The art of the forgotten people


| Tim Wilson

In her essay titled ‘Human Nature: The Art of John Brack', Kirsty Grant, wrote that in Brack's work there is a ‘recurring theme of the inevitability of human nature and the idea that the mistakes made by one generation will not necessarily be avoided by the next'.

And from that theme alone Brack established himself as one of the greatest representational painters of the twentieth century. No other artist depicts post-war, aspirational, Menzies-era Australia like John Brack.

John Brack 'Men's wear' (1953)

Few major artists are appreciated during their lifetime, let alone their early professional years. Brack was an exception. During his first exhibition the National Gallery of Victoria saw it fitting to buy a painting, ‘The Barber's Shop', despite his youth and limited foundations in Melbourne's art community. Acquisitions at the NGV demonstrated formidable insight as he became one of Melbourne's, and Australia's, most significant artists throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

Brack's oeuvre can be broken into major themes. Brack was not a fan of his early work, and so his sketches from his time in the army are rare. The second major theme was his representational work completed throughout the 1950s to 1970s that included some of his most famous paintings including ‘Collins Street, 5pm' and ‘The Bar', recently purchased by the NGV. The third major theme developed following his travels to Europe in the early 1970s. Following this trip he painted the visual analogies, using everyday objects, that dealt with humanity's lust for power, including his technically accurate paintings of military battles using pencils as analogies for armies.

But his most important contribution to Australia is undoubtedly his representational paintings of Australian life throughout the 1950s and 60s. Brack articulated that hard work, sobriety and aspiration are timeless features of Australian society.

John Brack's art is not pretty. He is a painter with a workmanlike-style. However, what he did do up until the 1970s is capture the essence of aspirational Australia on canvas. The review in the NGV's inhouse magazine, Gallery, writes that Brack had ‘an emphasis on the formal aspects of picture-making, matched with a focus on the realities of everyday existence'.

Brack practised at a time during the Menzies era. The role of government was expanding to meet the aspirations of post-War Australia. The dream of a modest block of land to place a family home was an expanding part of the Australian landscape that now only takes in the inner ring of our capital cities.

Through works like ‘Summer in the Suburbs' and ‘Segment of a Suburb' Brack painted the emerging tension of Australian obsession with a quarter acre block while providing green spaces for public amenity. And these tensions remain.

In his essay on Brack's life, art commentator Chris McAuliffe, described Brack as ‘an acute observer of the Australian way of life: suburban architecture, small business, shop displays, commuters and homeowners.' But he painted the Australian way of life in a more cerebral fashion than was otherwise presented in the advertising of the day. At the time many artists and film makers rallied against the expanse of suburbia. But Brack chose not to make comment. He sought to make an accurate representation of the Australia he observed including paintings of suburban streets, families on weekend car trips, school children in newly built school grounds and husbands and wives in their new homes.

Brack noted that ‘What I paint most is what interests me most, that is people, the Human Condition, in particular the effect on appearance of environment and behaviour... A large part of the motive... is the desire to understand, and if possible, to illuminate... My material is what lies nearest to hand, the people and the things I know best. It has never been my object to record Australian city life as distinct from life in general'. For example, his painting ‘Mr Whitaker's small business' presents a sterile, but stoic representation of the dignity of a small business professional in the 1950s akin to the generation that became Menzie's Forgotten People.

And his capacity to capture life and the human condition is demonstrated through his most celebrated work, ‘Collins Street, 5pm'. Brack painted it after standing as an observer in a doorway each night and observed the passage of office workers. But many have sought to interpret this work as a commentary of the ‘alienation, boredom and a sense of disorientation that emerges in the face of an apparently meaningless and absurd world'.

But it is easy to interpret that through the dull and dreary faces of Brack's professional workers that he was making social comment about modern life, the drudgery of office work and the routine travel back to every person's suburban island. But he was not. Brack was often accused of satire through his representations. But he consistently rejected this tag citing that he was a mere ‘observer'. (Often quite literally: in his 1953 painting ‘Men's Wear' Brack appears as a silhouette in the mirror.)

Similarly, his series of paintings on Ballroom dancing are a select few in his oeuvre that have smiling faces. But he didn't do so to make comment about the pleasure of the activity, merely that the nature of the activity required such a pose; whereas everyday life, didn't require such strong expressions.

And it was his observant attitude that makes the loss of artists like Brack in today's art scene more omnipresent. Brack thought art was a consumable. It needed to be engaged by the viewer. He didn't believe the price was mediocrity to necessitate the broadest audience. But rather that art was to have meaning, but that through the interpretation the consumer engaged with art. It is a perspective lacking in contemporary works.

The John Brack retrospective is being held at the NGV Australia at Melbourne's Federation Square until the 9th of August.

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