The encounter of Baldessin and Tillers on an etching plate According to des Esseintes 1976


A post-Surrealist game of consequences and sequences followed the meeting of George Baldessin and Imants Tillers at the Sao Paolo Biennale of 1975.1More accurately, the meeting of Baldessin and Tillers took place on the way to Sao Paolo, at Nandi, Fiji. See Tillers, ‘Selected Meetings with Famous Artists’, Survey 13 (catalogue), National Gallery of Victoria, 1980. In the following year they began in Paris with two etching plates, each started one and then, after exchanging the plates, finished the one the other had worked. The plate initiated by Baldessin is B, Tillers is T. They decided to do four more sheets, swapping each pair of plates midway. They met in Nice to work on the aquatints and printing which was done by Pierre Giarudon. 

Only eleven years separate the artists in age, but they are of two generations. The premises of their work can only appear in apparent opposition. They are different in training and background. Baldessin first exhibited in a one-man show of sculpture and prints in Melbourne in 1964.2I have outlined the background of Melbourne printmaking in the 1960s in ‘Melbourne Printmakers’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973–74, pp. 27 ff. A spectrum of critical views of both the prints and the sculpture is given in Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Adelaide, 1980, pp. 28–34. After studying at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Chelsea School of Art in London, and the Brera Academy in Milan, he was swiftly acclaimed as a master printmaker, exhibiting an extraordinary degree of traditional skill, particularly in the demanding art of drypoint etching and aquatint. Swift line, surfaces both sleek and raised, inks minutely varied between dense blacks and light greys, a penchant for silver-laminated surfaces and daring scale, served an imagery that was fluid and constantly moving: smoke and clouds, skylights and chimneys, objects – chairs, screens and fruits. The repertoire of the etchings closely related to his sculptures. In both media the female figure played a major role. Frequently cantilevered across the paper, the female seemed traditionally replete and free but was, in fact, as trapped as the still-life objects, submerged in an eroticism made more poignant by the sensuality of the drypoint lines and the lush inks. 

Imants Tillers was trained at the University of Sydney as an architect, and dates his first significant encounter with art from his participation in Christo’s wrapping-up of Little Bay in 1959.3For Tillers see ibid., pp. 643–46. The encounter with Christo is highlighted by Donald Brooke in ‘Imants Tillers and the Redefinition of Art in Australia’, Art and Australia 13, I, 1975, p. 54. His interest in performance activity and object sculpture were determined by the phenomenon of conceptual art: reality for Tillers declared itself as a construct of the mind and art as a key system in conceptualisation. Refuting a style of his own, he annexes techniques. He concerns himself with how images are varied, how reproductions distance paintings, how paintings distort their original subject, how the subject perceived is therefore a construct of the viewing mind. Hans Heysen’s 1909 painting, Summer, is one of the recurring icons which his art reflects upon, and alters.4Two versions on the original scale were exhibited at the Biennale of Sydney, 1979. It plays a role as recognisably Tillers as does the female mask face of Baldessin. Tillers’ 1979 52 Displacements presented a year’s project of seascapes taken from a book for amateurs, diligently demonstrating how composition, colours, impasto, framing, are coded for easy mastery.552 Displacements, exhibited Walters Gallery, Sydney, 1979. His series of 1959, This Attempting to be That, alludes through its title to the concern with signifiers and signifieds, variable according to context.6This Attempting to be That, exhibited Realities Gallery, Melbourne, 1980. Transfer trees used by architects to animate their designs (all northern hemisphere specimens) are neatly lined up above the ubiquitous Heysen Summer. There is little elan or intrinsic expressiveness in such techniques; rather the result is diagrammatic, dry, creating a taxonomy of art methods.7Tillers’ diagrammatic approach was displayed in his Enclosure for the Mildura triennale, Sculpturescape ’73, a work involving three tents and the artist’s personal movement of earth between them, with his activity accompanied by diagrams and notes on squared pages; see catalogue, pp. 78–79. See also the graph-paper commentary to Tillers’ contribution to the 1973 Object and Idea exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria. Marcel Duchamp’s devotion to a ‘dry style’ is well known. Surely influential in alerting Tillers to the potential of etching were Duchamp’s etchings after the Large Glass; see Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (eds), Marcel Duchamp, New York and Philadelphia, 1973, p. 310. With this investigatory procedure Tillers combines a dogged eye for the beauty of coincidence, which confirms his relish of analogues. His books document his calculated discoveries. Rendezvous with Configuration Ρ was created in Paris in 1976 as a set of etchings, and it was George Baldessin who helped Tillers with his first encounter with the medium.8Rendezvous with Configuration Ρ, prepared on etching plates with text included, was published by the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1978, with an introduction by Noel Sheridan. The book footnotes Tillers’ artistic dictionary, above all his debt to Marcel Duchamp and to Flann O’Brien’s Duchampian novel, The Third Policeman, the source of confirmation for Tillers’ imagery of brides and bicycles, or maps and trees. It is an appropriated imagery – all of it derivative, second-hand, ready-made – necessarily so. Tillers’ more ambitious publication of 1981, Three Facts, expands the dialogue, extends the references, and relishes further coincidences that take Hans Heysen to China and creates confusion in the Heysen Ranges.9Three Facts, Double Vision, Melbourne, 1981; published in English and Chinese in three versions. 

However different the premises of their art, Tillers and Baldessin are encounter-prone, latter-day surrealists courting strangeness. The dynamics endemic in all of Baldessin’s imagery is his demonstration of the analogous nature of all things: they are perpetually in a state of flux. Within the formalist arena of Baldessin’s etched and sculptured surfaces with their overt sensuousness, his encounters are in fact more discomforting. The human beings – the female in particular – lose to the greater dynamism of smoke, the greater scale and poise of fruit, the superior presence of space and furniture that captures and traps the humans. 

The fortuitous encounter is differently experienced by the two artists. Scrutinised to a doggedly conscious degree by Tillers, coincidence and the fortuitous are less fraught for him: the improbable is expected. Against interpretation, Baldessin must give way to his imagery as it rises from a more subconscious level, rushing to the surface to take over the palate. 

The inevitability of conjunction was already apparent, unrehearsed, at Sao Paolo in 1975. Both artists, in their very different manners, create or reflect on the female role. Tillers’ Conversations with the bride (fig. 1) consisted of 120 images of post-card size mounted on aluminium plates and coated so they seemed like enamels.10Conversations with the bride is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Tillers himself has explained its genesis, structure and references in the catalogue, Sao Paolo, 1975. The metal postcards were raised on aluminium tripods, like small music stands, and assembled in a ‘forest’. Duchamp’s large glass, The bride stripped bare by the bachelors even, was let loose among antipodean gumtrees. From Duchamp to Tillers the bride is a machine, programmed for male encounters. It is her fate, as Duchamp designed it, for her to hover, to be out of reach, suspended above the bachelors. She is the hanging bride, the Pendu femelle.11For Duchamp’s notes on the Pendu femelle see Arturo Schwarz (ed.). Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, London, 1969, p. 108. 

  

Baldessin showed a continuous work consisting of twenty-five plates on silver-laminated paper: his Occasional images from a city chamber, and a set of etched aluminium panels forming a sculpture with a chair at each end.12Planned in an edition of five, Occasional Images from a City Chamber in the Sao Paolo version is now in the National Collection, Canberra. The sculpture, Occasional screens with seating arrangement, is in the collection of the artist’s wife. The etched-from-metal paper and the etched metal itself formed a unit, as they had before. Centred in the paper screen is the female figure, arched dangerously and seductively across dark ink. She, too, is the Pendu femelle, already stripped – literally or psychologically – by the bachelors. 

 

This is not, of course, to suggest that Baldessin operated with even a subconscious thought of Duchamp: rather is it to affirm the now traditional 20th-century concerns with dream and sexual fantasy, with the psychology of desire and repression. Dislocations in space, the biomorphic vocabulary, the surrealist and abstract expressionist cult of spontaneous expression all betray the concern. The female figure manneristically presented must have been well-known to Baldessin in its Italian formulation in the work of Marino Marini, Giacomo Manzù and Arturo Martini. Their elegant elongations, their intermittent presentation of the figure within an environment, the richness and care of their bronze casting, affect Baldessin’s earliest sculptural images. The elegant fruits of Cavalieres (pears and apples presented on a bronze plateau) are further elegant and surrealist sources of Baldessin’s imagery.13For Cavaliere see Henry Martin, ‘Nature Morta’, Art and Artists, March 1967, pp. 22–23; and Guido Balla, ‘Cavaliere’, Art and Artists, May 1971, pp. 60–61. His student background in Melbourne exposed him to the sculpture of the Centre Five Group: Vincas Jomantis and Teisutis Zikaras were lecturers in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology sculpture school, and they had worked with biomorphic imagery, with wood blossoming into totemic figures.14See individual entries, Ken Scarlett, op. cit. I have outlined the activity of the group (which was at its most important and cohesive at the time of Baldessin’s student days) in ‘Centre Five: A Note on a Decade of Activity’, in C. B. Christesen (ed ), The Gallery on Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 103–12. The elegance and artifice of Baldessin’s early style must have been further consolidated by the well-chosen Japanese prints brought by Tate Adams to the Crossley Gallery, Melbourne, in the late 1960s, and by Baldessin’s own visit to Japan in 1966. The female faces of Munakata, simultaneously modern and traditional, and the older ghost faces of Hokusai, add their strangeness and suavity to Baldessin’s configurations. 

His technical bravura may, in fact, have inhibited recognition of the tortured existence of the images he created – they are pushed with such apparent elegance into his visual world. Indeed, he himself resisted such readings, claiming that he did not understand why people found his imagery ugly.15Quoted from a 1965 taped interview transcribed in Ken Scarlett, op. cit., p. 30. Patrick McCaughey rightly insisted that ‘Mutilation, especially sexual mutilation, plays a disturbing part in the imagery of the early Baldessin prints’ (‘The Graphic Work of George Baldessin’, Art and Australia 7, 2, 1969, p. 158). His creative method was such that he had to avoid or repress conscious decisions and commitments to the source and meaning of his own imagery lest it fragment and fall apart, losing its internal cohesion and interchange. In his endeavour to keep that well-spring of imagery mysterious even to himself he is the opposite, again, of Tillers, itemising his visual dictionary. The very intricacies of Baldessin’s technical processes which are consciously elaborated and often involve collaboration at the print stage contrast with the private and unexamined formation of the images. 

Both Baldessin and Tillers are the first Australian-born generation of immigrant parents: Baldessin of Italian parents, Tillers of Latvian. Tillers is acutely aware of national differences, as his 1978 reminiscences of a Journey to Latvia show.16See cover, Survey 13, National Gallery of Victoria, 1980. Again, Baldessin avoids such ostensible connections. He also resists images that are identifiably Australian, although his connection with suburban imagery is a positive one and locally reinforced. His association with Melbourne artists – his colleagues at R.M.I.T., Les Kossatz and Jan Senbergs – assured his exposure, on the one hand, to beer cans and sheep imagery; on the other (in Senbergs), to factory and slag-heap vistas. Sliding spaces and disjunctions marked the work of these Melbourne artists, and the smoking chimneys and corrugated iron surfaces of Baldessin are close neighbours. 

Beyond the corrugations, Australian imagery plays no role, but Baldessin does, in fact, share common themes with older established artists who had worked in Melbourne.17Patrick McCaughey is surely right in stating that ‘Baldessin had surprisingly little to do with the Antipodean ethos’ (op. cit.), p. 153 Indeed he may well be said to be reacting against it. The strain of anxious fantasy shaped by the tradition of Surrealism has played a major part in local imagery since the 1940s, with Boyd’s persuasive metamorphoses, man into butterfly, man into animal; with the Alice in Wonderland world of Blackman and the early encounters with masks and jack-in-the-boxes in Perceval. The taxonomic drawing of Brack, particularly his female nude studies, is also a contribution to the strong vein of erotic metamorphosising that dwells in local art. 

Tillers is deliberately provincial, domesticating Heysen’s heroic gums, forcing northern trees to contemplate those of the south. His wayward video tape prepared for the 1980 Survey exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria offered an architectural tour of the artificial landscape of James Cook Island, with its rows of display homes.18Survey 13, colour video documentary made for the National Gallery of Victoria by Open Channel Production, Melbourne, 1980. As the camera films the rows of houses, the commentary offers a view of the street as a paradigm of art activity and art exhibiting: repetition mixed with a choice of individual garden styles and additional features. 

Such admixtures of the ordinary and the abstruse result in an inevitable sense of the artifice of art: this is a binding link between Tillers and Baldessin. The 1976 etching exchange was not a mere collision of disparate artists’ images, of the unlikely meeting of a formalist and a conceptualist. Rather does this integrated suite reveal the conjoining of two artists sharing a view of art, operating at a remove from nature, indulgent of its artificial code. The title of the series, According to Des Esseintes, neatly lettered on the fifth sheet, makes reference to that arch-decadent character of Huysmans’ novel, Au Rebours (Against Nature), concocted in 1884. The Surrealists extolled Huysmans among their pioneers in the 1920s, relishing his ennui exuded in the midst of his extravagant over-cultivated domestic mise-en-scène.19André Breton’s admiration for Huysmans is recorded in Najda (trans Richard Howard), Grove Press, New York, 1960, pp. 16–17, in which he notes his sympathy to its ‘ways of evaluation of the world’, ‘of choosing with all the partiality of despair among what exists’, and of the ‘dizzying array of forces which conspire together for our destruction’. According to des Esseintes also evokes the title of Jasper John’s works, According to what, painted in 1964 and including a portrait of Duchamp. See Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1977, p. 53. For Tillers, reading Huysmans in Paris, Des Esseintes revealed his identity as the model of De Selby, the hero of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, who suitably declares that ‘human existence [is] an hallucination’.20De Selby’s frontispiece quotation from The Third Policeman, Picador, London, 1974. 

For Baldessin any such literary reference would be necessarily indirect, an interruption to the free-visual flow of the image. Nevertheless, his residence in the realm of the artificial is evident. The very cultivation of the mirrored print betrays this. The role given in his work to the female figure is not too removed from the fate of the tortoise ordered by Des Esseintes: its shell was so jewel-encrusted that it collapsed and died beneath the burden. However elegant in their display, the Baldessin women are spike-haired, with eyes either sealed or unfocussed; they are like animals with flared nostrils. They are only indirect victims, for only the artificial emblems of the male infringe the pictorial spaces – flags, axes, the thyrsus of Bacchus mounted on a stick, symbolic of the absent torso.21The thyrsus, the emblem carried for Bacchus provides the etymology of the word torso, and its implications for the iconography of Baldessin are of interest, since it is, strictly speaking, the trunk of the human body devoid of head and limbs or a body left mutilated or unfinished. Cf. Baldessin’s Personage and Emblems, 1972, exhibited Print Council of Australia, 1973; and George Baldessin, Complete Etchings, Mornington, 1974 While awaiting the much needed catalogue raisonnée of the work, the invaluable compilation of the 1974 Mornington exhibition remains the main source. I am grateful to Tess Baldessin for showing me unexhibited works from the years 1976 to 1978. 

The literary reference that might seem to bind the five sheets and cohere some narrative must not, therefore, be taken literally. The first plate was undertaken as a single venture; then four more were planned. The enterprise was in the vein of the Surrealists’ favoured game of consequences – the famous Cadavre Exquisses that deliberately exercised coincidence and intuition.22See Marcel Jean, The Autobiography of Surrealism: The Documents of 20th Century Art, New York, 1980, pp. 221–22. 

The first sheet (fig. 2), with the upper plate ‘1Τ’, commenced by Tillers and then completed by Baldessin, introduces a stolid sorting table plundered by Tillers from Diderot. It stands darkly on thick trestle legs, served by a dry chute, and underpinned by a measuring scale that looks efficient, but in fact proposes that twelve feet and six feet are equal and therefore, no doubt, that measurements are coded and arbitrary. 

 

Baldessin has made the second entrance, opposing the stolid construction, lethargic and horizontal, with a poised light spring bottle opener, alert, anthropomorphic, light of touch and issuing smoke. The parameter of a containing room has been drawn in, binding this encounter of cork remover and sorting bed. Above the bed is a Baldessin window – a typically ragged affair, as tentative as the smoke. 

In the lower plate, ‘1B’, the initiative is Baldessin’s, arranging screens to receive a set of emblems. There are two layers: in the upper, the screen is dark, torn-ended, and protects the interpolated sorting bed of Tillers, moved down from the upper plate. The lower screen is more opulent and has captured a horizontal female, spreading her across two segments of the screen and showering her face with seed from the upper chute. The third and fourth segments of the screen, ominously inked, contain two emblems. They appear bringing references to earlier Baldessin prints and sculptures, particularly his flags, surrogates of the male presence.23Flag sculptures, some twelve feet high, were shown in a group exhibition in the grounds of Como, Melbourne, 1973 See the related etching, Emblems and chair, 1974, reproduced in Franz Kempf, Contemporary Australian Printmakers, Melbourne, 1976, p. 77. The last print, and the flag motive in general, suggest the importance of Paul Klee for Baldessin’s imagery. Cf. The well-known etching, Personage and striped dress of 1969, reproduced in McCaughey, op. cit , p 157; and Klee’s Actor’s mask, well-known as the cover illustration of Carola Giedion Welcker, Paul Klee, London, 1952. Klee early used emblems in his symbolist-derived etchings; cf. The senile phoenix, 1902, reproduced ibid , p. 13. On the blank segment of the screen Tillers has diligently outlined his equipment for the sorting bed (a rake and a spade), and has compounded the measure of the upper plate by doubling the first scale to read simultaneously twenty-four and forty-two feet. 

The second sheet (fig. 3) is the strongest in the sequence, clearly demonstrating both the collision and the sympathy of the two artists’ images. In the upper area Tillers, in response to Baldessin, has provided screens which are elevated above a floor level cluttered with instruments of measurement: dividers and chronometers. He has occupied the leaves of the screen to the extreme right and left, setting forth the blossoming of the bride. On the left side is the virgin, long-haired, riding Duchamp’s sex-machine equipment like a hobby horse. In the extreme right panel is a specimen tree, uprooted. Baldessin has the two central panels, counterposing the static end images with a torrent of smoke and an emblem spiked with a thrust of black spikes, sharp as a mechanised street-cleaning brush. 

In the lower plate Baldessin angles in a pair of thick blocks to receive the image, and imprints the left-hand area with a glowing pear, svelte and luxurious, touched by a notched paint brush, itself emblematic. The pear of Baldessin has been earlier sculpturally realised to five feet in height.24Eleven pears, five feet high, were shown in the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, 1972. Hinting at female figures, it is yet sleeker and more radiant. 

On the right side, on Baldessin-prepared ground, Tillers gives entrance to his armoured virgin, claw-handed, cumbersome in her machinery. She enters a courtyard through a gothic doorway, and the uprooted tree of the upper plate appears now securely and formally lodged in the ground. It can be concluded that the virgin now poses as the Duchampian androgyne: she is artificial and robot-like, meeting the tree that is blossoming, though ornamental and artificial. The encounter of tree and virgin is broached for Tillers by Octavio Paz in his study of Duchamp. Paz connects the medieval Provençal rites of ‘amorous servitude’ and ‘the value attributed to the contemplation of the naked female body’.25Octavio Paz, ‘Water Always Writes in Plural’, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, New York, 1978, pp. 158–59. Again the analogy between Baldessin and Tillers is present, if not overt. Both produce females sheathed in armour, barbarous, though naked in Baldessin, armour-plated in Tillers. Paz’s reflection within the context of his discussion of Duchamp – that ‘imperfection is built into man’s capacity to know and to see. Creatures of the third dimension, we live in penumbra and exist among appearances’26ibid., p. 172. – is even more pertinent to Baldessin than to Tillers. Certainly the transformation of virgin into tree, which Paz discusses, is one of the themes footnoted in Tillers’ Rendezvous with Configuration P.27Rendezvous with Configuration P, p. 28. Diana’s festival is invoked, and the bride granted entry not only to the castles of Provençe but to the forests of Heysen. Paz acclaims Diana as the ‘pivot of the world’.28Paz, op. cit., p. 177. Perversely, perhaps inevitably, it is the failure of meeting of the sexes that determines the encounters of both artists. 

In the third sheet (fig. 4) the actual courtship is played as if from some old-time movie starring Lenin. The two plates are the most conventional and story-telling. In the upper the bourgeois gentilhomme watches while a woman undresses behind a curtain. Her zip is attached to the Duchampian machinery which hovers like a helicopter. In the squares of windows to the left a Tillers’ audience watches. To the right Baldessin has filled a similar space with a smoking chimney. In the blank area below the movie, the top of a Baldessin chair rises and a thyrsus edges close to the hanging female machine. Tillers has provided the camera, suitably dual-lensed. The result of the brittle courtship of the upper plate is observed by a crowd drawn round a circular arena by Baldessin: large-faced, with slanted eyes that fail to focus on the event. In the grass of the arena the woman has fallen, now ‘stripped bare’. The man, still suited, stands coyly, dangling the virgin equipment as if it were a marionette. 

In the fourth sheet (fig. 5) Tillers has given the foreground plane to another ‘reproduction’ of Hans Heysen’s Summer, but there is a foreigner again in the bush: a peasant on a pack-donkey commandeered from the label of a camembert cheese. The Tillers–Heysen is presented like a billboard, with struts behind. Baldessin has added the most artificial of mountain ranges, three of his giant pears, netted behind the hoarding. This is a collision of signature imagery for both artists, moving artificially into the open air. 

In the lower plate Baldessin has set a table, as he has many times for his frustrated banquets ‘for no eating’. It is a generous expanse for Tillers to perform in. Below the table is a neat row of Baldessin emblems, dismounted from their sticks, and neatly shadowed as if they were rocks, mountains or noses, or the phallic tips removed from earlier emblems. On the tablecloth Tillers has assembled his artificial row of northern trees, twenty trees, five to a row. A cyclist makes a diminutive entrance onto the table, pedalling in à la Flann O’Brien and Duchamp. 

The penultimate encounter of the fifth sheet (fig. 6) demonstrates the sprezzatura, the flair of Baldessin beside the encyclopaedic tabulated references, strangely old-fashioned, of Tillers. The latter has set up his laboratory in the right-hand half of the top plate, enumerating his sources and his imagery, declaring its derivativeness. It is here that the title plate According to des Esseintes is lettered, reinvoking the inevitability of the artifice. 

Tillers’ laboratory is plundered: it directly quotes a wood engraving of 1891: Dr Varlot’s Invention, then recently featured in a Duchamp exhibition devoted to ‘bachelor machines’.29See Le Macchine Celibi/The Bachelor Machines, first presented at the Stedilikjk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1976, January 1977, and thereafter at selected European galleries: Harold Szeeman (ed.), Dr. Varlot’s Invention (catalogue, illustrated), Alfieri, 1975, p. 125. The alchemist figure standing by the sorting bed has been given Duchamp’s features, or rather the triple head of the multiple-exposed photograph that Victor Orsatz took of Duchamp in 1953. On the sorting bed the female tree-virgin figure has been captured and placed in a glass dome. The virgin equipment with its inbuilt phallic components slips from the table. Duchamp’s bicycle wheel on a stool lurks behind in the shadows, and Heysen reproductions lie on the floor. Against this medley Baldessin to the right flourishes his mask: the female face, frontal and hollow, is waved by mannerist, manicured hands. Thus Baldessin declares that all art is ‘at once surface and symbol’ and that behind the face is the mask.30I refer here to the symbolist philosophy of the mask, quoting Oscar Wilde and Paul Klee. See my Paul Klee: Faces and Figures, London, 1978, p. 15. 

Quite specifically the Tillers’ laboratory scene makes reference to the considerable, and often forced, literature on Duchamp and alchemy.31Cf. Arturo Schwarz, ‘The Alchemist Stripped Bare by the Bachelor Even’, in d’Harnoncourt and McShine (eds), op. cit., pp. 81 ff. The transformation of base metals into gold has been frequently seen as a metaphor sufficiently pertinent to describe the transformations affected by the artist himself. It is clear from the evanescence, from the volatility of Baldessin’s images that he desires the process of transformation. On another level, alchemy functions to clarify duality of the male and female that desirably might merge to create the perfect androgyne. The unsettling desires of sexuality may thus be cancelled: the display body of the Baldessin female and the Tillers’ Diana who must seek the safety of the forest are thus to be assuaged. 

In the lower plate, in an ersatz finish, Tillers effects one of his cultural shifts by centring a dancing Indian figure, multi-armed, performing within curtains curled back for her display. Around her wave Baldessin hands, flourishing their dry-pointed cuticles, but hiding their larger identities. The performance takes place above bits of plundered virgin equipment and four raised-up and labelled emblems referring methodically to the previous sheets, numbered 1T/1B to 4T/4B. 

It remains to ask how durable was this encounter, how singular the meeting on the etching plates? Did the artists touch but momentarily and then move to reconsolidate their very opposite paths? 

Tillers’ major expeditions in Paris are recorded in Rendezvous with Configuration P, which illustrates his library card for the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève where Duchamp worked, and his fortunate discovery of a Cycles Omnium postcard in a Parisian cycle shop on St Valentine’s Day, 1976.32Rendezvous with Configuration Ρ, p. 26. Thus he reconciles the bicycle fixations of De Selby and Duchamp, and reconfirms the durability of Omnium, which is described in The Third Policeman as ‘the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and … is always the same’.33The Third Policeman, p. 95. 

The re-quotation of Configurations and of the ‘coincidences’ in Paris in the 1981 Three Facts is sufficient demonstration of Tillers’ continuity during these years.34Three Facts, ‘What is Omnium?’, p. 95. The third section enumerates the Paris coincidences of 1976. His ironic victory in the McCaughey Prize held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981, traditionally given for an Australian-content painting and awarded to his out-of-focus painting of the church of San Francesco, Assisi, adapted from a badly-registered postcard, still attends to the relation of the real and the reproduced, the image and the idea. 

The tragic termination of George Baldessin’s career in 1978 limits through want of evidence the answer to the question. His intuitively formed vocabulary of the 1960s still richly furnished the etching series and revealed the essential unity of his practice, the surety of the surfacing of his imagery, and the after-care essential to the realisation of an intricate print. 

The principle series initiated by Baldessin in Paris was the Emblem series that also draws on an earlier theme. The thin stick with the top-heavy boulder attached is both neat and clumsy, rock-like and humanoid. In the Paris etchings the emblems are arranged in rows, and perhaps they reflect the taxonomy of Tillers and the relative dryness of scale. But set against ochre-inked backgrounds they find inevitable lyricism, and reflect dedicated care in their careful separation and their light existence against coloured ink. 

Mary Magdalene also found her identity in Baldessin’s work in the Paris year and became the main theme of a series of large dark drawings shown in his last one-man exhibition in Adelaide at the Bonython Gallery in 1978. Mary Magdalene took up the preferred horizontal position, arched across generous stretches of paper. She grew seductively into fur, neck heavy with erotic boa, lower body announcing a total fox-like metamorphosis. The hair shirt, her later penitential garb, seemed powerless to eradicate her earlier eroticism.35A psychoanalytical interpretation is inevitable: from the many commentaries possible consider Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (trans Alan Sheridan), Harmondsworth, 1979, p. 107: In the case of display, usually on the part of the male animal … the being gives of himself, or receives from the other, something that is like a mask, a double, an envelope, a thrown-off skin … The lure plays an essential function therefore … It is no doubt through the mediation of masks that the masculine and the feminine meet in the most acute, most intense way. 

The degree to which Baldessin offers not just a range of identifiable and fluent images but also a range of meanings near to the main stream of 20th-century conjecture is not yet fully understood. His skill as a senior craftsman clearly guided the suave production of According to des Esseintes. The Paris rendezvous of Tillers and Baldessin was a unique encounter that probed the similarity in opposites. 

Margaret Plant, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne (in 1982). 

Notes

1          More accurately, the meeting of Baldessin and Tillers took place on the way to Sao Paolo, at Nandi, Fiji. See Tillers, ‘Selected Meetings with Famous Artists’, Survey 13 (catalogue), National Gallery of Victoria, 1980. 

2          I have outlined the background of Melbourne printmaking in the 1960s in ‘Melbourne Printmakers’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973–74, pp. 27 ff. A spectrum of critical views of both the prints and the sculpture is given in Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors, Adelaide, 1980, pp. 28–34. 

3          For Tillers see ibid., pp. 643–46. The encounter with Christo is highlighted by Donald Brooke in ‘Imants Tillers and the Redefinition of Art in Australia’, Art and Australia 13, I, 1975, p. 54. 

4          Two versions on the original scale were exhibited at the Biennale of Sydney, 1979. 

5          52 Displacements, exhibited Walters Gallery, Sydney, 1979. 

6          This Attempting to be That, exhibited Realities Gallery, Melbourne, 1980. 

7          Tillers’ diagrammatic approach was displayed in his Enclosure for the Mildura triennale, Sculpturescape ’73, a work involving three tents and the artist’s personal movement of earth between them, with his activity accompanied by diagrams and notes on squared pages; see catalogue, pp. 78–79. See also the graph-paper commentary to Tillers’ contribution to the 1973 Object and Idea exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria. Marcel Duchamp’s devotion to a ‘dry style’ is well known. Surely influential in alerting Tillers to the potential of etching were Duchamp’s etchings after the Large Glass; see Anne d’Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine (eds), Marcel Duchamp, New York and Philadelphia, 1973, p. 310. 

8          Rendezvous with Configuration Ρ, prepared on etching plates with text included, was published by the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1978, with an introduction by Noel Sheridan. 

9          Three Facts, Double Vision, Melbourne, 1981; published in English and Chinese in three versions. 

10         Conversations with the bride is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Tillers himself has explained its genesis, structure and references in the catalogue, Sao Paolo, 1975. 

11         For Duchamp’s notes on the Pendu femelle see Arturo Schwarz (ed.). Notes and Projects for the Large Glass, London, 1969, p. 108. 

12         Planned in an edition of five, Occasional Images from a City Chamber in the Sao Paolo version is now in the National Collection, Canberra. The sculpture, Occasional screens with seating arrangement, is in the collection of the artist’s wife. 

13         For Cavaliere see Henry Martin, ‘Nature Morta’, Art and Artists, March 1967, pp. 22–23; and Guido Balla, ‘Cavaliere’, Art and Artists, May 1971, pp. 60–61. 

14         See individual entries, Ken Scarlett, op. cit. I have outlined the activity of the group (which was at its most important and cohesive at the time of Baldessin’s student days) in ‘Centre Five: A Note on a Decade of Activity’, in C. B. Christesen (ed ), The Gallery on Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 103–12.

15         Quoted from a 1965 taped interview transcribed in Ken Scarlett, op. cit., p. 30. Patrick McCaughey rightly insisted that ‘Mutilation, especially sexual mutilation, plays a disturbing part in the imagery of the early Baldessin prints’ (‘The Graphic Work of George Baldessin’, Art and Australia 7, 2, 1969, p. 158). 

16         See cover, Survey 13, National Gallery of Victoria, 1980. 

17         Patrick McCaughey is surely right in stating that ‘Baldessin had surprisingly little to do with the Antipodean ethos’ (op. cit.), p. 153 Indeed he may well be said to be reacting against it. 

18         Survey 13, colour video documentary made for the National Gallery of Victoria by Open Channel Production, Melbourne, 1980. 

19         André Breton’s admiration for Huysmans is recorded in Najda (trans Richard Howard), Grove Press, New York, 1960, pp. 16–17, in which he notes his sympathy to its ‘ways of evaluation of the world’, ‘of choosing with all the partiality of despair among what exists’, and of the ‘dizzying array of forces which conspire together for our destruction’. According to des Esseintes also evokes the title of Jasper John’s works, According to what, painted in 1964 and including a portrait of Duchamp. See Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1977, p. 53. 

20         De Selby’s frontispiece quotation from The Third Policeman, Picador, London, 1974. 

21         The thyrsus, the emblem carried for Bacchus provides the etymology of the word torso, and its implications for the iconography of Baldessin are of interest, since it is, strictly speaking, the trunk of the human body devoid of head and limbs or a body left mutilated or unfinished. Cf. Baldessin’s Personage and Emblems, 1972, exhibited Print Council of Australia, 1973; and George Baldessin, Complete Etchings, Mornington, 1974 While awaiting the much needed catalogue raisonnée of the work, the invaluable compilation of the 1974 Mornington exhibition remains the main source. I am grateful to Tess Baldessin for showing me unexhibited works from the years 1976 to 1978. 

22         See Marcel Jean, The Autobiography of Surrealism: The Documents of 20th Century Art, New York, 1980, pp. 221–22. 

23         Flag sculptures, some twelve feet high, were shown in a group exhibition in the grounds of Como, Melbourne, 1973 See the related etching, Emblems and chair, 1974, reproduced in Franz Kempf, Contemporary Australian Printmakers, Melbourne, 1976, p. 77. The last print, and the flag motive in general, suggest the importance of Paul Klee for Baldessin’s imagery. Cf. The well-known etching, Personage and striped dress of 1969, reproduced in McCaughey, op. cit , p 157; and Klee’s Actor’s mask, well-known as the cover illustration of Carola Giedion Welcker, Paul Klee, London, 1952. Klee early used emblems in his symbolist-derived etchings; cf. The senile phoenix, 1902, reproduced ibid , p. 13. 

24         Eleven pears, five feet high, were shown in the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, 1972. 

25         Octavio Paz, ‘Water Always Writes in Plural’, Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, New York, 1978, pp. 158–59. 

26         ibid., p. 172. 

27         Rendezvous with Configuration P, p. 28. 

28         Paz, op. cit., p. 177. 

29         See Le Macchine Celibi/The Bachelor Machines, first presented at the Stedilikjk Museum, Amsterdam, November 1976, January 1977, and thereafter at selected European galleries: Harold Szeeman (ed.), Dr. Varlot’s Invention (catalogue, illustrated), Alfieri, 1975, p. 125. 

30         I refer here to the symbolist philosophy of the mask, quoting Oscar Wilde and Paul Klee. See my Paul Klee: Faces and Figures, London, 1978, p. 15. 

31         Cf. Arturo Schwarz, ‘The Alchemist Stripped Bare by the Bachelor Even’, in d’Harnoncourt and McShine (eds), op. cit., pp. 81 ff. 

32         Rendezvous with Configuration Ρ, p. 26. 

33         The Third Policeman, p. 95. 

34         Three Facts, ‘What is Omnium?’, p. 95. The third section enumerates the Paris coincidences of 1976. 

35         A psychoanalytical interpretation is inevitable: from the many commentaries possible consider Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (trans Alan Sheridan), Harmondsworth, 1979, p. 107: In the case of display, usually on the part of the male animal … the being gives of himself, or receives from the other, something that is like a mask, a double, an envelope, a thrown-off skin … The lure plays an essential function therefore … It is no doubt through the mediation of masks that the masculine and the feminine meet in the most acute, most intense way.