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.
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.
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
Adelaide SA 5000