Books Australia

Australian art in the Roaring Twenties

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

3 July 2021

9:00 AM

For the Fallen: The 1921-1922 Melbourne Public Library Mural Competition within the setting of Decorative Painting in Australian Art Dr Paul Paffen

Australian Scholarly Publishing/National Gallery of Australia, pp.452, $150.00

The only criticism that can be levelled at For the Fallen by Paul Paffen is that it lacks the hard cover it deserves. Beautifully illustrated, clearly written, meticulously researched and, although focussed upon a Mural Competition in Melbourne in 1921-1922, this book is a history of Australian art in the first quarter century of the new nation. As with most art and architectural competitions, it aroused as much controversy as it did interest.

The release of the book is timely, coinciding with that annual Sydney stunt called the Archibald Prize competition. Christopher Allen (Australian, 19 June 2021) wrote of the accompanying exhibition of portraits of contestants in the preceding 100 years as having the virtue of not having been ‘assembled by businessmen and socialites’. The centenary exhibition includes the work of several of the artists whom Dr Paffen discusses in For the Fallen. The stunt will no doubt attract, as it always does, a flood of tourists and connoisseurs from as far afield as Wollongong and Woolloomooloo.

Dr Paffen skilfully manages to bring to a confluence several streams running through Australian art at the time, the Federation Movement, patriotism, nationalism, the empire and universal mourning for the casualties of the first world war.

Immense research has gone into this work. It would require some hours in the copious notes, appendices and index to the book to appreciate fully all of the primary and other sources which inform every page of the book. Dr Paffen discusses an earlier project for a mural, a decoration of the interior of Australia House to be built at the heart of the Empire, on the Strand in London. Australian artists and sculptors were asked in 1914 to express interest in undertaking the work. Not surprisingly, the Commonwealth government in Melbourne was to send a cablegram to the High Commissioner in London on 14 September 1914, saying that the competition had been postponed indefinitely. Dr Paffen has unearthed that cablegram and the list of fifty or so artists who felt sufficiently well-known and self-confident to put their names forward. The list included about twenty women, each of whom had a story to tell and most of whom were studying or painting in England or Europe at the time.

One was a Brisbane woman, Elizabeth Dickson Gibson, ‘Bessie’, the subject of a monograph by Dr Nancy Underhill, published by the University of Queensland in association with a belated retrospective of Gibson’s work in 1978.  Her story is that in about 1908, her father allowed her to study and paint in Europe on condition she came home after three years. Bessie returned in 1948. The late Jim Wieneke, a Brisbane gallerist and, for a time a reluctant director of the Queensland Art Gallery told that he met her in that year, a frail, modest and elegant lady, fluent in French of course, who had been delighted to discover, when she had returned from England to pack up her small apartment in Paris, that her dust-covered furniture and studio had been undisturbed during the Nazi occupation. She and her Brisbane friend, Alison Greene, studied under an American painter Edwin Scott, who lived in Paris in the period and whose paintings are sometimes difficult to distinguish from Greene’s or Gibson’s. It was no doubt difficult for women to enjoy recognition as painters then, but it was the same for many men who deserved better, but lived in poverty and obscurity.

For the Fallen is divided into 27 chapters. Topics as diverse as Artists in Conflict (War Artists), the 1924-1925 Wembley British Empire Exhibition, and Lindsay Bernard Hall – A Discriminating Man, are given a number of pages.  Many of the artists referred to are little mentioned today, for example Walter Rowbotham, Clewin Harcourt, Frank Crozier, William Longstaff, C. A. Baker, James Quinn, George Dancy, Fred Leist, George Benson, Geroge Coates, his wife Dora Meeson, Charles Wheeler who is given a full chapter, Web Gilbert, and John Longstaff. They were all-rounders, portraitists, landscapists, still lifers, and narrators in charcoal, bronze and paint. Especially poignant is the story of Hilda Rix Nicholas, married to Major Nicholas on 7 October 1916 and widowed on 14 November 1916, when her husband fell on the Western Front, winning a posthumous DSO in doing so.

Her preparatory oil sketches for the competition (reproduced in the book) show an officer, arms outflung, as he falls on the battlefield. Paffen quotes correspondence from Bernard Hall who encouraged her to enter the competition and caused its closing date to be extended to enable not only her, but also George Lambert (the favourite) to enter.

More famous Australian artists, such as Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Bunny, are all given appropriate attention. Their humanity, their friendships and rivalries are brought to life in letters between them and about them. Jim Wieneke told a story that Lambert had once tried to get into a taxi cab after Dame Nellie Melba in London had called it, only to be rejected by the great diva’s injunction, ‘—- off, Red.’ Her favoured artist was Hans Heysen, whom she promoted whenever she could.

The conditions for entry into the Mural Competition were onerous. None of the entrants fully complied with them. In the event, the New Zealand-born artist Septimus Power was commissioned to undertake the mural for a sum of one thousand pounds, which would have been the prize money for a compliant winner. As good a painter as Power may have been, his preparatory studies were conventional and predictably included sketches of Australian Imperial Cameleers in Palestine, rather repetitive of his more famous and rather grand painting of the Camel Corps at Magdhaba now located in the Australian War Memorial.

The two great Australian influencers of the period, Medrum and Hall, may have had their theories about art, as did many post-1945, New York Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, Pop artists and painters of other isms satirised in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, a book, which, together with For the Fallen should be compulsory reading in art schools and by curators of public galleries. It is to be hoped that Dr Paffen’s work will go some way to restoring the reputations of many forgotten Australian artists of whom he has written movingly and learnedly.

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Ian Callinan is the author of two novels set in the art world, The Missing Masterpiece and The Russian Master.

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