In the Woollahra Library Saturday afternoon, worried when the next comet might strike, I fell upon a tome about Australian painting „between the wars“ (1)?
Answer… timid? Yes Australia was SLOW to catch the Modernist wave.
(Keywords: Wakelin, Cant, Mondrian. Refer relevant sites for images)
Sunday 23rd November 2014
Thus Roland Shakespeare Wakelin (1887-1971, died Rose Bay!) after an early brush with Impressionists burst forth with de Maistre in the color / music show soon after WW1, 1919, but that was pretty much it. He remained in touch with proto-Cubist flavors of Cezanne in particular, but from afar and had naught more to do with the ongoing Modernist wave. A good painter but derivative, restrained, despite visiting London 1922-24, ie age 35-37, and still young.
But James Montgomery Cant (1911-1982) is a far more interesting painter, and a find for me, not well known, a painter who keenly embraced the new dispensation. Not a giant, not a great innovator, but one who responded to he contemporary world and who kept moving.
He trained in Sydney in the 1920s with then well known names and in 1934, age only 23, dived into London where noted Sydney expat Roy de Maistre (who also worked with a young Francis Bacon) helped introduce him around. His art quickly reflected the later ‚Cubist‘ style of Braque and Picasso (eg in his „Merchants of Death“, 1938, Art Gallery of S Autralia), then 1936 he encountered the important International Surrealist exhibition in London, and was invited to join the British Surrealist Group the same year. He remained in the UK till war broke in 1939, and apparently exhibited alongside names like Ernst, Kandinsky, Miro and Picasso, eg at an important 1938 hanging in Gloucester.
Back in Australia he served his country 1941-44. He was ‚political‘ (joined the Communist Party in Australia c1945) and engaged with the world its and its hard times, thus his powerful – and prescient – Surrealist inspired „Returning Volunteer“ of 1938 (National Gallery of Australia) which from his Leftist stance may point to the Spanish Civil War.
After the war he shifted to „the more humanist and accessible imagery of social realism…. powerful works of Mexican muralists..” (2). He returned to London for 6 years, 1949-55, thence back to Adelaide and Sydney. His style, his approach did not stay still, all time responding to his changing life context, London or – later – the Australian bush.
What a refreshing change, for example, to that singular Dutchman Piet Mondrian who after an intriguing journey to abstraction by about the end of the First War then remained on the same straight and narrow path forever more, no portraits, still lives, landscapes, just rigorous abstraction within his own tight rules.
Time to feed the glowworms.
(1) EAGLE, Mary, PHIPPS, Jennifer, ed, Australian Modern Painting Between the Wars 1914-1939, Sydney: Bay Books, 1990.
PS: Pollock comes to the party, the same day.
And a view down the Stelvio, 28 May 2011, abstract pain.