fig. 1
Sidney Nolan

The National Gallery of Victoria mounted the exhibition Rebels and Precursors: Aspects of Painting in Melbourne 1937–1947 in 1962. It remains the largest and most comprehensive account of the Melbourne expressionists of the 1940s, the so-called Angry Penguins group. Six artists – Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Danila Vassilieff, John Perceval and Yosl Bergner – were represented, each with a substantial selection of works. It was a joint exercise largely managed by Eric Westbrook, then director of the Gallery, and Albert Tucker, recently returned from thirteen years of involuntary ‘exile’. The latter personally solicited his fellow artists to participate. Ever since that momentous exhibition, that decade in Melbourne has been seen as a turning point in Australian art, as significant to Australian art history as the years of 1885–1896, which saw the rise and maturation of the Heidelberg School.

The terrible irony of Rebels and Precursors was that not a single painting was acquired from a show which virtually took over the old Gallery on Swanston Street. Melbourne’s loss would be Canberra’s gain in the following decades. James Mollison, the founding director of the National Gallery of Australia, understood fully the significance of the period. The gift of Nolan’s first Ned Kelly series, 1946–47, from Sunday Reed, the acquisition of Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil, 1943–47, and the 1975 Arthur Boyd gift, including many early works, made the Canberra collection of Melbourne’s tumultuous decade comprehensive and unassailable.

Painfully, in the twenty years following Rebels and Precursors, you could pass through the Australian collection in the NGV and barely know that Melbourne transformed Australian painting in the 1940s. Clearly it was an urgent priority of the 1980s to rectify that situation.

When I was interviewed for the directorship of the Gallery, Paul Clarkson, then director of the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, asked me what were the first three things I would do as director. One of them was the promise to write to a group of major contemporary Australian artists who were either poorly or under-represented in the collection and tell them that the Gallery was determined to improve and augment their representation. Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan headed the list.

Results were quick in coming. Sir Sidney and Lady Nolan offered to present all the Wimmera paintings still in their possession to the Gallery. During the Second World War Nolan had enlisted in the army and been stationed variously in Dimboola, Horsham and Nhill between 1942 and 1944. Away from Melbourne Nolan rediscovered or, better, reinvented the Australian landscape as a subject for painting. How to tackle the featureless Wimmera plains was the issue and the challenge. Nolan, by instinct a modernist, discarded conventional perspective, flattened the landscape across the canvas and ran it ‘like a blade’ into the sky. They were the most startlingly abrupt and abstract landscapes yet produced in Australia. Purged of the pastoral inheritance, industrial images such as wheat silos, railway lines and bridges were often the focus, and the ‘heroes’ of this minimal landscape were Railway guard, Dimboola, 1943 (fig. 1), and The flour lumper, 1943, two of the masterpieces that came with the Nolans’ magnificent gift. It shifted the centre of gravity in the modern Australian collection: a key turning point in Melbourne’s revolutionary 1940s was now in place.

Albert Tucker, Nolan’s comrade-in-arms in the Kulturkampf of the 1940s, did for the Australian city what his companion had done for the landscape. Melbourne, from St Kilda to Fitzroy, became ‘the city of dreadful night’. The Images of Modern Evil were its loci classici. Tucker, despite his formative role in the organisation of Rebels and Precursors, was lopsidedly represented in the Gallery’s collection with two paintings from the early 1960s: the powerful but atypical Ascension, the gift of Sir Roderick Carnegie, and Explorer attacked by parrots, the gift of Colonel Aubrey Gibson and Baillieu Myer. When approached, despite the Gallery’s long neglect, Albert Tucker was both generous and cooperative. Through the good offices of Georges Mora, Melbourne’s leading art dealer, six paintings were acquired. They included a fine work from the Images of Modern Evil that had escaped Canberra’s dragnet, a characteristically sinister Bathers and a striking Self-portrait, all from the 1940s. Equally, we wanted to show aspects of Tucker’s rich expatriate years, then largely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. Robert Hughes, in an important early article on Tucker (Art & Australia vol. I, no. 4, February 1964) had reproduced Macro of Place Pigalle, 1949, and Judas, 1955, and they had made a lasting impression on me.To my unalloyed delight, Tucker still had them and they were duly acquired. The artist himself gave the monumental and devastating Cratered head, 1958.

Other individual acquisitions bolstered these important groups. Jennifer Phipps, NGV curator of Australian Art, successfully proposed John Perceval’s Survival, painted in 1942 when the artist was just twenty. Its sense of threat caught precisely the atmosphere of oppression and anxiety which roiled the 1940s. The artist was to add two further paintings from this period as gifts, Boy with broken pot and Soul singer at Luna Park, 1942–43 (fig. 2).

In the past decade significant works by all the major figures of the period have been added. Albert Tucker’s widow, Barbara Tucker, has generously given a large group of significant paintings and drawings. Sidney Nolan’s magnificent and ironic Footballer was acquired in 2002 to mark the opening of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square with an exceptional subvention from the Government of Victoria. Ironically, Footballer was one of the stars and surprises of Rebels and Precursors back in 1962. In those days it would hardly have required the intervention of the State to acquire such a brilliant painting.

One final note: Joy Hester, the principal woman artist of the period and the equal in quality and substance to any of her male contemporaries, and whose most characteristic works are drawings in wash and ink, was quietly and steadily acquired by the department of Prints and Drawings, indicating once again what a leading role that department has played in forging the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection (fig. 3).

Patrick McCaughey, Director of the Festival of Ideas, Melbourne (in 2011).