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