In the story of twentieth-century Australian art, Albert Tucker’s nocturnal images of urban Melbourne occupy a unique and disquieting position. City, 1973 – a crucial work from Tucker’s later Career – extends the artist’s concerns with the human condition while combining highly idiosyncratic iconography with references found in the everyday.
The eerie, twilight view of the inner-city metropolis relates to Tucker’s series Images of modern evil, completed between 1943 and 1947, which were a direct response to the social upheavals of war-torn Melbourne. In these works Tucker developed his totemic motif of a floating female form of crescent mouth, breasts, eyes on stalks, hands and feet, which symbolised for him the sexual and moral depravity of his immediate environment:
The GI, the digger, the schoolgirl tarts, Victory Girls. All these schoolgirls from fourteen to fifteen would rush home after school and put on short skirts made out of flags – red, white, and blue – and go tarting along St Kilda Road with the GI’s and of course, diggers – when the diggers could get a look in, because they were all poor men compared with the Americans. I was still the outraged Edwardian puritan …
(Albert Tucker, quoted in J. Mollison & N. Bonham, Albert Tucker, 1982, p. 38).
In 1972 Tucker returned to the theme and produced a group of bronze sculptures and pastels that further reduced and contorted the female body. The motif appears in the foreground of City as an all-persuasive force and in an even further stylised incandescent and phantom-like state. The Number 6 Malvern tram refers to the middle-class Melbourne suburb where Tucker lived for many years as a young man, and is driven by an anguished male figure. This profiled human head, known as the Antipodean head, became one of Tucker’s most recognised symbols:
It is humanized, in a sense, almost Christ-like. A figure of fortitude and sorrow, built up from the textures of the landscape itself. With the head I felt I had succeeded in making a form that was humanized and was facing life with some kind of hope, if not winning at least of surviving. I was ready to settle for a minimum of optimism (ibid., p. 63).
The parrot flying above the urban sprawl is another of the artist’s familiar images:
I have always felt that the parrot is a ready-made symbol. They have marvellous plumage, it changes at different stages of growth. The crimson rosellas have lovely plumage when they are young, and then it slowly becomes crimson and blue. The claws that tear and the beak that rips in the middle of colours of paradise, stands as a marvelous allegory – heaven and hell incorporated in the one natural form – beautiful but murderous inside – a conflict between destruction and creation (ibid., p. 64).
City offers a summation of the themes for which Tucker is most renowned. The iconography – including hazard signs and stop signs, traffic tights, signals and street lights, commercial and residential buildings, and a tram – remains inextricably linked to Melbourne. The painting was included in Albert Tucker: A Retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1990 and was reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. At the conclusion of the exhibition the work was identified as essential for the NGV collections.
Albert Tucker is one of Australia’s most significant artists of the twentieth century and one that the NGV is committed to representing in depth. The opportunity to augment the collection with City and to extend the artist’s representation into the 1970s is especially welcomed, and we are most grateful to Barbara Tucker, the artist’s widow, for her generosity and support.
Geoffrey Smith, Curator of Australian Art (1900 to Late Modernism), National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).