jeudi 27 août 2009

Opinion: John Brack (1920-1999)

John Brack,
Australia 1920–1999
Self-portrait 1955
oil on canvas 81.5 x 48.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery Women’s Association, 2000
© Helen Brack

Kirsty Grant et al. John Brack. Melbourne: NGV, 2009, 2480 pp. Paperback. ISBN: 9780724103058.

The NGV catalogue John Brack, featuring his critically-acclaimed The Bar (1954) as frontcover illustration, is a beautiful coffee table book which pays a posthumous tribute to the oeuvre of former NGV employee who painted his way to fame after drawing several lessons from a cluster of European masters (Buffet, Vermeer, Munch, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Seurat, etc.). The NGV staff, who are real talent scouts, were Brack’s first and foremost support when they made the first acquisition of a Brack painting for a public collection in 1953 and when, later on, they bought his masterpiece, Collins St, 5 pm (1955). This year’s major retrospective exhibition (24 April-9 August 2009), celebrating the 10th anniversary of his death, is a timely token of recognition for the work of an artist who cuts a paradoxical figure. By reading this catalogue (see his quote, p.159), readers will find out that John Brack (1920-1999) had a vested interest in paradoxes.

John Brack
Australia 1920–1999
Latin American Grand Final 1969
oil on canvas 167.5 x 205.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased, 1981 © Helen Brack

Subtly, Kirsty Grant’s contribution – which stands for the bulk of the commentary provided in the NGV catologue – shows to what extent John Brack was a multifaceted painter who was a bit of an artiste incompris, a painter who may not have been clearly understood by his contemporaries. And one of the reasons may be the discrepancy there is between the artist’s intent and the impact his painting has on most viewers. No wonder Brack appears in the public eye as an angst-ridden pessimist when he has an ongoing fascination for depicting prostrate stylised models, monochromatic glum expressions (the rare smiling faces are to be found in the dance series [see above]), subjects striking austere poses, suburban ennui, Hopper-like isolation and town desolation, along with cold and sharp steel instruments pointing to his dissection of human nature, offering slices of dreary lives – if not anatomical charts of his contemporaries’ sorry plight.

John Brack, Australia 1920–1999
Portrait of Helen Brack 1954, oil on canvas 81.7 x 53.4 cm, Private collection, Melbourne
© Helen Brack
Anyone familiar with John Brack’s work would have noticed his jaundiced (etymologically coming from “jaune”, yellow in French – the painter’s favourite colour!) view of society in his melancholic depictions, which are strongly inspired by Bernard Buffet’s techniques mixed with a Brechtian alienation effect, as Robert Lindsay shrewdly points out. But rather than associating Brack with postmodern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (p.142) or even Sartrian philosophy (p.141) which has a much more optimistic outlook on life, I would rather see Sören Kierkegaard as Brack’s philosophical counterpart. Not only because they cover common grounds with paradoxes, angst and despair, being the inevitable lot of the human condition, but also because Brack and Kierkegaard have both sought to question the meaning of existence through their oeuvre.
For Robert Lindsay, “Pinocchio assumes the role of a surrogate human, a role that had been occupied previously by pens and pencils in Brack’s battle series.” (p.142) Indeed, Pinocchio (incidentally, an object the painter’s wooden manikins epitomize), as an object that has magically come alive, seems to embody Brack’s project, which can be summed up as the reversal of existing orders. A major topsy-turvy trick is his way of turning objects into prosthetic humans and turning human subjects into objects. Far from being a kinetic painter like Charles Billich who indulges in eroticised nudes, buoyant racecourse gatherings and celebrated dance performances, Brack has, following Kirsty Grant’s analysis, “set himself the task of de-eroticising the nude” (p.104), taken the movement out of his dance and Racecourse series to such an extent that works like Horses leaving the enclosure (1956), The old time (1969), Legs on a red floor (1969), Steeplechase (1956) and even The falling jockey (1956) give the impression of lifeless moments frozen in time. Such immobility, immutability and impersonality are the 3 I’s which, in my opinion, characterize Brack’s opus. And this fits squarely with his intention to depict all subjects and objects as unaffected by time, light, environment, beliefs and expectations.

Another topsy-turvy trick: the exterior becomes the interior and conversely, to the point that Brack’s portraiture reflects more his sitters’ mindsets than any aspect of their external appearances. With Portrait of a man (Fred Williams) (1958), the illustrious sitter learnt at his own expense that Brack was not into any flattering representation of people. However, Williams later acknowledged “that it was in fact an accurate representation of his mindset at the time” (p.108).

In the 1980s, the artist was becoming more and more reclusive as a result of his agoraphobia, a fact Brack had been willing to admit: “I have noticed a big increase in my anxieties: fear of outdoors and fear of crowds among them” (p.130). This fear of people permeates his work from the mid 1970s onwards, a period during which Brack set on representing his fellow-citizens in a very roundabout way, and this is probably the clue to the key understanding of his work which consists in shifts of all sorts: inversions, displacements and so on. After the outpour of feelings in his juvenilia, Brack repressed affects by intellectualising his approach to art and shifted from romanticism to some sort of personal conception of classicism packed with geometrical structures. Instead of the clichéd fruit and flowers still life, he delved into “manufactured things” which, in his view, had “emotional connotations” (p.115). In addition to anthropomorphizing objects (that is, projecting the subject onto the object), Brack is guilty of what I would term a pictorial hypallage whereby the sentiments of subjects are experienced by objects. The artist feels “there is a connotation of pain when one considers artery forceps and invalid chairs” (p.115). Some of his fetish objects like wooden articulated manikins, cards, pens also stand for representations of people, as illustrated by We, Us, Them (1983). In this sense, visual metaphors are another pictorial device Brack uses to shift the depiction of people into the symbolic realm of objects.

But therein lies Brack’s ambiguity: no matter how much he craved for making the invisible visible, extolling life out of inert objects and revealing personalities through expressionless faces, he was bound to be misunderstood. The problem is that he was trying to use one antinomy to express just its opposite, but his representations were rather too pictorially unambiguous (conveying despair, dullness, austerity) to suggest a double reading of their signs. To top it all, he shirked the responsibility of interpreting his work to liberate the viewers from expressing themselves, instead of hinting at crucial keys for analysis. He could only have been disappointed that most admirers took his work at face value. Fortunately the NGV catalogue goes some way towards coming close to a sharper definition of whom John Brack really was.

Jean-François Vernay

JOHN BRACK: EXHIBITION AT the Art Gallery of South Australia
2 October 2009 - 26 January 2010

More than any other artist of his generation, John Brack (1920-99) was a painter of modern Australian life. Unlike his contemporaries, Brack painted neither myth nor history and when he focused on the landscape, it was the sprawl of suburbia that caught his attention rather than the ubiquitous Australian bush.Brack has long been considered the quintessential Melbourne artist, a reputation which rests in no small part on the renown of his painting, Collins St, 5pm, 1955. Today it seems more appropriate to view him as a distinctively Australian artist who, with a penetrating gaze and keen sense of irony, documented aspects of contemporary life in what have become some of the most iconic images of twentieth-century Australian art. More than depictions of familiar subjects however, Brack’s paintings are cerebral exercises which slowly reveal references to sources as diverse as the history of art and literature within complex layers of meaning.This major retrospective, the first in more than twenty years, will survey John Brack’s complete œuvre, incorporating paintings and works on paper from all of his major series.

Art Gallery of South Australia
North Terrace
Adelaide SA 5000

mardi 25 août 2009

Conférence: Jeudi 27 août à 18h15, salle Sisia

Réponses des premiers Australiens face au fantasme occidental des origines perdues

Conférence de Barbara Glowczewski, Ethnologue, Directrice de recherche au CNRS

Lieu: Centre Culturel Tjibaou, salle Sisia

Date: le 27/08/2009 à 18h 15

« La rivière Ross est un serpent séducteur. Sa tête est à Hayes et sa queue n'a pas de fin. Un jour, un homme eut une fille. Elle était très belle et le serpent était amoureux. Mais le père de la fille ne permit pas au serpent de s'approcher d'elle. Alors le serpent la mangea. Les chefs de toute l'Australie essayèrent de faire des poisons pour que le serpent la vomisse. Finalement, ils les mélangèrent ensemble et le serpent la recracha. La fille était en deux parties : le haut, c'était l'île Magnetic, et le bas, Palm Island. » d'après Josephine Sailor, Townsville 2005

Comme la jeune fille qui résiste au serpent séducteur au nom de la loi de son père, les Aborigènes ont tenté pendant des décennies de refuser les séductions de l'Occident en affirmant leur autonomie par la loi des anciens. Comme le serpent qui finit par avaler la jeune fille car elle lui résiste, les Aborigènes ont été capturés par le système colonial, déportés, enfermés sous le régime dit de l'assimilation. Comme la dislocation de la jeune fille vomie par le serpent rivière qui s'est retrouvée le corps et la tête séparés sous forme de deux îles - Palm et Magnetic - au large de la Grande Barrière de corail, la déchirure traverse chaque Aborigène quand elle les oppose dans des conflits d'intérêts. Ils sont aujourd'hui décapités au nom même de leurs visions du Dreamtime, perçu comme une philosophie de haute volée qui nous séduit à travers les fantastiques peintures aborigènes, la musique vibrante et les danses des corps peints censés nous emporter dans l'imaginaire de nos origines. La société aborigène est déchirée : la pensée d'un côté, tête flottant hors du temps, dans un rêve bon à nous faire rêver ; le corps social de l'autre, dont les souffrances et les tentatives multiples de survie sont sans cesse bafouées. (Extrait de Guerriers pour la Paix. La condition politique des Aborigènes vue de Palm Island, Indigène Editions, 2008)

Barbara Glowczewski est Directrice de recherche au CNRS. Elle travaille avec les Aborigènes depuis 30 ans et elle est l'auteur de nombreux livres (dont Les Rêveurs du désert, Plon, 1989, Rêves en colère, Plon, 2004) et de productions audiovisuelles (Pistes de Rêves, CD-ROM Unesco, 2000, L'Esprit de l'Ancre, Film 53', CNRS Images)

Appel à contributions: ANTIPODES 2010

Call for Special Issue of Antipodes, December 2010, on Connections
Between Australia/New Zealand and Latin America/The Caribbean

This issue will address cultural and, especially, literary relations between Latin America, the Caribbean, and Australia. Form the socialist New Australian colony in Paraguay in the 1890s to the influence of Borges and Garcia Marquez on Australian postmodernists from the 1980s onward, cultural cross-pollination has flourished across the South Pacific, despite the restrictive effects of imperialism and protectionist trade policies which tried to make the two regions utterly separate spheres. With the emergence of the idea of "the Global South" as well as the greater visibility of subaltern and indigenous identities in both Australia and Latin America, the time is ripe for a new engagement. Prospective topics to be covered in the open call for papers that will be issued are: literary influences; indigenous voices; sport as a cultural medium; resistances; oralities and literacies; whaling and nautical lore; continental drift; revising European paradigms of landscape; poetic form and the challenge of non-European landscapes; Asia in Latin America/Australia; Arab and Middle Eastern influences in Australia/Latin America; Anglophone crossovers between the Caribbean and Australia (from Governor Eyre to Ralph de Boissière and
Bev Braune); the South pacific as cultural connector; Antartica; ecocritical concerns in the Amazon, the Andes, and Australia; Australia in Latin American fiction; Australian diaspora communities in Latin America and vice versa; “the tyranny of distance”, the Internet, and globalization.

Please send an abstract to Nicholas Birns at by January 2010. If the abstract receives encouragement, you will be asked to submit the final essay (which will be refereed) by July 2010. The project may also entail participation at the 2011 AAALS conference as well as, possibly, the 2011 Latin American Studies Association conference in Toronto.

jeudi 20 août 2009

Parution: Etchings 7 Chameleons

ETCHINGS 7, Chameleons


Vient de paraître à Melbourne le septième numéro de Etchings, une revue littéraire et artistique très originale, dont la qualité esthétique fait sans doute des envieux.
Dans un article intitulé "Couched Words: The Interimplication of Fiction and Psychoanalysis"(Etchings 7, Melbourne, 2009,153-62),j'analyse les rapports féconds entre la psychanalyse et la littérature. Bonne lecture!

Voici le contenu de la revue/ Here is the table of contents:

Colourful, playful, and particularly creative, the Chameleons issue abounds with ideas of change,
disguise, double identities, and purely ephemeral moments of beauty.
Jean-François Vernay probes the complex relationship between fiction and psychoanalysis. Theresa
Mason invokes startling imagery with her creative non-fiction personification of the Australian
Gabriel Garcia’s fictional viewer takes us on a retrospective journey through ‘The Water Hole’
exhibition of Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, held at the Australian Contemporary
Centre for the Arts in Melbourne earlier this year. Inga Walton invites Melbourne-based Thai artist
Bundit Puangthong to speak about the cultural fusion in his artwork which features the bright
colours and iconography of traditional Thai paintings. Pattern and narrative are explored in Douglas
Kirwan’s intricate paintings which stir ‘an optical whirlpool that obstructs the isolation of a single
shape’ (Claudia Terstappen).
The strength of the fiction abounds throughout Chameleons, including a preview from Nobel laureate
J.M. Coetzee, offering a pre-release glimpse into his fictional biographical new novel, Summertime, to
be published in the UK later this year. Sallie Muirden creates a vivid and eccentric female character
who has a sheep as a companion. Heather Fowler shows us familiar human traits, emotions, and
attitudes through characters with wings, and others with eyes on their backs. And a beautiful moment
between two old ladies sharing their memories in a story titled ‘Ducks’ by A. S. Patric.
The poetry in this issue ranges from short intense and quirky pieces to longer reflective and thought
provoking works, all creating a mysterious, haunting, delightful play on the theme of Chameleons.

Pour passer commande/ Click here to order your copy now:

jeudi 13 août 2009

Exposition: National Gallery of Victoria: 21 août

Emily Floyd, Australian 1972–
A bird like that never dies 2008
from the "It’s time suite" colour etching, relief etching and aquatint on two sheets, ed.1/15 (a-b) 64.7 x 88.8 cm (image and sheet)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2008
© Emily Floyd, courtesy of Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Opening 21 August, the National Gallery of Victoria will present Building a Collection: Recent Acquisitions of Prints and Drawings, a fascinating selection of the most outstanding works on paper that have entered the NGV Collection since 2002.

The exhibition will feature some 70 Australian and international works from the NGV’s extensive Prints and Drawings collection, which span the 15th to 21st centuries.
Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator Prints and Drawings, NGV said: “The works in this exhibition provide insight into the remarkable range of material acquired, revealing the collecting directions that have been pursued in recent years.” Since 2002, over 1000 works on paper have entered the NGV Collection through purchase, donation or bequest. Dr Gerard Vaughan, NGV Director said: “This exhibition will not only survey superb highlights from recent NGV Prints and Drawings acquisitions, but will also pay tribute to our supporters, patrons and donors, whose assistance has been critical to the growth of the NGV Collection.” The works on display will range from the earliest print in the NGV Collection, Primo Mobile, an Italian engraving from the 1460s acquired in 2002, through to the Gallery’s most recent purchase of two major colour etchings created in 2005 by the Irish-American abstract painter, Sean Scully. A highlight of the exhibition will be the unveiling of a black and white chalk drawing made by Giandomenico Tiepolo as a record of his father’s painting The Banquet of Cleopatra, before the picture, now in the NGV Collection, left the studio in 1744. This is one of the most important drawings to be acquired by the NGV in recent years.
Another significant work will be Joseph Lycett’s landmark album, Views of Australia (1824-25) on display for the first time. This important historical album features fascinating images of Colonial Australia and was only acquired for the NGV collection last year. This exhibition will coincide with the launch of the NGV’s Prints and Drawings supporters group. This group will help to build dedicated funds for the development of one of the Gallery’s most important collections. Building a Collection: Recent Acquisitions of Prints and Drawings will be on display at NGV International on St Kilda Road from 21 August 2009 to 31 January 2010.
The exhibition will be open 10am–5pm, closed Tuesdays.
Admission is free.
For further information visit
Support Sponsor: Dulux Australia

lundi 10 août 2009

Opinion: Literary Activists by Brigid Rooney

Jacques Derrida has discussed the status of what he terms "les écrivains-engagés" whom he defines as those intellectuals who participate in public and political debates with an authority committed to fighting for other people’s causes. In Literary Activists (UQP, 2009),Brigid Rooney examines a cluster of high-profile authors who, apart from contributing to the saleability of the book, fall neatly into Derrida’s category. Well-established writers like Helen Garner, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, David Malouf,Les Murray, Patrick White, Tim Winton and Judith Wright are illustrative of Derrida’s « writer-intellectuals ». Therefore, the book’s subtitle (Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life) would aptly reflect its content. For one might ask, what does a literary activist mean exactly ? Are we to understand that acknowledged writers who take a political stance are literary activists if they become the advocate of, say, environmental concerns? Tim Winton, Judith Wright, and many others would fit into this category, I guess.
But what is so "literary" about their causes? Or are literary activists people like Chris Koch (left out), David Williamson (briefly discussed) and Patrick White (central to the book) who champion a specific idea of culture and literature?
It remains unclear whether intellectual engagement should deal with literary issues for authors to deserve to be described as "literary activists".

Beyond the blurry focus of the book which mixes knowledge of literary life with textual criticism and literary reception, Literary Activists is informative and a pleasant read thanks to the high quality of Brigid Rooney’s prose. Here is its purple patch:

"I would pinpoint the early 1980s as the time of my own first sidelong brush with that void, the one that suddenly yawns open, somewhere beneath or deep inside the comfortable matrix of life and the mundane world, and towards which one is suddenly hurtling in time." (p.29)

Like the author of this book, I hope that Literary Activists goes some way towards renewing "readers’ interest in the works of all the Australian writers" discussed, and many more. And we should be grateful to UQP for their ongoing promotion of Australian fiction and literary criticism.

Jean-François Vernay.

Author of Panorama du roman australien (Hermann, 2009).

mardi 4 août 2009

Colloque sur Patrick White : 23-25 juin 2010


Patrick White : Modernist impact/Critical futures

23-25 June 2010

Institute of
English Studies, University of London

This international conference will forge new perspectives on the work of Patrick White, winner of the 1973
Nobel Prize for Literature. Invited speakers from around the world will explore White's impact in Australia, America, Britain, Europe, and Asia and speculate on critical futures for White and for literary modernism. Proposals for papers are sought showcasing new research on all aspects of White's life and writing with conclusions directed towards the future of White studies. Relevant papers on international modernism will also be considered. Email abstract and short bio to Deadline/ Délai: 10 September 2009 A grant competition, sponsored by Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, will assist one postgraduate/early career researcher to travel to the conference from Australia.
Contact :

Conference supported by:
Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King's College London Australian Literature at the University of Sydney
of English Studies, University of London British Australian Studies Association

Photos: Le seul Prix Nobel de littérature australienne, Patrick White!

Dr Ian Henderson
Lecturer in Australian Literature and Film
, Studies in Australasian Cinema Kings College London Menzies Centre for Australian Studies Fourth Floor, Australia Centre Corner Strand and Melbourne Place London WC2B 4LG Tel: +44 (0)20 7557 7161 Fax: +44 (0)20 7240 8292