Challenge and Response in Australian Art 1955 - 1965
27 Nov 1999 - 5 March 2000
Robert Dickerson The Bank Clerk, 1959. On loan from the Holmes a Court Collection, Heytesbury.
In February 1959 seven artists and one historian came together in Melbourne to defend the tradition of the image in art. The context for the formation of the Antipodean group, and its single exhibition, Antipodeans, at the Victorian Artists' Society in August 1959, was the perception that abstract art was making advances with critics and audiences in Australia and abroad. The significance of the Antipodean group in Australian art history rests strongly with the strident challenge to abstract art contained in The Antipodean Manifesto, the essay which accompanied the exhibition's catalogue of works, written by Bernard Smith and signed by the exhibiting artists. The Manifesto asserted that the art of 'Tachistes, Action Painters, Geometric Abstractionists, [and] Abstract Expressionists' was 'not an art sufficient for our time ... not an art for living men'.
The present exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, 40 years on, is not an attempt to restage the Antipodeans. Rather it endeavours to look at the art of the Antipodean group alongside work by a range of their contemporaries who were exploring abstract modes of expression in their art, including John Olsen, Peter Upward, Clement Meadmore, Janet Dawson and Robert Klippel. It is intended also to represent something of the debates then current in Australian art - debates about national tradition and experience, myth, the importation of overseas culture, and the validity of personal expression.
The Antipodeans were the inheritors of a strong Melbourne figurative tradition associated with the 1940s modernist school of poets, the Angry Penguins. In part, friendship and shared history lay behind their formal grouping, but the catalyst was Bernard Smith, the University of Melbourne art historian. The artists were Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, Robert Dickerson, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh. Only Dickerson, who lived and worked in Sydney, did not attend the meetings of the group.
Most of them had established local reputations, and were active members of the Contemporary Art Society during the 1950s. They shared a commitment to the figurative image, although there were obvious differences in their employment of the image. Aged between 30 and 40 in 1959, these artists saw themselves as representative of Australian cultural identity, and were concerned that with the growing support for abstract art their work was being marginalised in a national, and possibly international, sphere.
The name 'Antipodeans' was suggested by Bernard Smith as one which would define the group's place in the world without being overtly nationalistic. The geographic specificity of 'Antipodean', and its broader meaning of being diametrically opposite something, generally Europe, supports the notion that one of Smith's original aspirations in establishing the group was to take his critique of international modernism to its centre - to exhibit in London, at a time when Australian art was beginning to have an impact there. In the event, a London showing of the Antipodeans did not happen, although each of the artists was included in a far broader survey of Australian art at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, curated by its director Bryan Robertson.
In the years immediately before and following the Antipodeans exhibition, there was a constant dialogue between the forces supporting abstraction in this country and those who, more or less, opposed it. There was also a vocal and informed pluralist position, maintained by certain critics, art administrators and patrons, and many artists and dealers. In retrospect, it is possible to see those debates as focusing around particular exhibitions and the critical reception of them. With their exhibition of 1959, the Antipodeans effectively flung down the gauntlet in this wide-ranging discussion signalling in the months leading up to the show that they were positioning themselves as defenders of a tradition in art, that of the figurative image.
A key exhibition in promoting interest in abstract art had been Direction 1, held at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in 1956. It included the work of Robert Klippel, John Olsen, John Passmore, William Rose and Eric Smith. Passmore was the elder statesman in this group, with a lifelong commitment to the structural truths of Cézanne, and in the mid to late 1950s he briefly pushed his work into pure abstraction. The younger artists in Direction 1 were also interested in an abstraction based on structural values equating to underlying spiritual truths, and Mondrian, Kandinsky and Klee were important influences.
Geometric abstraction had been established in Sydney before World War II with the work of the Grace Crowley-Rah Fizelle group, which included Ralph Balson and Frank Hinder. After the war and the dispersal of the group, Crowley and Balson continued to show abstract work, with Balson increasingly moving towards a pure form of painterly abstraction. Although quite singular in his work, Balson nonetheless was a quiet but significant influence on a generation of Australian artists, as was Crowley. There were other important mentor figures in Australian art whose work inspired experimentation towards non-figurative painting, and none was more celebrated than Ian Fairweather, the reclusive artist who lived on Bribie Island in Queensland and exhibited at Macquarie Galleries. Fairweather's interest in indigenous and Eastern art translated into elegant and powerful experimentations into the relationship of line and space. John Passmore and Godfrey Miller, in their roles as teachers, challenged students to experiment with painting and to move away from the world of natural appearances to achieve an essence of creativity.
Throughout the 1950s Australian art had been invigorated by increased exposure to international art, particularly European, through the influx of émigré artists from Europe, Australian artists travelling overseas (and returning home), and exhibitions of important European art being shown here, beginning with French Painting Today in 1953. Passmore returned from 17 years abroad in 1950 and, towards the end of the decade, John Olsen went on a scholarship to Europe for three years, returning in 1960.
took part in the Sydney Nine exhibitions of 1961, perhaps the clearest
gesture in response to the Antipodeans made by the Sydney abstractionists.
The Sydney Nine group was formed to assert the seriousness of practitioners
of abstract art, and its members - Hector Gilliland, Leonard Hessing,
Clement Meadmore, John Olsen, Carl Plate, Stanislaus Rapotec, William
Rose, Eric Smith and Peter Upward - exhibited first in Sydney and then
in Melbourne, where they rather provocatively arrived to the opening in
a helicopter brandishing abstract paintings. The Antipodean affair, as
Barbara Blackman has referred to it, has been frequently understood as
indicative of the Melbourne/Sydney rivalry within and around the art world.
While this is clearly an important aspect of the antagonisms which were
fermented by the publication of The Antipodean Manifesto, it hardly accounts
for the passion which surrounded the introduction of abstraction into
Australian art and the apparent rearguard action that the Antipodeans
exhibition represented. In looking at the art of this period, from the
mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, one thing becomes clear - that the passions
and arguments of the time reflect an extraordinary diversity of Australian
art practice, and a fierce commitment to creativity in this country.
This article can also be found in Artonview, issue no. 20, Summer, 1999, pp. 4-8.
The catalogue for this exhibition entitled The Antipodeans: challenge and response in Australian Art 1955-1965 can be obtained from the National Gallery Shop.
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