fig. 1 <br/>
Yosl Bergner<br/>
b. Vienna 1920<br/>
<em>Two women</em> 1942 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
48.7 x 60.6 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented by Mr & Mrs I. Engelhard 1979 (A2-1979)<br/>

The violent vision of the 1940s


The artist must be … encouraged to speak freely in the ‘language’ which he feels is essential to him for his self-expression, and we must try to learn the language. 

John Reed, Melbourne, 1964 

One of the first acquisitions made by the National Gallery of Victoria soon after Patrick McCaughey took up the Directorship in 1981 was a group of six paintings by the Australian artist, Albert Tucker, and a single painting by Tucker’s contemporary, John Perceval.* All but two of the works dated from the 1940s – vitally important years in the history of Australian art, resulting in pictures marked by an intensity of passion. The protagonists, who lived and worked in the city of Melbourne, were Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. They discovered themselves as artists largely through an awareness of their immediate environment, yet their 1940s paintings have been conspicuously absent from the walls of the Melbourne gallery until recently. ‘Culturally, these years were the Dark Ages in Australia. No gallery would give the painters hanging space: they were terribly inhibited. They used to paint pictures and go and throw them under the house because there was nothing else to do with them.’1John Reed, Age, 6 December 1979. 

The only 1940s works acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria at the time they were painted, while Daryl Lindsay was Director, were a still life by the young Jewish migrant, Yosl Bergner, and a sympathetic, if uncertain, portrayal of a group of Aborigines by his friend, Jim Wigley. Both paintings were purchased in 1947 from funds donated by Allan Henderson, a Melbourne solicitor with a keen interest in contemporary art, who was appointed a Trustee of the Gallery two years earlier, even though the then-Premier of Victoria was nervous that he might ‘prove to be too modern’.2Quoted by Richard Haese in Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Allen Lane, Ringwood, Vic., 1981, p. 250. In 1947 Bergner and Wigley were rehabilitation students at the National Gallery’s School of Art; this was no doubt taken into account by the Trustees who seem to have leaned towards those who had done war service. 

By 1947 Yosl Bergner had painted and exhibited his grimmest and most arresting depictions of the plight of ghetto dwellers in Europe. Still life was a conservative acquisition. Sensing hostility to what he called his ‘social humanist’ paintings, and unable to get on with his teachers at the School of Art, Bergner left. Jim Wigley’s Dividing the fishes c.1947 came from his first one-man exhibition. Held at Tye’s Gallery, Melbourne, it comprised paintings of Aborigines completed during a six-month visit to the Daley River area of the Northern Territory. The artist was surprised by the Gallery’s purchase of the work, which has rarely, if ever, been displayed. 

Following these first tentative purchases, some thirty years elapsed before the next works of the 1940s entered the collection: in 1979 two Bergner paintings were presented – one by the artist. These were Two women 1942 (fig. 1) and Aborigines 1946 (fig. 2). Not until 1982, when Patrick McCaughey pointed out to the Trustees of the Gallery that the ‘one severe and glaring weakness’ of the Australian collection was its failure ‘to show almost entirely the generation of Melbourne art 1940, now commonly called the decade of Rebels and Precursors’,3Patrick McCaughey, Report to the Trustees, 25 May 1982. was an effort made to represent the period. The cost to the Gallery and to the Australian public of such conservatism, both financially – the Tucker/Perceval acquisition was in excess of a quarter of a million dollars – and in terms of building an exceptional collection, is to be regretted. Works from this innovative period in Melbourne art fetch high prices – $285,000 for Arthur Boyd’s Melbourne Burning 1946–47 at auction in 1985 – and rarely come on to the market. This makes it difficult for the late-starting National Gallery of Victoria to represent fully the group of artists who, at a low point in time, broke through the constraints of traditional painting to create a high moment in Australian art. The intensely provocative nature of the art – it expresses fear and hatred of society – probably explains its equally vehement rejection by critics, collectors and the city from which it sprang. Interestingly, recent acceptance of the art of the 1940s has coincided with a current revival, here and abroad, of expressionist painting. The question is: why did it all happen in Melbourne? 

fig. 2 <br/>
Yosl Bergner<br/>
<em>Aborigines</em> 1946 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
94 x 63.8 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented by the artist through Miss Ruth Bergner 1979 (A6-1979)<br/>

If in the 1930s the Gallery had ‘the air of a cultural backwater – an air as chilling as those waxy marbles of royalties which greet one in the vestibule and seem to sound the keynote of the whole institution’,4Basil Burdett, quoted by Haese, op. cit., p. 54. the city of Melbourne was greatly stirred at the end of the decade by an ‘Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art’ financed by the press magnate Sir Keith Murdoch for his Herald and Weekly Times and organised by the paper’s critic, Basil Burdett. During the same year arguments raged over the establishment of an Australian Academy of Art – an issue that divided the art world into two bitter camps: those who supported the conservative Academy and those who were for the Contemporary Art Society formed the year before. The press made much of the prolonged dispute; the opposing sides each holding well-attended exhibitions at the Melbourne Gallery. 

The outbreak of the Second World War – the first contingent of soldiers marched down Bourke Street late in 1939 – brought another kind of tension, and isolation from the world’s art at precisely the moment when awareness of art was high. Jobs were scarce, the depression was hardly over, and life, particularly for rebellious young painters, was tough, since dreary academic landscape was the art that was prized. The impulse by Nolan, Boyd, Tucker and Perceval to express through simplified forms their personal feelings and experiences, resulted in almost complete alienation from the community. 

The guiding lights of the new and telling trend in Melbourne painting were Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner, two migrant artists who arrived in the city during the 1930s. ‘I was overwhelmed by them’, says Tucker, ‘as carriers of another and totally different tradition.’5Interview with Jan Minchin, 3 April 1985. Informing the paintings of Vassilieff and Bergner was a consciousness of the dark expressive stream of European painting, found in the art of Munch and Koskoschka, van Gogh and Daumier. At first it was Arthur Boyd, a sensitive painter of impressionist landscapes, who responded to the raw expressiveness of Vassilieff and Bergner: ‘From about 1940–45 I did a group of paintings, imaginary poems … psychological or poetic fantasies perhaps.’6Quoted by Franz Phillip in Arthur Boyd, London, 1967, p. 31. Set mostly in South Melbourne these nightmarish canvases – fig. 3 is one – conceived during the war years, are littered with the maimed and the monstrous. Bizarre figures hobbling on crutches or chasing kites and butterflies – symbols of freedom – were a disturbing and dramatic breakway from his previous imagery. 

fig. 3 <br/>
Arthur Boyd<br/>
b. Australia 1920<br/>
<em>The cripples</em> 1943 <br/>
oil on muslin on cardboard <br/>
52.8 x 68.4 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented by the Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia 1981 (A24-1981)<br/>

Expressive tendencies soon appeared in the work of Tucker, Nolan, Perceval, Vic O’Connor and Noel Counihan – their hostile paintings placing them in opposition to the naturalism of the conservative Gallery School and to the emphasis on formal design evident in George Bell’s private school, situated on the corner of Bourke and Queen Streets. None of these young Melbourne artists had been outside Australia. They were restless, difficult students, discontented with the Gallery and its teaching – and vocal in their disapproval – who were forced by the depression and the second world war to fall back on their own resources. Directly influenced by Vassilieff and Bergner, they were convinced that greater emotional impact could be achieved by rejecting traditional skills and ideals. 

With the exception of Nolan’s bright Wimmera pictures – painted during the two years he spent contemplating the landscape while guarding army stores at Dimboola in north-western Victoria – the paintings of the young rebels are characterised by a heaviness of mood evoked through the predominance of black and red, colours symbolising violence and passion. Tucker’s Self portrait of 1945 (fig. 4) articulates anxiety and psychological stress; he spent the war working in plastic surgery units, drawing hideous wounds for medical records. Over the years Tucker has painted many self-portraits. In this, one of the best, he is straightforward, yet searching in his appraisal. 

fig. 4 <br/>
Albert Tucker<br/>
b. Australia 1914<br/>
<em>Self portrait</em> 1945 <br/>
oil on gauze on cardboard <br/>
75 x 60 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria 1982 (A2-1982)<br/>

John Brack was twenty-seven and a rehabilitation student with Bergner and Wigley at the Gallery’s Art School when he painted Cocking an ear to listen in 1947 (fig. 5). The war had interrupted his studies and he served with the A.I.F. for six years, finding no time to paint but thinking about art a great deal. Brack is not usually associated with the 1940s years of protest, but ‘when I became a painter after the war I was lopsided’, he has said, and like the others of his generation he experienced ‘black moods … they were pretty rough days’.7Age, 4 June 1983. Cocking an ear to listen is a startling self-portrait, executed at a time when Brack was unsure of himself and of the direction his art would follow. The ear, traditionally a symbol of wisdom – as a recipient of the word of God – is greatly exaggerated, straining to listen, in vain. This rare example of an intensely emotive response that the artist later distilled into a cool, intellectual and deliberate approach, came into the collection in 1983. 

fig. 5 <br/>
John Brack<br/>
b. Australia 1920<br/>
<em>Cocking an ear to listen</em> 1947 <br/>
oil on canvas <br/>
38.5 x 38.5 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased with the assistance of the National Gallery Society 1983 (A42-1983)<br/>

The anger and revulsion that Albert Tucker at times has felt for his fellow Australians, particularly women, appears in two pictures acquired in 1982. Sunbathers 1945 (fig. 6) and Night image no. 28 1946 depict aspects of St Kilda, once gracious, now a somewhat seedy inner bayside suburb of Melbourne where Tucker lived during the 1940s and to which he has now returned. The suburb’s pleasant beaches continue to attract crowds of sun-seekers, while shabby nearby streets have long been the haunt of prostitutes, drug peddlers and the down-and-out. By night or day St Kilda can fling up tough and ugly images which, in the 1940s, Tucker’s fertile imagination distorted into violent visions of ‘our country’. A far cry from the loved and familiar bush of Australia’s ‘Heidelberg’ painters, and bearing no resemblance to the refined pictures of the George Bell School where Melbourne’s modernist painters assembled in the 1930s, they illustrate a shift from the rarefied, artificial atmosphere of the studio to the human drama of real existence found on the streets of one’s neighbourhood. Tucker ventured into Bell’s school on a couple of occasions, but the impassivity of posed models held no attraction. In 1941, having discovered illustrations of the German Expressionists – Grosz, Beckman and Kokoschka – at the Public Library, he opted for an acrid personal expression found in Sunbathers, where human flesh is a repugnant mass. ‘I remember looking at jelly fish when I was walking along a beach’,8Quoted by James Mollison & Nicholas Bonham in Albert Tucker, South Melbourne, 1982, p. 38. Tucker has said. Combined with a stalk neck and scarlet mouth, at times parted into a horrible grin, this truncated form developed into a symbol of evil through which Tucker expressed his concern for the moral degradation of society in a numbered series of potent Night images. ‘At Luna Park [a fun fair at St Kilda] by the entrance there was a figure that screamed with mechanical laughter’,9loc. cit. says Tucker. The scream, and the painted lurid lips of street walkers, developed into the crescent-shaped mouths of his figures, and his persistent use of the symbolic crescent shape became an alarming feature of his work. 

fig. 6 <br/>
Albert Tucker<br/>
<em>Sunbathers</em> 1945 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
44 x 61 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria 1982 (A3-1982)<br/>

Tucker has often described himself as a puritan who was outraged by the ‘great old fun and games’ enjoyed by G.l.s, diggers and ‘schoolgirl tarts’ during the blackout in wartime Melbourne. Paradoxically, out of his repulsion came his most stridently original paintings. Self portrait of 1945 is more analytical – a contained melancholic image that echoes, through its dark tonalities and distorted facial features, the extreme intensity of the artist. 

John Perceval was just nineteen when he painted Survival 1942 (fig. 7) – creating what is probably the most monumental declaration of physical and mental suffering during this period. Depicting a mother and child traumatised and made ugly by poverty and starvation, this emotive work – larger in scale than most 1940s paintings – cries out against social injustice. 

fig. 7 <br/>
John Perceval<br/>
b. Australia 1923<br/>
<em>Survival</em> 1942 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
122 x 93.5 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria 1982 (A8-1982)<br/>


‘We believed that through our paintings we could change the world’, said Bergner.10Conversation with the author, 10 September 1985. It was a defiant idea that challenged the most admired qualities in Australian painting – naturalism and nationalism – and threatened established practices. 

To begin with, the 1940s generation of artists were mostly untrained – Gallery School drop-outs left to their own devices, who experimented with colour, pigment and painting surfaces. ‘There are one or two paintings that were cut 3 x 4s’, says Albert Tucker of his own work, ‘but all the rest were on odds and ends and scraps of masonite or cardboard, or whatever bits of canvas I might scrounge.’11Mollison & Bonham, op. cit., p. 38. Coming across a copy of Max Doerner’s treatise The Materials of the Artists and Their Use in Painting in Melbourne’s Public Library, Tucker recommended it to Noel Counihan, Arthur Boyd and Perceval. Bergner recalls that Tucker and Joy Hester showed him how to use ‘gum dammar … a quick-drying medium … very useful to an expressionist painter’.12Letter from Yosl Bergner to Max Joffe, 31 May 1984. 

Nolan used Ripolin, a French enamel house paint. Fast-drying and extremely fluid, it had to be applied quickly to a canvas or board lying flat. Such offhandedness, attacking the notion of ‘fine art’, was contrary to the traditional easel method of painting employed at the Gallery School and in the studio-schools of George Bell and Max Meldrum, but it gave Nolan’s paintings freshness and immediacy, the things he admired in Vassilieff’s work. ‘And in the end as with most things, one backs a hunch’, said Nolan,13Quoted by Bernard Smith in Australian Painting 1788–1970, London, 1971, p. 277. who has never been afraid to poke fun at stodginess or at those who would censure art. 

The vitality of Vassilieff’s painting, his impulsiveness and economy of means, was an inspiration to Nolan, Perceval, Tucker and Boyd. Woman with a white collar of 1946 (fig. 8), most likely a portrait of one of the women with whom Vassilieff had stormy affairs in the mid-40s, bears the marks of a wild approach: a thick brush, loaded with paint, slapped out a cruel image capturing the emotion of the moment. It is a raw work that stood little chance of being acquired by a Gallery whose Director had a penchant for the well-made. In the mid-40s Daryl Lindsay was collecting Australian landscapes by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers, as well as elegant Edwardian essays by the expatriates Rupert Bunny and Emanuel Phillips Fox. Those of an emotional newcomer to the country – and a Russian at that! – stood no chance. ‘The general standard of painting in Australia is not high’, he wrote in 1948, ‘—and certainly not as high as it was in certain periods of the past – and I doubt if it would be possible to purchase more than ten works that would weigh up to the standard required.’14Quoted by Leonard B. Cox in The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968: A Search for a Collection, Melbourne, 1970?, p. 202. 

fig. 8 <br/>
Danila Vassilieff<br/>
b. Russia 1897; d. Australia 1958<br/>
<em>Woman with a white collar</em> 1946 <br/>
oil on canvas on composition board <br/>
52.9 x 42 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented by the Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia 1981 (A67-1981)<br/>


The contemporary works that came into the collection during the 1940s were by George Bell and Arnold Shore, leaders of the Melbourne ‘moderns’, and by Russell Drysdale, William Dobell and Donald Friend, who were working in Sydney. Lindsay’s successor, Eric Westbrook, made enquiries about Vassilieff’s work in 1967, but was told by a curator that Vassilieff was ‘an interesting cove but the current attempt to make him a major artist and founding father must be discounted’.15Files of the National Gallery of Victoria. While Vassilieff’s work, apart from two small watercolours acquired in 1956, was ignored by this and other public galleries, its unexpected urban imagery stimulated Tucker and co. Vassilieff’s capacity to transform a depressed Fitzroy Street into a picture ‘almost as racily Australian as an epic of life by C. J. Dennis’16Basil Burdett, Herald, 16 September 1937. particularly impressed Nolan, and the drastically simplified outline and strong colour of Nolan’s Flour lumper, Dimboola and Railway guard, Dimboola, both painted in 1943, owe a debt to Vassilieff. In these works Nolan’s ‘naive’ style, as well as his method of working with fingers as well as brushes, was a deliberate break from a stultified academic tradition. Vassilieff’s scribbly child-like paintings of suburban streets**, painted in his uninhibited style, helped the inventive Nolan on his way. 

Quite apart from his paintings, it was the Russian’s commitment to his art that influenced the young artists who came into contact with him. Tucker met him in 1936 and ‘became very close’.17Quoted by Mollison & Bonham, op. cit., p. 26. Basil Burdett, the Herald’s modernist art critic, observed soon after that there was ‘something quite different, much more forceful, and waywardly individual about Tucker’s work’.18Herald, 26 April 1937. Inspired by the Cossack’s example, the desire to discover what art could be like if not restricted by academic practice or ‘gallery standards’ – a favourite phrase of Daryl Lindsay – if not created for a particular audience, resulted in new and unnerving visions of the Australian experience as the 1940s generation of artists struggled to establish styles relevant to their own time and place. 

Different in temperament and much younger than Vassilieff, the seventeen-year-old Polish Jew, Yosl Bergner, who arrived in Melbourne in 1937, shared the Russian’s attitude to painting. Bergner, too, used emphatic brush strokes to produce vivid images of suburban Melbourne, but his first years in the city were difficult and his pictures reflect his poverty and despair. With their haunting and pathetic images of outcasts and victims, they are some of the first ‘social realist’ works to be created in Australia. Influenced by van Gogh, Picasso and Daumier, they had a direct impact on Tucker, Boyd, and O’Connor.**

The six paintings Bergner presented to the Gallery in 1985*** were completed between 1939 and 1943. During these years stories of concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto – where Bergner lived prior to coming to Australia – filtered through to Melbourne, and he began to paint the persecution of the Jews and the suffering of refugees, the Aborigines and the urban poor. 

Aborigines 1946 was inspired by a news item that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald under the heading, ‘Chained Abos to Tree in Dead Heart’. When placed alongside The ghetto wall painted three years earlier, it shows Bergner connecting the plight of the Jew with that of the Aborigine in Australian society; for the lone Jew confined behind the barbed wire wall emerges as the imprisoned Aborigine on the right in the later picture. If the flame-coloured ghetto wall suggests the hellish nature of existence within the ghetto, so the dark palette, threatening sky and desolate landscape of Aborigines 1946 indicates the hostile environment and harsh existence of the Aborigines who, in this instance, were treated by a station manager as ‘chattels, not living beings’, for which he was fined £135 in the Oodnadatta Police Court. Father and child (fig. 9) and Father and sons (fig. 10), both c.1943, register distress. Works such as these from the Ghetto series, executed in Bergner’s typical restricted palette of blacks, cold whites, greys and faded red, made a deep impression on his contemporaries. They were exhibited, along with his Aboriginal works, at the time they were painted, Aborigines receiving some publicity in 1946. Often as not Bergner’s paintings were for sale. Occasionally, aware that depictions of Jewish loss and suffering would hardly ‘grace’ the walls of a domestic interior, Bergner showed, but did not attempt to sell, his pictures. After altercations with his instructors at the Art School, he did not expect interest from the Gallery.19Conversation with June Helmer, Tel Aviv, June 1984. 

fig. 9 <br/>
Yosl Bergner<br/>
<em>Father and child</em> c.1943 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
67.3 x 61 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Mr Yosl Bergner, Founder Benefactor 1985 (A6-1985)<br/>

fig. 10 <br/>
Yosl Bergner<br/>
<em>Father and sons</em> c.1943 <br/>
oil on composition board <br/>
48 x 39 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by Mr Yosl Bergner, Founder Benefactor 1985 (A7-1985)<br/>

Counihan knew that his work would not be acquired. He maintains he was black-listed by Lindsay for being a communist, but admits to ‘trying to reach as wide an audience as possible’20Interview with Jan Minchin, 1 April 1985. with provocative political paintings like Tribute to the Red Army 1942, which he presented to the Gallery in 1985. Originally titled Tribute to Stalingrad, and one of a series on fascism, the picture was painted in 1942 in a condemned building in Russell Street where he rented a room for 2/6 a week. The immense suffering of the civilian victims of this particular violence was much reported in the Australian press. ‘Stalingrad’, Counihan says, ‘had become part of everybody’s life.’21loc. cit. Tribute, along with the better and more widely known The new order 1942 (Australian National Gallery, Canberra), was shown in the ‘Anti-Fascist Exhibition’ at the Athenaeum Gallery in December 1942. Not long afterwards Counihan destroyed most of his political pictures, wanting to give more ‘flesh and blood’ to his imagery. He kept Tribute to the Red Army because its bald account of the march of the firing squad recalled his youthful protest against German atrocities. 

No matter how interesting a painting in terms of its element of communist propaganda, Tribute to the Red Army lacks the fire of an art wrought from human experience. At the corner of Nightingale Street 1943 (fig. 11), possesses all the marks of a deeply felt painting. This work, recently acquired by the Statewide Building Society for its growing collection of Australian art, is on loan to the Gallery which was unable to find the funds to purchase the painting when it came on to the market late in 1984. The picture was painted while Counihan was living in Wavenhoe Avenue, East St Kilda. Well acquainted with the character of nearby Nightingale Street where ‘working class cottages huddled together’, he was taken by the irony of its rich-sounding name, using it as the setting for his sympathetic portrayal of local neighbourhood people, many of whom were unemployed and struggling. 

fig. 11 <br/>
Noel Counihan<br/>
b. Australia 1913 <br/>
<em>At the corner of Nightingale Street</em> 1944 <br/>
oil on canvas <br/>
58.5 x 50.5 cm <br/>
Statewide Building Society<br/>

Images of women, often victims of abuse, have slid in and out of Counihan’s art. Some, like the emaciated seated figure of In the Waiting Room 1943 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), have remained fixed in the memory of the viewer. The ‘Nightingale’ women, too, are unforgettable: one burdened with children; the other sagging with age, yet enduring. The condition and place in society of the ‘old woman’ is important to Counihan: ‘My mother was the first real victim. She was the woman beaten around the house.’22loc. cit. Such was the raw material from which he fashioned paintings in 1943–44. Drawing on vivid memories of the depression, they are, in his words, ‘rich in human and social content’; accompanied by a lively palette and firm, almost caressing brushstrokes, they voice compassion for those less fortunate, at a time when he was without means. 

The Gallery evinced no interest in either Counihan’s outrightly political pictures or his depictions of human injustice and suffering. A Melbourne couple, John and Sunday Reed of Heide, patrons and collectors of contemporary art during the 1940s, were the earliest purchasers of his work when in 1941 they bought Pregnant woman (Heide Park and Art Gallery). 

In the 1950s, and with a change of Directorship, it became apparent that, in the field of Australian art the buying policy of the Gallery took account of contemporary art but still precluded the purchase of social realist and expressionist paintings of the previous decade. Funds were low, but acquisitions included works by the older established artists Roland Wakelin, Lloyd Rees and Dobell, and by the widely admired painter of the outback, Russell Drysdale. Ironically emphasis was still given to collecting the work of Sydney painters during this decade. The stylishness of Justin O’Brien and Donald Friend was appealing, while Drysdale’s ordered world and ‘old master’ technique had the finish admired by a general public. 

Over what the Melbourne art dealer, Georges Mora, describes as a memorable lunch at Florentino’s restaurant, a group of Melbourne businessmen decided to do something about the Gallery’s conservatism by establishing a Museum of Modern Art, the main objectives being to create an awareness of the work of living artists and to stimulate experiment in art and design. John Reed, a solicitor and collector was appointed Director, and Kurt Geiger, a retail businessman, became the first Chairman. The Museum of Modern Art† of Australia (MOMAD), Tavistock Place, Melbourne, came into being on 12 May 1958 with an exhibition of paintings by Leonard French. Financed mainly through subscription and fund-raising activities, the Museum’s strength was revealed in September 1958 when its permanent collection was first exhibited. The core of the collection – some 163 paintings and drawings – had been donated by John and Sunday Reed. Gathered together over thirty years, the Reeds’ collection included important early paintings by Tucker, Boyd, Perceval and Vassilieff, as well as Nolan’s entire Ned Kelly series 1946–47. The emerging painters of the 1950s – Charles Blackman, Robert Dickerson, John Brack and Fred Williams – were also represented. 

Behind the scenes, the Director and governing council of MOMAD experienced opposition from the Gallery. John Reed and Eric Westbrook had an uneasy relationship – Reed frequently and publicly criticising the Gallery for what he saw as its inability to purchase or display contemporary art. The new Gallery, to be sited in St Kilda Road, was on the planning board, and Westbrook and Reed found themselves competing for funding. As Georges Mora, a member of the council of the Museum recalls: ‘it was more glamorous to support the new National Gallery of Victoria’.23Interview with Jan Minchin, 18 April 1985. Losing the financial support of some of its original backers, MOMAD was forced to close in 1966. 

During the eight years of its operation, the Museum maintained a lively program of changing exhibitions, whilst adding to its permanent collection. It also effectively relieved the Gallery from the responsibility of collecting a body of work by the artists who made the first major advance in Australian art since the early paintings of the Heidelberg School. Interestingly, the Gallery was not loath to borrow works from the Museum, when the time came, in 1962, to acknowledge officially that a vital movement in art had occurred in Melbourne two decades before. Nolan, Boyd, Tucker, Perceval, Bergner and Vassilieff were all represented in the now historic exhibition, ‘Rebels and Precursors: Aspects of Painting in Melbourne 1937–1947’, held at the old National Gallery in Swanston Street. 

The idea for the show was conceived by Tucker who, arriving back in Melbourne in 1960 after an absence of fifteen years abroad, was horrified to discover that a whole generation of painters had been neglected. By 1960 his work had been accepted in Europe and the United States, where he was represented in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In Australia only MOMAD had acquired his work, and this museum had also organised an Australia-wide exhibition of his paintings following his return to the country. The press and the public showed considerable interest in the wayward artist who had made good abroad, and Eric Westbrook eagerly took up the idea to present the ‘work of six painters working in Melbourne between 1937 and 1947’.24Rebels and Precursors: Aspects of Painting in Melbourne 1937–1947, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1962, p. 3. Given carte blanche by Westbrook in the selection of paintings, Tucker gathered together a large show of 180 works. They were borrowed from John and Sunday Reed, MOMAD, the artists, and private collections. A large number of important works, including Nolan’s ‘St Kilda paintings’ and Tucker’s ‘Images of Modern Evil’ were available for purchase had the Gallery expressed interest. ‘It was not mentioned’, Tucker recalls.25Interview with Jan Minchin, 18 April 1985. Twenty years after what was now officially seen as a movement, and despite the fact that the introduction to the catalogue of the ‘Rebels and Precursors’ exhibition stated that ‘Nolan, Tucker and now Boyd have placed Australian art in an international dimension, Bergner has become a leading painter in Israel and Perceval (soon to go overseas), has established an Australian reputation’,26Rebels and Precursors, p. 6. the Gallery refrained from acquiring works. Given that the exhibition had little impact on the general public, the Gallery’s caution was understandable. Poor publicity and scanty reviews indicated that Melbourne was not yet ready to accept paintings that, in the words of the Sun reviewer, ‘have an extraordinary fund of white-hot emotion’.277 August 1962, p. 18. 

With the closure of MOMAD, the Gallery lost yet another opportunity when the paintings originally belonging to John and Sunday Reed were returned to them. Because of their poor relationship with the Gallery, the Reeds eventually made a gift of Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly Series 1946–47’ to the Australian National Gallery, Canberra. Other works, together with the Reeds’ house and garden, were purchased by the State Government of Victoria as the core collection of the Heide Park and Art Gallery. When John and Sunday Reed died in 1981, most of their remaining paintings went to Heide Park and Art Gallery. 

The residue of works from the defunct Museum were stored, at the request of the Museum Council, in crates in the basement of the old National Gallery in Swanston Street, in the hope that the Museum would one day reopen. In 1968 the crates were transferred to the new basement of the present Gallery. Not until 1981 did these works formally enter the collection. As a result Arthur Boyd’s The cripples 1943 (fig. 3) and a number of Danila Vassilieff’s works, including Woman with a white collar, came to light. Requiring some restoration, Woman with a white collar is yet to be displayed. 

During the 1970s the Australian National Gallery concentrated on acquiring a representative group of works from the 1940s, adding Tucker’s 1943–47 series of ‘Images of Modern Evil’ to its collection. In 1974 Nolan presented to the Art Gallery of South Australia a group of works painted in and around St Kilda during the 1940s. Projecting an inner anguish, they run counter to the unsullied brightness of his Wimmera series that revivified the Australian landscape tradition, and were presented by the artist to the Melbourne Gallery in 1983. 

It is highly unlikely that the Gallery will ever be able to represent the 1940s years of revolt to the same extent that it covers the two other great moments in Australian art that occurred in Melbourne: the golden era of the Heidelberg School, and the Antipodean protest of 1959. The painstaking task ahead is to extend the existing collection as works come on to the market so that, in the words of the present Director, ‘there will never again be a generation of students and gallery goers who can grow up innocent of that great innovative period in Melbourne art’.28McCaughey, op. cit., 25 May 1982. 

Jan Minchin, Curator of 20th Century Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1986).


* Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria 1982. 

** There are none in the collection. 

*** Through The Art Foundation of Victoria 

† The words ‘and Design’ were added in 1963. 

1          John Reed, Age, 6 December 1979. 

2          Quoted by Richard Haese in Rebels and Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Allen Lane, Ringwood, Vic., 1981, p. 250. 

3          Patrick McCaughey, Report to the Trustees, 25 May 1982. 

4          Basil Burdett, quoted by Haese, op. cit., p. 54. 

5          Interview with Jan Minchin, 3 April 1985. 

6          Quoted by Franz Phillip in Arthur Boyd, London, 1967, p. 31. 

7          Age, 4 June 1983. 

8          Quoted by James Mollison & Nicholas Bonham in Albert Tucker, South Melbourne, 1982, p. 38. 

9          loc. cit. 

10        Conversation with the author, 10 September 1985. 

11        Mollison & Bonham, op. cit., p. 38. 

12        Letter from Yosl Bergner to Max Joffe, 31 May 1984. 

13        Quoted by Bernard Smith in Australian Painting 1788–1970, London, 1971, p. 277. 

14        Quoted by Leonard B. Cox in The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968: A Search for a Collection, Melbourne, 1970?, p. 202. 

15        Files of the National Gallery of Victoria. 

16        Basil Burdett, Herald, 16 September 1937. 

17        Quoted by Mollison & Bonham, op. cit., p. 26. 

18        Herald, 26 April 1937. 

19        Conversation with June Helmer, Tel Aviv, June 1984. 

20        Interview with Jan Minchin, 1 April 1985. 

21        loc. cit. 

22        loc. cit. 

23        Interview with Jan Minchin, 18 April 1985. 

24        Rebels and Precursors: Aspects of Painting in Melbourne 1937–1947, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1962, p. 3. 

25        Interview with Jan Minchin, 18 April 1985. 

26        Rebels and Precursors, p. 6. 

27        7 August 1962, p. 18. 

28        McCaughey, op. cit., 25 May 1982.