John Brack is renowned for images that explore both the rituals of everyday living and the discipline of artistic practice. During the early 1950s, works by Brack that examined the domestic, professional and recreational social mores of urban and suburban Melbourne provoked attention for their novelty, recognizable references, and acute perception. The block, 1954, belongs to a small group of paintings and works on paper on the theme of small business. In these, compositions of strong horizontal and vertical formats exalt formality and order, both visually and by allusion to commerce and the machine age.
Painted with clarity and precision, The block shows the interior of an empty butcher’s shop. The tools of the trade – choppers, knives and meathooks – hang from the rails. The butcher’s block, centrally placed and painted in a darker tone, dominates the composition. Despite the rather grisly subject matter, Brack has achieved a small, perfectly contained and beautifully painted jewel-like interior. The detail of the brushwork, with its meticulous lines and opaque passages of thin paint in the background, the fine scratches incised into the block to indicate its use, and the artist’s handmade wooden frame, all converge in an exquisite synthesis.
Reproduced in important publications on John Brack, The block has a distinguished exhibition history and provenance. Included in the exhibition Nine Victorian Artists, at the Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne, in February 1954, the painting was purchased by the eminent collector Colonel Aubrey Gibson. Noted for his astute eye for contemporary Australian and international art, Gibson was appointed a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1956 and served as deputy chairman in 1959 and 1962–64. The block was shown at the Gallery in July 1969, as part of the Aubrey Gibson Collection. The painting was later included in the Gallery’s exhibition John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition (1987) and subsequently in John Brack: Inside and Outside (1999), at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Dr Joseph Brown, AO, OBE, is one of the Gallery’s most generous longtime supporters and donors. He is an Honorary Life Benefactor of The Art Foundation of Victoria.