work in this show – work that goes beyond the simple data of close observation and touches the viewer’s imagination. Oddly enough, Meldrum himself often appears less accomplished than his students. This may be because he lacked that quality whose existence he always denied: talent. It may be because he applied his methods in more rigorous fashion.
A picture such as The three trees (c.1917), hailed as a breakthrough in Australian landscape painting, comes across as a small, unassuming study. “So perfect is this space and atmosphere that we feel we could walk into the picture,” raved Colin Colahan, in the 1919 book, Max Meldrum: His Art and Views. But instead of walking into the picture we might just as easily walk past it
The title made me think of Rembrandt’s famous etching, Landscape with three trees (c.1643), which has been interpreted as a symbol of the Crucifixion, and – because of a couple of peasants and a goat in one corner – an allegory of sacred and profane love. Nobody could ever accuse Meldrum of such metaphysical intentions. Although he pronounced grandly that art was a religion, he worshipped nothing but visual facts. Being chained to appearances the Tonalists produced works that made a virtue of their asceticism. It is miraculous that such purist intentions could occasionally generate images of pure bliss.
Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950, Art Gallery of South Australia, February 21-April 27, 2009
Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950, Newcastle Regional Gallery, October 9-November 29, 2009