Mary Cockburn Mercer remains an elusive figure in Australian art. She was born in Almerston, Scotland, and her early years were spent on the family property Springwood near Wannon in the Western District of Victoria before she attended boarding school in Edinburgh. According to family lore, Mercer ran away from school and eventually persuaded her mother to allow her to study art in Italy. Little is known of Mercer’s activities until after the First World War when she reappears, living in Paris and moving in artistic circles. She knew Marc Chagall and Kees van Dongen and collected their works, also those of Fernand Léger and Gino Severini, among others, and she worked at André Lhote’s academy during the early 1920s as a studio assistant and translator.
In 1922 Mercer moved to Cassis on the Mediterranean coast where she built a house with her partner, the American artist Alexander Robinson. However, by 1936 she was living or travelling in Spain with her German lover, the son of a munitions manufacturer. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War they travelled to Tahiti and in 1938, with the Second World War looming, Mercer returned to Australia alone. She settled in Melbourne and briefly attended the George Bell School, giving private lessons in her Bourke Street studio to students including Colin McCahon and Lina Bryans. In 1952 Mercer returned to France, settling in her home in Cassis where she died in 1963.
While not dated, Ballet is believed to have been painted after Mercer’s return to Australia although in many respects it belongs to an earlier era. Painted in a decorative cubist style, the composition is based upon a complex arrangement of diagonals and verticals with forms simplified into geometric volumes in a manner reminiscent of the 1920s paintings of André Lhote and his most famous student, Tamara de Lempicka.
Ballet depicts a commedia dell’arte scene. The central female figure is wearing a ruffled collar and full-face mask and the white-haired figure behind her is Harlequin, identified by his mask and lozenge-patterned tunic. The younger kneeling figure is wearing contemporary beach wear: shorts, sleeveless vest and thongs. While the relationship between the three figures is enigmatic, some clues are provided by the animals depicted in the work: the small dog is a symbol of marital fidelity, the turtle doves are symbolic of passionate love, and the sleeping cat is often considered a wicked animal associated with treachery.
The commedia dell’arte and the harlequin in particular was a popular subject with Cubist artists after the First World War. Picasso painted one as early as 1915 and, over the following years, he explored this subject repeatedly, including in his stage design for Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade of 1917. Lhote had painted a harlequin in his Homage to Watteau, 1919, and Severini turned to the commedia dell’arte in his Appearance of the angel to Punchinello, 1917, and for his major fresco commission for Sir George Sitwell’s castle at Montegufoni in Tuscany in 1921–22.
Mercer became a forgotten figure in Australian art until she was rediscovered by art dealer Russell Davis who mounted the first exhibition of her work in 1975.
Elena Taylor, Curator, Australian Art, NGV (in 2010)