OVER­STATED EVIL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

EARLY last year, Heide Mu­seum pre­sented an ex­hi­bi­tion de­voted to the theme of cu­bism in Aus­tralian art, which was re­viewed in this col­umn. It was a valu­able op­por­tu­nity, as I noted at the time, to sur­vey a theme that was clearly an im­por­tant one, al­though not easy to pin down be­cause Aus­tralian artists tended to en­counter cu­bism as some­thing that had al­ready hap­pened, had al­ready turned into a new kind of aca­demi­cism or was ret­ro­spec­tively un­der­stood as an im­por­tant mo­ment in mod­ernism.

That ex­hi­bi­tion was put to­gether by Les­ley Hard­ing and Sue Cramer, and this year it is once again Hard­ing who re­con­sti­tutes an­other, if smaller, jig­saw puz­zle of Aus­tralian art his­tory: the se­ries of pic­tures painted by Al­bert Tucker dur­ing the war years and col­lec­tively en­ti­tled Im­ages of Mod­ern Evil. We have all seen in­di­vid­ual pic­tures from the se­ries in museums, col­lec­tions and ex­hi­bi­tions, but we have never had the whole lot in one place.

Tucker is usu­ally re­garded as one of a small num­ber of par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant Aus­tralian artists who came to promi­nence dur­ing the years of World War II and gained ad­di­tional im­por­tance through the crit­i­cal mass of be­long­ing to a group and be­ing associated with im­por­tant pa­trons and an in­flu­en­tial pub­li­ca­tion.

Tucker was per­son­ally spon­sored by the wealthy John and Sun­day Reed — John was a so­lic­i­tor from a landed fam­ily in Tas­ma­nia and Sun­day came from the Bail­lieu Myer fam­ily — who built the orig­i­nal house at Heide in the sub­urbs of Mel­bourne. The mu­seum in which Tucker’s work is now dis­played is thus in the grounds of a prop­erty that played a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant role in his ca­reer.

In the Reed cir­cle, Tucker was in­volved with other fig­ures of the time, in­clud­ing Sid­ney Nolan, who was Sun­day’s lover and then left her to marry John’s sis­ter — even more bizarrely in­ces­tu­ous when you re­alise that Cyn­thia was a large horsey woman who looked very much like John — and Max Har­ris, the poet and edi­tor of An­gry Pen­guins, the mag­a­zine co-pub­lished by John and to which Tucker con­trib­uted writ­ings as well as the cover de­sign that is in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

An­gry Pen­guins be­came the fo­rum for new writ­ing and artis­tic and so­cial de­bate in these years, of­ten deal­ing with the fa­mil­iar mis­match of that time be­tween com­mu­nism and avant-garde art. At var­i­ous points in the 20th cen­tury many avant-gardists, es­pe­cially the sur­re­al­ists, liked to imag­ine their rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­ject was par­al­lel to that of the Marx­ists, but it in­evitably turned out to be quite dif­fer­ent and in fact en­tirely in­com­pat­i­ble. To make mat­ters worse, the com­mu­nists ad­hered to a so­cial re­al­ist style that was the an­tithe­sis of avant-garde ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

Tucker him­self tried to es­tab­lish a po­si­tion some­where be­tween the two com­pet­ing ten­den­cies, some­thing Chris McAuliffe touches on in an in­trigu­ing dis­cus­sion of his paint­ing Vic­tory Girls, a work re­lated to but not strictly part of the Im­ages se­ries. Ear­lier works such as Spring in Fitzroy (1941) adapt an ex­pres­sion­ist style to a so­cial re­al­ist sub­ject, while The Fu­tile City (1940) is a sur­re­al­ist re­sponse to T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), one of the most in­flu­en­tial writ­ings of the 20th cen­tury.

Painted af­ter trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences work­ing in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal for shell-shocked sol­diers — Tucker rep­re­sented a state of hys­ter­i­cal break­down in The Pos­sessed (1942) — the Im­ages of Mod­ern Evil se­ries may be con­sid­ered as an at­tempt to deal with con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety in a mod­ernist style, as well as a means of es­cap­ing from his own per­sonal stresses.

But ret­ro­spec­tives can be a two-edged sword. Some artists emerge as greater than we had re­alised when their oeu­vre is brought to­gether, but oth­ers are di­min­ished. Weak­nesses that were for­given when dis­cov­ered once or twice turn out to be ha­bit­ual; im­ages seen for the first time as strik­ing are re­vealed as re­peated ad nau­seam. In­stead of adding up, the oeu­vre starts to sub­tract from it­self, to shrink be­fore our eyes.

In the present case, there are a cou­ple of pic­tures that are re­mark­able, for all the reser­va­tions that will be dis­cussed be­low. The most mem­o­rable, Im­age of Mod­ern Evil 24 (1945), shows a pros­ti­tute on a bal­cony scour­ing the noc­tur­nal street be­low for clients or, as Tucker imag­ines it, vic­tims — who, as we shall see, are hap­less Dig­gers on leave from the front.

The woman has been re­duced to a hi­ero­glyph (Tucker used the word him­self) of fe­male pre­da­tion: a sin­gle huge round eye, lid­less and un­blink­ing but fringed with ex­trav­a­gant eye­lashes — she is a Cy­clops like the one who im­pris­ons and de­vours Odysseus’s men — a broad red scim­i­tar of a mouth, to at­tract and to cas­trate or kill, and a pair of veiled breasts on an arm­less torso.

One would ex­pect to find some other im­ages as re­solved as this one, but per­haps, con­sid­er­ing the date, the bal­cony pic­ture is some­thing of a ret­ro­spec­tive syn­the­sis. In any case it is the only one in the se­ries — with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Spring in Fitzroy (1943) — in which Tucker man­ages to achieve such con­cen­tra­tion or fo­cus, com­bined with the de­tach­ment that al­lows the im­age to achieve a durable for­mal au­ton­omy.

We search in vain for an­other com­po­si­tion with the same clar­ity and meet, in­stead, with end­less rep­e­ti­tion. There is an in­ter­est­ing quote from the artist in one of the es­says, where he ad­mits he can’t get go­ing on a pic­ture un­less he puts in the scim­i­tar mouth, then all the rest flows like au­to­matic writ­ing. Tucker ap­pears, in­deed, to have had lit­tle imag­i­na­tion and doesn’t re­ally know what to do with his one-eyed tor­sos other than to scat­ter them around the street to be run over by trams, or have them float­ing in the air like bal­loons or gather­ing un­der a street lamp like moths.

The pic­tures are not notable for their painterly qual­i­ties ei­ther. The truth is Tucker never had the kind of mas­tery of his medium, or feel­ing for it, that could al­low him to use com­po­si­tion, line, colour or tone in a po­etic,

sug­ges­tive or even in­her­ently in­ter­est­ing man­ner. Through­out his ca­reer, one feels that var­i­ous ar­bi­trary for­mu­las (like the ex­cru­ci­at­ingly corny pro­files of the later ex­plorer paint­ings) are be­ing su­per­im­posed on to a ba­si­cally pedes­trian style.

As for the Im­ages, how­ever much one earnestly at­tempts to di­vert at­ten­tion from its sub­ject to its for­mal qual­i­ties, cit­ing the in­flu­ence of Pi­casso and oth­ers, the se­ries re­mains inescapably de­fined by a re­lent­less, if not ob­ses­sive, ham­mer­ing of the same theme, which is the moral degra­da­tion of wartime vice.

Pros­ti­tutes prey­ing on shell-shocked Dig­gers home on leave from the front are, as we have seen, Tucker’s spe­cial pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, the for­mer imag­ined as amoral par­a­sites, the lat­ter as drunken oafs, sprawled on the pave­ment, faces crushed in im­be­cilic grins, worn-out boots thrust into the fore­ground. Male and fe­male fig­ures of­ten have the up­turned, pig-snout nose that was one of Tucker’s hi­ero­glyphs of loathing.

The squalid or­gies of the sol­dier and the whore, one of his­tory’s peren­ni­ally re­cur­ring themes, ev­i­dently of­fended Tucker deeply, but it is hard to see why what might in­spire mo­men­tary dis­gust or pity in any­one else turned, in his case, into some­thing like a re­cur­rent night­mare. Per­haps it touched on some pri­vate wound, like the in­fi­deli­ties of his wife, ex­ac­er­bat­ing an al­ready deep and an­gry strain of pu­ri­tanism.

Even so, it is im­pos­si­ble to over­look the

dis­pro­por­tion, in­deed the ab­sur­dity, of tak­ing these char­ac­ters as em­blem­atic of some­thing called Mod­ern Evil. Per­haps the Dig­gers have been fleeced of their mea­gre pay in the dives of wartime Mel­bourne, but this hardly com­pares with what they were suf­fer­ing at the front. And World War II of­fers ex­am­ples too nu­mer­ous and ob­vi­ous to men­tion of real, un­speak­able and un­fath­omable evil.

Be­yond this, there is a still more fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple. It is sym­pa­thy and moral un­der­stand­ing that make good art, not anger and moral­is­ing. Tucker of all peo­ple should have had some feel­ing for the suf­fer­ings of the sol­diers he had known at the Hei­del­berg mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in 1942. The attitude he takes to the Dig­gers on leave is lamentably im­ma­ture and self-in­dul­gent.

And what of the pros­ti­tutes? There is also room for sym­pa­thy for this peren­nial ac­tiv­ity to which women may be led for rea­sons some­times com­plex and some­times all too sim­ple. The early Chris­tians thought lust was the prin­ci­pal drive of the mere­trix, and to­day it is of­ten the need for drugs. But there are also van­ity, lazi­ness, weak­ness of char­ac­ter, de­sire for wealth, love of abase­ment and even plea­sure in serv­ing or car­ing when the choice is free, and abuse, ex­ploita­tion and des­per­ate poverty when it is not.

Baude­laire, who speaks in the po­ems of Les fleurs du mal of the dark and preda­tory fig­ure of the pros­ti­tute far more elo­quently than Tucker, is also ca­pa­ble of imagining them in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent light. Among his pri­vate jour­nal notes is a pas­sage in which he imag­ines the pros­ti­tute — in a para­dox­i­cal per­spec­tive con­ceiv­able only to one steeped in Catholic spir­i­tu­al­ity — as the em­bod­i­ment of the the­o­log­i­cal virtue of char­ity: as one who gives and sac­ri­fices her­self in what is ul­ti­mately, and ob­jec­tively, an act of love.

Tucker has no such in­ti­ma­tions, and in­deed his im­age of woman is lit­tle more than com­mon or gar­den misog­yny. The cat­a­logue con­tains an in­ter­est­ing es­say by Juli­ette Peers on the fear of women la­tent or fre­quently overt in many wartime posters, par­tic­u­larly those warn­ing against the propen­sity of women to be in­dis­creet or even pro­mis­cu­ous.

Peers also iden­ti­fies a deep vein of misog­yny among avant-garde and left-wing artists (the Left has a long his­tory of pu­ri­tanism; pri­vate plea­sure is the en­emy of revo­lu­tion).

In a well-in­ten­tioned but fun­da­men­tally im­plau­si­ble way, Hard­ing im­plies in her in­tro­duc­tion that Peers is dis­tin­guish­ing the Im­ages of Mod­ern Evil from this phe­nom­e­non when, on the con­trary, she is re­con­struct­ing part of the so­cial con­text of the se­ries and draw­ing our at­ten­tion to im­agery that has been un­crit­i­cally ac­cepted and even ad­mired be­cause of the cover-all ex­cuse that it is avant-garde.

The old avant-gardist claim is echoed in the cat­a­logue and in an ex­hi­bi­tion la­bel that sug­gests Tucker’s work must have been shock­ing in an art world dom­i­nated by gumtree painters; but this is a straw man of mod­ernist pro­pa­ganda. In re­al­ity, var­i­ous mod­ernist styles had be­come widely ac­cepted long be­fore Tucker be­gan the Im­ages paint­ings.

And the irony is that while the ad­mir­ers of the tra­di­tional Aus­tralian bush land­scapes were prob­a­bly in­dif­fer­ent to Tucker’s work, the artists who were re­ally oblit­er­ated by the machismo of the An­gry Pen­guins were Grace Coss­ing­ton Smith, Mar­garet Pre­ston, Clarice Beck­ett: fe­male artists who would not be re­dis­cov­ered for decades.

Al­bert Tucker’s Im­age of Mod­ern Evil: De­mon Dreamer (1943)

Im­age of Mod­ern Evil: 24 (1945)

Clock­wise from left, Im­age of Mod­ern Evil: Paris Night (1948); Fitzroy (1943); The Fu­tile City (1940)

Im­age of Mod­ern Evil: Spring in

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