fig. 1
Vic O’Connor

In 1944 the three Melbourne realist artists, Noel Counihan (1919–1986), Yosl Bergner (1920–) and Vic O’Connor (1918–) wrote, ‘We in fact work together as a group’. This personal statement, which formed part of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) Sixth Annual Exhibition catalogue, outlined their shared interests in creating art that showed both society’s downtrodden and the impact of the Second World War. They went on to say:

Each seeks to create a democratic art combining beauty of treatment with a realistic statement of man in his contemporary environment. Believing that art is not a passive factor in life, we strive to create an art which will influence men towards the solution of their universal problems. Bergner has sought to portray the tragedy of his own people, the Jews persecuted and tortured by mankind’s greatest foe, Nazism … Counihan and O’Connor depict the daily activities of the common people … We three painters believe in a human, democratic art with its roots in the life and struggles of the ordinary people, devoid of all obscure clichés and mannerisms … an art intelligible and popular, expressing the deepest emotions and aspirations of the people.

Ultimately, only Noel Counihan can be termed a social realist. Yosl Bergner describes himself, rather, as a social humanist painter1 F. Kepner, Yosl Bergner: Art as a Meeting of Cultures, Melbourne, 2004, p. 55., and Vic O’Connor calls himself a painter of mood.2Vic O’Connor quoted in ‘More poet than realist’ by M. Simons, Age, 4 August 1983. However, in the mid 1940s the three came together, with other socially committed artists, as part of the CAS. This organisation, which formed in Melbourne in 1938, had in its founding Victorian branch, a short and contentious history. It aimed to show contemporary art which had little public support at the time and its membership included artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. All were deeply affected by the Second World War. The organisation was anti-fascist and although it had members who were communists, it resisted prescriptive social themes as the true subject of art. At this stage Counihan, Bergner and O’Connor all belonged to the Communist Party, whose members tried and failed to win control of the CAS at the 1944 annual general meeting.3 See R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Melbourne, 1981, p.143ff.

In that year John Reed wrote an introductory essay in a CAS pamphlet and catalogue that was against fascism and in favour of a contemporary art that was inclusive of all modern styles. (CAS articles often referred to the Nazi’s suppression of modern artists and modern art but German Expressionist art was known mainly from reproductions or from Bergner and Vassilieff.)4See I. Chanin & S. Miller, Perverts and Degenerates. The 1939 Herald Exhibition of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2005, p. 191ff, on why the curator Basil Burdett did not select German Expressionist artists However, two years later Reed changed his views and began instead to favour non-realist and metaphorical work, largely through his journal Angry Penguins. As a consequence, O’Connor, Bergner and Counihan stopped exhibiting with the CAS.

Exhibiting shared realities

With recent gifts to the National Gallery of Victoria of Vic O’Connor’s Flight (fig. 1) and the drawing for Flight, c.1942, and After market, 1944 (fig. 6), and the Gallery now has canvases of the three artists most important for first defining realist art as a separate movement in Australia. The Gallery also has drawings and prints made by these artists from around 1940 to 1947 that they exhibited together or made in close association. Their paintings, drawings and prints show the shared social purpose and humanist spirit of three idealistic war-time Melbourne artists and elucidate an important moment in Australian history.

In the CAS Sixth Annual Exhibition, O’Connor exhibited paintings on the theme of homeless people and the Queen Victoria Market. He also included the notable painting The dead Jew, 1942–43, empathetic to those of his friend Yosl Bergner who, for this exhibition, called each of his own paintings by its series name, The Jews. Three of Bergner’s paintings, which also have individual titles, are now in the NGV collection: The ghetto wall, 1945 (fig. 2); Father and sons, 1943 (fig. 7); and Father and child, c.1943, are all gifts from the artist.

Apart from the CAS Sixth Annual Exhibition, the key exhibitions for these three artists were Australia at War that opened in September 1945 at the NGV and toured state galleries,5 Australia at War was initiated through Counihan’s efforts to establish the Artists Unity Congress and the Artists Advisory Panel that advised government on using artists for war work. The panel worked through the umbrella organisation, the Australian Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, to organise the exhibition. See B. Smith, Noel Counihan: Artist and Revolutionary, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 176–82, 194. and Three Realist Artists, 16–25 July, 1946, at the Myer Art Gallery, Melbourne. They also showed at the Society of Realist Artists exhibition at David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, 11–26 October, 1946. Many of the paintings they sent to the Society of Realist Artists they had shown together in the earlier exhibitions. For instance, Bergner sent four paintings from the Three Realist Artists exhibition including Aborigines, 1946.

In Australia at War Counihan showed his new paintings of Wonthaggi coal miners, where, as an artist, he needed the support of the union to go down the mine in order to depict the previously unrecorded war contributions of workers. The NGV now has in its collection In the 18-inch seam, State Coal Mine, Wonthaggi, 1944 (fig. 3), and a print of the same subject, Coalminers – In the narrow seam, 1947. The dark mine pit is lit by the miner’s lamp in the manner of a night scene by Van Gogh or Constantin Meunier.6Counihan’s newly blocky and stretch-limbed figures, pit setting and lighting, strongly relate also to the Belgium artist Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) for whom coal miners were a major theme. Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, NGVI, knowing how widely read Counihan was, kindly pointed out this source to me and that Counihan probably knew Meunier through Studio magazine. Bergner and O’Connor exhibited similar themes to Counihan – a night scene in Tocumwal camp, in Bergner’s case, where he was a private in the army labour corps, and O’Connor a scene of a factory night shift.

Three realist artists

The Gallery now has two Vic O’Connor paintings and Yosl Bergner paintings that were shown together in Three Realist Artists.

Bergner’s paintings and related drawings show his direct visual effect on O’Connor and Counihan.7 The alternative title is Looking over the ghetto wall, see Klepner, pl. 52, and letter from Frank Klepner to author, 6 July 2005. NGV files. The yearning, defiant Jew in Bergner’s The ghetto wall, 1943, became a key motif. It was used by Counihan at least twice. In his 1947 linocut, The coalminers: In the  shadow of disaster … the wife from The miner’s series, 1947 (fig. 4), Counihan has the same front-facing torso with head in right profile, uplifted in angry grief and sombre defiance. He used the motif again in his print, Eureka 1854–1954: On Bakery Hill, 1954, in the figure on the left of Peter Lalor. Yosl Bergner recalls the source of this image as an Aboriginal man he saw playing a gum leaf on the steps of the Melbourne Town Hall.8 Yosl Bergner, discussion with the author, 10 April 2005. Another possible source of this work may derive from Marc Chagall (whose work Bergner knew) who drew and painted profile heads on frontal torsos, especially in his early art.9 For examples of illustrations of early Chagall, see A. Efross & J. Tugenhold, Die Kunst Marc Chagalls, Potsdam; Gustave Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1921. The Bergner family library included many books on artists, including Marc Chagall.

However, as Bergner painted himself as ‘a Rembrandt Self Portrait’, 1938–39, after the Gallery’s Rembrandt Self-portrait (now Studio of Rembrandt, Portrait of Rembrandt, 1660s),10 Klepner, plate 34. it is tempting to speculate that another source for Bergner’s distinctive frontal torso and sharply turned profile head is a painting by a student of Rembrandt, also in the NGV collection, Arent De Gelder’s King Ahasuerus condemning Haman, c.1680. This is a Biblical scene from the Book of Esther of the moment when Queen Esther reveals to her husband, Ahasuerus, Haman’s plan to kill the Babylon Jews and thus saves her people. It is a turning point in Jewish history between genocide and peace. The figure of the king has a tension and intensity in this work that is also found in the figures of early Chagall.

The king has a distinctive, hooked nose, his jewellery and clothing form semicircles below the neck. Bergner has used similar semicircular forms on the ghetto Jew’s clothing and given him a hooked, profile nose. Bergner used the same motif in the chained figure on the right in Aborigines, 1946, (fig. 5)11 Klepner has pointed out the resemblance of the two figures and the symbolism of this motif as a universal paradigm, p. 105–6., where an iron neck shackle and the open shirt form a similar composition of semicircles to those in King Ahasuerus and The ghetto wall.12 After looking at the relevant reproductions, Yosl Bergner said he was happy with the association of the De Gelder as one of the sources; as an artist his habit was to take from many sources. Bergner, discussions with the author, from 14 April 2005.

O’Connor also used Bergner’s profile head motif in the adult figure in The alarm, 1943, except that the figure turns to the left.13 Max Joffe, Yosl Bergner and Social Realism, 1934­–1947, Melbourne State College, Fine Arts thesis, 1984, p. 43, (repr.), and in Southern Stories Art Supplement, np.

Bergner, a Jewish painter from Warsaw who arrived in Australia aged seventeen in 1937, began to draw and paint the dispossessed urban poor, including urban Aborigines, from 1938, the same year Aboriginal people supported persecuted German Jews. The Australian Aborigines’ League took a formal protest about Kristallnacht (the pogroms against the German Jews by the Nazis in November 1938) to the German Consulate in Melbourne.14 Age and Argus, 3 December 1938. See C. Tatz, ‘An essay in disappointment:The Aboriginal–Jewish relationship’ in Aboriginal History, vol. 28, Canberra, 2004, p. 100.

By 1946 Bergner had turned to other themes until he read of a court hearing in Oodnadatta for a station manager who had chained his Aboriginal workers to a tree.15 See undated newspaper clipping, Yosl Bergner, vertical file, National Gallery of Victoria Library. See also Adelaide Advertiser, 20 December 1945, p.8 and Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1945, p. 6. Aborigines was Bergner’s last painting in Australia of the subject, a reminder of how Aboriginal people were dispossessed,16 Klepner, p.100ff. even as the horror of Nazi concentration camps was unfolding. It is one of the artist’s few images in an outback setting and was exhibited with old photographs of Aboriginal prisoners alongside sombre images of the destruction of the European Jews.17 Klepner notes similarity between Perceval’s Survival, 1942, (National Gallery of Victoria) and Bergner’s paintings of Aborigines in the city, notably the mother and child figures in Aborigines in Fitzroy, c.1941 (Art Gallery of South Australia), and Aboriginal family, 1942–43, reproduced in The Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne, 2004, p. 99, pl. 37,39.

The red bow

After market (fig. 6) by Vic O’Connor is a memory of the Depression and the 1930s, when the artist worked with his mother on her stalls at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. From this time he developed a strong and abiding interest in the city and its poorer and underprivileged inhabitants. He worked as a law clerk and qualified as a lawyer in 1941. O’Connor made close friendships with Noel Counihan and Yosl Bergner in the early 1940s and this enhanced the strong social concerns that were becoming prevalent in his art. In 1941 he joined the Communist Party and in 1942 contributed both to an exhibition of social-realist artists and to an anti-fascist exhibition.18 Ted Gott, National Gallery of Victoria Trustee acquisition report, 1986, on Evening – old Fitzroy, NGV files.

After market is a night scene. The red shape is a bow on a hat – one of a group of paintings based around a homeless woman who used to be seen like an apparition in the early morning; all you could decipher was the red bow in a sea of black – the woman, who always ran away from people, lived somewhere at the market.19 Bill Nuttall discussion with the author, 30 March 2004, recounting 1988 discussion with Vic O’Connor. She is facing up the lane between two roofed arcades, a setting rather like a Surrealist De Chirico painting. In the background are scavengers. According to O’Connor, ‘the shoppers would leave and the other people would arrive. They would pick up bits of packaging cases and they’d cut the bad bits off vegetables and take them away’.20 Simons, Age.

Stylistically the painting shows the influences of nineteenth-century artists Daumier, Millet and Van Gogh as well as the palette and fluid simplification of form common to Yosl Bergner. All three realist artists used a dark palette and elongated figures that indicate their common debt to Van Gogh, Daumier and Rembrandt, all of whose paintings could be studied in the NGV.21 Daumier’s Don Quixote reading, c.1867, oil on canvas, Felton Bequest, 1923. Studio of Rembrandt, Rembrandt, 1660s, purchased by the Felton Bequest as Rembrandt self-portrait in 1933. Van Gogh, Head of a man, 1886, Felton Bequest, 1940. O’Connor and Counihan also adapted Bergner’s fluid outline of city buildings based on Daumier.22 Klepner, p.85, n. 38.

O’Connor made at least four paintings about the woman with the red bow, including  After market, that he showed in Three Realist Artists. The previous year Bernard Smith wrote about this painting and others by O’Connor, Bergner and Counihan – calling them

 the most contemporary of all Australian artists … O’Connor has reacted vigorously to the war and the poilitical realities of his times … He has also fought against anti-semitic tendencies in Australia in his articles and lectures. At present (Jan., 1944) he is painting street scenes in industrial suburbs and around the Melbourne markets.

Sternly self-critical, O’Connor reworks his paintings and repaints his subjects until he has exhausted them. During the last two years his pictures have become much richer in colour and texture, and have an intensity of feeling that, until recently, was rare in Australian painting.23 B. Smith, ‘Realism in Australian Contemporary Art’ in Place, Taste andTradition: A Study of Australian Art Since 1788, Sydney, 1945, p. 251.

 Referring to the exhibition Three Realist Artists, Smith wrote:

 What they sought to do, and succeeded brilliantly in doing, was to delve into their own inner feelings and experiences and create works that would stand as a witness to those times, and in so doing share their feelings with others.24 Smith, Art in Australia, ed. H. Gratton, University of California, 1947, p. 370.

 Collaborations

The three artists collaborated on many projects in this period including working together on Southern Stories published by Dolphin Press in 1946, which had an art supplement of twelve reproductions of paintings by Bergner, Counihan and O’Connor. The writer Judah Waten and violin maker Bill Dolphin, along with O’Connor, set up the press in 1946 to publish low-priced Australian literature, including the stories of Herz Bergner (Yosl Bergner’s uncle and also resident in Melbourne).

Yosl Bergner and Vic O’Connor both painted the funeral scene from Herz Bergner’s short story The Boardinghouse in Southern Stories. Bergner’s Funeral, c.1942, was illustrated in this edition but not exhibited in Three Realist Artists, whereas Vic O’Connor exhibited Hershell’s funeral – illustration for a story by Herz Bergner.25 Bergner’s Funeral procession is seen approaching, while O’Connor’s is viewed from behind, as if both artists painted the same funeral procession in the same narrow street. Also see Klepner, p. 102, and Three Realist Artists, 1946, cat. no. 75.

Southern Stories also reproduced the Gallery’s Noel Counihan painting In the 18-inch seam, State Coal Mine, Wonthaggi, 1944 – here captioned The narrow seam – Wonthaggi and a Vic O’Connor captioned Fitzroy, in the possession of Mrs M. Fawcett.26 See Joffe, 1984; Illustrations of Art, Supplement, Dolphin Press, 1946.

This painting was included in Three Realist Artists, where it was titled Fitzroy Street (‘kindly lent by Mrs K. Fawcett’). The Gallery holds the watercolour study for it, titled Evening – old Fitzroy, a drawing that remained in the artist’s collection until acquired by the Gallery in 1986.

The drawing by Vic O’Connor, Study for figures of a man and child, 1944 (fig. 81, in the NGV collection is based on Bergner’s drawing and painting, also in the collection, titled  Father and sons, 1943 (fig. 71. O’Connor’s painting Flight – illustration for Herz  Bergner’s novel ‘Between Sky and Sea’, 1946 (also known as Refugees),27 H. Bergner, Between Sky and Sea, translated by J. Waten; foreword, V. Palmer; frontispiece, V. O’Connor; Dolphin Publications, Melbourne, 1946. was reproduced as the frontispiece to Herz Bergner’s novel as The flight of Old Jacob’s family, c.1942 (fig. 1).28 C. Rubin, ‘Yosl Bergner – painter’ in Yosl Bergner: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), ed. C. Rubin, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, 2000, p. 280. In The flight of Old Jacob’s family, the far right figure with a child is based directly on the figure of the father in Bergner’s Father and sons, 1943. In O’Connor’s drawing, the figures are reversed to face right.

With the end of the Second World War the three realist artists began to take up disparate themes in their work. Bergner painted the past out of a sense of loss choosing lighter subjects drawn from Jewish themes from his Polish childhood in Warsaw and illustrations to ‘humorous Jewish folk tales’ (as the catalogue put it). Noel Counihan wrote of these most recent paintings to Bernard Smith in Sydney: ‘Very vivacious and colourful … their “folk” character might militate against their acceptance in Australia’.29 Klepner, p. 120.

It was precisely these images that attracted Alan McCulloch, the art critic for the Melbourne Argus, who distanced himself from the internal battles of the CAS. His review of the Myer Art Gallery Exhibition, with the subheading ‘Realist painters’, shied away from what is now Bergner’s unforgettable Australian image, Aborigines, as well as from his paintings of the ghetto. He ended his review with a critique that reveals his aesthetic was remote from that of Bernard Smith: ‘In Joseph Bergner’s illustrations to Jewish folk tales, we see (perhaps for the first time) the artist in ascendancy over the former rather boring propagandist’.

McCulloch, however, was clear about the importance of the exhibition:

A wholly unexpected and delightful touch of phantasy [sic] leavens the exhibition by ‘Three realist artists’ at Myer’s Gallery, and helps to make it one of the outstanding shows of the year.

Two powerfully expressive works by Noel Counihan, Waiting for the Mine Bus and The Violin Maker, contain qualities of conception, of draughtsmanship, and feeling for form, which should gain him a place of high distinction in Australian Contemporary painting.

Vic O’Connor’s work is distinguished by a really beautiful sense of colour and if at times his painting tends to dissolve rather formlessly, it is always extremely sensitive.30 Argus, 16 July, 1945, p. 6.

The profound sense of change and renewal in this post-war period spread amongst the three artists and their wider group. All continued to work in their diverse ways; the NGV, for instance, has a beautiful profile drawing by Counihan of the head of Ruth Bergner from 1946. Yosl’s sister was a modern dancer and choreographer who also used Jewish themes in her art. After the war Ruth Bergner moved to Paris. Yosl Bergner and the painter Jim Wigley, who also painted images of Aboriginal dispossession, left for Paris together in 1948. Wigley and Ruth Bergner returned to Australia while Yosl travelled on to Canada with the Melbourne painter Audrey Keller, who he later married. They settled in Israel in the early 1950s. Vic O’Connor stayed in Melbourne and Noel Counihan remained centred in Melbourne, from where he followed an international career as a political activist and realist artist.

As Bernard Smith succinctly concluded of the three realist artists in 1988:

 These artists were the first to depict in Australia’s ‘high art’ the frightful conditions of present day Aboriginal society, and the conditions of working-class life during the great Depression; and they foreshadowed, in paintings of prophetic solemnity, the great horror of the Holocaust. Their work deserves to be better known and given a fair go.31 B. Smith, ‘Realist art in wartime Australia’, in Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s (exh. cat.), Hayward Gallery, London, 1988, p. 55.

 With the gifts of Vic O’Connor’s After market, and Flight and the sketch for Flight, the NGV now has a strong and representative collection of paintings, prints and drawings that enable us to do just this.

Jennifer Phipps, Curator of Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).

Notes

1      F. Kepner, Yosl Bergner: Art as a Meeting of Cultures, Melbourne, 2004, p. 55. 

2      Vic O’Connor quoted in ‘More poet than realist’ by M. Simons, Age, 4 August 1983.

3      See R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Melbourne, 1981, p.143ff.

4      See I. Chanin & S. Miller, Perverts and Degenerates. The 1939 Herald Exhibition of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2005, p. 191ff, on why the curator Basil Burdett did not select German Expressionist artists.

5      Australia at War was initiated through Counihan’s efforts to establish the Artists Unity Congress and the Artists Advisory Panel that advised government on using artists for war work. The panel worked through the umbrella organisation, the Australian Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, to organise the exhibition. See B. Smith, Noel Counihan: Artist and Revolutionary, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 176–82, 194.

6      Counihan’s newly blocky and stretch-limbed figures, pit setting and lighting, strongly relate also to the Belgium artist Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) for whom coal miners were a major theme. Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, NGVI, knowing how widely read Counihan was, kindly pointed out this source to me and that Counihan probably knew Meunier through Studio magazine.

7      The alternative title is Looking over the ghetto wall, see Klepner, pl. 52, and letter from Frank Klepner to author, 6 July 2005. NGV files.

8      Yosl Bergner, discussion with the author, 10 April 2005.

9      For examples of illustrations of early Chagall, see A. Efross & J. Tugenhold, Die Kunst Marc Chagalls, Potsdam; Gustave Kiepenheuer Verlag, 1921. The Bergner family library included many books on artists, including Marc Chagall.

10      Klepner, plate 34.

11      Klepner has pointed out the resemblance of the two figures and the symbolism of this motif as a universal paradigm, p. 105–6.

12      After looking at the relevant reproductions, Yosl Bergner said he was happy with the association of the De Gelder as one of the sources; as an artist his habit was to take from many sources. Bergner, discussions with the author, from 14 April 2005.

13      Max Joffe, Yosl Bergner and Social Realism, 1934­–1947, Melbourne State College, Fine Arts thesis, 1984, p. 43, (repr.), and in Southern Stories Art Supplement, np.

14      Age and Argus, 3 December 1938. See C. Tatz, ‘An essay in disappointment: The Aboriginal-Jewish relationship’ in Aboriginal History, vol. 28, Canberra, 2004, p. 100.

15      See undated newspaper clipping, Yosl Bergner, vertical file, National Gallery of Victoria Library. See also Adelaide Advertiser, 20 December 1945, p.8 and Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1945, p. 6.

16      Klepner, p.100ff.

17      Klepner notes similarity between Perceval’s Survival, 1942, (National Gallery of Victoria) and Bergner’s paintings of Aborigines in the city, notably the mother and child figures in Aborigines in Fitzroy, c.1941 (Art Gallery of South Australia), and Aboriginal family, 1942–43, reproduced in The Joseph Brown Collection, Melbourne, 2004, p. 99, pl. 37,39.

18      Ted Gott, National Gallery of Victoria Trustee acquisition report, 1986, on Evening – old Fitzroy, NGV files.

19      Bill Nuttall discussion with the author, 30 March 2004, recounting 1988 discussion with Vic O’Connor.

20      Simons, Age.

21      Daumier’s Don Quixote reading, c.1867, oil on canvas, Felton Bequest, 1923. Studio of Rembrandt, Rembrandt, 1660s, purchased by the Felton Bequest as Rembrandt self-portrait in 1933. Van Gogh, Head of a man, 1886, Felton Bequest, 1940.

22      Klepner, p.85, n. 38.

23      B. Smith, ‘Realism in Australian Contemporary Art’ in Place, Taste and Tradition: A Study of Australian Art Since 1788, Sydney, 1945, p. 251.  

24      Smith, Art in Australia, ed. H. Gratton, University of California, 1947, p. 370.

25      Bergner’s Funeral procession is seen approaching, while O’Connor’s is viewed from behind, as if both artists painted the same funeral procession in the same narrow street. Also see Klepner, p. 102, and Three Realist Artists, 1946, cat. no. 75.

26      See Joffe, 1984; Illustrations of Art, Supplement, Dolphin Press, 1946.

27      H. Bergner, Between Sky and Sea, translated by J. Waten; foreword, V. Palmer; frontispiece, V. O’Connor; Dolphin Publications, Melbourne, 1946.

28      C. Rubin, ‘Yosl Bergner – painter’ in Yosl Bergner: A Retrospective (exh. cat.), ed. C. Rubin, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Tel Aviv, 2000, p. 280.

29      Klepner, p. 120.

30      Argus, 16 July, 1945, p. 6.

31      B. Smith, ‘Realist art in wartime Australia’, in Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s (exh. cat.), Hayward Gallery, London, 1988, p. 55.