Painting: James Gleeson, Irregular Behaviour of a Setting Sun, 1996
The best known Australian surrealist painter James Gleeson died a week ago.
The material that follows on his life is drawn very heavily from the Art Gallery of NSW 2003 exhibition on Mr Gleeson's work. I have added some additional background material to provide a personal perspective, although I hasten to add that I did not know Mr Gleeson.
I love Australian art and grew up surrounded by it. There were paintings on the wall at home and at my grandparents place. The Hinton Collection at the nearby Armidale Teachers College, a building we visited all the time because there were so many activities there, was simply displayed on the class room and corridor walls for all to see.
I found Mr Gleeson's work intriguing when I first discovered it because (to my mind) it was so different.
James Timothy Gleeson was born in Hornsby (Sydney) on 21 November 1915. He studied art at East Sydney Technical College and teaching at the Sydney Teachers College, where his first surrealist painting City on a tongue 1938 was included in a student exhibition.
It is hard for modern Australians to cast their mind back to Sydney of the late thirties at the time James Gleeson was studying. In 1938, the total Australian population was just under seven million. In NSW there were four higher education institutions, Sydney University, the just established Armidale based New England University College, plus the Sydney and Armidale Teachers Colleges.
Those interested in art largely studied at technical colleges or one of the private art schools. Despite the small population base and distance from major population centres in Europe and the United States, there was great interest in overseas trends. There was also considerable controversy - as there is today - about what constituted art.
In 1937, the Australian politician Robert Menzies spearheaded moves to establish an Australian Academy of Art along the lines of the British Royal Academy. This split the artistic community, coming at the end of a period of growing tension between the traditionalists and modernists.
In 1939 one of the traditionalists, the art critic James MacDonald wrote of the 1939 Herald exhibition of contemporary French and English painting:
'They are exceedingly wretched paintings … putrid meat … the product of degenerates and perverts … filth'.
The modernists who had been trialing new approaches took the opposite view, defending their positions with vigour. It was an exciting period to study art.
From 1941-44 Mr Gleeson taught art at Kogarah Girls High School, and lectured in art at Sydney Teachers College 1945-46. Between 1947 and 1949 he travelled extensively in England and Europe which afforded him the opportunity to see the work of the Italian and Northern old masters as well as the work of surrealists including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte.
Like a number of other artists including Norman Lindsey, writing, especially poetry, occupied Mr Gleeson almost as much as painting. For a time he was undecided as to which path to take as a career. In fact, he did both.
In 1964, his major monograph on the work of William Dobell, published by Thames and Hudson, established him as a serious art historian. His other books include Masterpieces of Australian Painting 1969, Colonial Painters 1788-1800, Impressionist Painters 1881-1930 and Modern Painters 1931-1970, 1971, Robert Klippel 1983. In 1993 Angus and Robertson published his Selected poems.
In the midst of all this, Mr Gleeson found time to serve in a number of capacities for bodies including the Teachers Federation Art Society (Sydney), Contemporary Art Society, the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, International Art Critics Association and the National Gallery of Australia. He received a number of awards including Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990 and was awarded membership of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to art in 1975 and holds honorary degrees from Macquarie University, Sydney (1989) and the University of New South Wales (2001).
Mr Gleeson's work is represented in all major Australian galleries and has been included in major exhibitions including the National Gallery of Australia’s 1993 exhibition Surrealism: revolution by night 1993. Books on his work include those by Lou Klepac (James Gleeson: landscape out of nature 1987) and Renée Free (James Gleeson: images from the shadows 1993, reprinted 1996).
In all, Mr Gleeson came a long way from the Sydney of 1938