If art were like rugby league Margaret Olley and Jon Molvig would have been NSW State-of-Origin stars. Instead they will always be associated with Queensland where they spent a significant part of ther lives. This year’s Olley retrospective at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art drew massive crowds. Jon Molvig: Maverick, at the Queensland Art Gallery, may not be packing ‘em in at the same rate but there’s no denying the influence the artist exerted on the Brisbane art scene.
When Molvig died of kidney failure in 1970 at the age of only 47 he left a lot of questions as to what he might have achieved had he been allowed a few more decades. An Aussie expressionist and larger-than-life personality, Molvig was a patchy but fearless artist. This exhibition is a stylistic roller-coaster ride but it’s exhilarating to see a painter so willing to ask questions of his work and periodically reinvent himself.
It doesn’t require a Freudian analysis to realise that Molvig’s restlessness begins with an unhappy, disjointed childhood in Newcastle. His mother died when Jon was only two years old, and the child found himself passed around between relatives, feeling unwanted. At 18 he enlisted in the army and would spend the Second World War in the Philippines and New Guinea. The malaria he contracted would create a permanent health problem, later exacerbated by heavy drinking.
After the war Molvig studied at the National Art School under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, and went on to travel in Europe where he became enamoured of Edvard Munch and the German
Expressionists. By 1955 he had settled in Brisbane and his career as a Queensland legend had begun.
What Molvig found in artists such as Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a reflection of his own internal struggles. He had no trouble identifying with Munch’s urgent, anxious images, having had plenty of experience wrestling with his personal demons. Many of Molvig’s most powerful paintings such as The lovers (1955), Bride and groom (1956), A twilight of women (1957) and Hotel lounge (1958) date from the mid-to-late 1950s.
The catalogue quotes James Gleeson’s assessment of this period: “No-one in Australian art had painted so nakedly as Molvig did at that time.” This is a statement without a trace of hyperbole. While none of the paintings in this sequence is flawless, they are astonishingly raw. The lovers captures a passion so intense it’s hard to know where one body ends and another begins. The entwined figures seem to be giving off wisps of smoke that curl upwards, portraying the act of love as a sexual bonfire. Gleeson was right: with such works Molvig had no peer in Australia.
In Bride and groom the union seems to have soured. In this painting the bride avoids her new husband, who tries to grasp her hand. A twilight of women is a witches’ sabbath in which the female protagonist has her legs parted and head thrown back in ecstasy or mockery. A black cat completes the infernal associations in a painting that has been viewed as proof of Molvig’s implicit misogyny. That interpretation is questioned in this exhibition, and I’m inclined to revise my own thoughts on the matter.
In her 1984 monograph on Molvig, Betty Churcher said of this painting: “on the surface we seem to be witnessing Jon Molvig’s vituperative revenge on women in general.” The operative phrase is “on the surface”. If Molvig felt a surge of anger and disaste for a woman – or womankind – these feelings are set down in a direct, almost confessional manner. Molvig makes no attempt to tailor his responses for a potential audience. His spontaneous approach did not allow for lengthy internal debates and scruples. He is not concerned that he might shock or offend anyone, or make himself look bad. Neither is he worried about the niceties of composition, colour and brushwork. The work is a snapshot of his own emotional derangement.
We see a different Molvig in Hotel lounge, which captures a slice of life in a Brisbane pub. A man has just placed his hand on a woman’s shoulder in what might be a friendly greeting or an aggressive gesture. The furious brushwork suggests the latter. If we are watching a drunken attempt at a pick-up it’s the man who comes off worst in this picture, bearing the brunt of Molvig’s disaste.
From the same period comes the painting, Lunatic (1957), an attempt to portray not anxiety, but full-on madness in a whirlwind of vivid green and red, complete with staring eyes and flashing teeth.
From the extremity of these pictures Molvig began a series of Australian landscapes. These paintings, by turns aggressive and melancholy, had distant echoes of artists such as as Sidney Nolan, but they inculcate a strange, desolate atmosphere that springs from Molvig’s travels and observations filtered through a brooding romanticism.
With his portraits Molvig showed a knack for capturing personality in works that could be sketchy or monumental, but never narrowly realistic. His Archibald Prize-winning picture of Charles Blackman (1966), shows a lean, mercurial figure whose lively gaze belies his retiring body language. Madame Y (1957), allegedly a madam at a local brothel, is a cold mountain of flesh whose rounded form echoes the chair in which she sits.
From the frenzied nature of Molvig’s works of the 1950s, one could hardly anticipate the sombre, Eden Industrial pictures of the early 1960s – abstracted industrial landscapes seared with a a blowtorch. From there it’s another huge leap to a sequence of pale nudes, and the last works in the Tree of Man series, which are simple, iconic abstractions using calligrams and targets.
By the end of his life Molvig’s kidneys were failing and he must have known the end was near. In retrospect his final decade looks like an attempt to prove himself an utterly contemporary artist who was ready to embrace modish materials such as PVA, and a range of abstract styles. These paintings are far less angry than his earlier work, more introverted and oblique.
There’s something touching in this race to the finish line: watching the pictures gradually lose their intensity, as the brutal directness of the expressionist paintings is replaced by a veil of mysticism. Leaving this show was like walking away from an extinct volcano – the fire may have gone, but a giant shadow still looms over the landscape.
Jon Molvig: Maverick
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 14 September, 2019 – 2 February, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December, 2019