Australian Biography: Albert Tucker
Albert Tucker was born in Melbourne in 1914. In 1947 he travelled to Japan where he saw the devastation of Hiroshima - it was an experience that would have a profound effect on his work. Tucker spent 13 years in Europe and his international career finally took off when the Guggenheim Museum purchased some of his work and the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition. During the 1960s he began to enjoy popularity at home. All major Australian galleries acquired his work and a 1990 retrospective drew over 90,000 visitors. He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1994.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Oh dear. It really takes me back, thousands of years, to 1914 to be precise, December 29. Also to my very first memories, I can remember seeing troops coming back from the First World War, and my father carrying me up the street on his back on Armistice Day. So there, that's going back. But the general view, take the general thing, the world I was in then, nothing could be more different to the world that I'm in now. It's as though I went to sleep in one country and woke up in another. So I have all these ... all these ... it's almost a culture shock in trying to adapt to the post-war Australia, because I was totally conditioned in the pre-war Australia and the great events of my life, of course, or shall I say the trauma producing events were the Depression and being put in the army. So with that again I'll race on too far ahead there.
Well probably I got the very first bit of it. I remember now the very first time I developed mobility and function on my own, that is crawling and toddling in the back yard of the house we were in and at that time we were in a house at Yarraville. And through ... right at the back was an enormous wide open green space which is of course now absolutely densely packed with housing but I remember crawling down the back yard to the back paling fence all on my own, very proud of myself in making this journey and I remember pulling myself up on the gate where it had one of those little semicircular holes in there for the latch in the gate. And I pulled myself up and I was just able to peer through it and the very first thing I saw in the distance were tents and squads of soldiers drilling. It was my first view of the outside world unaided so it probably set a key for things happening later on.
Yes, straight off, yes.
My parents, they were two very good people, I would say. But they were both ... My father was the son of my namesake, the Honourable Albert Lee Tucker, MLA, three times mayor of Fitzroy. So he was the notable figure in my background but he died long before I was born. And he ... when he died he left quite a bit of property. He became a wealthy man and this was split up with a very large family of a dozen children, of which my father was one. And even that amounted to a fair bit of money. So my father, he inherited a bit of money, and a stationer's business in Elizabeth Street. And so he had to run it at a stationery and then decided he didn't like it, shifted across the Exhibition Gardens into Nicholson Street to a shop that's still there, and he couldn't bear having to get up in the morning to deal with the newspaper kids taking out the newspapers. So he was quite upset at that. So finally they sold the shop and then he got a job in the Victorian Railways and stayed in that. In fact he stayed in it all his life. So that really put us, you could say, generally, into a working class income. But my mother, who came from a family - her father, my other grandfather, was a mining engineer and he'd come out and gone to Bendigo. And he was very successful there. And they finally came down to Melbourne and also moved to Yarraville, which was then, you know, just as a beginning ... early days of that district, in the middle ... late Nineteenth Century. It hadn't then become the full industrial suburb and area that it became later on. And with my mother she had five brothers, all older than she was. So now imagine what that will do to a young female. She was pampered and spoiled, looked after, had terrific security, and large brothers there to all look after her and do everything for her. So she was spoiled and she thought all men were the same as her brothers, which my father wasn't [laughs] because he was interested in the good life also. But he had to put up with being a ... working in the railways. And they both encountered then ... encountered reality as his money dwindled. They bought a house in East Malvern I remember then. My mother had aspirations to get into a middle class suburb, which she did. So this had the peculiar effect I think of, what I would say, declassing me. I didn't grow up on the north-west Melbourne working class area, but I did have the insight into a lot of it, because we were on that economic level. But then with my mother's ambitions, she then got this house in Malvern, near Central Park, and set about bringing us up in the ... what she thought to be, the right way, which in a sense it was, because I got the advantages of a middle class background, but on the other hand, I got the awful anxiety and tension of not enough money to sustain that lifestyle. And so my mother was endlessly in debt. Everything was on hire purchase. Everything was in debt. The house was finally mortgaged and then finally they sold and we went to Malvern, and taking the mortgage with us. And then finally, my father could no longer pay for that. And that was called in. The mortgagees called the property in. We had to leave there and from then on we rented properties for a time. But in those days, fortunately, old Victorian properties were looked on with contempt, because, you know, because of the awful facilities, and they were the cheapest form of accommodation on the market. So a lot of my early years were spent in old Victorian houses, which I appreciated and it has given me a deep and abiding affection for Victoriana.
It caught up with them, yes.
Well pretty awful because ... because psychology was unknown then of course and my mother never knew what she was doing really and while I was the youngest, for some reason, she confided everything in me and I ... in a curious way, I became the father of the family because my father had given up the ghost and become very negative and rather melancholic. And he did his job, that is he trudged off to work, trudged home, provided the keeping, kept food on the table all the way through, and one can't, I suppose, ask much more than that.
In the railways, he was at the North Melbourne railway workshops but I have no precise knowledge of exactly what he was up to. I think something to do with carriage under gears and so forth. He was something of an expert on that, but not enough to get into a higher wage bracket unfortunately.
He worked with his hands. Oh yes. Oh yes. And so it was a situation which then, unhappily, was reinforced by the Depression because I was in state school of course and I left state school when I was something around ... oh I left about fourteen or just before fourteen, then I went on to Swinburne Tech and that only lasted for most of that following year. So I left somewhere around fourteen and a half, fourteen and three quarters. But I had to because, as with my brother, we had to work then in order to help support the family so it finished up with both my father and my brother and myself working full time just to preserve a sustenance existence. We got enough food in bulk, but we didn't get food in quality. I remember we lived on semolina and sausage meat, potatoes, bread. These were the sort of kinds of food: bulk food, which ... which of course is short on a lot of important nutrients. And I put the fact that my own physique ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well I would say for me it was a kind of stark terror and anxiety, which has become the most formidable problem I've had to deal with in myself all my life. I can say I've got ... I don't know how far I've got over those things, but they certainly formed a whole pattern of anxiety and fear all my life, which again was reinforced by the, of course, the Depression full bore, and then we went through, straight into the thirties when Hitler was starting to rise, and everyone sensed and knew what it was going, how it was going to end, and of course they were right. Another war was on the way. And so when that came then, of course, I went into ... had to go into the army. I did my best to hold off as long as I could, but finally I had to go into the army and that was it. And so I had a session in there which introduced me, as my unfortunate parents did, in dealing with social life and survival. I encountered it on another level, which was rather grim. I didn't ... I was fortunate, very fortunate, in the sense that I never went off. I wasn't sent out and I didn't get involved in any warfare. But the thing that happened was that I was sent to training camp at Wangaratta and I was ... I remember, the first day, I still remember this, going and getting issued with what they called the dead meat tag to hang around my neck with a number on it and then we arrived in a truck at camp, the fellow who came up, the sergeant, he yelled to the back there, 'A dozen more bodies Fred'. [Laughs] So we were reduced to anonymous bodies and numbers straight away, which was something with my kind of temperament there - which was ... I already was painting and I was a determined individualist at all cost, come hell or high water - that was a hell situation for me. But anyhow I had to ... I realised that my very survival was involved and so I went along with it, looking for an opening if one would come, which it didn't. But it did, no I'm wrong there, because the very first morning I was in, we were called down and I was put on kitchen fatigue. So I remember - so were several others - and we were all strapping on our aprons when a runner came down from headquarters and said, 'Private Tucker?' 'Yes', and I thought, my god, they've got me, and I had to trot up to headquarters, which I did. Went in there. At the desk there was the Major sitting at the desk and I saluted and stood there at attention, waited to see what was coming next. And he said, 'Well Private Tucker, I see here on your papers that you've put yourself down, your occupation down as an artist', and I said, 'Yes sir', and he said, 'Well I'm very interested in that, because I have to give medical lectures to all the people who come in here. And', he said, 'all I've got is this wretched book with little tiny illustrations, about two or three inches square. And', he said, 'they're useless to use for demonstrations. So', he said, 'do you think it would be possible for you to do, you know, big ones, like this, which I could use in my lectures'. And I said, 'Yes, sir'. [Laughs] He said, 'Oh good'. He said, 'Excellent'. He said, 'Well look, you take the book', and he said, 'look, I'll give you a chit and you go down to Wangaratta and get all the materials you need', and he said, 'By the way', he said, 'do you think you could put it all together on a roller, so I could unroll them, when I'm talking'. And I said, 'Yes, sir'. [Laughs] Full of 'yes sirs' at that point because I realised that it was something that was possibly something that could save my skin was on the way, quite involuntarily.
Oh I never peeled a potato. I was on the brink of it. Right on the very brink of it. There was a mountain of potatoes you know. About two or three mountains. I had to feed two or three thousand men. And so they all had to be peeled, so they'd have a team there at work peeling potatoes every ... every morning. And so I was taken off that. And I went down to Wangaratta, got the materials, came back and then the CO came down there and asked me how I'd like to work. 'We've got the lecture hall here. All right'. He'll put all his packing cases up and make a little room for you and put in a table, which they did, a big table for me, and then checked that I had all the materials I wanted, left the book with me, and then told me which ones that he wanted to make big enlargements of and so I set to work. Well this went on - to cut a long story short - this went on for a good six months or more and so on. But as the three month training course was three months, I was then scheduled to be sent off to New Guinea and this was the Kokoda trail time so I was resigned to this. I thought: Well it's got to come to an end and off I'll go. And so the Warrant Officer would come around and he'd say, 'Private Tucker I've got you on the list. Report at headquarters with full equipment at eight o'clock tomorrow morning', and I said, 'Yes, sir', and I said, 'But by the way, have you cleared it with the CO because I'm working on some diagrams for him', and he said, 'I'll check it out'. So he checked it out and he came back and said, 'We'll take you off the list to go on'. Well to cut again a long story short, this went on several times for another three months. I was still drawing away and producing diagrams. Then the day came there when I was called up to headquarters and I thought, Oh well, this is it. It can't go on forever, so off I go, and I got there and the Major was in there and this is something that I didn't work out for years, until many years later, when I looked back and you get to know more about life and you look back and understand things that happened which you don't understand at the time. I thought I was just being lucky again. But the CO looked over ... over my ... was looking up my record and he said, 'Oh I see by your record that you've had some sessions in the camp hospital', which I had because we were near Mount Buffalo, there were gales pouring down. This is midwinter. The gales were coming down full force, right through the cattle pens we lived in and it was not very, very comfortable, you see, on our straw palliasses, and loaded up with greatcoats and army pullovers and the issue blanket, to keep ourselves warm. And that was the sort of roughest living I've had to do, which I suppose I consider myself lucky if that's the worst. And so ...
Yes I was having flu. I was getting every flu, every wog under the sun: tonsillitis and heavy colds, flu and the whole thing. And they put me in ... and they'd keep it going by putting me in a tent in the hospital tent, then it would rain, and there was no fly over the tent. It was just the bald tent. You see they were very short of equipment then, scrambling for everything. And the rain would pelt down and it'd be broken up on the tent, and it'd all come through as a very fine spray and so the orderlies would come round and put ground sheets over us. Well, and so I remember lying in bed with a ground sheet and all hollows that were formed in the bed there filled with water and you're lying there in a bed of puddles. [Laughs] And you couldn't move because you'd spill it all.
Well I know. The chap next to me did and died with it. So you see the casualties sure happen in all sorts of areas when there's a war on. I mean malaria and all these - scrub typhus - all these diseases probably took off more soldiers than the actual fighting because after all, when you put thousands of troops all together in congested areas, without all sorts of facilities ... For example one of the ... one of the drawings I had to do was field sanitation equipment and so this was absolutely vital. And so, anyhow, the whole ... the whole thing went on like that and so the CO then looked up at me and said, 'Look', he said, 'I think you can ...'. I only realised the reason for all this long, long afterwards. Again, I thought I was being lucky. He looked up at me and he said, 'Look', he said, 'I think your ... you could use a rest'. He said, 'I think I'll send you down to Heidelberg for a couple of weeks or so, where you can get a good rest out of it and see how we go then'. Well the thing I didn't know is that he sent down a recommendation for my discharge. And why? Because he was immensely grateful to me for what I'd done. It had saved him a lot of trouble and been enormously useful to him and I never even thought of that aspect of it. But it was enormously useful. He used all this. It saved him a lot of headaches and hard work and he decided that ... as came out when I was later discharged, they decided that I'd be of more use in civilian life. And so I was put out. I went down to Heidelberg and I was there for five weeks. And I was there, put in a ... one of the units where they had a general grab bag unit with all sorts of people in. And all I was doing was wandering around all day. Then all sorts ... again these, shall I say, experiences on another level of life, revelatory experiences, then happened. All the things that happened there were rather terrifying because you became a witness for it. You'd see vans come in at midnight and they'd unload soldiers out of it, all of whom would be often half cuckoo and under armed guard, because they'd attacked their officers or attacked someone else and they were all, you know, a bit over the edge. And they'd bring them down and put them in the mental ward, which was across ... across a little way. And then other vans would come in, and they'd bring in prisoners of war. You see, when they were capturing Germans and Italians in North Africa, they had to get rid of them. So they put them all on the troop ships, at least on whatever ships they had that were empty, and they'd ship them straight out here to Australia into internment. So these ... these ambulances, trucks and so forth would arrive in the middle of the night and I'd go out and watch and see all the characters who came out. There'd be Nazis come out in full uniform, you know, majors, colonels, all in their full Nazi regalia, and also the Italians, you know, with their feathers in their hats. All the ... all the kind of uniform that the mountain troops wore, [that] they were using in North Africa. And so they were all ... they were all ... they'd put them all straight away, just simply an accommodation thing here, I think, in the mental ward because they had more room there. And of course a lot of them were screwball. And then all the sort of things that went on there gave me a, again, revelation after revelation. They were using very crude psychiatric techniques then at the time. They were in the early days of abreaction, for example. And they had a lot of troops there who ...
Oh well I'll tell you in a moment with that one because they ... we had a lot of troops, a lot of them in the mental ward and in other wards, whose nervous systems were shot to pieces. They had the ones who'd covered the British withdrawal from Greece. They used Australian troops. They were all bombed to smithereens. And a lot of them came out of it completely gaga. Their nervous systems shattered. Either they'd have all sorts of things there pulsing around in their necks or they're like that all the time. And I remember one who was in a bed opposite me there. When he'd get up in the night to go to the toilet, and then he'd stagger to my bed and grab hold of it, and then he'd shake like mad and nearly shake me out of bed. He couldn't control his shaking. Then he'd have that rest, and get onto the toilet, and then the same thing on the way back. You'd get all these awful things. Then another fellow sitting in a bed opposite me. I remember him just sitting, hands like this, looking into space. Then he'd have a nerve in his neck that was going like that. [POINTS TO HIS NECK AND PRODS IT SEVERAL TIMES] This sent me cuckoo just looking at it. [Laughs] I did a drawing of him, the drawing's in Canberra of a lot of these ... I call them psychos. And I got a lot of drawings out like that. Perhaps that's why I didn't twitch like them. [Laughs] And so the next thing that happened was that I was there and then I discovered the plastic surgery ward, where they had all the characters that had, again, been shot to smithereens.
Some of the treatments ...
Yes, I'm sorry. Yes, the abreaction one there. Well the one they used there was - I've never heard of it before or since. But what happened is that these people were shell-shocked and they went cuckoo when they heard an aeroplane or a loud noise or anything there. They scream, cry, crawl under beds, you know. They'd become totally ineffective in any kind of life. Their nerves were absolutely destroyed. And they brought over Royal Air Force planes, and they dived on the wards. They did this for over a week. They dived onto the wards, and then just flattened out, just above the ward and then took off, and zoom around, come back, dive down again. And you'd hear them all screaming inside. Screaming their heads off, and so on. And it seemed that they were all hiding under the beds in a terrible state. And they repeated this over, as far as I can recall it, over about a week there. This terrible performance. But slowly the screaming thing subsided because once they found that dreadful plane thing of a plane coming down on a bombing attack there, that nothing happened and no one was hurt there, they slowly subsided and then accepted the sound and they were able to cope with it. So you see it was very primitive, very crude, but very effective. Now they had other ones, I remember, in that one ward ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well the other one was where, I remember one ward that absolutely fascinated me. There were about forty of these bomb happies in them. I remember counting them. So the whole string of beds in the front part of the ward were full of these bomb happies. So they used to send in - again this is an early day when they used insulin, deep injections of insulin as a - they found it was beneficial. And this was a marvellous thing for people trying out all these new methods, because they had all the guinea pigs they really wanted, really. And they would send the WACS in, the girls would come in there in the morning. And they'd go from... First they'd tuck a serviette under the chins of them all. And I noticed that they were in, they'd all sit back, sit back, and make them comfortable in bed. Then they'd turn them over and give them a very deep injection in the buttock of insulin. Then they'd make them all nice and comfortable and they'd sit there and they'd slowly go into an insulin coma apparently. And I remember their faces. All their faces there would go snow white and wet looking, greasy, wet looking. Faces snow white. It was incredible to see all this large number of them like this. They'd do this every morning for a month. And it was quite incredible to see the improvement in so many of them. I remember one fellow he had a rattling jaw. He couldn't stop it. Rattle, rattle, rattle and also had lost about three stone in weight. In that month he put over, put on about two stone and all the jaw rattling stopped. And so that again was ... How primitive it would be considered now I don't know but again, it was a rough, ready and very effective treatment.
Oh they dribbled. They salivated all the time. They were all ... when you went in there they were all lolling around like corpses and all dribbling right down on the serviette. And then the ... but come lunchtime, they'd start coming out of, apparently, our of this comatose state and then they'd bring around the special dishes of food there, which ... with a lot of glucose and things like that in it. They'd eat that and then they'd ... their enthusiasm would build up and they'd be as good as gold for a time you see. How long all this lasted ... I don't know what their ultimate fate would be, but again I was being introduced to life from ... on the hard side. But I got it even much more so when I discovered the plastic surgery ward. I was in the hospital for five weeks in all as it turned out. And ... but I had a pretty free run all that time. So I encountered all the horrors that took ... a lot of the horrors that took place. For example, every now and then I they would find someone in the trenches at the back, where they had these crosses along the top, and you'd find someone hanging in it by his pyjama cords and they'd occasionally bring bodies up from there. And this was right at the back of the hospital. It was still in process of being built. See, this is the side a civilian never gets. This is my advantage possibly is that I was, as I found at the War Memorial, I was able to give a view on the war, which they didn't get. They got the official views and all these official communiqués on it. Things like ... the things that went on in the hospitals, largely there was a veil drawn over it. It simply wasn't talked about. But in the plastic surgery unit I came on a few shocks there, with all the kind of mangled things. You'd see a whole line of them all bound up. And oddly enough they keep reminding me of Henry Moore's drawing of the underground shelters in England. You remember them all, he used that sort of form of them? And some of them had frightful injuries. I remember one had a free lobotomy. The whole front of his head smashed in. And they pieced it all together and then later on, he had a triangular patch in the middle of his forehead, growing hair. Where apparently they got the thing displaced. So he's probably got to shave for the rest of his life in the middle of his forehead. Another I remember, a young, a boy of nineteen his entire lower jaw gone. The whole lot of it. This is a frightening injury to see and what happened to that poor fellow, God knows. Again even how they fed him, I've no idea. And so ... [INJURIES]
Oh they gave me images that I've fed on all my life. They appeared all later on. For example, see this one here, there's one. [TUCKER POINTS TO A PAINTING BEHIND HIM] I developed that in Italy: all the gashes on all the paintings of the Christian martyrs. San Sebastian. The Virgin with a thousand swords going through her. Or San Sebastian perforated with arrows. Grünewald's Crucifixion, where you had Christ in a state of decomposition and simply decomposing on the cross, an horrific image with every wound, every gash. And so on. And these one, instantly ... and again it's a curious thing you know with the human mind, because I saw these things as a new experience and they affected me, although I didn't know why they affected me. Do you know I didn't come back to the plastic surgery thing until Bob Hughes, later on interviewing me, made the connection for me. I mean it's rather quite ... quite extraordinary that how one: you'll section a thing off and repress it and then you'll have an almost, very similar experience that you put in next door to it without opening the door on the other experience. It's most peculiar the way the human mind works. I've come to respect the incredible variations [laughs] that can take place.
Oh well, I'd say this did happen because, you know, again, this is something that I've only found in retrospect. We don't understand what's happening to us at the time only too often. But later on in years, when things fall into place, you do discover the connections. And other people ... it often takes other people to point them out to you.
Probably one of the first ones, and this is the one that Bob Hughes got on to me, made the connection, that for some reason or other I was painting these wounded landscapes when I was in Italy. I was ... anything ... I was getting nostalgic memories of Australia, but the thing I was remembering were the splits on gum trees and the corroded earth and the cracks in the earth. All this kind of tactile images were coming up. And I put this down to the landscape. So then I formed a kind of human head that was half landscape...
Oh no. Images like that last because to go on, to shoot off on another track there, is because later on I left Australia, went to Europe and I saw all the whole thing through Japan and Germany and Europe. And so that renewed the whole thing and gave me another kind of angle. But back to the civilian side of it. I was a simple suburban soul, as so many of us ... we Australians are, and still believed in the fairy princess notion of women. That they were the most gorgeous creatures of the world that you had to protect at all costs, something which the modern, post-war female, a power that she seems to have surrendered without knowing it. But the male is very aware of it. But there were these schoolgirls who'd come out, innocent little virgins in school uniforms. The next thing they appear in victory skirts and heavy make up, and up and down Princes Bridge and down to St. Kilda, and St. Kilda Road there, after all the G. I.'s particularly, because they took no interest in the Australian diggers who were back there because they didn't have any money. They were the six-bob-a-day ones, whereas the Americans had been on islands in the Pacific for long periods and saved up huge amounts of pay, which to us were enormous amounts of money. So this led to a lot of, as you can imagine, ill feeling and conflict. But I won't go into all that. But the thing that shocked me was the image that emerged, not only of the brutality, because in this I'm talking about the male, the street was full of drunks. Every lamp post had a drunk hanging on it. Every pub there was brawl or fight taking place. You couldn't go into one there without being offered a fight within two minutes. And it was wild west stuff. All the way. Full bore. So this aspect of it was brutal and savage and open. And then the ... on the female end of it the, of course, it was the prostitution, sexual end of it. And this all produced ... that all combined in producing an image, an emblem which emerged out of it, I don't know why, it became a compulsion with me. It became known as the crescent form, which could be interpreted on different ways. It could be interpreted as more archetypal for the sense. It's a symbol for water for example in Hindu mythology but also it does resemble a human mouth. And so this was quickly associated with the painted lips of the prostitute. And then I added to that a kind of, polypsit [?] sort of form. I remember seeing jellyfish on the beach. I was looking for something to put these forms together with, and walking along the beach I saw a jellyfish on the beach and I thought, Oh that's it. It looked like a primitive, primordial sort of form, and I suppose a primitive form, which is what I wanted. And so I turned that around and played around with that and fitted the crescent onto it and then a stem with a single eyeball on the end of that. And lo and behold I had a some little gremlin, you could say, a sexual gremlin, which was haunting us all. And so this lasted for ... a run of about a good thirty paintings and it's kept recurring since from time to time in other little bursts later on. So this was an image that was thoroughly implanted in me, and which I couldn't get away from, in fact, to such an extent that I found I couldn't paint without it, that if I tried to paint a picture ... And I became antagonistic to the image after a while because I was beginning to feel dependent on it and enslaved to it and so I was trying to get rid of it. And the harder I tried to get rid of it, the harder it would come back. And this I remember infuriated me. I'd be making a more intellectual battle to try and suppress the image and get rid of it. But I found I couldn't paint. I tried a painting without the image and the thing would be as dead as a doornail all the way. Nothing would happen. Then I'd ... in desperation I'd put in the crescent shape like that, the whole thing came to life, then the rest of the painting did itself: created its own background. It's a form of automatic writing really. So I triggered some deep archetypal source that pulled it out. And so the [series] came out. I gave it the rather brash title of The Images of Modern Evil, because that's what I associated it with: the fighting in the streets, with the prostitutes up and down the streets, and so on. So ... so that became my image for it, which of course is now installed in the ... James Mollison had the - to me - the wit and perception and courage to see this, and got ... acquired them all for the Australian National Gallery.
Well later on, what came to be known as the Antipodean Head, which was a memory image of Australia, which did incorporate the plastic surgery experience, unwittingly, without my being aware of it, it still continued, and related, of course, itself to all the religious mutilations that one saw through ... in every church in Italy. And so, anyhow, these forms ... every painting you develop a kind of personal library, an iconography of the events in one's personal life, and these events would invariably come from traumatic experiences which one had had, but which, in going in the course of life there, these early traumas would be activated by, or triggered by, some element there which corresponded to it, and then the whole thing would come alive and feed the present experience. And so this was the thing I started using creatively as I became more and more aware of it. And so now I always listen to that ... that silence, that inner voice, wait for what image comes up. If I feel, with the eyes shut, if there's a sense of potency somewhere and it's ... even though it's in the dark, I'll feel that sense of potency and keep manipulating it or leaning on it or pushing it and something resembling a form with emerge. And then I'll try and grab that and keep on with it with repetitive drawings to try to bring it out, and so on. And this is where these things would come from.
Oh no, no. The intellect doesn't come into play at all. You only use that for mixing your paint and preparing your materials. That's all the intellect is good for in painting. The rest of it one has to [use] pure intuition, imagination, whatever you like. And impulse, direct, immediate impulse. This is what say people like Nolan and Joy Hester were brilliant at, was that immediate impulse.
Oh dear. You've really whipped me right back into kindergarten now because I have a very strong image. One image. It's curious how in our memory, if we go right back, that there are static single images that survive, that apparently incorporate the whole episode in some way. And this is of course, the first stage of forming symbols and allegories. I can remember, a lot of those work in that way. But with ...
Oh yes. The ... the first image I had when I went to, my mother took me, protesting to kindergarten. I was about five at the time. And I remember going into class in the morning. I forget what happened in the class. I've no memory at all. Blackboards and teacher and all the other kids. And I remember coming out at play time and standing in the school yard and looking around and thought, What have I got to do with this? I don't want to come here. I don't want to learn all this stuff. This has got no meaning for me. No sense at all. And I remember I was standing by the wall of the building, you know, a weather board one, painted white with the sun on it. That's a very strong part of the image. And the name of the teacher - see how I remember this things with terrific accuracy - Mrs. Dennehy. She was our teacher. Mrs Dennehy. [laughs] Floats up and there it all is. And I was looking at it, looking at the kids playing, looking at this wall and I thought, What am I doing here? I don't want to learn all this rubbish. It's nothing to do with me. I'm going to be an artist. Just like that. I had some fore thing from the future, forerunner from the future came down and told me a bit about myself, gave me a direction pointer.
Exactly. Exactly. There's no way of knowing where that came from. I mean I've got some personal ideas which probably are not very popular.
Well I think there is a reincarnational aspect that needs to be explored in all these things because there are so many things in life where you start off: just something you just know without thinking and you've never had experience of it but you know it. Then you realise this though - because someone else doesn't know it - and you realise that's peculiar, because I haven't had the experience. He hasn't had the experience. He doesn't know it. I know it. Where did it come from?" So one has to find some ... I mean this is being rational, mind you. That's how rationalists will attack these points of view all the time but they're the irrational forces.
Well I have to tell the truth on this one. There would possibly have been a direction pointer there. I did have an uncle who was a failed artist or tried to be and he died when I was only so high [HOLD OUT HIS HAND TO THE HEIGHT OF HIS KNEES]. And I remember, again, one of my earlier experiences. I was a little bit older then I think, probably about two or something. I'd crawl and walk and toddle down the back yard where my father put up a tent for Uncle Arthur, who was busy drinking himself to death. Because Uncle Arthur won second prize at Tatt's, which was a good thing for him probably. The worst thing too. Because he immediately decided his life had been a failure. He was in his middle fifties and so he just simply took to the grog. And so my parents installed him in a tent in our backyard as there wasn't room in the house. And I would crawl down and they'd put a wooden floor in the tent and I remember one, again, a very powerful image with me, I'd look over the edge of the floor. There would be a stretcher bed. There would be Uncle Arthur lying in it looking exactly like all the later images of Henry Lawson. Exactly like Henry Lawson lying in bed. And underneath the stretcher there, a forest of bottles. So Uncle Arthur would [GESTURE WITH HIS FINGER TO COME IN], and I'd come in and we'd have a drinking session without my mother knowing about it. And I'd go back sideways and my mother would be very puzzled by all this, wouldn't know what was happening until she woke up to it of course and then I was banned from going down to see Uncle Arthur. [coughs] But I was, you could say I was an alcoholic at the age of round about two or eighteen months or two and a half, or somewhere in that area.
I was just he was an artist. There were a lot of his rather pathetic drawings and things around and then I inherited his paint box. And I remember a tube of Prussian blue that I got out there and got all over the place. I remember I was enormously impressed by the incredible power of the blue. That really, really affected me. So I would have been very young then. So then those experiences forgotten, Uncle Arthur died, went off and that was the end of him. And probably there'd be a connection there. Perhaps I liked something about Uncle Arthur and wanted to be like him. But there was nothing really to emulate, because my mother set up a continuous chant as she has ... the enormous power of women, when they've got a plastic infant under their control. They just recite, you know, the repetition thing and my God, that's there for life. I've never drank. I never need grog. I can't understand why there's a drinking mania in the country. Pubs I can't understand. Never went to them through the war. First because you'd be offered a fight. Mind you I would like an occasional ... I didn't mind an occasional glass or half glass of nice, icy cold beer, which was attractive on a very hot day. [clears throat] A little anecdote there, to leap ahead. I was walking down Flinders Street with Nolan one day, some time in the late stages of the war and it was one of those terribly hot days, about 106 or something like that, and we were walking down and I said I was ... I said, 'This is one time when I become interested in drink', I said, 'A glass of icy beer now would be marvellous, wouldn't it?' And Nolan said, 'Oh yes, yes'. He said, 'Look there's a pub over there. Let's go over and get one'. I said, 'Not on your life'. I said, 'We'd be offered a fight the moment we got in the ... got in the door'. And he said, 'Oh', he said. I said, 'Doesn't that worry you?' He said, 'Oh no, doesn't worry me'. This is a very Irish thing, you know. I admired it enormously at the time. 'No', he said, 'it doesn't worry me. If anyone hits me, I'll just hit them back'. [Laughs] He showed a level of self confidence and control then, which, I found, you know, I admired enormously because that was the last thing that I'd do, because I long ago learned that life, even at birth I think that I just saw that life was a hazard, a battlefield, and I remember Nolan saying that was his first observation of life: It was a battlefield. And I was well aware of that one and so I thought, My God, all the hazards I need ... more than I need, are surrounding me all the time. Why invent them? Why go looking for them? So I've lived my life on that principle ever since. [laughingly]
Fear, anxiety, the terror of life. Yes. But I had by nose rubbed in it with all those events in the army, the hospital, and then the post-war period when I went to Japan and to Europe.
Debt collectors coming to the door and store man collectors and my mother saying, 'Quick hide, in case he looks through the window'. So all the kids would all have to hide under that table in case whoever it was - the policeman with the bluey or the store to collect or the baker or the gas man or the electric light man - and so on. I lived in absolute terror of these people. And today I still get ... have a pang of terror whenever I go to the letterbox and see it full of letters, which I really need deep hypnosis to get rid of that one. [Laughs]
A lot of?
Oh yes. Oh yes. It was the only way we could maintain the appearance of middle class life, by being permanently in debt all over the place. My poor mother she did her best, the only way she knew how, but that was the way life was. And mind you, not only that, but also the Depression, impending war, war itself, post-war period, all these things are also reinforced ... these reinforcement things all the way for it. So this is why I had this terrific admiration for Nolan. He seemed to be free of that. Although, mind you, he wasn't because he was a man who ... who camouflaged himself very very well. Because later in life I've found that there were certain things there which terrified him, if it got out of his control, but he was marvellous at concealing it. I think all people are like this surely. I mean no one can live this ... this life with everything that goes on with it. You switch on the television news, read a newspaper, one's hair stands up with horror at the things that are going on, all the time, day and night. And if one has imaginative empathy, with which I'm well endowed there, I mean, you get all that melding thing, which is good, that is you, for moments you become that other person, even though you don't know them or you've never seen them. But if some horror thing that's happened to them, in a flash, I'm that person undergoing that frightful treatment. So I suppose the anxiety thing perhaps sensitises one to all this sort of thing.
I never thought of myself as being different to anyone else because I assumed all the way along that everyone else felt and thought the same ... same way as I did. And of course now I know there's enormous differences between people.
Oh yes. I always got top of the class in drawing at school. That was about the only thing. And then thank God, we had the Victorian teachers, who took no nonsense from the kids. So the result is I'd be given twenty words to spell in the afternoon. Next morning be tested in them. For each one I got wrong I'd be taken out in the hallway and given the strap, which was very painful then, very painful. And I very quickly - the survival thing again - I very quickly learned to spell. So thank heavens for that. Otherwise if I was given the 'do your own thing', you know 'do what you feel like' as all these modern idiots go on with here, you'd never learn a damn thing. You have to have to have terror and impending punishment. All these things are inescapable from life. And if we don't do it, nature does it for us.
Oh no, no. Not at all. Not at all. My parents were very gentle people. I was struggling and fighting to survive in the terms that were set by my mother. My father just worked his fingers to the bone, doing his best to sustain it. And that was it. But of course, there was a lot of, shall I say, fighting over money. Every meal time there'd be this endless rowing about money. Because my mother didn't have enough money. My father didn't have enough money and he insisted on keeping a few shillings every week to have a bet each way, every Saturday. They gave meaning to his life. And gave hope. And so you had this awful thing. So this ... so there was all these anxieties, fears, terrors, horrors, on every level they afflict us all.
Money? Oh lovely because I don't have to think about it at this stage. Lovely, because having thought about it all my life. I remember a fortune teller told my mother she apparently had her read my palm when I was a child. I have no recollection of it. But she told me about this. And she said, 'He'll be all right. He'll make ... he'll have quite enough money later in life'.
I had to wait 'til later, yes. I got through most of it - wasted all my youth and strength without it.
I had an interest in history and geography. Not a mad interest, but you know, a preoccupation with it. And I still have, as I've discovered since, I've got a pretty strong historical sense, which I've only discovered in recent years. Because again, on the fact that I know something or I'm interested in something that no one else is. So that must mean something.
I wasn't educated by an outside force, except for the basics of ... I was good at mental arithmetic oddly enough, but not arithmetic generally, because I'm still, when I left school and they had a Merit Certificate then which meant you'd gone through the thing, and I was a Merit Certificate Pending. And that thing that was pending was mathematics. [Laughs] And it still is. It's still pending. [Laughs]
About fourteen and a half. Around that period.
Yeah, and then straight into the work force and ... which I might add - again giving an old-fashioned view of it - was the best education I could have got, because I encountered more horror, frustration, negative situations, struggle, battle for survival, and my God, that did me far more good than any university course could do anyone.
Well I had another thing: the struggle simply to learn. For example I had a mania - it's a curious thing - at the school I couldn't get out of it fast enough. There were two occasions when I floated on air: leaving school and leaving the army. Two feet up at least. And, actually, what was I saying just before that?
Oh the whole range of them, of all the frustrations and things in life which I magnified enormously too. In fact, I moved into the self torturing thing, which I'm still ... still prone to doing. I think finally we are, as Donne said, we are all our own executioners and our own tormentors. If you track something that's wrong with you, track it back, you finish up right in there. That's when we arrive when we've worked it right out.
Well in learning what I wanted to find out, to get the skills necessary and - which I did. My first job was as a house painter for example. And that nearly killed me because I was given a job to scrape ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well it was a house painter, painting houses, and this one really had a very bad effect on me in the sense that - not the work - but they gave me one of these old shower screens. It was ... it was a very hot day about - I think we had a hot heat period there, it went from 100 up to 114 over about ten days. The sort of heat wave we haven't since, by the way. I don't know of any heat waves since then like it. But I remember that because I was acutely aware of it because I was working outside all the time, painting front fences, sand papering garages and fences, and so on. And then I was given the job of sand papering down one of these fine corrugated metal shower screens. Curved shower screens. And I was working in the back yard, scrubbing away with sandpaper and so on, in a cloud of dust, which turned out to be lead dust. Very simply I got lead poisoning. And I didn't know what it was then but I know after that I lost all will to work, all will even to make a movement was terribly hard. And I simply became quite ill. And I had to stop the work because I was so ill. And as I regained later, years later, I realised that it was lead poisoning because it had all the symptoms. And so that was that. But anyhow from there I went on to various things in publicity departments, little commercial art firms and all this sort of thing, which I was able to take to and do with a relative, not ease, but I was able to handle all that sort of thing.
Well there was a chap named John Vickery, who lived in a place in a studio that was called Motherwell's Gateway off Collins Street, which was the back stables of an old inn in Collins Street in which our very intelligent city council allowed to be demolished. A beautiful old bluestone gateway ... gateway there. It was a beautiful little piece of early Melbourne history. All gone. All gone. People who, you know, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. You had that. And anyhow I worked in there. It was a marvellous place to work in and there were a couple of big lofts along side his, one of which I used, as I say, was able to get the use of later on. And Vickery, there, he wanted somebody, what they really wanted was someone to do the dirty work. He would have a job to do, doing drawings of motor cars ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well not desire, but I had to get food, and I had to earn my keep, earn my way, and that was the real lesson probably, the responsibility, rather than the work. And I got a job with a chap named John Vickery, who was doing car ads in his studio at Motherwell's Gateway in the city. This beautiful old bluestone coach house, which our city fathers allowed to be destroyed, which was an absolute disgrace when these things happen. In fact I weep when I see these things happen and also what they do - oh I won't go on now on what they're doing now to the Gippsland forests. I weep every time these things are destroyed because they're past history, which always informs the present. It tells us what the present is about and what the future is going to be. If we lose our past we're nothing. We're gone. And to get back to Vickery though. He wanted someone there to do the chore work on the thing. And he wanted someone to do all the little lettering that went along with these job so I was there you know, screwing my eyes out there, doing all this lettering, and this lasted for quite a while. Three months. And later on I went to a place called Gill's, where they did ... doing ads for Fayrefield Hats. And I was out at Fayrefield's and, doing these Fayrefield Hats ads and these great enormous things and I - this is what turned me into a communist - because it was in the middle of the Depression all this stuff, it was still going on and I couldn't ... I'd have to work right through weekends. I got no extra pay of any kind, right through there. We were told we were lucky to have a job. Which we were. Which we were as I've since realised. And that ... one of the quaint things about that is when I left Fayrefield Hats, who should come along - and this is somewhere around 1937 or 36 or what have you - who should come along and get the job but Sidney Nolan. I'd never met him. I didn't meet him until long after that, until 1939. And then I found that out later. But it's curious these synchronicity things. Very strange. And I used to do ... I learned about what was commonly known then by the communists as this exploitation thing. And this is a thing that comes out of me, temporally, as having to work weekends and not get paid for it. Then I found that I was doing very big displays that were being used and the brother of the chap that ran the department there, would nail the wooden backs on them. And he earned five shillings a week more than I did. And then I later found that what the ... what the ... the head of the department was doing, he was going out playing golf while I was doing his work. He saw that I could do it and so let me go ahead and do it. And I didn't know any of this until a lot later on looking back. And so this is one of the things ...
No, no, you're not. You're terribly innocent, you know, with all these things. You know, we are really without experience. There's very little there of this except concealed archetypal things that I think we're born with, which are deep inside, but then I don't know, it takes life to activate them and get them functioning and give them meaning, or a particular kind of meaning. And so that was all very good. It's all necessary suffering as I said you know, getting the strap in the corridor, [laughs] being terrified of going to pubs because I get offered a fight. All these things there, they're all the things you know, and having to go out and work and to help support the family at fourteen and a half, at fifteen and so forth. These were all things there that I as I look back I think, thank God for those experiences, as I'd never go into them voluntarily and I'd never go into any unpleasant experience now voluntarily. But one of the horrific things I've got to confront in my own belief system is that if I want to learn any more and get onto some of the higher level of perception, understanding, it's going to cost. I have to pay for it in blood. And I'm quite convinced of that. One thing I have tried to do though to offset it is to develop an imaginative, empathic thing where I can imaginatively create the situation and feel into it as fully as I can. And that I think does obviate the necessity to have the experience later on.
Sorry for these little aside philosophies but they're necessary.
Ah yes, yes, there are couple of very hairy final type experiences, which occurred at different times. One of these was when my brother contracted meningitis and he could no longer work at this point. He became very ill. We didn't know what the illness was. They hardly knew what ... how to diagnose these things then. Anyhow, to cut this story short, is that he had meningitis. The doctor diagnosed it and one morning I was awakened. I was seventeen at the time. And I was wakened at three o'clock in the morning, my mother coming in crying out, 'He's going, he's going', and I raced into the bedroom, into the other bedroom where my brother was, and put my hand on his chest. I just felt his heart go [CLAPS A FEW TIMES, THEN STOPS]. Still. That was the end of it. My parents of course were shattered. Needless to say, so was I. But this is where the man of the family situation arose, where I was called on to play this role, because my father was pretty well helpless and probably [in] shock, shattered and couldn't cope. My mother, there, was hysterical, couldn't cope. Beside themselves. And we were left there at three o'clock in the morning with a ... with my dead brother lying in bed. And I had to be the one to try and hold the thing together. Which I did my best. And then as the time went on there, I finally got my mother to get a cup of tea, to do something like that, to keep busy. And the moment it was daylight or when I was able to do it, I then started ... I'd never used a telephone before in my life. You know, very few people had telephones then. But I remember I went down to the people next door, who had a telephone, and asked them if I could use it and I started ringing round. First we got the doctor and the doctor came in and that was it: pronounced him gone. And then I rang the undertakers, Pine & Garson. What a lovely name! No. I've got that wrong. Drakeman & Garson. Extraordinary, you know, the names some people have - you know the way they fit. Drakeman & Garson. It's still functioning I believe as a ... as funeral parlour. And the undertaker came out with a couple of young assistants. And I had to conduct everything there. My parents were pretty helpless. And I showed them in and they ... and they put me out of the room. They had their own, again, fairly primitive way of checking things, making sure. I heard them striking matches. I wondered at first what that was for and then I realised they were lifting his eyelids to check there was no action from the pupil. And so this of course, I ... it was full of horror. And, but anyhow, I kept this kind of grip on myself because I had this sort of ... the situation was depending on me, that we were in. And so I remember when the undertakers came out they brought up a trestle and a coffin, put it in the room, and all this was going on, I heard from outside. And then they came out ... came out of the room and said, 'All was well'. They'd checked everything. And it's a curious thing, again, these frozen images that stick in one's mind. One of the assistants, I forget what the other two were like, but one of the assistants was a young fellow in his early twenties, with curly fair hair. And as they turned ... we were upstairs in this old Victorian place. We were renting a flat at this point and I remember there was some light coming through a Victorian window onto the stairway and this coloured light. And they turned and went downstairs and I remember this: looking down on this image, that's stayed in my mind: it was this young, young undertaker, all in their black clothes of course and the thing I remember very acutely is all the dandruff on the shoulders of his coat. The dandruff. And then the slant of light through the coloured windows there, cutting across him, and so on, as he went downstairs and looked round and smiled, smiled at me and went his way out. So this sort of image sort of has stayed with me for life. I can call it up without any trouble at all. In fact sometimes these images you can call up and almost make them real again. You're on the brink of translating them back into reality and I do a back spring out of that one. But I ... I ... my empathic imagination goes to work on it and that's it. But anyhow the next one, there's another one. My sister had a little girl, Claire, a beautiful little girl and I was very, very fond of her and I was about eighteen, nineteen at the time. And so on. And she developed a sterno-mastoid. You see, this is the days before antibiotics. They could have both been saved if it was in these days. But anyhow Claire had this sterno-mastoid and I used to go to the eye and ear hospital. No air conditioning in the hospitals in those days. This again was an enormous ... everything seems to happen in a terrible heat wave. There was a terrible heat wave and I remember I'd go off to the hospital and I'd sit there by her, and fan her for hours on end, fanning her. This thing I still remember are the nurses coming into a little kitchenette, chatting and laughing and rattling crockery as they made themselves tea. And that sound blended in with this fanning. And then when that was over there, and while ... while she was there she had her head all bound, tubes in her neck and the thing turned into meningitis. So then she died. And so I had a little extraordinary experience of that later on. This is why I can handle these things better now, because I have encountered glimpses of a realities that aren't here. And these glimpses there have given me a lot of strength that I otherwise wouldn't have. But those were the two very traumatic episodes in my late adolescence, while I was still in my formative years, that really made a very strong mark on me. Well of course, worse experiences have happened to a lot of other people, like road accidents, what is happening in the families and all these people. So these shocking things are happening all the time and people are going through these quite horrendous situations. So, anyhow, we have to accept all that as part of life, with hopefully some ultimate purpose to it, but it doesn't stop it having its mark on you and enlarging your insights and enlarging your perceptions of certain things in life.
Yes I felt it stop. It was the first thing because I went in because my mother had said, 'He's gone'. So my first instinct was to put my hand on his chest and he wasn't quite gone. He was going obviously. And so on and just the heart just gave a couple of kicks and that was it. But I had that warning before, a little earlier. I had this curious thing I remember the day before, a curious thing which I believe is a known thing there: the hands outside the quilt or blanket and plucking away at them like this ... [PLUCKING GESTURE] Plucking constantly at them. And also then he was looking up into the corner of the room there, looking at something very intently and then he'd start whistling some tune or something. But then he'd stop and then he'd be looking as though he ... obviously he was seeing something that I couldn't see. And so on. And then that would die down and he'd lapse back into a coma. And so these were the little bits of, shall I say, the down side of life that afflict us all, I think, sooner or later in one form or another.
Oh yes. Well that's not quite true in the sense that I was close to him but he was about eighteen months or more older than I am and that's a big difference between seventeen and nineteen and so he developed a different set of friends to me and I'd developed a different set to him. So we had in that sense, drifted apart to an extent. And one of the little ... again a little anguishing episode that took place, is that after my brother had been taken off and that, I think it might have been the same evening or the next evening, there, a friend of his came round there and came to the bottom of the stairs and, as they often did there and called out, 'Are you there Jack?' and so on because he was shy about coming up. I came out and there he was. He said, you know, 'Is Jack in there? We were going out this evening'. I remember looking at him and I said, 'I'm sorry, Jack's dead'. I remember the face, you know, [laughs] the face looking up and the shock ... the shock and then he just turned around and went and I've never seen him since. You've got these little things there, that go along with it.
[STRANGLED SOUND, UPSET FACE]
Oh they come into it. They spread out and they, I think ... I think they're enormously valuable experiences because they enable one's empathic imaginative faculties, they give it full rein.
Oh yes. That's the only way you understand other people's pain. Absolutely necessary, but of course, like Gaugin has said, 'A little poverty's good for everyone, but too much of it kills you'. [Laughs] The same thing goes. Yeah. So a little ... a little pain at least. And we all get it anyhow, you can't live without it. And so the thing is really to use the experiences that we get in a full and an imaginative way. Not hide it or conceal it or avoid it, but grief has to be lived through, I think, and activated from time to time. That's part of the whole business of life.
Yes. I conceal it less, now, I find, as I get older. I remember old Lloyd Rees was like that. He cried a lot. I could see that even in interviews and I could see he was going through the same thing.
Well their general technique was one there of ram it away into the back of your mind and forget it. They just simply wouldn't contemplate it or look at it, which is a great pity because - excuse me while I blow my nose - which is a great pity because that's ... it's by contemplation of pain and feeling every moment of it there that you get the message. See that's the thing that's important. [blows nose] And so, once ... once we get that we're more or less better equipped to face life and to know what to do when things happen or when they come up.
Well you had this ... this curious feeling that, again it might have been my obtuseness at the time, because again, I was very young and inexperienced and perhaps I wasn't registering things that I'd register now, but, see, I didn't know how to talk to someone who'd had his jaw blown away. See how do you talk? He couldn't talk to start with. The fellow ... one of the first things they got me to do was to do a drawing of a man who had his nose nipped right off, flush with his face from a shell splinter. It was just very clean and neat. [SWIPES HIS HAND QUICKLY] Like that. And so there he was, with all the nasal passages exposed. So they gave me the job of drawing that. So the thing that stayed in mind was, not only the event itself, but of course he couldn't control the secretions that were pouring down his face and he was constantly pulling his handkerchief out and wiping ... wiping his face there and apologising profusely for it. So this was ... he was there apparently to get some kind of artificial nose. How a lot of those poor fellows who were ... copped it at that time there, how they got on, God knows. And this was one of the terrible things of people not living these things through. Because if people could feel imaginatively, if not actually, imaginatively, feel what happened and that kind of human suffering there, it would be a guide for us. Where the past is so necessary, it guides you in current situations and future situations. It gives you there the way to handle them, or a more ... a better way to approach them. So it's rather tragic that people's ... most people's way of handling these things is try and turn their back on them and forget them.
Well let's see. That was happening, of course, with Joy. That started in 1937.
Well it happened in the fairly normal way of course. I was a frisky young fellow apart from all these other things, which you go and you succeed in forgetting at the time. And I even forget, oddly enough, how I directly met Joy. It was through some of the gallery students. She was going to the gallery and I ... I never went there. I never went to any art school like that. And ...
No, the only thing I went to, briefly, was to a commercial art school that my mother took me to, thinking she was doing the right thing by me. But of course it was the worst thing for me to do. But it did give me ... helped me. I wasn't there long, but enough to get ... to do a bit of lettering and things of that nature, which was useful for making money later on. So that aspect of it was quite good. But otherwise, like all young people now, you desensitise yourself, in a way, where you just ignore things you don't want to see and so that leaves the rest of your growth processes and your exploration processes free to continue. You've got to do this. You see, you've got to ... you've got to have a controlled forgetting, in a way. This is one ... One develops it as a control system, I think, later on in life.
I met her I'd say through some of these gallery students and I was in this loft in Collins Street I remember at the time and of course being the first thing thing is I said I wanted to paint her portrait, you see. The old, old ... the old, old ploy. The old con game. And so she agreed of course. Again, that's the con game from the female end of it. And I remember the first appointment I made with her, she was to come to this studio and - that I had in this loft. I was only borrowing it temporarily but that's where I painted the portrait. And she came there. So there it was. All things started from that point. See, after a while of painting the portrait there, I was chasing her around the chair and a bit of the game went on for quite a while. And so then I finished up living with her in Little Collins Street, in a little studio we had there. But again, all the adventures and stories around that are up and down, in and out, and just how much detail one would want to go into there, it could go on forever, so that's ... a story.
I was about six years older than Joy. She was seventeen. I was about twenty-three.
Oh no, no, when I ... when I met her. Let's see. Now when we married, she was, let me see, we married in about 1942, early ... very early '42 - no late '41, or early '42. I've even got photographs of that actually with my mother coming down with us to Greensborough where we got married and [we] told a fib on our marriage certificate in order to be able to marry. [Laughs]
Well I suppose in a relative ... I wouldn't say ... no not in normal sense. In one sense, in a normal sense, because I met quite a number of people through the art world generally. With Joy for example when I met her there I started taking her up to the Victorian Artists' Society where we do life drawing and this went on for about, oh, several years. I was already going when I met her. But ... so I took her up there with me and she just started. It was when after she did a few phases and sessions and that I realised that something exceptional was taking place with her. But initially she was just like any run of the mill gallery student because they succeed in killing anything you've got, you know. And as they did with Joy. There was nothing of consequence, just simply school exercises in her book. But when she was living ... once she was living with me and she had a few months of that, she suddenly had an enormous liberation with her [work] and she started producing some quite ... quite extraordinary work. I still have a lot of it. I had an exhibition, not so long ago, that had a lot of those drawings from that period in it.
Oh she was ... she was one out of the box. Purely because she never wasted brain power on things. She did everything through feeling and direct instant impulse. She'd just get on the floor with all her bits of papers and just splash away and then just get up and walk away. And I ... when I realised something was going on in her work ... Initially, they'd all be stuck in the rubbish bin afterwards. But then I started seeing rather interesting qualities beginning to emerge in them and then I started putting them all in a big cardboard box. So when Joy'd go and leave all this junk all over the floor, I'd clean up and put them ... put then all away. And the result is I have a whole stack of them. When she decided to seek pastures new, [laughs] she just sort of walked out and left the lot of them.
Well I think Joy, like all women, they ... you creatures are loaded with cunning and insight, where your own survival is concerned, and also you know that the male is quite a sucker in many ways and can be manipulated in all directions, via the old sex and his devotion and the worship of the female goddess principle, which happens automatically, and which you stupid women are industriously destroying at present. Or virtually have destroyed. Now where was I? You see, I shouldn't wander off the core track like that.
The kind of relationship. Oh well, the thing ... the thing is ... Oh yes, the thing with Joy, I think, very, very quickly and she saw that I was ... I had something of a ... Beneath her apparent ordinary exterior, Joy, as I subsequently found, was a terribly ambitious girl, which I would never have picked at that time. And I didn't really pick it until later on. I realise that it was a very quiet but powerful ego and a fantastic, terrific ambition at work, which I miscalculated all the way. And which is one thing there that put me in the wrong position as it were. But anyhow, she, I think, immediately recognised in me that I was a direction to go on, which would be of value to her, which it was. I introduced her to people like Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, John Percival, John and Sunday Reed, all these people. And it was ... It opened up a totally new world for her that she never knew existed. See, as a Elwood suburban girl there, a beach girl, she had no idea that this sort of world existed and I just happened unwittingly to be the key to it, as it were: the door opener to that kind of world. And so she went into that world with the greatest of enthusiasm, and of course, I thought it was my good looks, it was something else. [Laughs] No, I'm not being fair to Joy there [laughs] because obviously she had an emotional involvement with me but there's no question, also, though, that my way of life was a ... and the kind of contacts and my way of handling it, was a very big part of it. She recognised straight away that this is what she needed to release her and so there it was.
She was a lovely girl, a very pretty girl and then, after the relationship went on for a time, I realised a highly talented one. And there it was. And also we had a child. We had Sweeney and so as far as I was concerned it was ... everything was all right in that sense. And I was taking the conventional view, but the thing I didn't realise was that the last thing Joy wanted was motherhood. She got trapped by it because she was obviously ... out of her ambition and so on and then what she'd learnt then about the art world there, this is where she wanted to go. She was one of the early ... early free ladies shall I say, in that sense.
How did it end? Well very simply. I went to Japan because an American journalist, Harry Roskolenko, who was also mixed up with the whole Angry Penguin episode and came back later on, also, and he was here in '42 and also here in '47. And ...
I'll tell you about Japan when it comes to the '47 period.
Well the thing was ... well it happened in the Japan period because this went to 1947 and I ... Harry, who was quite a wheeler dealer, knew how to manipulate, [and] work all these things. He'd been on a search party with the air force in New Guinea - searching for crashed aircrafts and removing the remains and identification things and so on and taking them back. And he went as a journalist reporter on it all and he came down here [and] immediately set to work to organise a trip to Japan to do a series of articles and so on there. And while we were talking one day, he suddenly said ... he said, 'You know I think I'll be able to organise a trip for you too'. He said, 'I'll give it a go, I'll see what I can do about it'. Next thing there, you know, he'd organised it and I was on a plane going to New Guinea and so I didn't have to do a thing. See I wouldn't have been able, known how to ... I was too much of a simple boy from the sticks to be able to do all that manoeuvring.
Oh dear, I went straight to Kure and saw all the vast wreckage in Kure, which was an enormous naval depot, and they had a situation there five times larger than the biggest they had in the States, which shocked the wits out of the Americans, when they saw it. And from Kure we went all around that to ... to ... checked all the wreckage of the whole ... this enormous factory that was there that was smashed into pieces. The naval bombers would come and just pick out [avoid hitting] the kilns, right along. They did precision bombing. The Americans did a fantastic thing in that sense. And so, then, when I later saw it, they had all ... They did this because they wanted to preserve machinery in it. They had the biggest steam press in the world there. And so when I went through the factory with Harry, they had all the machinery that was still there, because the Americans had very carefully bombed it so as not to harm it. It was all wrapped up in plastic and I sort of looked at all the machinery, made in Manchester, made in Germany. [Laughs] This is the sort of thing that goes on today. And so, anyhow, I saw that and I saw the docks there with the vast destruction the Americans did there. It was incredible to see one enormous dry dock full of submarines, small battleships and so on, all tossed around like that, as though a giant had thrown in a hand full of toys. But the Americans had carried [on] a terrific destruction in that sense. So the next step was Hiroshima, which was not far away. It was a jeep drive away. So Harry and I got ... organised our jeep. We were able to get a jeep to be driven anywhere that we wanted to because we were correspondents and we went out to Hiroshima and had a good look at that. I've got some photographs there and there's a water colour I did in the War Museum of that and also some drawings, I think. I forget what is in there now. I've already ... I've still got some there ...
Well, curiously, again I was too ... too young and inexperienced in my empathic and my empathic abilities weren't developed as fully as I would have liked them to be. You see, I'd love to go back to these parts of my life and relive them with my current knowledge because I would have really ... boy, what I could have done with that experience if it had happened in that sequence. But it didn't. I was still ... I got a work done certainly. Some of it there was worthwhile but it was very limited in scope and number. I did the same thing later on in Frankfurt. I did the same thing there, where I had experiences there, which later I look back with tremendous regret, that I just simply didn't know more at the time. But nevertheless I did get a certain amount out of it, which I've been able to ... to ... well I've got them into the main galleries, into the War Memorial Museum, so they're adequate for that. But once out at Hiroshima, the way I felt, I looked at it in a sense, but it was superficially, the superficial aura. I'd heard all the stories about it. I saw the man printed on the concrete bridge. I saw ... I took a photograph. I've got a good one of the aiming tower, which was a tower, and contrary to popular belief, it wasn't totally destroyed. What happened is they exploded the bomb. This is what I was told mind you. I'm going by hearsay and what I was told at the time. It was exploded 500 feet above the aiming tower and when it exploded it went round like that. [GESTURE OF HAND GOING DOWN IN CONICAL SWEEP] And so everything there was levelled right out but in the middle, it just ... it had a suction, a reverse suction effect and sucked everything, because it was the modern part. They were all concrete buildings there and it just sucked the entire insides out of the buildings and so on but the buildings stayed standing. But on that other side, it was all flat and it left all the roads and bridges intact. Railway lines. This was all left intact. It didn't destroy in that sense. And of course when I saw it, that was about eighteen months after the bomb. I was there very early '47 and the bomb went off in what? I think it was July, I think. It was '45. So it was roughly eighteen months since ... since it happened. Whether it was radioactive or whether ... I mean you wouldn't know at the time. I wouldn't have gone near it if I knew about radioactivity, or knew enough about it. But apparently, hopefully, [I am] unaffected by it. Because a lot of others were there and of course a lot of people were in there, a lot were there shortly after the explosion, so what their fate has been I don't know. Perhaps the eighteen months is long enough for it to ... not to be effective. Hopefully. And ... [Bird in background]
The ones that I got I think into the drawings, into the notes. I'd still put them in the fairly superficial category in that I did sketches of the thing, a couple of water colours of the shanty towns that were beginning to be developed and put on top of the ruins. What happened to the people who built their shelters on top of the ruins immediately after it, God knows. I don't know if any follow up things have been done with them. But ...
Well I was three months in Japan, so I had a lot of other experiences there as you can imagine. I I was about to say, with the atomic bomb just simply levelling the whole place, we went on there to places like Osaka and Yokohama and Tokyo. Tokyo there, they just used incendiaries on Tokyo because it was a timber and paper city, largely with a cement core, you know, of all modern things. And that, of course, burnt like one thing, like a bonfire. And I remember a Japanese politician. I didn't understand hysteria then, either, at the time. Roskolenko was interviewing a Japanese politician and he was saying, 'What was it like after the incendiary bombs and so on. What happened?' And this chap - he was a politician there - his face in a sense [?] and he said, 'Oh well', he said, 'there were bodies everywhere'. He said, 'They were all collected. They were all piled at the end of every street'. He said, 'They were ten feet high', and there he was laughing hysterically, laughing like mad. 'The bodies are ten feet high at the end of every street'. So, you see, then I realised ... I thought, What gives? You know, laughing his head off at this horror. See I had enough of it for that. And then I realised later that it was hysteria with him. So there we are. Because probably his whole family went in it. God knows who went. You see. So, these are the little side personal horror insights and bits and pieces that one ... one gets. But the thing I was going to contrast it with is going to Osaka. Because Osaka was destroyed with high explosive and what that does is not only destroys everything but it hollows out buildings and brings them down and so on, but also digs up the ground. It digs up everything you see. Just churns everything up. Repeated bombings just churns. I've got some photographs of that inside too. And so you see I remember looking at it from a Buddhist temple, of which I have a photograph where you see Osaka from that and all the wreckage and all the ruin that took place there.
Oh the whole ... the whole place was and the thing that got me too, another insight I got while I was in Japan ... Roskolenko got a jeep and we were travelling around a bit and I wanted to go and see the Japanese artist Fujita. I still have one of his inside. And we were on our way to Fujita and I remember we were going past a lot of these bombed out ruins and so forth, these bombed out cities, bombed to smithereens. And there were all these little shanty towns. They'd been put up there. Hasty shelters had been put up: galvanised iron, bits of timber, packing cases, anything they could construct a shelter from. And there were all these places. And as you went by, the Japanese would come out, and this is the extraordinary thing there. Mind you, then, they were mainly all still in feudal costume, not like the modern Japanese now in western business suits. They're not that any more, although some of them might be, in the country they might be, but in ... right through the whole area, then, you were back in the Twelfth Century, which is rather, you know, a most extraordinary thing. And they'd come out there, in their Twelfth Century clothing - children, everyone there - and they'd just stand there with big bright smiles on their faces, beautifully dressed, beautiful toilet - everything ... everything in order and so on there - and bow and smile as we went by. And I looked at those people there and I remember turning to Harry and I said, 'For God's sake, nothing will ever destroy these people. Nothing', which was quite different to when I got to England, and got to Europe, to see what ... the moral reaction then at the time was quite different. The Japanese: I had that sense of indestructibility with them, at that time.
I don't think they knew what an artist was really, and my mother was very helpful in that way, to the best she knew how. But my father, I think, all he wanted me to do was get a job in the railway workshops and add a steady wage to things. Understandable, I suppose, but not for me.
Oh she was interested in it but she was also more concerned at what I wanted. You see? So she would follow that. I think that was the determining thing with her.
Ah, well, it's the sort of thing I wouldn't observe actually because I was working in fairly radical areas in painting, treated as the usual screwball and weirdo, and I don't think that made them happy but they never said anything.
I met them very, very early, around 1937, '38, I think. I hope I've got it right. I might be contradicting myself because I'm awful on dates. But I met them and it became a slow relationship, you know, see them at long intervals and then, I think, with their own particular kind of ambitions they realised I had a role I could play in it. And so I was steadily fed into the Heidelberg thing, bit by bit as it were.
Well the primary significance was that we could go out there and eat food that I'd never seen before in my life. That was a sort of primary one. And it was nice to have the journey. And then, of course, there were other deeper reasons that emerged as time went on. And the ... in fact it's only, really, in recent years that I've realised the full implications of what they did, which are very important because both John and Sunday came from wealthy families. And they were both overseas. Sunday went to a school over in France, and, I believe, in Switzerland. John went to Cambridge. They apparently met over there and they married. And they apparently decided in their ... after their time in Europe - I forget how long they were there, but for some time - but they apparently decided that Australia had unique qualities and that if they wanted to make any sense out of their life that they would do their best to promote and help them. And so this was a very good decision. They wanted to assist where they could in the development of an Australian culture. And so when they came back here ... I think it was around 1934 when they came back here. I may have that wrong too, I don't know, but that's a figure that leaps to mind. And from then on they slowly started getting mixed up in the art world here and what was going on and developed some sort of knowledge of it. And they slowly became more and more engrossed with it. And Sunday, who had a very good eye for paintings - she was the one, John knew nothing about it at the time - and she led John into it. And they were ... when I met them there, they [had] already pretty well committed themselves to this course and they were keeping their eye open for people they felt who would more or less help realise this ambition of theirs. And I just happened to be one of them, and Nolan, of course, is the other one. He was the main one, because to that he also developed, shall I say, a situation with Sunday where it developed an extra dimension, shall I say. And this ... and so Nolan finished up going out to live there and he lived there for seven years and so they did a heck of a lot for him in that time.
Well John ... This one has to get into fairly intimate speculations that are best to get clear of I think because I was, in a sense, an outsider with all this sort of thing going on. I was still pretty innocent myself, at that point. And so I ... I let the thing ride, but I more or less learned ... learned the words menage a trois and that this was a sort of thing that can happen in certain circles in life. And so I just ignored it and let it roll as it were. And so that's how it went on. But of course it then developed another aspect to it where ... in Nolan's relationship with Sunday. But then again I have to speculate in a very intimate motivations with people, which I prefer not to do. But there was many problems, which later, were probably fairly fully expressed by Nolan in a book of poetry he produced called Paradise Garden and this gives a pretty, rather frightening and substantial account of his whole history out at Heide, which in itself now I'd say has become a very valuable document because it does fill in a whole aspect which is very important. Whereas I came in on another aspect of John, involving with the Contemporary Art Society and with Angry Penguins, when he started publishing that and all the events that took place around that. And I actually worked with Angry Penguins and this is how I earned my stipend as it were, which I was getting from them at the time. I also gave them occasional paintings and so in this way, you could say, I earned my way in the relationship. And John did ... I would say that John probably became fairly, pretty dependent on me as an idea man. See he ... he'd had limited experience of life. I'd experienced areas of life that he'd never encountered and so obviously I was able to contribute something from that area, which I did. And so the relationship sustained itself this way. I kept it ... it kept going and I'd say, while we had our clashes and battles from time to time, overall we continued in a ... in a, I'd say, a pretty fruitful way.
I'd say mainly, yes. I never really got to know Sunday very well. She was always in a sense, a recessive figure. And, of course, we'd talk occasionally, we'd meet occasionally. But she also realised the role I was playing with John, which she was supporting. And when Joy came on the scene ... I don't know if I gave her full name before - Joy Hester. When she came on the scene and I introduced her into the Heidelberg thing, she got along famously with Sunday and so this made a rather a useful network and relationship. And so roughly that did occur that way: that Joy and Sunday got on well together. I and John, we got on well together. But there were battles all the way, you know, criss-crossing: Joy with Sunday, Sunday with Joy and [laughs] likewise with John. But it added up though to a ... you could say, a sustained and a fruitful relationship over quite a period of time.
Sunday: she was, I'd say, a pretty, you know. I see this as a woman's question [laughs] and Sunday was, I'd say, a quite a unique and extraordinary woman. I'd have to give two or three sides to Sunday I think to try and give a full account of her. I won't ... I'll try to sum her up, shall I say. That she was ... First she was a spoiled little rich girl - utterly spoiled, utterly. And this was shown, for example, if ever we were in the front room of the library and any dispute arose, Sunday there would simply quietly drift out and go to bed. You see, it was back to the womb always, whenever trouble was brewing. She'd leave it to the boys to fight it out. And then John would go into the bedroom, and there'd be a long conversations and discussions and John would discuss the fruits of his discussion in the library with myself, Nolan or whoever it was in there. and then go and discuss it with Sunday. Then he would come out, with what you could say was the policy on this particular issue. And this happened ... this kind of thing happened repeatedly. So in that sense Sunday was ... while she was still the guiding finger, she was the poor little rich girl. But if you want to talk about her as a personality, I was not attracted to her in the sexual sense at all. She was a very thin woman and she ... but she did obviously have an attraction for certain males. There was no question about that. Which I always failed to see. [laughs] Which in a sense was a mistake on my part from the standpoint of Sunday. But the thing I think if I looked, if you want me to try and summarise Sunday's nature. She was a unique woman, in that I would tend to ... I mean I associate her - with certain reading I've done with all these things - with the say the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. I was put ... I'd make her as a sort of, something like Ishtar and you remember her relationship with Gilgamesh. I don't know if you've read that, but that's one of the fascinating historical accounts. But there was this quite ... quite extraordinary thing and she was ... did have ... Every time I think of Sunday I'd also think of Ishtar, after I read all about Ishtar. And on top of that, I'd add to that, that in part of the mix there, I'd say a substantial dose of Lady Macbeth, [laughs] and so that would, in one sense, sum up Sunday to me. But a very highly sensitive and intelligent woman and quite erudite. And of course, as I say, I would say the central finger, guiding finger, in everything that went on at Heidelberg at the time. And she was a superb manipulator, the way she could manipulate and handle people. She was superb at that oddly enough, but mainly the girls to girls situations. She'd always deal with a male through their women. Although she dealt with me, finally, in a rather disastrous way.
Well there was John Perceval was there. Mary Boyd would often go there. Joy was there all the time. Nolan was there, living there constantly. Michael Keon was a major figure there and I'll be having lunch with him on Wednesday. And he was a major figure. He was there at a key period, a climactic period in 1942, when I was in the army. And so between it all, and there was other odd people being fed into that core situation as it were, all the time. I took Yosl Bergner out there, and he was only out there once though. And Sunday made a comment on his manners in the sense that he stooped down and shovelled his spaghetti into [his mouth] like that and I remember Sunday making some comment like that. But Yosl there jumped up in the air, waved his arms around and said, 'What do you think I come out here for? I come out to get my vitamins'. [Laughs] And that was that.
Oh the food. Look I'd never seen a spoon stand up in a bowl of cream before in my life. And it fascinated me. They had baby carrots cooked in cream. This kind of thing, you know. And huge sides of lamb ... of ham. And then also all the very exotic varieties of salads and everything else. They lived ... they lived very well.
Yes, they did as I found with several people that they thought were of promise and worth.
Well it was good, because I was paying back for it. I gave painting for it and I worked in the Contemporary Art Society for it and also on Angry Penguins so in a sense it was a form of employment. So I wasn't getting anything for nothing.
Oh very important, yes. It was a climactic part of it, but as you know this brings us on a little further now to the Ern Malley episode, which I gather you know about, because you Sydney-siders are a bigger part in it than I realised at the time.
Well, let's see. This is ... I could go on all afternoon on that one.
Well I don't mind. I'm very happy to talk about Malley.
You can't separate Malley from that because they were finally the executioners ... the executioners of Angry Penguins.
Yes, but it might be interesting, I'll ask you a question about your relationship to it. What did you get from your association with the Angry Penguins side of things and what did you think in the end of that whole episode and event in your life?
You mean including the Malley one? Well I think it was an extremely, the most courageous publishing ventures that's taken place in Australia. The most courageous and far reaching. It had a tremendous effect, far beyond what it did, because as I found later it had far reaching effects in both in England and in the United States. And what John and Sunday did with that is quite an accomplishment. An extraordinary accomplishment. But enormous publishing courage and the way they handled the Ern Malley Affair because as you know they were sent to ... You probably know the whole history of it, so I won't go into all that ...
I'll do my best. They received this bundle of poetry from a woman named Ethel Malley, which was a fake letter of course, but we wouldn't know it at the time, of poetry by her brother, Ern Malley, who died of what they call Grave's Disease. And he'd left behind him some poetry and she didn't know anything about poetry and so she felt that, perhaps, that if it was the sort of thing there that Angry Penguins could advise her on. She thought it was the sort of magazine that he would be interested in, that would be interested in his kind of work. And she was asking their opinion. So when they saw it, particularly when Max Harris got his first copies of it there, he went bananas about it. Quite so. I didn't see it because I was having quite a row with both John and Sunday at the time because I demanded - because I was looking after their sociological section and they were reproducing paintings and all this sort of thing - I thought that since I was there all the time, that I should have ... be on the editorial board because John was on it, Sunday was on it, Nolan was on it, and Max was on it. So I thought I should be on it too, but I was excluded, kept out and kept in this storeroom where I was ... where I was given a spot to do my own work. Well later of course, when one assesses one's self in relation to these things, I could see what it was. I was always too difficult a character to get on with. I was more ... tended to be argumentative, always putting forward a point of view that was out of kilter with theirs. And they felt ... I don't doubt they felt I'd be a disruptive person on it, which to an extent they were correct. But to think I missed out on, I could have given a lot of information too, which would have, shall I say, compensated for that. But, so this ... this was going on. So that meant that I never ... they told me that they'd discovered an extraordinary new poet and so this was of course fascinating but I never saw the poetry until Angry Penguins was published because I think they were scared stiff that I might attack the poetry and make it more difficult for them. And so ... but anyhow, once I read the poetry I also went overboard for it, and I still am because I think their judgement was quite correct. They showed enormous courage in publishing it, particularly when ... when the ... when the thing came in the air there that it was a possible hoax. The Reeds scented ... scented this themselves, that this was a possibility, and they were trying to think around, but they couldn't think of any talent they knew in Australian writing that could write or reach some of the levels of writing that existed in that poetry. And so this had them buffaloed. And so they finally decided that, while there was a lot of the poetry they felt was obscure, could be a hoax, there was a lot of it there that had such sufficiently major merit there for them to take a punt on it and publish it,which they did. And so this ... this was, as I say, an extraordinarily courageous decision.
By James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Now have you read this book of Michael Heywood's on the Ern Malley Affair? Well you'd have the background to it there. [coughs] Well this gave me a lot of information to it that I hadn't known before, particularly in McAuley's early history because I came out of reading there with a much higher regard for McAuley than I had earlier. Because, while McAuley was a very good poet and a traditional one, which I also had a high regard for, but once I read the Malley poems I realised that McAuley was really the author of it. And as this worked out and as Michael Heywood was able to point out, the ... that it was Harold Stewart who set up the provenance for the whole thing and organised this, shall I say, this deception at the time. And did it very skilfully. Did it very well. It was McAuley who was the ... I would say, the principal figure in the poetry. He may have, you know, bounced a ball of Stewart once in a while, I don't know, or off each other for that matter. But in the upshot of it was, it was unmistakably, it was McAuley that was the the ... to me, the author.
Well I was totally opposed to it, because he was attacking some of my own gods. For example, Eliot, and quaintly enough, oddly enough, later on McAuley came right around to Eliot, some years later. How long I don't know. But he was attacking what they called the Apocalyptic School and attacking Henry Reed and Reed was one of their targets, Henry Reed, because he was a populist. On a fairly serious level he was able to deal with questions of art and poetry on a pretty serious level and was also an able man ... a very able man himself in all these things and they regarded him as one of the people they wanted to get. Along with Max Harris. They were their targets. [Laughs] It was Max Harris who was target for tonight and also ... also a lot of the English apocalyptics: Dylan Thomas. They were after him too. And so they did actually a brilliant and highly sophisticated job emerged from it. More than they realised themselves, because their classical training stood them in good stead and their field of reference was of a very high order. It was very good. And they wrote some passages and they ... they made a marvellous, in a sense, an extremely and highly sophisticated game out of it. Playing chicken with their audience. Because they knew that all the people they were writing too, wouldn't have the slightest idea of who they were directing at or who they were talking too and would go along as long as they put the stamp on it: this is a hoax, so don't be taken in, which they had done. They ... they felt perfectly safe with what ... what went on with the audience. And so they anticipated all this with the audience, knowing the country they were in. The provincialism there was on a very high level at that time. And ...
Well the ultimate effect was to destroy Angry Penguins. That stopped that, which I think was one of the cultural crimes of the century, but they didn't know they were committing it. I'm not saying this was a deliberate thing but it did turn into, what I would call, a cultural crime because this is something that could have advanced the whole Australian cultural situation, far further ahead than it got. But as it did, it did a tremendous amount of good, and since I wasn't a poet, I mean this was a secondary ... would have been a secondary concern with me, one had to go along. But I joined in the objections to McAuley and Stewart and I have a very interesting encounter there. You see I'd never met them. In fact, to this day, I don't even know if ... if Nolan ever met them. I don't think he did. Max Harris hadn't met them until some ... some ... quite a long time later. And whether John had had any encounter with them, I even didn't know that. Because you see, as I said, I was in a state of warfare with them and all of a sudden it was taken up in the ... in dealing with the whole Ern Malley Affair, as they called it. And it's interesting to go back on that. It would perhaps take time to do it, and I'd need a copy of the Malley poems here, but I can pick out segments there, in it there, which are completely brilliant and which show where they played chicken with ... both with the Reeds and with everyone who would possibly read it and with a general audience. And they were very, very clever in the way they did it. They go right to the brink of revealing the hoax and then pulling back. For example, one little passage there they said, 'It is necessary to understand that a poet may not exist. That his writings are the incomplete circle and straight drop of a question mark'. [Laughs] Gives the story: absolutely brilliant. But then Ern Malley came to life, and this is the thing that caught them totally unawares, they created something that assumed an independent existence and then attacked them. This was a very fascinating phenomenon, which most people can't accommodate, but it would be known in you know, in the field of psychology and psychoanalytical fields, of how ... of how people can do this: how we can often create an entity to destroy ourselves. And this is what they succeeded in doing. And this came out in a thing there where they, in one passage in one other poem they said Nero and the botched tribe of imperial poets burn like the rafters, and the new men are cool as spreading fern. Now examine that passage. I mean, who were the imperial poets? McAuley and Stewart and they didn't know it. It was like my other thing saying about myself, this was right alongside, tapping them on the shoulder, and they didn't connect it. They didn't connect it with themselves because they were the imperial poets. There was no one else you could refer to. And then who were the ... who were the men, 'the new men as cool as cool as spreading fern'? No one else but the Angry Penguins, because they said that, you know, [coughs] there's one passage again - I don't remember completely how it goes there - but 'To the siegfried [?] like to renew the language', talking about that. See all these things. There were all these pointers all the way through the poetry which ... where they find themselves, as I said myself in one of my published accounts about this. I said that if you're a poet or got an artistic sensibility you cannot suspend its operation by an act of will. No matter what you say, you'll still do it in those terms and all they did was to disguise it from themselves by saying a piece of nonsense that turned out to be poetic nonsense.
To ... to what?
Well they continued. They had to wind Angry Penguins up because they were just simply losing too much money over it. And that was very simply that. So then they transferred their interest into the Contemporary Art Society and at that point there the Communist Party moved in to try and take it over and turn it into a political weapon. They were not interested in art but they were interested in politics. And so then we spent the next phase, the next year or two, fighting them off and I played a major role in that.
Oh this was an early thing. In the thirties you must remember that we knew virtually nothing about the ... [INTERRUPTION]
This was ... one has to give a little context to this one. In the thirties, the Communists there were, it was quite a big thing. You know, the Spanish Civil War was a major thing too, that took place. That affected us very profoundly. A lot of the boys here went off to join the International Brigade, as they did in England. So it was period of idealism and ignorance. They knew nothing about what was happening in the Soviet Union. We had no news or information whatsoever. All we knew was that a great and tremendously important social experiment was taking place that would help relieve us of our burdens of survival and enable us to get on with being artists. This is the way I interpreted it. And [clears throat] ... and then I was having all these bad experiences in all the jobs that I was getting, where everyone was, you know, really underpaid and overworked and badly treated.
Yes, that's what it amounted to. It fitted ... it dovetailed in very nicely into the communist doctrinaire approach. And so I drifted leftwards with all this. And so I became a quasi sort of communist and this. And then, with all the things, and while I wasn't in the, you know, directly involved with it, slowly as the thirties went on and we got to the late thirties, I forget when it was. In fact I oddly enough forget exactly when this was. I think it would have been about '37 or '38. The communists then set to work and they organised what they called an artists' branch there to deal with the needs of artists. This, of course, I pricked up my ears. I wasn't having anything to do with the politics of it, because I knew that wasn't simply my métier, whether I agreed with them, or whether I didn't. But on the other hand the ... if they set up an artists' branch I thought there was something there where, perhaps, I could play a good role in helping them see the light about the true role of art. And so they set up this branch. It was really ... as I realised later, it was not a branch of the Party at all. It was a kind of antechamber where they were getting people in there that they could use to bring in, draw in people involved in culture, and all they wanted to draw them in for was to use them politically. That was their sole purpose. And so they set to work to do this. And ... but I was unaware of that at the time. I thought: Good, we'll have meetings and I can do this. So I joined the branch in order to see what enlightenment I could throw on the proceedings. Well very quickly I found out that it was ... you know, what it stood for, that all they were interested in was that you go out and see ... they were testing ... go out and distribute leaflets and go to the Party meeting. Go to this, that and the other. And I went to two or three of these things and I thought: To hell with this. I'm not interested in this nonsense. And I wouldn't have a bar of it. So then I started having rows with them, which I had. Until finally I had the final row with them. They had an interrogation. They called me in to talk at one of their things, headed by Counihan by the way, Noel Counihan, and they sat in one of these interrogations, which was purely on political questions. And I finally ... I just saw it like a red rag to a bull. I jumped up in a purple rage and told them all to go to hell and stormed out. And that was it. That was the end of it. And from then on, I attacked them publicly in Angry Penguins at that point. I wrote an article called Art, Myth and Society, which quaintly enough is still operative and is still read and still used and still effective, which is rather curious. And in this I tried to be as impersonal as possible and deal with the role of myth in relation to politics and art, and so, since this didn't follow Party line, it was then replied to vigorously by Counihan and Harry de Hartog and I was attacked violently as a fascist in the making, as a Trotskyite, as capitalist lickspittle - all these other glorious terms that they invented at the time: all this lunatic, provincial, brainless, psychotic nonsense, as I found, because they were there, as I found later on there, that murder and genocide was part of their political programme. So I was very rapidly out of that one. And now, let's see what next ...
No, no, that was a bit after. That was later on in '47. On the personal thing. I wound up with the Contemporary Art Society. [coughs]. Excuse me. In which ... I was substantially responsible for the collapse of the Contemporary Art Society because then the communists moved in and they sent along all this stack of members to join up at half a crown a year and so on and get rid of Reed and Tucker and all these other anti-communist monsters. And so they worked hard at doing that and they stacked the meeting. The meeting was stacked, but before the meeting, one of their later recruits, Danila the Russian ... the Russian, Danila Vassilieff, who was a mentor and a friend of mine at the time. He had joined the Party a little time before, went to one or two meetings and fled in horror. He wouldn't have a bar of it. And so that was the end of that. But he ... they still sent him one of these notices and he came to me and he said, 'I thought you'd be interested in this', and he showed it to me. There it was calling on all communists to come along and get rid of Reed and Tucker.
They didn't want to get rid of the Contemporary Art Society, they wanted to take it over. You see? That's what they were doing. We'd set it up. Reed, principally. And they simply wanted to take it over and make it a political tool of the Communist Party. And so I was forewarned, happily. And I happened to be president of it at that time. And so the general meeting came up. They were voting for secretary and what have you and the vote came there for John Reed fifty-one and for Vic O'Connor, who was the Communist nominee: fifty. There was just one vote difference. So instantly they screamed for a recount, so we had a recount and it came out the same way. And that was it. The Communists were defeated by a whisker. They went off and from then on we were monsters that ... anti-communist monsters and they were through with us, totally through with us. And so this had an interesting ... well there was an interesting aftermath but I won't go into that one there. It gets a little ... I'd be encroaching on someone else's territory with this one. That'll come out later.
So after your encounters with the Communists and the problems with the Contemporary Art Society, and the decline of the Angry Penguins and so on, what was the next major event for you in your development?
Oh for me, well the major event for me was that when I went to Japan in '47 with Roskolenko and when I ... when I got back ... All was well with my wife, Joy, when we left, but while I was away, all sorts of things developed. I was away for three months and so whilst I was away she developed an affair with someone else and when I came back I was confronted with this situation. And she ... she suddenly packed up and just took off. Like that. Without explanation, without anything. And left me sitting there with our son, Sweeney.
Sweeney was two years old at the time. Just a little over two. And ...
The day? Well I don't remember the date. Everything was in great confusion ...
Oh yes. Well that was ... there was quite a little high drama there but that's a bit personal ... [INTERRUPTION]
Oh dear, that's a very wide question. Because first, one isn't consciously developing an art style. This thing just happens. You work and things add up in their own way and in their own time and people look at it later on and say, 'That's recognisable, that's typical of you', or 'Yes, that fits in with your general style'. So this is something again that's elusive. You can't pin it down. But as for influences of course, like everyone else, you're born in a particular cultural context, in which there are certain images which are potent at that time, you're influenced by them as everyone else is, and you meet your own particular personal situations, images, painters and people who have an influence. And quite probably if I simplified the whole thing, that probably a major figure for me is Danila Vassilieff, the Russian painter who came over, because he was a much older man than I and a completely unique one, and I was in the position of being the ... I was the suburban provincial out in the antipodes and in a curious way, in my early years, I never heard a foreign language spoken. As you remember, I came from an Australia in which the population was six to seven million. That covered my formative years. And so to encounter someone like Vassilieff and also later on, Yosl Bergner, these ... these had a curious effect, in that they made what was a kind of European fantasy about the art world, they gave it flesh and blood, it became real. And there I was talking to them, and I realised that they were people I could talk to, unlike most Australians. That they ... that I was much closer and I developed a faster rapport and understanding with them, than I could with my own people, which was a little problem to add up in one's mind. And then on top of that, Gino Nibbi, an Italian, had a bookshop called the Leonardo Bookshop in Little Collins Street and he was one who brought in some reproductions of material that I'd never seen before. For example, one of the major image that emerged from that, that I encountered was one of Münch. Münch, his Sick Child. You remember that one? It was one of those things there that really affected me. It's only later on I realised this related back to my own experience obviously with my little niece who'd died earlier. And these things are all ... in a sense, they are also recognitions of experiences which were powerful and formative in one's own development. And so Münch's Sick Child had this effect on me and this in turn then led me to go to the public library a lot and then I discovered they had a fine art room there, which I knew nothing about at the time. The librarian was a man named Ian Mair [?], who oddly enough, only died a couple of weeks ago I believe. But he was well into his eighties. But I'd go to him and he would give me a lot of information about books and so on and then one day he told me about the fine art room, which I hadn't heard of. And he said, 'Well you have to get a pass for it, but you can get all the art books you want in there'. So I got a pass straight away and then I ... for quite a long time I used to go into this room, because I had access to a whole range of books, and particularly - as I had through Nibbi and Edvard Münch - the Expressionists, the whole expressionist movement, which I hadn't heard of before then. But I'd already been painting my own little, timid little provincial versions of expressionism without knowing it, in suburban street scenes beforehand, and so that I instantly recognised the fellow spirits and these ... these had a very strong formative effect ... effect on me.
I've never really been attracted to abstract forms. That whole ... I can realise that it did perform a certain function of value, for a period. But now, I think in our time now, it's become a bit ridiculous and also it's become a marvellous cop out for so many painters because you cannot produce an image without producing an image. Very simply. And even if they produce something they think is abstract, say curves, lines, squares or something, they all exist in nature. That's where they're taken from originally anyhow. And so ... so no matter how you look at it there, the image's there. And also we tend to, in the Jungian way, we ... we ... if we see something that gives us some kind of clue to something that's significant to us, we'll project an image into it. So we work with images anyhow. But what we are really doing is: whether we're deliberately using them. And the abstract painters tried to deliberately get rid of the image, which of course is an impossible task as I said, anyhow. And ... but they made this attempt. They're still making the attempt. There's two paintings in the gallery now by some young painter in which, that's - I forget exactly what he said there - but it was more or less 'I have nothing to say' in text and next to it was just a plain black canvas. Well this had all happened before with Malevitch and it also happened with William Green in London. It's also happened [coughs] with, what's his name? The American I forget his name, an American painter there. He painted a whole exhibition of black paintings. Another one named Cohn who painted a whole exhibition full of just blue panels that size. I mean you know, we were in cloud cuckoo land with all that kind of thing.
Well the value it had for people, is first that they liked to join in evading the real problems of life. And this became a kind of a comfortable escape hatch in a way, where you just looked at a lot of pretty colours and shapes and so forth and that's all there was to it. And if you could enjoy them you enjoyed them and that was it. But this attempt to project into it there some vast mystical significance, you know, even now, we ... I saw this in New York as well as here only last week. I remember there a painter exhibited just a plain white canvas and when he was asked to explain what he was doing he said, 'I looked at it and thought hard, thought a lot there and I realised there was nothing to do. I went through every possibility that I could carry out with it'. There was nothing ... nothing there for him to do, so that was the painting. [Laughs] So you see cloud cuckoo land again. [Laughs] And ... but to me I've always had a firm grip on the image. Certainly I've played in a studio sense, experimentally, with ... with certain abstract approaches, or forms, or what have you. And in fact, what an image painter does, he's also making another kind of abstraction, because anything that is a variant on the ... on the ... on the perceptual image there can be called an abstraction on another level, which it is. And so I've always had that abstract element of functioning full bore.
No, no, no. You're attributing something to me that's totally wrong. Totally. To hell with the audience. There's only one audience I'm interested in. If he's satisfied that's the beginning and end of it as far as I'm concerned. And if other people then like it, well that's just a bonus.
Oh well, you put titles on work. This is a clue ... clue to direct into the painting. And other times I'll do it badly. I'll just give the paintings numbers there, just simply so I can identify them and so on. And even that fails because I'm a lousy ledger keeper and so I still get lost with it all. But every now and then I'll get a title there which is very appropriate to my intention in the painting and I'll use that. But that's okay. That's another thing. But it's not an explanation of the painting. As I say, it gives a clue and a direction.
Very simply I totally retreat into myself and to hell with everyone else. I don't give a damn whether they're right or wrong or who they are.
Oh yes, that's how I developed the attitude, in one sense, [laughingly] in that everything I did everyone thought I was out of my mind, or took no notice of it.
At the time there were other young painters around you that you were spending time with, who were coming on, who were beginning to get more recognition, like Sidney Nolan. What did you think of ... of ... of Nolan's work?
Oh Nolan had pretty solid rejection most of the way too, in the early days. Quite a lot of it. But his advantage was, well it was mine also in a sense, but more so with Nolan, was that he did have the very solid backing of the Reeds, who picked him out because of this and so they gave him more support than anyone else. But I also got a certain amount of that, and so did John Perceival and so did later on, Joy Hester, and so on. These things happened because Sunday had a very good eye, shall I say. And this underlay the whole thing. The fact she had a good eye and also had a fair amount ... was a rich woman. This made a very big difference. So that she became in a sense ... The Reeds wouldn't like this because they rejected the idea, but in fact they did become patrons in a way of a small group of painters and it turned out that they put their money on the right horse.
We ... It was rather curious. People have brought this up before, because since, with hindsight we appeared as a group, in fact at the time we weren't. We were a willy nilly, coincidental arrangement of people that encountered one another once in a while, and then of course relationships developed and sustained themselves over a time. And then you were seen together. You were mixed up and then finally you were designated by other people as some kind of group. And then later on we became the Angry Penguin painters, which of course we knew nothing about at the time. Which is in a way a silly title, which was one that produced by Max Harris. I forget now. He got it from some poem I believe. And they used the word angry because the English had also had the angry painters at the time too. The Kitchen Sink School for example. They were also angry. In fact it's a characteristic and probably a very good one of young painters to feel rejected by life and to be angry about it because they know they're telling their own personal truth and people should put some value on it. And they feel rejected. And so this makes them angry. So that's probably where the angry came from.
Well as you've just noticed, I was more vocal than most. [Laughs] And also more confronting and aggressive I think, and this is what I think John Reed liked about me, because I was, in a sense, became an idea man for them, particularly with the Contemporary Art Society and Angry Penguins. And so I had, you know, my extra curricular activities, apart from painting there, also other forms of activity which reinforced the whole painting position or made it hopefully more ... a bit more explicit for some people.
Well I don't pursue conflict. I don't do that. See, again, this is where one puts a conclusion before the event. See, I'm not interested in conflict. I avoid it. I like a peaceful life but what seems true to me if I put it out into the world, everyone jumps up and down with rage. You see, [laughs] as they may be doing with this programme, I don't know. And so one has to ... one just has to put up with that. There's certainly ... I have no desire for conflict at all. But I also realise as a fact of life that if you want to do things in life, you have to enter into all sorts of levels of conflict with situations: people, institutions and so on. There is no escape from that and so you just grit your teeth, put your head down and charge in. Or at least that was my temperament to do that. In fact I'd like to do it far more now on all sorts of issues, which absolutely infuriate me. But I'm so tiny and so minute and so helpless in the front of it, and I realise I'll ... I'll consume energy, consume time and destroy myself if I get involved in that kind of conflict. For example the ... to mention one there that gets me really berserk is the ancient Eucalypt forests in eastern Gippsland, which are being turned into ship loads of chips now. Now this infuriates me. To me it's an act of total blasphemy. And the fact that it was said on a programme the other night that this, they need this because it give another 500 million to the economy, to hell with the economy! If it costs 500 million, okay, let them take it off our standard of living. We can afford it. We can afford that. And have respect and a sense of the sacrosanct and the history of this marvellous thing, of these beautiful forests there that are thousands of years of old, thousands of years of age, which have ... which are full of incredible and unique forms of wildlife which have grown up with the forest over these many thousands of years. We move in and turn it into floor boards and let all the wildlife starve to death. I mean, this is one of our great crimes of our time. See, I've already got going you see, while I'm speaking my mind, this would, published of course, create conflict and I've had this: I've tried to say things at times publicly about this, but I've had half of the thing chopped out, see, by some papers there, who were babbling all the time about freedom of speech and free press. And my God, they can be the most rigorous censors in the world, and we've got a hidden censorship, which keeps all this information hidden. But I'm too old now, and too long in the tooth to be able to put my head down and charge in, as I would have when I was younger: charge in and take them head on.
Life comes to a standstill without people of passionate commitment there. All historical change you can trace back to the initiating idea in one embryonic situation, on individual mind. That was the beginning of it. And this is where an Einstein came from, a Jung came from, a Picasso came from, Shakespeare came from. They're all people there who ... who were that single, solitary, minute, embryonic beginning of a new form, a new aspect or mutation of life. And so the freedom of that individualist to me is what democracy means. Not for most people, in the sense, that most people use freedom in a trivial and superficial way and so on. And also they convert the notion of freedom into self indulgence. Do your own thing, that favourite phrase, you see, which I think is absolutely a disgraceful interpretation of it, because you can't have an act of real freedom without it having a commensurate fact of self discipline with it, to give that act of freedom its true value and meaning.
Oh yes, on all levels. All levels. All levels.
Well, there are certain people who just can't tolerate the confrontation of any issue, for example. And also, let alone any public organs of any kind there, they're always very terrified and concerned and they fear the unknown powers that will move in, or they'll lose their market or something or other of this nature. And so we're ruled, in a sense, by fear and inhibition and outside forces, as well as inside forces producing it. And to find ... this is to me what a means to be, a Van Gogh, for example. Like with Jesus Christ, who's probably one of the most honest men who ever lived. [laughs] Look at the life he lived. Tormented suicide. And so these things have a very, very heavy price indeed. And someone who can tell their own truth and succeed in living a long life, and then be able to survive in it there, is extremely fortunate. Extremely. And I consider myself very, very fortunate to that extent, in that I did succeed late in life in making some of these things come together. But I'm well aware that anything can happen anytime. A lot of the things I'm saying now can earn me a lot of enmity straight away. [Laughs]
Returning to your long life, when you returned from your trip to Japan, you were confronted at a personal level, with a major turning point for you. You'd been to Japan and you'd looked at the aftermath of war there, and very soon after you returned, there was a major event in your personal life. Could you tell us about that?
Oh that one was an unhappy one for me. I was married to Joy Hester, as you know, and she was a lovely girl, lovely girl, and a highly talented one, a very important one, and my relationship with her was very good, as far as I knew. But males are suckers in this department, as you know. We've got a blind spot which the ladies are very well aware of, and know very well how to use ... to make use of. Excuse the cynicism. But nevertheless, to me, everything in the garden was lovely and everything was all right. We had a young son and ... just two years old, young Sweeney. And when I returned I was confronted almost immediately with a ... with one of those ludicrous, when I look back on it, utterly ludicrous, stranger than fiction situations. And if you wrote about it in a novel, no one would believe it. They'd think, 'Oh you know, this is ludicrous. This is out of this world'. I can't remember exact times or sequences as one often can't when you're caught up in these things, but within a day or two of coming back I received a call from John Reed, who was still in his office in Temple Court and he said he wanted me to come in as he wanted to have a talk with me about something, which I assumed was catching up on things, because I'd been away for over three months and I assumed he wanted to catch up on certain things. And so I went in and saw John and I remember sitting across the desk and he looked at me very gravely and he said, 'I have ... unfortunately, I have some very bad news for you'. and I said, 'Yes?' and he said, 'You remember that Joy had this lump on her neck just before you went away and you suggested to her that she see a doctor', before I went, which I did. We put it down to a virus or throat infection of some sort. And I told her this before I went: 'See John and ask him if you can see his doctor and get him to look at it'. And he said anyhow that Joy went and saw this doctor of John's and the doctor told her she had Hodgkin's Disease. And also in the way ... rather brutal way in which, unfortunately, many of our medical colleagues have, he then said ... he said it was estimated she had about two years to live. Which was a disgraceful thing to say, even if true, because diagnostic methods were not that good, and no one can play God with anyone else and tell them when they're going to die, no matter what their condition is. And this is shocking. But of course this shocked, as you can imagine. You know, it sort of stopped me in my tracks. I was utterly shocked out of my wits by this. Let's see. I'd come into the city with Joy and Sweeney in his stroller and she'd gone off to do some window shopping while I went up to see John and when I came down there, I had this terrifying thing of composing myself and trying to talk to her and continue with her as though nothing had happened.
She didn't know a thing about it. Didn't know a thing. And so this is one of the most, you know, appalling and, you know, relationship situations one could suddenly be projected into in a matter of minutes. I can understand people who's someone there that they love there is just ... someone comes and tell them they've been run over and killed, you know. Gets into that kind of area. You know, one of these real true disasters that can happen to the human mind. And your big problem then is to survive it almost. But anyhow I did the best I could and saw Joy and put on as good a front as I can, when inside I was all churned up in horror and despair and everything else. And we went home and we got home there and Joy had been very ... a bit cranky and a bit difficult and I paid much attention to this, because normally she was fairly stable. And we got ... we got home, went up the stairs and all of a sudden she burst out. She'd be saving it up apparently there. She said that she couldn't stay, that she had to go away on her own for a while to think things over, that she was involved with so-and-so.
Another man. Yes. So there I was you see, a double whammy. Double whammy. You know, all within the same couple of hours as it were. Double whammy. And this is when one's life, you can feel it just suddenly fall apart. And this is when ... this is when Sweeney was upstairs being put in his cot. And so, anyhow, then of course I ... I was totally ... if I hadn't had that earlier news earlier, I don't know how I would have reacted, but it would have been very differently. I would have had far more control. But getting the double thing there, that was it for me. I was almost falling apart, with this thing. Gibbering you could almost say and not knowing what to say or do, and so on. And so finally there, Joy then said, 'I've got to go away and think things over', and so fled downstairs. And then she stopped short. This is again, a marvellous little insight I think into some people, or the ladies or whatever you like, this firm grip on reality. She suddenly stopped short and said, 'I haven't any money!' [Laughs] And of course what is it I do? The sucker does there, pulled out his wallet, which I had ... well I had money in it that I'd got when I was in Japan there and threw it down to her. She fielded the wallet, took the money out, dropped the wallet and then resumed hysterical crying and raced out of the house, and that was it. So I was left there flat-footed. I didn't know who I was, what had happened and there was the youngster asleep in his cot. And I was, as I say, more or less gibbering. And finally when I calmed myself down there I rang Heidelberg. I rang Nolan and told him I was in a very bad state there. And he said - oh just one thing there that I hold for Nolan very good there - he said, 'Oh I'll come out straight away', which he did. And this helped a lot. And so anyhow from then on it was a very scrambled and mixed thing. I spent the next days trying to track Joy down to find out what it was, because obviously, even accepting the fact of it, there was still all sorts of things to fix up. Sweeney for example. The youngster. And there I was left flat-footed. Later on though I found out what, or at least I can only assume or worked out what would have really happened, is that Sunday would have given her an assurance that she would look after Sweeney if she decided to go off. So this literally freed Joy to take off. And at this point, as I said, she had a secretly quite ... I'd say, quite a strong, quiet ego and a terrific ambition of a level which I ... which I simply hadn't realised. I hadn't observed.
Oh no, no. She had all the space she wanted. I was cleaning up after her when she worked, for God's sake. I took her up the Victorian Artists' Society, and she ... we worked together. All her early work was done like that. I gave her ... introduced her to everyone, gave her every encouragement. The only battle I had with her once was when I'd worked for weeks - this is some time earlier - in making paint, in grinding it and going around and getting the powder colour, getting all the media, spending weeks there grind, grind, grind, and putting it in tubes, which I did. But anyhow one day when I was out I came back and Joy had decided - this impulse thing - to do a painting. She grabbed my paints and did a couple of large paintings, about so big there, [GESTURES WITH HIS ARMS] and put on the paint about half an inch thick. I nearly went cuckoo because here I was there carefully doling it out, working my innards out, and I had a terrific row with her and I said to her ... read the riot act to her and I said, 'If you want any bloody paint, girl, do what I did. Go out and make it yourself. If not, you're not entitled to paint the picture with it', you see. So there we were. So I gave her the hard male thing there. She said nothing. Didn't argue. She knew she was in the wrong. And so that ... that passed. But I really ... that's the first ... that's really the worst real row that I had with her, ever, was that one over getting into my painting material.
Well, Sunday ... Sunday couldn't have children. She was enormously frustrated at not having them. And she regarded Sweeney as a ... he was a beautiful little baby, a beautiful boy. And she doted on him. We took him out to Heidelberg when he was born and she had seen a lot of him and she sort of played mother with him right through that period, all the times we went out there. But with again, with my male stupidity, I wasn't aware of what was going on. That she developed a bond. Joy developed a bond and a level of contact with Sunday that I never had. See? And this is what I think happened is that she got involved with this fellow. What order this would have happened in, I don't know. But she got involved and made the decision in her mind now that she could go it on her own, that she didn't really need my help any more. And she wanted to stand on her own two feet, which has got its degree of legitimacy. And so ... so in that sense, good luck to her. But not if you destroy all the people around you. That's where one stops short. Well she didn't.
And Sunday, I think, more or less gave her the assurance there that if, 'Look Joy if you ever want to go off or do anything ...', because Sunday was one of these people who interfered in people's married lives. She was an interferer. Again I was in innocent in that area. I only realised this later on and really observed it later on. And she was a marvellously skilled manipulator. And I think what really had happened is that Sunday said, 'Oh they're young and strong. They can have more children. I can't and so I'm entitled to get Sweeney if I can'. And I think she arranged things so this is what happened. So she won hands down with Joy's co-operation, because, you see, this instantly freed Joy to test herself on the world, which she did.
And I was unaware that she had this desire and ego and ambition that was so strong that she would want to do this.
Oh no, she did not. She did the classic ... classical thing. That's again ... of course again like that usual male idiot I believed her when she said she wanted to be on her own and think things over. I thought: Well okay, she's entitled to do that. I even rationalised it to myself and justified it. I thought if she's in a bind of some kind and so on, well okay, she needs a bit of time on her own to work things out. And I left it at that. But of course what she did, she fled straight to this other fellow and that was it.
And this eighty pounds that she whipped out of my wallet, down the stairs, they took that and a few days later, took off for Sydney and had a binge on that. I financed their escape as it were. Unwittingly, needless to say. [Laughs] My life is full of these lovely little ironic twists you know. I don't doubt upstairs and many of the gods who handle these things there, that they're laughing. They laugh their heads off at what they're doing with us down here.
Oh I better leave his name out of it. It's probably well known anyhow.
No, oh no. That didn't occur to me. Oh no. I'm not the one there that goes and kills the lover. No. no, I'm not that type at all. The woman is always responsible in that. She's the one who says yes or no, who responds or doesn't respond. She's totally responsible, the female. And if anyone's going to ... going to be dealt with, it's the woman, if one wants to do any dealing with it. But fortunately I'm not the homicidal type.
Joy? Ah, yes. Well this gets into one little final episode which ... which, well, I suppose, to complete the story it's necessary to put it down, although in a sense I'm putting my neck out as you know, in the way we talked about earlier. But since this is an archival thing and so it's necessary to tell in there, if people in the future have any interest in it at all. But I went to a lot of trouble to try and track her down, to find out where she was. And I'll cut it. These things are always confused and mixed in so I'll just tell the main line of it. There were ... [coughs] Excuse me. I'll keep their names out of it but there were two girls, one of them a Belgian girl and the other a German girl and their husbands had been popped into internment camps because when the war broke out here, [coughs] excuse me ...
Ah, yes I did but rather dramatic ... shall I say, dramatic finale. I spent a lot of time trying to track her down. I simply couldn't find her. A great deal of it. And while ... while all this confusion was going on there were two other girls, a Belgian girl and a German girl, who we knew quite well, had been friendly with for quite a long time, and their husbands were in internment camp, because of their nationality. But they lived in different areas and one of them rang me up and said that Joy had rung them and had arranged to meet them at the apartment of the other girl, and at a certain time on a particular day. Because as European girls, when this happened there, they were shocked out of their wits, as were most people. Not so much at the ... the conflict between two people. That seemed to be there, but the thing that was not possible in those days, simply not possible, is that a mother would desert her child. That was not possible. Particularly, more so even with the European minds. This was one of those things that simply was not tolerable, did not happen and could not happen, should not happen, and [should] be totally condemned under all circumstances. And so they ... of course, this immediately meant, not only Joy's mother, but also all the friends there, they were all immediately on my side because they knew what had happened. And not so much in say taking sides between Joy and myself, but the fact of her deserting her child, that was enough for them. And so she rang me up and told me about the meeting. That if I wanted to - they knew I was hunting for Joy, [and] couldn't find her. They said, 'Okay if you want to see her there, come along at such and such a time and she'll be there'. So I went along and this is our dramatic finale shall I say. I went along and there was a stairway that went above this apartment where I could be on the top. I could look down the stairs leading up the building, and then going in and then coming up the stairs to this apartment which was just below, so I was able to observe the whole thing. Sure enough, just before the time there, there was Joy coming up the stairs. So I'm looking quite confident, sort of quite self possessed, everything in order, and ... which was everything I wasn't at the time, because I knew that a showdown of some kind was coming up. And so I waited up there. I heard her come up the stairs. I heard her go to the door. I heard her knock at the door. I heard the door open and I heard the voices of these ... this girl who let her in. And I waited a minute or so and then I came down and I remember I was smoking then. I had ... one of the brief phases of my life when I smoked. And I lit a cigarette there to steady myself. And I went down, knocked at the door. It was opened by this girl. And she was ... with her eyes bugging out of her head, because she could see we were in an explosive situation. And I came in, and down the short hallway and then there was a sitting room there and there was a round table there, and there was Joy sitting on the other side of it. So I came into the room there and Joy immediately ... she you know ... her eyes bugged out of her head. Her face went snow white there and she said, 'What the hell are you doing here?' and so on. And I realised that by the way she spoke, full of terrific, you know, terrific rage, almost rage and hatred there, 'What the hell are you doing here?' And so I remember I ... Sometimes in acute crisis, as long as it comes one at a time, a certain curious calm will descend on you, sometimes, and this descended on me then. And I remember I just didn't say a word, I just took the cigarette out of my mouth and put it in the ashtray on the table because I could see there that there was no way of talking to Joy, with the way she was ready to fly and that was it, in a ... in a rage, because she realised she'd been tricked by these two that she'd taken as friends. By this sort of ambush. So I just put the cigarette out there, and this is the only time in my life this has ever happened and I've ever done it. I've never struck a woman in my life. This was the one exception. I put the cigarette out calmly, and pulled my arm back like that, gave a God awful roundhouse swing and it caught Joy right on the side of the head there and knocked her clean ... It was with much more force than I could even be aware of myself. And knocked her clean out of her chair, and she crumpled up against the wall. Instant change there, sobbing and crying. Straight away. She scrambled to her feet, and she said, 'I know you'll never let me go. You'll never let me go" and I said to her, 'Do what you like but I've got to talk about Sweeney'. And she took no notice of that. She just scrambled up there and she started to get out ... she had to get out behind my chair in order to get to the door and so on. And she just scrambled behind there. Then she did a most peculiar thing. She suddenly stopped short beside me, and put her hand round my head there and pressed my head into her side, [GESTURES TO HIS WAIST] like that. Just for a moment. Then she let go and turned around and then fled out the door and that's the last I ever saw of her. So there we are. In this life. [Laughs]
Well I just sat there, you know, and recovered because I realised there she was saying something about, 'You'll follow me, you'll follow me', and I said, 'No, I won't', and I just sat there. That was the end of the story.
Well I did what they'd obviously ... with this diabolical ... which I would call diabolical cunning. It happened exactly as they anticipated. I didn't even think of the role that Sunday could have played in the whole there. The whole thing was too sudden. I hadn't been able to sort out the parts and try and add things up and so work out what happened. And so the first thing I did there with that there ... is that I rang Sunday and asked her if she'd look after Sweeney for a while, which was exactly what they knew I'd do, [laughs] only I didn't know it of course.
That I might have what?
Well that was simply not ... not ... In those days that was simply not possible. I was trying to earn a living. I had to go out every day. I mean there was no way of ... of doing this. And this is an immediate, short range - as I thought - short range solution until I sorted myself out and worked out something to do with Sweeney. And you can never come up with these fast answers to these complex life situations. And so that was left, and so Sweeney stayed there. There was no objection from the Reeds at all. And so finally there, then I left the apartment I was in and oddly enough I then went slept on the back verandah of Joy's mother's place. She asked me to come and stay over with her, which I did. And I got along with the old lady there. You see, all was well. And so there were a lot more wheels within wheels of course, as you can imagine. But eventually it got that way and the Reeds seemed very happy to continue looking after Sweeney. I hadn't really fully realised the situation there. And I thought, Well this will be good, if they look after him until I you know sort myself out or rearrange my entire life, which I had to do. Then I would ... this, in a curious way, freed me from all obligations. I got rid of the apartment and I thought, well, you know, I was able to gather together a bit of money which I got while I was in Japan and I'd earned. I'd painted some portraits of Americans there and so on, and I managed to get a bit of money together. And I thought, well this is it. I've got to get out of this place. This is hell. You know, this'll destroy ... it's destroying me. And I'd always had this European dream because we always ... it's quite different to now by the way. We never quite really believed that Europe existed. I mean we were ... at the time I called it culturally schizophrenic. And we thought where is reality? One moment it was in Europe, the next it was here, and then Europe was the fantasy, then Europe was the reality and we were the fantasy. See, this is curious, curious double thing going on in our mind. And I thought, well at least now, I'm ... and John and Sunday to look after Sweeney, I'll get over to Europe and I'll be able to ...'. I borrowed some money from Joy's mother and borrowed some money from another friend there and then the money I already had from Japan, I was able to buy a passage on the Largs Bay, the sixty pound one by the way, that put me right in the bottom of the boat, which was sheer hell I might add. But I'd never been on a boat before. I'd flown to Japan of course, so I had a taste for the outside world. And ...
Beg your pardon?
Well I headed straight for London. This ... this was the Mecca, in a sense, at the point there, and then Paris. All of which I fulfilled. So I got to London and this of course displaced a lot of the woe and trouble. I was in totally a different environment. All this curiosity and I remember the marvellous thing of arriving and being in a hotel in Grosvenor Square. But we drove to it in a typical London pea soup fog. [Laughs] You see, we arrived at Waterloo. And I remember getting the cab in the fog and you couldn't see ten feet ahead of the car.
Well, no, no. This was a general aim that I had for the three of us, with both Joy and Sweeney. And the odd thing is there that at the point, with the money I'd brought back from Japan, and with money I was able to borrow - this is the only borrowing I've ever done in my life by the way is that little session of it - with all that I figured there that now we had this ... she went ... see when this happened there I immediately ... John kept back half the stipend that we were getting. See? Because they were paying both of us and I was still working a lot with Angry Penguins and so on, and so I realised with the work I was doing, the money I was able to make here, which I was making - some but not much, but enough - and by putting it all together I realised ... and if John and Sunday ... I had never approached them, the question never came up, but if they were prepared to keep it going for another year or two, then we could ... the three of us could have gone to Europe, but which, of course, would have been completely against Sunday's interests. So they probably would have refused if I had made the proposition. But this I had in mind, and looking back on it there, I don't doubt that I would have got out because the desire was so strong with me. And at least I was near enough to having the money to pay for fares, and as I say, if I could, at that time, I thought I could make the arrangement with John, then okay I would have been able to do it.
Oh yes, that's when I got ... [laughs] when I was getting on the boat. At least, now let's see - no, no, what am I talking about? I forget. I was getting on the train. I had to take the train to Sydney to get the boat there. And a touching little thing I found which ... because Joy and this bloke were in Sydney then. A touching little thing that I only found out fairly recently, some months ago, was that Joy had heard from the Reeds that I was going on the boat and she watched the boat sail out from Sydney, through Sydney Heads, which might have had quite an effect on me if I'd known at the time that she was there watching it. Perhaps she was just making sure I went, I don't know. [Laughs] But ... but I was quite touched by that, because I felt she was antagonistic then because after they got installed in Sydney and I didn't know where they were, she wrote me a couple of letters but I never answered them because there was nothing I could say. You know, you read the letter, you want to say something and there's nothing you can say, and the last one there was telling us how poor they both were and more or less indicating could I help them out. Extraordinary sort of expectation, you know. A working of the mind that I can't comprehend, but really she wanted ... wanted a helping hand at that point. Again I ignored that but I found that she could use the Sydney Railway Station as a place, because I was in touch with the Reeds over this one there, and so I packed up all her things in a big suitcase and sent the lot and paid for it to go.
Oh yes well I was getting going down to the train here I was interviewed by The Sun newspaper and they were asking me about leaving and I said, 'Well ...', because [coughs] they were all about at the time. One of the nasty words in use at the time was 'refujews' and you know the refugees were getting into ... already getting signs of objections to the number of refugees who were pouring in, in that immediate pre-war [sic] period. And so I was very ... I was very concerned with that and so this is the first phrase that came to mind when they asked me what I was going through and I said, 'Well I'm a refugee from Australian culture'. There it was.
Oh yes indeed. I was in flight. I mean I'd really ... it was a place I'd gone through a very difficult childhood in. I'd battled like a maniac there to try and work done against all obstacles and resistances. The only shining light in it were in fact the Reeds who really helped out when I needed it. And so ... so my general feeling there was one of total rejection and my answer to that was total antagonism.
Had my work been seen?
Oh yes I had you could say a small following but not the financial one. I did sell an occasional painting but you could count them on the fingers of one hand. And, also the prices were very low. And so that couldn't really be counted as a source of income. It was a help but not enough, [not] nearly enough.
Well I embarked on a course of total ... a tremendous growth period you could say then. Because in a curious way you sometimes feel you are manipulated by unseen powers. That's why I often refer to the people upstairs, because I feel the presence of their finger coming down and directing this or directing that. But in a curious way I realised that also that this had ... this had fulfilled something that I needed. That it deprived me of responsibility in that I no longer ... because Sweeney, of course, was a terrific responsibility, which I readily accepted. Never occurred to me not to because I was one of those there that ''til death do us part' types. And we were ... most of us were that, 'til death do us part. My mother and father were like that. They fought and quarrelled all their life and so on but the last thing they would have thought of was divorcing or separating because the family always came first. Always. Not like now, where women have gone to pieces, where they're trying to invade the male ... male power areas in their endeavour to take over there. Not that I'm against women doing things, but they've got a different order of life with a different order of social functions and capacities and many of those are ... of course can be quite creative. Such as Joy was. And I don't believe in blocking them. They should be helped. But you know where one is able to help in this way. But in general, in the general stories there, that the ... just as the male has got to be the protector and provider, the female's got to be the creator and nurturer. This is true equality in the division of biological functions between the sexes which translates obviously into social roles, which you cannot avoid, and which you hear these idiots talking about being cast into a role. What the hell else? We're all cast in a role. You've only got two legs if you want to walk. So what is it, a roll? I mean we hear such idiocy these days about all these things there that I, that again it's something I have to keep out of because I'll, you know, do my lolly and say what I think and often this gets me into heavy trouble. And I'm more interested in having that time and energy go into my work, not spill it out of me.
Well, my money started to run out in London and of course the money they had wasn't enough to support me, see, so I had a real problem of ... very simply, of eating and you could say roughly their stipend paid for my ... paid for shelter, but it didn't pay for food. And so ... so I had to really keep ... keep moving. In fact, when I look back, I wonder myself now how on earth I succeeded in surviving. But I did succeed in it anyhow. But this is a scrambled, sort of disordered, sort of life there, of acute anxiety. The old anxiety continued in another form, in another environment. I lived as cheaply as possible, which I was able to do, by using in Paris, I went to the student forays, for example, and there you could get potato done in six different ways, [laughs] which I did. And so there that was. So, anyhow, it started a whole round and cycle of life there. I stayed a bit in London about six months and then very simply after the excitement wore off, I got a little tired of it, because the weather. It was one of those atrocious winters in late 1947 that, which was pretty deadly and which didn't suit me at all. It was very painful. In fact the thing that saved me was a llama wool overcoat that I bought at Sam Bear's in Russell Street, at the second hand shop. And I remember I paid ten pounds on that, because I was terrified of being trapped in a European winter and freezing to death, [laughs] and not knowing what to expect. So this in fact, this did save me. I've got a photograph of myself when I arrived in London, [laughs] wearing this coat there in Trafalgar Square.
Well after, after a while, after the, again I can't remember dates, but very early in 1948, I decided there, come hell or high water, my money's running out, which it was, and while I've got enough money to do it there, I'll have to ... I'll see Paris and die if necessary. You know I had that total desperation. And total risk. And so ...
Oh I got an enormous amount. I spent in all about four years in Paris. A broken period because I went also into Germany and back ... back to England a couple of times, a few times - I can't remember how many - but ... because you're at such a point there where you could do these things. And in Paris you could get a six month's residence thing, but then you had to renew it and you could only renew it by going out of the country and coming back in again. So one had to do it, you see, in order to stay there. And like so many there, I just fell totally in love with the Paris then, and this happily was the Paris of the ... the old Paris, the silver and purple and grey and green Paris. It was a ... a ... to me with all the old buildings, it was absolutely superb. I stayed in it for a long time, in the Hotel de Verneuil, which is a Fourteenth Century building or hotel, whatever it was, you know, with a Turkish john on the floor below there which everyone had to use and all this kind of thing. With all the enormous discomfort and the heating not heating it. It wasn't even hot enough to even heat the heater. [Laughs] So it was ... and so there were a lot of the physical ... You were on the bone physically in that sense.
Oh I managed to keep working in spurts and fits and starts and so on, depending on the financial situations. If I had a little bit of luck and so on then I'd bury myself in work for a week and then you'd start fighting for the next meal again, that sort of thing. And so anyhow this ... this all, finally as I say, it worked out. It was an anxiety ridden period, but at the same time in memory it's curious the colour and atmosphere and tactile quality of the whole thing. It was one of the richest periods of my life, which I wouldn't give away for anything. And the curious thing about it is that I wasn't registering it so much while I was experiencing it, but it was after it was all over I picked it all up through osmosis you see, soaking it up while I was there. Or a great deal of it. And then looking back on it there, it was a marvellous experience and it still is, to do that. And this is one reason I don't want to go to Paris now because of the post war tourism. To see this happening, there was enough tourism even when I was there, but what has happened now, and also now Malraux has cleaned up Paris, and it's no longer ... I don't know what it's like now, but it was no longer the grey limestone, the old limestone, but he had to clean it up and he did a lot of good in the sense that there's a lot of ... a lot of the stone was decomposing, you know, and had to be replaced and redone, which they did with the original limestone. But the original stone was a yellow, a buttery colour, and so Paris turned into a yellow city, which, of course, is something I wasn't interested in at all.
Oh quite a lot. I saw all my ... all the painters in the flesh as it were, which sent me crazy. You see, I was round from one museum, one gallery to another and saw all the Picasso's I wanted to see, because he was holding exhibitions then in galleries. And saw all the Matisse's I wanted. And then later on I ... while I was in Paris, I met an American girl, a girl, I'll call her Mary, which was her first name. And she was a very lovely little girl. And there was another one earlier. It's interesting to trace the way these things happen. A girl ... a girl ... a little French girl named Claire. She was, again, a very sweet little thing. And for some reason or other, which I could never quite understand, she was dotty about me [laughs] and this I was ... unfortunately, I was unwittingly in a way, very brutal, because I didn't realise the depth of her feeling and I'm afraid I just simply didn't respond to her. I just treated her pleasantly but I never did any more than put my arm around her shoulder. I never even kissed her on the cheek and so forth. The ... curiously I had guiltful lust ... I feel very ... because later I realised when I picked up all the secondary signs and so on, I realised that ... that the girl was really, really set on me, which I couldn't believe because I've always probably had a inferiority thing in that area. I never felt I was attractive to women.
Yes, and I had this major rejection. I was still bleeding. The wound was still open. And I was quite incapable of getting an emotional involvement with any ... with another woman then and this lasted for quite a while. And it was only when this American - Californian - girl, Mary, came along, who was much more aggressive in these areas and she just simply took a bead on me and I was ... at this point, I had a small apartment on the right bank behind the Opera in the Rue Chaussée d'Antin, as it turned out, in Edvard Münch's old studio, which is extraordinary. I've got a painting of his inside that he did from the balcony, looking down on the Gallerie Lafayette. And this is ... when I saw that painting, it was instant. It was a view I'd had from my window for all the time I was there. And so I made a few inquiries and sure enough, it was: Münch had been in that studio in about the 1890's I think. Somewhere around that time. So ... so that was rather a peculiar one. These curious synchronicities, you know, they happen all the time. And ...
Oh Mary. She was a very, very, very sweet little girl, but she had this kind of, with a sweet, soft exterior. She was ... because I finished up being with her. Well a little other thing of synchronicity I'll tell you about in a moment, which came with her. But the thing with Mary is that she wasn't as timid as the French girl was and of course this is a bit later in the piece anyhow and probably the wounds had healed a bit more. But anyhow I was making no gestures myself. I still wasn't up to it. And one day I came back. She'd arrived with her bags and had just installed herself in the ... in this ... this room I had in, Chaussée Dan Tien and that was it. And so, taking the line of least resistance there, I thought well, all right, she's here. See I'm a pragmatist in that way. At least she'll cook for me and she was very good cook, [laughs] and so at least she'll look after me hopefully with a bit ... hoped this would happen. And anyhow, we finished up ... we got along very well. She had a marvellous temperament and this was something that I'd never experienced before. She ... she never lost her temper. She was a marvellously equitable temperament and I didn't realise the ... the gold that I had. Again innocence and stupidity. Because I realise that this was a most rare kind of female, without any of this sort of emotional upheavals or crankiness or disturbances or, you know, trying to balance them out, all this kind of thing. She was ... she more balanced me out. [Laughs]
Beg your pardon?
Possibly, possibly, because I was much more explosive and cranky with the world then and very possibly we can't see ourselves, because I've always had a reasonably fair control over all these things in my normal relationships. I'm not, you know, I hope I'm not too cranky in them. Or difficult, which I don't think I am because I'm always open to rational discussion about problems. And I'm always ready to negotiate at least. And ... but anyhow, it finished up there, Mary stayed with me for nine years. And then the most peculiar thing happened. Most peculiar. As you know I'd left Joy to go to Japan for the three months, which was a fatal error. See, that's a thing there that I've learnt that one simply can't do with a woman because I was going on the abstract duty thing which I thought she conformed to too. But no, not at all. She was following the ... whatever direction the wind blew. That would be ... she would be affected more by that. And so my three months there, of course, that was, in that sense, it was my fault. A fault of stupidity, in leaving her for that time.
Well with Mary she wanted to see her mother in the States and she hadn't seen her for some years at this point. We'd been together for years and she had this ... was nostalgic about the States too, and we got all our pennies. I worked hard to help her do it. Got all our pennies together and some money together and was able to get her fare together. And so she went off to the States to spend two or three months over there with her mother. Well, similar story. That was the end of the relationship with Mary.
Yep. The old story, yeah. The old thing. I will make a point though on my own behalf in this kind of pattern. You see, the synchronicity. Going away. The period of nine years, which was exactly the same time as Joy. These are more than coincidence. And then at the moment there that I allowed a separation to take place then the whole thing collapsed. And I realised what I was dealing with was not the ... not the peculiarities of one woman, but I decided then I was dealing with the female temperament, which is another thing ... and so ... which would cause you to draw different conclusions. But anyhow, idiot that I was, I then packed up everything, when I realised that she was over there and I was getting evasive letters back from her. She was very good though. She took some paintings with her, which turned out to be very, very good, because she was marvellous ... marvellous like many Americans, a good little wheeler dealer in these things. And she took my paintings around and she planted them at the gallery, named the Poindexter Gallery in New York, and left them, and ... and left them there. She wrote over and told me about this. But I could see by the way she was staying, she was almost trying to ... I felt, I had that feeling - trying to get rid of me, you know. Trying to gently ease me out into another situation. And that again, it awakened all the old desperation and the old anxieties and fears full bore. And I put everything I had together and I got a passage to the States. Well I didn't have enough money to get a visa because I didn't have a fare back or any way to support myself when I was there because when I left I had forty dollars in my pocket, that's all. So I got the boat to Montreal and figured out I'll work it out stage by stage: once there in an English speaking country then I'd find some way of making some money, of getting a living and then I could take the train down to get a visa, take the train to New York, which ... which I ... which eventually is what happened. But this happened though in a peculiar way gain. Again, my friends upstairs, I'm quite sure, were involved in this one. Earlier, about a year or so earlier in one of many efforts to get rich quick, which is an urge we've all got when we're young, the Australian Women's Weekly had a yearly art prize and I sent in a painting into that. You see? And then nothing happened for a long time and I forgot all about it. So I was on the ... got on this boat there to go to Montreal and I was on it, went right across the Atlantic, came to the St. Lawrence Seaway. We were sailing down that and there were the ... there were the fields of Newfoundland there: lovely little white farm houses, thatched cottages and all these things. Looked more like England actually. And so on. And I was leaning there. It was sunset and we were going to arrive in Montreal the following morning and I was leaning on the ship rail there looking out there and with rather melancholy thoughts. Beautiful landscape, a lovely sunset. But here I am, arriving in Montreal, with forty bucks in my pocket, Now I was over forty at the time remember too. I was getting on in years. And I thought: forty bucks in my pocket. I felt a total failure in every way. And I thought, well there's ... at least ... at least I speak the language and the forty bucks, well I'll be able to spin that out to survive for a couple of weeks on that, and then I'll just simply ... I will [be] in the lap of the gods ... And while these thoughts were actually going through my mind there, I was tapped on the shoulder, 'Sir, a telegram sir'. Looked round, and there was a steward with a tray and a telegram on it. I opened the telegram and it said, 'You have just won 1,000 guineas in the Australian Women's Weekly Art Prize'. [Laughs] So I just stood there in a state of total paralysis and when I looked round it wasn't a sunset any more, it was a dawn I was looking at, in the sky. And to such an extent I was so completely overwhelmed there that I totally forgot about the poor steward who went on, I didn't even think of him. I turned round and I ... he'd dropped out of sight. I didn't tip him or anything. Talk about shoot the messenger. Or be rude to the messenger of good fortune. [laughingly] And so I just sailed on into Montreal on a ... in a pink cloud, arrived at Montreal, floated off the boat. I went up to the YMCA, booked in for one night, and I decided there, in the morning, when I sorted myself out, straight up to the American Embassy, or Consulate, I don't even recall which it was. And I floated up to the Consulate and this is where, again, I had my love affair with the Americans continued. You know they'e ... they're a remarkable people. Harry Roskolenko was a marvellous help to me. Mary was a lovely, lovely girl, a Californian. I'd lived with the Americans for three months in the press room at number one, Shim Bum Alley in Tokyo with the American journalists and so on and got on so marvellously well with them. And you know, there was just simply a rapport that worked. It also worked in a very practical way. And now, let me see. Oh yes, I went, I sailed up to the ... I didn't sail, [laughs] I trotted up to the American Consulate, or whatever, and presented my passport and put in a request for a six month visa to go into the States. So then I went and sat in all these long dormitory-like chairs and it was full of all sorts of other people, just about all Europeans. Then I could hear ... In all the little cubicles, I could hear the interrogations going on, where, you know, Austrians and Italians and Poles and Balks and what have you are all trying to get into the States. And they were all having one hell of a time and I just sat there in a state of acute apprehension. Finally there my name was called out, 'Mr Tucker'. So I went in there, into this little cubicle office. There was a very pleasant looking fellow just sitting there. He just sat there and he looked at me and smiled. 'How do you do, Mr Tucker. Sit down'. And so I was very pleasant and genial. So I sat down. He said, 'Well I see Mr Tucker that you wish to enter the United States'. He had my passport on the desk. And he said ... he said, 'What is the purpose of your visit?' And I said, 'Well ...', and I'd learnt a few tricks in part of going through customs [laughs] in the number of times I'd been through it. And this was one I learnt there ... was this one, which happened to be true. So I said, 'Well the art centre ... I'm an artist by profession, as you see on the passport. [TAPE ENDS]
Yes, now, let's see the point I was at was that I was in the office with the chap ... the ... the bloke at the consulate, asking for permission to get into the States and he ... he then asked me this question: Why did I want to go the States? And as I said, I'd acquired a little bit of cunning at that point about handling these situations but I was able to happily be able to tell the truth. I said, 'Well the point is, that the whole art centre of the world has now moved to Manhattan, very simply', which it had and I said, 'It's displaced Paris and London as an art centre', and I said, 'It's absolutely necessary now for a painter to have a sojourn at least in Manhattan to see what's happening', and he leant back and looked very pleased with that, thought that was an excellent idea and he said, 'Oh yes, I appreciate that very much, but Mr. Tucker, how do you propose to support yourself in this time?' and so on. So then I reached into my pocket, pulled out this telegram and just put it across to him - like that. He looked at it most impressed, 'Oh well congratulations, Mr. Tucker', and he got up and he said, 'Just a moment, I won't be a moment', picked up my passport and went out of the room. He was gone about five minutes or what-have-you and came back and then sat back at the desk there and beamed at me, and said, 'Well, that's all right', and I said, 'Yes, what? What?' I was still waiting for a visa. 'Oh', he said, 'there's your passport'. There was the visa on the table, a huge technicolour visa saying, 'Good for two years'. [Laughs] So I floated out of the ... out of the ... I always have that feeling of floating when I have ... when I really achieve something or escape from something. You feel yourself rise in the air. I'm sure it was an out of the body experience. I'm sure that my inner body there lifts up two or three feet into the air and I just float out and so I've floated back to the YMCA, packed up everything, went down to the station, worked out the train times and hopped on a train and then headed for New York.
It had, it had indeed because the thing I neglected to say, which I should have said before I left -and it was obviously one of the things that got me off my backside and to pack up and scramble money together and take this punt on it - as well as Mary, there was this other factor which she had actually generated herself. She'd left these paintings with the Poindexter Gallery, and apparently ... Alfred Barr, who was then the man who started the whole Museum of Modern Art, and was, you could say, a major lay art figure virtually in the world at that time, was Alfred Barr ... And ... but Barr, there, is a very good man and he's a very humble man too. And he ... His practice was on weekends there to go around various commercial galleries, of which there were many in New York, and get into the stock room and look at their stocks, which of course he had access to everywhere he wanted to, and he happened to go into the Poindexter Gallery and saw these paintings of mine. There was one there that rather intrigued him. One there called Lunar Landscape, which was shown in the ... in the retrospective I had three or four years back. And he said he was interested in that and he asked them to send it up to the Museum, where they could give it further consideration, and so on, as a painting, where this was done. So Mary wrote and told me this and I thought, my God, you know, if I've got Barr's attention to it there, I've just got to put everything I've got into following this through, which I did. So, now let me see ...
I'm just trying to work out the sequence of events here now, because then, that's right, just around about that time, you know, this is where my memory slips - you forget some very important thing. But anyhow, I got confirmation that they had in fact decided to buy the painting ... acquire the painting. But I hadn't got any money at that point. But I was given ... I did get this confirmation that they'd decided to buy it. I forget now whether I was on my or I was already arrived in New York when this happened. But ... no it was before I left, that's right. I got that confirmation before I left. That's right. Mary followed that through. And ...
Yes, oh well then I'll ... if you don't mind I'll follow up a little further thing there that, I followed the thing through with Mary, but she was adamant and so on. She was tied up with some other boyfriend and that was it. So I was very ... given ... given the run. And I wanted to make a reference back, which I was going to make before in this case, where two cases of built up rejection like that under a similar kind of circumstance which didn't do my morale any good as you could gather ...
Oh yes, but I do want to make my little final point.
In the ... In the ...
Righto, righto then. But I'm trying to defend myself against false interpretation.
Well the ... I saw her. I had a thing there. I found out what was happening and she was adamant in the stand she'd taken and I couldn't shift her on it and that was that. And so ...
I felt terrible.
I felt terrible. I mean the whole thing was reopened. The whole pattern of events was reopened and there it was. But, as I ... as I earlier was about to say there, as always I jump ahead, but that ... after that point, it became quite obvious there, as time went on there, that both Joy and Mary, would have wanted to get back to me because I discovered with Joy that I ... she was trying ... wrote to me in order to keep me, woman like shall I say, as a fall back position if the thing she had didn't work. And so ... because women always work on this security thing about their love relationships. The security becomes a very, very big part into it. And a similar thing happened with Mary later on. Because later on I went ... when I came back here, married, and then went back to the States, with my present wife, Barbara, who I've been with, by the way, I might add there, for, let me see, for just about thirty - almost exactly thirty years we've been married now, and I was with her a couple of years before that, and so there's the 'til death do us part thing still trying to work itself out. And ... [INTERRUPTION]
To simplify the whole thing without going into all the details, that along the lapses of time afterwards there, it became very evident that they would have both given their eye teeth to be back with me. So at least I consoled myself with that kind of pressure, but the new situation, it was all too late, and that was it. Unhappily. It was a very unhappy thing because of Joy. I feel quite a bit of distress about that that ... that one, and also Mary, because Mary later, again a curious synchronicity, developed cancer of the breast and she died in 1975. So, you know, these ... these are all rather tragic sort of little wind ups of these situations.
Well, as always one fights to retain one's balance. I had this bad situation with Mary going on for a while, and then finally I left and she even came down to see me off I remember. And ... but that was that. But she still remained adamant that she was staying in the States. Part of it, mind you, was reconnecting with the States and rediscovering the States for herself. That was part of the story with her I think because a lot later on - but I won't leap ahead and create trouble as I always tend to do - but I stayed, adapted in the States and one of the ... one of the things that happened was that Nolan was there then. He was on a Harkness Fellowship and he was in the States. And also Roskolenko was there. And also there was a man, Ken Pittendrigh, who I knew earlier, in Melbourne, in the ABC and he was with UNESCO. Then another man, John Drake, who was with UNESCO, with actually the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in ... in New York. So I had these contacts. And the first thing I did - almost the first thing I did - I stayed with John Drake for a ... with him and his wife for a couple of days, and then I met Ken Pittendrigh and he said, 'Oh', and I said I was looking for a place to live, and he said, 'Oh', he said, 'My wife's in Europe. She won't be back for three weeks. Come and stay with me'. He had an apartment down on West ... I think it was West ... now let me see, on, yes, West 13th Street I think, and so I was able to stay with him for that time then. In that time ... as that time drew to a ... drew to an end, then Harry Roskolenko introduced me then to a girl who had an apartment up on 21st Street - what they call a railway apartment. It was just near Gramercy Park and just ... it was close to 3rd Avenue. And Harry said, 'Oh', he said, 'She's ... her father's been ill and she's been talking about going to Phoenix to see her father and look after him for a while, so it may be possible that she would be able to let you her place while she's away'. So I went up there with Harry, met her and - this girl. She was very, very, very pleasant and she said, 'Well I'm glad you came'. Bertie Hallenberg [?] was her name and she said, 'I'm glad you came because I've been procrastinating about my father. He's very ill, and so, okay, you can have the apartment and I'll whiz off to Phoenix and see my father'. So she did that. About two or three ... and I shifted into the apartment. A few weeks later - not terribly long later - she wrote ... wrote me a long letter from Phoenix. Her father had just died, left her a lot of money - a lot of money. She said she wouldn't be coming back to the apartment so I could have it and I could have everything in it. This is the lovely largesse of the American mind, you know, which has been absolutely marvellous. [Laughs] See my luck changed from that telegram on the boat until when I got here. But I'll go back now that I've dealt with the ... the home situation which I'm ... because see, this is a prior thing in my mind, getting your shelter up first. But while I was staying with Pitendry I saw Nolan, of course, and one of the first things I did was to get up to the ... you know I went off in one of my trance things the following morning. And wandered up ... went straight up 5th Avenue, floated up 5th Avenue, all the way from the 13th Street up to 53rd Street, where the Museum of Modern Art was. There's a thing I haven't told you by the way, which was a totally off beat experience, which I'd have to go back again. You see, I have to move backwards and forwards in time to tell a sensible story but I'll leave that one for the moment if you want to hear it. It's an important one, I suppose, and I can include it in this, which I will do in a moment, but I'll get on with the ... with the dull Museum of Modern Art one. I'll again cut the story short. I saw the Museum of Modern Art was delighted. I saw Nolan. We went up one day there to go to the ... go to the Museum and they had a big sign up saying 'New acquisitions of the past year', you see. And Nolan said, 'Well let's go in and go and see what's there', and the first painting I saw went I went through the door, which I already knew I was going to see - and I'll tell you about that later, there - was one half of this painting of mine on the wall. So we went in, looked around, saw this painting of mine, saw one of Nolan's Kelly paintings they had and the little Bracefell one, the convict one that he had in there. We saw that: quite delighted, pleased, looked at the exhibition. 'Let's go up and have a cup of coffee' to their restaurant on the third floor, which we did. So we went around, got into the elevator and just as we were getting into the elevator, another man got in. A tall, rather grey spare man got into the elevator with us and Nolan looked at him and said - we always call him Nolan or Ned ... and Nolan looked at him and said, 'Oh, oh hello Mr. Barr, how are you?" And Mr Barr looks, 'Oh hello, hello Mr. Nolan, how are you?' and so on. And he said, 'Did you see ... did you see, Mr. Nolan, that we have a painting of one of your compatriots just outside on the wall'. So Nolan then ... he just said, 'Oh well, here he is', you see. [Laughs] And there I was. And so Barr was quite delighted. Met him. And this is a beautiful thing about the Americans, you know. You could never do this in England or Europe or here for that matter. You're more likely to do it here than anywhere else. But he came up and he had a cup of coffee with us. We talked for half an hour. There I was, right on the top, on that level, [Laughs] in a flash, you know, perhaps arranged again by this marvellous long finger from upstairs, I don't know, arranging things. Because did he have to get into the elevator at that moment?
Well my visa ran out. The two year thing. I had to keep renewing ... every six months. And at the end of two years there's a fixed law, you had to leave the country because if you stayed beyond that point there it got them into a hell of a legal problem apparently in getting rid of you. If you wanted to stay on. So they were very, very tough and very no nonsense about that one. And so ...
Oh, in one sense I did. But also I had been given ... the Museum of Modern Art ... The Reeds had set this up here, and this was supported by a man, a local man, Kurt Geiger, and he set up a Kurt Geiger Scholarship to try and entice talented people overseas back to ... excuse me, back to Australia. And so ... so I was in correspondence with Reed. They gave me the first one, which meant what was again another thousand or so, I forget the amount, it was a thousand or two thousand - I forget if it was pounds or dollars at that time. But anyhow it was a sufficiently substantial sum of money to come back to Australia and hold a cycle of exhibitions around Australia. So I thought: Good I can do that. A few months and this will get rid a lot of my Australian nostalgia and then I'm going to hot foot it back to New York. Straight off. But again, leaping forward, I got on ... immediately made contact here, started making good money here, and I was getting older and I wanted somewhere to live and I bought a block of land out at Hurstbridge and so I ... could have gone to three places then - London, New York, or stayed here. So because things went so well for me, then I stayed here, and so then, of course, everything went cold and I haven't done anything about it ever since. I've more or less run the course, in one sense.
Well, in one sense I had, because I'd done a lot of travel the hard way. And you know, all through Europe anyhow and certainly through ... and also in the States. But in Europe the hard way. And you know, in a sense, you ... one had a terrific yearning for a solid piece of ground. I understood Vassilieff then. He came back, he got his land here and he built a fortress on it, which is still there. And I had that feeling. I knew it. You know, you wanted your own bit of land to jump up and down on. See, I was already well into my forties and you ... you know, there are times when you have to make decisions in life. And so, I thought I seemed to have reconnected here and I still had this terrific sentiment with Australia and I was rediscovering the Australian landscape and wildlife, which was a sheer delight, which of course there ... our ... our, how shall I say? ... our highly civilised politicians are destroying there because of economic determinism, which is an absolute disgrace. Which - don't let me get started on that one, or I'll start frothing at the mouth and going berserk.
Oh yes. I had Sweeney here. And of course, reconnected with the Reeds. And I was ... while I had initially trouble with Sweeney, who was in his mid difficult adolescent phase, but once he got out of that we got along marvellously well.
Most of it, he had, most of it, yes. He was at one stage getting apartments and staying away and then going back and you know, this in and out sort of thing. And he was married too. Got married again. I forget just when.
Oh overseas? Oh yes. Well again that's another whole episode. The Reeds took him overseas with them in 1949, I think it was, and stayed over for several months, quite a while. And they brought a lot of Nolan's work over with them, and some of mine, which they gave to me, which I was glad to get. And ... but then they set to work to promote Nolan, as well as they could. And so there was a long story there. I assisted them in this, and so on, and he had an exhibition at UNESCO that they put on, that the Reeds put on. John tried to get it on at the Museum of Modern Art and failed. And so you know, things went on. But they had Sweeney with them and they said that they were ... at this point they'd ... Sweeney had been with them longer than with me. See, because once I got there my plan was to come back within the year, but of course I had no fare. I had no way of getting the money. I was broke right through most of that time. So time went on. And finally Sweeney was with them. He'd been with them for about three years and he'd been with me two. And they, more or less, the Reeds - and I think properly, they were quite legitimate in this - he'd been with them so long, and they'd invested so much of their life in him, and okay, they said they wanted to adopt him. And I had ... still had no future in front of me at that point, none at all. I had nothing. This was in the pre-Mary days too, not that Mary would have wanted to take on a child, but it was in the period before the relationship with her. And so there was no way of ... no practical way of handling it, of having a five year old boy. And yet I got along beautifully well with Sweeney then. And I remember I had a ... it'd be too long a story to tell, I suppose, but I developed a beautiful understanding with him there that ... and when we went there I explained everything to him. And oddly enough, in a curiously adult way, he was able to understand what I was telling him because when I said, 'Look Sweeney I want to look after you here, but I haven't got any money'. So he said, childlike, 'Well why don't you do what John and Sunday do, go to the bank and get some?' And I said, 'Well the problem there Sweeney, is that you've got to put the money in to the bank first, before you can take it out'. [laughs] You see, a marvellous little thing. And he nodded his head, 'Oh yeah'. Yes, he understood that. And so I said, 'And also John and Sunday can look after you very well and give you ... you know, give you the right education and a good, secure home, and background and plenty of food, whereas I can't do those things for you now'. And he ... he more or less ... he understood that. This is the extraordinary thing. I said ... so when I took him back up to the Reeds after this long talk there, I remember there, I ... you know when he left there, I was saying to him, 'Remember Sweeney', and I did that to him [WAGS FINGER IN FRONT OF HIS NOSE] and he lifted his hand up like that [WAGS FINGER IN FRONT OF HIS NOSE] and went off quite content. So this was ... this was very, very good.
Yes later on though, but this is later on when I was in Italy and Florence. It takes a long time to prepare these things and make applications and so on but I'd given my word. He was five years old then, and I knew the die was cast on that one. And ... because after all I added it up, he'd been with the Reeds longer than he had been with me, and they'd been with him in his most, you know ... a lot of his very formative years and [was] part of their life and it would be a damage to the child to totally disrupt all that.
As well as to myself.
Do you know I don't know the exact date. I know he was five when he came to Paris and he ... it must have been at least a year or two, something of that nature. I don't know. It might have been longer. I don't recall.
Oh yes. It was one I held off as long as I could. But what had happened is that I'd gone to Italy - that's right - I was trying to work out the time sequence there. I'd been to ... with a art ... There was an art critics' conference there and they were taking them all over the place and I managed to join myself to it. And they were doing all sorts of trips and one of them was to ... was with a friend of mine who worked in UNESCO. I went to Florence and got an apartment there. And I was able to go to Florence and stay there for three months at the Via Seralli [?] near the Pitti Palace. And it was while I was there that ... that the thing with Sweeney came up and I was able to complete it all. And I think that'd be around, somewhere, again I'd have to work back on it. To work out the time sequence would be rather difficult ...
Well I think, given the circumstances, I had no alternative and I think it was the best thing I could do at the time.
Absolutely none. Absolutely none.
I didn't see Joy at all.
Hardly. As far as from what I knew. I little about that. I couldn't give you a firm answer on that, but my impression was that he only would see her intermittently and very occasionally and when she was down from Sydney in hospital he'd never go to see her, and presumably he would have seen her when she came down to Heidelberg, but how often he saw her then I simply don't know.
He did actually and he was showing it more strongly when he died, than even earlier. He started ... he did a course in print making and was starting to produce some very interesting prints. You know, a good quality was emerging in them. So it was tragic also in that sense.
How did he what?
He spent a long time ... see there's so much history to tell, to make sense out of. Taking a snippet out of it and putting it forward because you have to know the lead up to it and the context to ... to follow it, because the thing I'd done before I'd left Australia was that I'd talked with his grandmother, and told her that I thought she could leave whatever she had to Sweeney. So I said, 'I know you wouldn't want to leave anything to me. But with Sweeney ...', I said, 'you know what will happen if you leave it to Joy, if you leave your will as it is, that she and her boyfriend will do it all in'. And so the mother there said. 'Good God, you're right', you know. She hadn't thought of that. We often don't think of our own death in this way there and she said ... the next morning she rushed in and changed her will and left most of what she had, and as far as I can gather, pretty well everything, to Sweeney, and part of it to her son. She had a son too. And I don't know whether Joy got anything out of it or not. I'm inclined to doubt she did, or if so, very little.
Well, there's a whole story to tell you that. I think that terrible things happen to children when their mothers abandon them when they're young, at their crucial formative period. I think it sets in a ... It sets in a time bomb which goes off in its own good time. And Sweeney's own marriage was falling on the rocks and he was having trouble with that and I think he saw it as a pattern ... and ... that he was committed to, and he couldn't find ... also Sunday had spoiled him rotten in one sense. And this is one of the ... what would have been a terrible weakness for Sweeney to cope with. So he was quite spoiled and expected, you know ... and self indulgent and expected to have everything. And there's no way of sustaining that kind of demand on life. And John, who was very Victorian, just wouldn't do it. He'd give him his bare living and that was it. And I think Sweeney decided that, when his own marriage was breaking up, he decided that that was the trigger, I'd say, and that was it.
Did I ... beg your pardon? [INTERRUPTION]
Oh not the suicide, no. He had made attempts before and I knew [of] an earlier one, when he was in his teens. But I had a long talk with him about that. And all this. He seemed as far as I knew, he'd got over it. But after his death I found that he had made an attempt earlier in the same year, which had failed. And his friends knew all about it, but they didn't tell me. They told me after ... after he had succeeded. And I was furious then with them and everyone for not telling me because I know that if I could have known about that impending possibility, I could have talked ... talked to him about it and quite possibly talked him out of it because I was getting along ... had a marvellous thing with him, with Sweeney then. Because he was acting as a kind of agent for me. He set up the whole sale of the Images of Modern Evil thing for me with the Canberra Gallery, because he got me to prepare a folio of the ... the colour photographs. We both went up to ... went up to Canberra. He knew Mollison much better than I did. I'd only met him very casually. In fact I'd had a row with Mollison the first time I met him, which was rather odd. [Laughs] But Sweeney had got to know him. See he'd got a ... out of the ... what his grandmother left him he started this gallery that was called Strines in Brunswick and he operated that for quite a while. Again, how long I can't recall. But he also acted as a kind of agent and went around and was selling paintings here [and] there on commission ... commission basis with different people in galleries. And he seemed ... he seemed ... as far as I understood, and he only told me part of the story, as I understood it there, he was getting by quite well.
Oh Lord yes. Oh Lord yes. Very much so because as I said our relationship was very good and we were getting along very well together. And so, it was again, a ... and those police who came up at Hurstbridge there and gave me that bit of news there, I was absolutely shattered. As you can imagine. That was it. But, [laughs] you know, you go through these crises in your life, or these disasters. You either live or die with them and if you live with them you find some kind of a adaptation or reconciliation to them.
Every experience in this life feeds into one's painting. Probably these experiences with these good ladies, and with Sweeney, it would have certainly fed, shall I say, a gritty, tough, pessimistic vein through my work. I don't doubt that. That that would happen. But this doesn't worry me in any philosophic sense because death is as much part of life as being alive. Suffering is as much part of life as ... and torment is part of it, as joy and happiness and fulfilment. And no one escapes it in one form or another. The forms for it are all endless. And so we have to stand off from life as a whole and say, 'This is ... this is how it works and so I accept', and you know, 'I'll do my best with it'. That's all one can do.
Let's see, beg your pardon?
Oh no, no. He was way out on that. She took thirteen years. She was getting remission after remission, which is a known ... and it was a known thing then with Hodgkin's Disease, and this is where the doctors ... that conventional doctor then, who told you there that he, you know ... that you're going to die in six months time. I mean, for God's sake, it was ... there couldn't be a more self fulfilling prophecy. I mean it's a good way to kill anyone. This is shooting silver bullets into them. If anyone told me that, and I believed them, I would have it too, I know that. But happily, though I don't believe these ... all our modern science and medical ... I believe it up to a point or certain areas they control and that's it. But beyond that I look after myself. I'm my own master.
Oh yes. Oh yes.
Well I had the urge and ... but it was too difficult and I knew she was very ill and she'd ... physically she'd deteriorated. Was very thin. And I'd had this experience before that you ladies are very concerned about this appearance thing. Understandably. I'd probably be concerned about it myself. I remember it happened with one of our own painters when he was dying, that he didn't want to see me or anyone else because of the state he was in. And I remember a girl that I'd known. I'd painted her when she was young there, she rang me up and told me she'd been very ill. And ... and ... she'd ... she'd ... she told me this and I said, 'Well, you know, I'd like to see you. Let's have a cup of coffee together'. 'Oh no, no, no. I don't want you to see me as I am now'. She said, 'I don't want that'. And I think there's a lot of this with Joy. While she didn't say so, I don't think she would want to have seen me.
Oh yes. I felt regret afterwards, with always this hindsight. I felt a regret then that I hadn't gone in and tried to have last sort of thing, because I didn't want to put the strain her, you know, but then she was going in and out of hospital so much for chemotherapy and radio kind of treatment that they were giving them at the time, that it was like just another session in hospital. You know, the next thing I heard, she was out and back doing things for a while and then she'd be back in for a while and then she'd be back in again in another couple of months. This ... it was that kind of thing. So her death itself came as quite a shock.
Well I think the ... we're two ... male and female, we're two halves endlessly in search of each other, trying to find the right half. And so I was at a stage in life where I just didn't want to live on my own and I got to ... this is when I met Barbara, when I came back. This was the last phase of my life shall I say, or later. I hope not the last. [laughs] But the later phase, shall I say. And so I met her, I figure round 1962 and saw a lot of each other and we married in, I think, it was 1964. So there we are.
Oh, very important of course. Any male-female relationship is very important. Very important. Because you women have an insidious power to invade the male psyche and take it over and manipulate it in this way and that. So one has to be aware of it. Of course you're well aware of that, but we're not supposed to be. [Laughs]
Oh of course, of course the male enjoys being manipulated the right way.
Barbara? Well in the way that women affect a male I'd say. It completes the other half, in a way. There's some sort of completion takes place and there's some kind of situation where you're able to continue to face life and make sense out of it.
These specific things don't do it. This is all osmosis thing, you know, as we ... as we said earlier. But any experience in life feeds ultimately into your work in some form or another. All experiences. And you can't add up the priorities or their ... or their ... their importance or their priorities or any of these things.
You can do that a lot later on. You might pick up a connection which you missed at the time...
Oh I think, well again it ... again, it's the way one conceives of the individual. Again I'm always off beam according to the conventional wisdom on these things. I regard the context of an individual as just as important as the individual. And you can't understand ... there's no such thing as an individual in a vacuum or floating in space without an environment. No such thing. If you want to conceive of an individual and what he's about there, it's got to be always in the context of what immediate environment he's in because it's a two way relationship between both of them. And this is the thing that creates the reality you're trying to deal with.
Well I grew up in Victorian houses and so they're imprinted on me.
Well it was a particular issue but I managed to do it. But then you could get the hotels on the Left Bank, that were very cheap and I was able to use them. Even though you got bedbugs and everything else with it, and Turkish johns, floors down [laughs] and so on, but at least ... at least ... when you're on basics there, your first concern is shelter. That's the very first and basic thing.
A lot of the time, not all the time. But you see the cheapest were the ... these hotel rooms. They were very cheap at the time. But later on there I managed, as I said, to get this apartment, which turned out to be Münch's old studio, behind the opera in Chaussée d'Antin and I was there for a while, must have been a good eighteen months or more, something of that nature.
Oh yes, I always do whenever I get in a place. I immediately modify the environment as well as I can to suit my ... see I can't live in a place that I haven't created myself.
Well, as I say, in all these little scungy Left Bank hotel rooms, but they were marvellously picturesque in marvellously picturesque areas. So I didn't mind, even though the living was, shall I say, very, very minimal and fundamental. But when I'd ... at one stage I went to Germany and I was there near Frankfurt for about, oh, less than a year, about ten months or something like that. And both Mary and I were there. And Mary had a job there and I was painting away and I was actually ... occasionally was able to sell occasional things there too. And we were able to buy a small Morris Minor car. So when we got back to Paris, drove back to Paris, we went and installed ourselves in a hotel in ... in the Rue de Verneuil, the Hotel de Verneuil, just near the Beaux Arts, which was again ... was just a block or two away was the Seine and the Louvre. You see, we were very close. And this was quite a cheap ... cheap little hotel. They had this tradition of cheapness - happily. But even so the French economy was in such a mess and jumping around and daily you'd turn around and the price of something would double and I realised that the little amount of money that we had left wouldn't last very long if we were paying ... paying the hotel, paying for our accommodation and we were out in the Morris one day, and we passed one of those trailers, you know, a little trailer there, a box like trailer and all of a sudden it hit me there: if we could get that trailer, take it back to the hotel there, I could build some sort of a camping arrangement on top of it. See? Because I had the Australian bent wire mentality. You could do anything with a bit of bent wire. And so we were able to hook up ... I went in and I swapped an American radio and 1,000 French Francs for it. And we managed to hook it up to the car and we took it back to the hotel and parked in the street outside. All of which was pretty ... pretty well illegal, but I had this notion now and then. I developed this obsession about creating my own shelter you see. It was this nesting urge there that the male gets from time to time. And, also the saves money urge, which is just as strong. And I set to work. I bought masonite, all the equipment, I got down to the local garage, I lengthened the steel beard of it and it was on and then I built a full floor in it ...
In the street. In the street. But then I had to build the caravan itself. Once I built the bed and the floor and had the thing just sitting there, and the wheels, I then got sheets of maisonette and all sorts of old material and got the proprietor of the hotel to help me to bring it all up stairs to the second floor, which he did. He was a marvellous bloke. He'd been in an interment camp through the war and he was one of those Frenchmen who knew the hard stuff and had been humanised by it, as we all are if we have very unpleasant experiences. And so he helped with that and I set to work and built the sides of it. I made the sides and the parts of it in the room. And then I'd go downstairs and put up a framework on the ... on the bed, on the floor that I'd made. Then I got Monsieur Dumont, if he'd come up and help me to lower the sides, the bits and pieces out the window. So these great sides of the caravan and roof of it and so on. He helped me with that and we lowered them out the window into the street. And I got them in the street, leant them against the wall, then set to work to screw them all together. And I was at it for days and I had the gendarme coming up to me there. He'd just stand there looking at me, swinging the baton there and [laughs] with intense curiosity, see, because no Frenchmen had ever done this in his entire life, it'd never occur to them. And so forth. He said, 'Ah', - I'll have to use my appalling monkey talk French here, but it was the term he used I remember - 'French words'- 'You're making gold there, monsieur', and so on, swinging his baton there, looking very, very interested in it. It was only later I found out I was breaking every street regulation under the sun. But he was too intrigued by what was taking place and he wouldn't say anything and he was waiting to see what happened. So sure enough I got the whole thing built and he was there. He was quite, quite, absolutely delighted. It was as though it was his place. He'd looked in the window, he'd looked in the door. 'Merveilleux, merveilleux', he'd say, 'L'oro, monsieur', 'You make the gold there', and so on [laughs]. And so this is when ... after a while it was finished and then I said goodbye to him and to Monsieur Dumont and we hooked it up to the Morris and we went off down to the Seine. And I'd already prospected earlier where it was vacant. In those days you could park along the banks of the Seine. Just odd cars parked down there. And there were ramps going down. And then always the fisherman ... You see, it was still the old Paris. That sort of thing. They've built a freeway along there for God's sake, now, there, which filled me with horror. But, anyhow, we took the caravan down there and took it down the ramp and found a spot near a bridge and just under two elm trees that were parked there and there were all the old clochardes down there, who were the people who lived under the bridges and, you know, wrapped themselves in newspapers every night. Go out begging for wine through the day, and food and so then come back and sleep under the bridge, and so on, and so we'd ... we'd talk to them. Mary - her French was quite good - and I'd use my monkey talk and we got along very, very well with them. They were very, very nice people. And, you know, the people who'd just failed and missed the bus or tripped over in life somehow and were unable to put it together again. It's amazing the number of times a woman lay behind the disaster for them. Or they'd probably been thrown out too, [laughs] and so their morale collapses and there they are: the power of the female. And ... but nevertheless they ... but curiously also we had some old lady clochardes down there too, and often, where they had a boyfriend amongst them there, they'd go round in pairs. It's the only place I've ever seen this. Two tramps. The clochard is the word for tramp. And we parked the van and while we were parking there, setting it there so we could stay with the intention of sleeping in there, and make it last a good time ... see the trouble is I go into a whole string of anecdotes now which will take an enormous length of time, which ... but they are very vital I think to the whole atmosphere and feeling of the whole story.
We've certainly got a very strong sense now of your life in Paris with that, and so I did want to ask you about back here, in Australia, picking up this theme of your houses and the sorts of places you like to live, again back here, you had decided to set yourself up properly on a piece of land. But then subsequently you decided to move back into the city. I wondered what your ... how you feel now about this phase of your life in St. Kilda?
Well I was twenty years in Hurstbridge you know. A big body of my work was done there. I was able to put up an agricultural implement shed which gave me a 20 x 50 foot studio and made it a two storey one. And quite cheap too.
Oh it was a productive period, yes.
Well, a great deal of the first phase of them certainly, were my impact again of the Australian landscape and bush and bird life and so on, animal life. They're still surviving, a few of those. And they fortunately, they were ones, that also sold well. It hit a popular nerve. About the only aspect of my work that ever has. And so while it lasted, of course, it was quite well worthwhile. That was a very good phase in that sense. And ... but then ... this moved into others say, where I just starting moving into the folk lore area, because I was even already ... when I was in Italy I'd already done that. ... Was painting the landscape you know, which is memory stuff. And then I was dealing with the real thing and then I was getting closer to the whole story, explorer stories and so forth, which contained marvellous situations which we ... unfortunately we haven't lasted long enough to exploit and develop them. Because the Australia up to the forties, you could say up to Nolan's Kelly's there, we had all the basis for creating an Australian mythology full bore, with it filled out with all the necessary imagery, which could have summed up the history of the country but unfortunately the war broke, [and] brought that to a short end and then subsequent invasions are at such a point now, what is it ? I think about two thirds of the country are post war migrants or darn near it. And so there you have a mixture of cultures that came over and the fragmentation of the indigenous thing, which was beginning to come together beautifully in ... in Australia, which was based on our earlier seven million odd population. And so that ... the integration of that thrust was broken and so that was gone. I'm trying to continue it in another form now as a matter of fact. Not in a deliberate sense but I find this does emerge in my work. But one ... one never gives one's self programmes or directions in these things. You have to wait, fell that most potent thing there which leans and presses on you and demands attention and that's the potency line that one has to follow all along.
Well the Jungian thing has because both Nolan and I, oddly enough, we were reading Jung rather extensively in middle forties. Because we'd gone through the Freudian stage and found it was rather barren for our needs, although it wasn't for the psychoanalytical procedures and so on because it became a foundation of current practice to psychoanalysis. But we ... I became rather ... felt we ... you know, felt we'd got out of that what we wanted. But it would fascinate and intrigue because Jung seemed his mind worked more like an artist. And he was dealing more with these deepest subliminal formation of imageries of ideas, and his whole business of archetypes was a fascinating concept, which has stayed with me and still has because this is something I recognise because you recognise that ... that in the ... in the mind, there are things we know that we don't know we know. And this is what Jung based himself on, was this one in trying to bring to the surface of the ... to the knowing mind, the unknown forces that were still affecting us beneath it, which they were. This is where all our neuroses and other things come from. Plus very bright ideas and plus works of art. They come from this ... this zone because we're always leaning on the ... on the margins of that ... that ... shall I say, the dark area that we can't see past. Because the ... because we're all points of awareness, shall I say, in an unknown space in infinity, and we're surrounded by infinity and eternity. And what we do is create a vast abstraction that encompasses the reality we feel we understand and know, and we set that up and try to deal with it as the total or final reality there, because we still want to put ourselves in a god-like position within it, for our own feeling of security. But there's a point where this becomes, you could say, sacrilegious to do that. To do that ... because you have to always acknowledge an unknown god, a god who's out of reach but who you feel the presence, and the presence is there. You always know it's there. One has to have that sense to think that we can know any ... everything is a most grotesque impertinence and presumption and part of a tiny little microscopic mind in a limitless universe. And so one has to always preserve this distance and this sense of humility and awareness of these unknown, vast, incredible and marvellous forces that still exist just out of our reach. And we're trying to reach them. This is what artists are trying to do: the endless attempt to reach out and touch ... touch the marvels, as it were.
Oh well, to hell with convention. [Laughs] They're resting places for people that haven't got the courage to go on.
No, never. That's one of the things I'm grateful to my parents for. I never went to church. Never went to Sunday School. The only religion I got was by the Reverend Tyrrell, who came down and gave us half an hour's religious instruction, once a week at the Spring Road State School. And that I remember in my mind was teeming with Biblical stories that he used to tell us at that time. And then he'd allow us to the rectory up near the church next to the Malvern Town Hall, and I was able to go up there and he'd let us go in and look at his library and his books and I remember looking through all his great tomes and all his engravings of religious subjects. And so they probably had a very powerful effect on me, all those things. I was young enough. I was only about what? Thirteen, fourteen at the time and so it would have, you know ... it would have made that imprint the way when a photographer puts his ... exposes a paper to the negative image and then puts it in a chemical bath and fixes the image. Well I think this happens with us at different stages of our life. At key moments there, an experience happens which suddenly is fixed and sealed into our nervous system from then on. We've got that for the rest of our life. And we've got whatever we do with that. We've got to elaborate on it, go horizontally, in any direction you like, but it is an elaboration of something put and fixed there, at some earlier point in life. That's why I put such a point, earlier, on traumas, the enormous value of the information that lies in traumatic episodes.
Yes, but surely all people, all human beings ask this question from time to time: Who are we? What are we doing here? What does it all mean? What's it about? What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife? See these are all questions that occur to everyone and then people will find they're different range, shall I say of their ... that they can penetrate it and stop short and most people will try to be satisfied with an existing homogenised, ready made, pre-digested solution, which we all inherit anyhow in the society we come into. And so stupid people will just simply use one of those as a resting point and as a cop out and as a cover and a protection and so on. But the truly creative person, they never do that. They keep leaning on, pressing on, in search of the marvellous and so on. The Jung's, the Einstein's, the Picasso's, the Shakespeare's, all these people. And so if you haven't got that kind of person, history will come to a standstill.
Yes, but a lot of people have far, far, far worse than mine. I mean look what has happened through the war. I mean the kind of experiences that people have gone through there, I still can't bear trying to empathise or think about them because the mind boggles and they're just simply too horrific to ... to contemplate. So one has to retreat in that sense. I mean as far as my courage and strength will take me and that is it. But I know it's not far enough. That there's always other realities way past that which have to be fronted up with ... to, sooner or later.
Well again that's one of those ... those ... those trick small questions, shall I put it that way, because on the face of it innocently, everyone's afraid of death. We're afraid of the unknown. And also our animal self is afraid of death because it knows it's going to be ... die and rot, and finish and be done with. Be thrown away like garbage. And see we ... we know that, and this is a subterranean fear that follows us all in everything we do. But people ... it's just not a nice thing to admit this, or to even point at it or even mention it, and so people tend to avoid it and say if works or art or literature point to it there, they ... they ... they tend to evade it. They'll try and avoid it there also and they want it sugar coated and in a palatable form. And so we've got people all frozen at a particular point that is as far as their courage and strength will take them, and then from then on they cop out. Well I do it myself, of course, to an extent but I think I keep more open to experience than most people. Or I try to confront up to my experience, as far as I can see, more than most. And I maybe wrong. I mean there might be others who will do that far better than I do. Undoubtedly there are.
Well, now we're getting into the ... the ... shall I say, you're opening up a can of, of shall I say, death adders there, [laughs] which can lead us anywhere, all over the place. But I believe, shall I be as simple as possible, that there are an infinite number of realities and we merely inhabit one of them. One small, limited reality. And I don't doubt there are thousands of other realities on this planet in animal life, insect life, bird life, vegetable life, all kinds of life, of which, of course, we don't regard with enough respect. One has to be careful because this is a sacrosanct attitude. And this is one of the great crimes the human race is committing, you know, all the time, every day, because unhappily, we're a carnivorous species. All life feeds on life. And so we are, in what I would call, a pretty ... pretty limited and poor form of existence. Although as much as we admire ourselves, unjustly, and so on. But I think there are other realities not only below this one, but also far beyond it. And they, as far as we know, go on to infinity. There's no end to it. Perhaps this is our eternal life, living from one life to another.
That I have to be?
No, well I'm afraid of it and I'm not afraid of it. That's the only way I can answer the question you know, with a cancelling out.
See I often look forward to death, out of ... simple curiosity will sometimes get me to the point where I want to be dead so I can know. I'll get some answers. So that will happen with me. Then of course, then I'll get back to my more normal state of mind and then resume being afraid of the whole idea and, you know, clinging to life and my fear. Well I've resolved it by: I'll cling to as much life as I can, do it as well as I can, and get as much work done as I can while I'm here, and while I can function and so on. When I can't then, you know, bye-bye. Off I go.
Oh yes. Well with me it came through as anxiety. I was very cocksure when I was younger, as most people are because you've got this biological energy thought pushing you at the back and pushing you on and forward and it seems endless. That's the delusion we have when we're young. And you solve a lot of problems then that are ... more or less do things there almost effortlessly. But when we get to a more advanced stage, shall I say there, and you've got to ... find you work hard to do something you did without even thinking by reflex action once, and you have to make hard work out of it, then you start finding out what it is, what old age is about. But I do think, though, with old age, that very elderly people who go mentally, and physically, they only seem to be that, because I think a lot of them are inhabiting already ... partly inhabiting another reality later on, and a lot of them are actually having quite a ball. [Laughs]
Oh, give me a chance. I haven't got there yet. [Laughs] I'm still functioning in this world and dealing with your questions.
Yes, I'm eighty years young. Or not quite. I'm beginning my eightieth year.
Oh lovely age. I enjoy this no end.
... and assess it. And now looking at you as an artist, for the moment, just looking at your work, other people have written a lot about your work and about what it means, and described the various phases of your development. Now I'm offering you your chance. If you look back over the work that you've done do you see a pattern of development or particular phases that mean a lot?
Oh yes, I think I can see it and on the whole I think I could say that I've conquered adversities enough to be able to get enough work done there to have made a statement about my whole life, of a kind. What its value will be for other people I don't know. That's, as I say, that's a bonus. You might be kicked up the pants or patted on the shoulder. I just don't know. And I'm not interested really. I'm not interested. The thing is I've made it work sufficiently so I can survive and work as an artist, and to hell with everything else. Why bother any more? As long as I can keep going and my job is to just keep on producing and now I'm having quite a good time, in a way, going back over my whole life and trying to resolve past things that I left unfinished. You see, and try and complete things that I left unfinished. And this is what I am really trying, trying to get done now is do this and also in the course of doing that, I find that I activate other things and then new things will come into play that I couldn't have possibly thought about happening or predicting ... predicted before.
Oh yes. There's a lot of other work of a kind and I use this often as a starting point. I'll have a phase of work which didn't quite finish itself. Or I'm dissatisfied with. So I tend to pick it up and play with it and I'll either wreck it and destroy it and throw it out, or else I will take it to another stage further and then I might work on another series on the same theme. And that will only have a short run but often it will produce things there which are quite interesting and then new elements are already, on their own volition, entering into it. And then I can often get a starting point with something completely new from that. And so I keep on that along with repairing scratches on frames and scratches on the painting or dents or all the things that happen in the course of keeping them in storage.
Of the various phases of your art and the various periods that you've had where you've had particular themes or particular preoccupations, which would be the ones that you would most like to see survive? The ones that you feel have been your most significant contribution?
Oh probably the ones that people would hate most I think. The ones that refer to the whole story, including all the ... all the grim stuff that we're always trying to evade all the time.
Well, well let me see. One ... one there which was possibly as a ... I'm just hanging the whole question on one painting there. I don't paint in a very large size, but before I put up that retrospective I did paint a large religious painting and this started from an earlier one that I painted in Rome where I had the Betrayal, Christ in the garden and so on. Well I did that and that ... that worked up to a certain point. But I was still left with that feeling that there was much more to do with that ... with that idea so I painted another one there which was much larger and treated the whole thing quite differently and so on, which just had a couple of very bare bone images in it, with a, you know ... with the David figuring out who these characters are: one of the disciples when Christ was in the garden and Judas came and kissed Christ, to finger him, as it were, for the gendarmes. [Laughs] In the first one I made them gendarmes as a matter of fact, [laughs] which was rather amusing, and in this one I carried the same thing through to an extent. But in it I also used a couple of ... of traffic cops, you know, motorcycle boys with their helmets, which shows I received a bit too many parking tickets I suppose. And so out of that I made a ... made a robot form using the motorcycle helmet. And then I had to do something out of the mouth, and out of the mouth I had streaming a whole flood of death adders because there was Judas, you see, in the act of kissing Christ and fingering him. Then on the other side was the ... another one of the gendarmes who ... that was having his ear hacked off by one of the disciples, who saw what had happened there and he is ... you may remember the Biblical episode. I don't go into it detail by detail. I'm concerned with the overall thing. But he was ... he had ... was getting his ear chopped off because this was the ear that heard the ... the dreadful news that this man was Christ and would be crucified, you see. So Judas and the gendarme were the ones who really were the ... shall I say, the ones who created - physically created - that circumstance. Just as later on there they ... they crucified Christ. And so this occurred. And there was another I did, a crucifixion of Pontius Pilate - one that's in the Adelaide Gallery. But this doesn't happen often with me but, you know .... but anyhow, to get back to the original question which I ... as usual wandering off it. Now I had this ... I got this painting done and I thought: well that should sit well in the exhibition as some kind of centre piece and I wonder what reaction it will have. Well practically no one's taken any notice of it. See? Which is rather interesting.
Oh yes, it meant a great deal. It's a culmination of one whole train of thought, the theme of betrayal. I've got the other Judas betrayal - I have in the gallery - which was a quite a good image that came out of the Italian period, of you know, Judas squatting there with ... with a rope round his neck and let's see now ... I have to just remember how the figure looked. I made it all by making an abstraction. I made an abstraction of his robes and the finger, the figure and the way he was squatting there with his head down and the rope round his neck, when he later ... later suicided, when he realised what he'd done. Well it did emerge as a pretty powerful image that did draw a lot of attention, that one. But the other one ... Then I had another one called Ascension with Christ ascending ... going from the cross, of the mutilated figure rising diagonally out of the canvas. But that ... that took people, you know ... since I used a more Grünewaldian approach for that, it showed the elements of wounds and decomposition. I played on them as a major part of the image, which they would have been in fact. People tend to evade that one too. So there is a body of work I've produced which people either don't just ... simply plain don't like, or won't bother looking at. Or they look at it and it frightens them so they look away. Or they look at it and say, 'Oh that's a nasty one there. I don't want anything to do with that', and walk away. [Laughs] You see, I don't know. Could be any of those reactions.
Oh they're the ones that matter. They're the ones there that, shall I say, are centrepieces to personal conflicts and struggles within myself. I'd say people could either like them or lump them.
Well I'm ... I'm quite happy with it because I was picked up by some kind of energy tide and swept along. It started off as moral outrage when I came out of the army and saw what had happened to the civilian life which I'd regarded as an area of security and predicability. Then I realised things were happening there which were tearing it all apart. And again, it was all these little girl prostitutes all over the place and the homicidal diggers getting drunk all over the streets. Well again, this is not a popular theme to draw attention to. And it still isn't. You see. For the authorities, they don't like that idea and the whole tendency was to sweep it all under the mat, carpet, and pretend it wasn't there. And this was Mollison's I think supreme act of courage and perception, and showed what a tough and capable administrator he was, or is, that he ... that he recognised this and made an instant decision about them. Decided the gallery had to have this body of work and there it was. He saw its basic significance in a flash. And so this is something that I always have a ... hold Mollison in very high regard for that. Because practically, if he hadn't come along, I'd probably still be waiting in the wings. [Laughs]
Oh yes, yes.
No really. Oddly enough no. It's ... they've worked very beneficially. Because when I started them I realised I was behind the eight ball in a sense because I was trying to put a human face on my period of the thing that had shocked me was that people started dying all over the place. There's this ... it makes you feel apprehensive. And I thought my God, and I do feel it now because, good heavens, there are only a small handful of us left from that period. You know who worked in that period ... But the thing that brought it to a head was when John and Sunday Reed died within a week or so of each other. When they died I realised that this marked the end of a whole cycle of ... an energy cycle that had buoyed, carried us along and had been a very formative thing in our early life. And so I was very disturbed at this. And also when Fred Williams died, although he came after it, but nevertheless he was too young to die, I think. But there were other people too now, and curiously I ... I've forgotten a lot of them. A lot of the other, you know ... other people associated with it. Joy of course - she died. That was it. And Mary died. And then you find you're surrounded with all the world that you grew up in ... that you ... that meant ... was highly significant to you, that you drew energy from, which was of such enormous value to you, that they were just dropping off one by one, like leaves off a tree and so on. And then you find there: my God I'm going to be ...
No, I would say that they added up to a bonus really. I did get into trouble with one particular one but that's a bit too private and involves certain people. Well, shall I say, well placed at the moment. There's a little story there that will be a funny one later on, but I couldn't even put it out at this stage, so I won't arouse your curiosity so cut that bit out. [Laughs] But in the main, it was a bonus and I expected a lot of trouble with it actually, because I'd had this terrific struggle with myself to maintain that curious thing of a total involvement but a total detachment at the same time, which is one of those terrific balancing acts that one has to perform if you want to get anything done. And when I was particularly ... when I was painting a lot of the people who weren't being, shall I say, old enemies all my life, for example Noel Counihan, Vic Connor ... Vic O'Connor, people like Bernard Smith. I won't ... it's not fair to say enemies because I could still talk to Bernard and I was talking to Noel towards the last phase of his life. Noel talked to Vic O'Connor when I see him, and so on. All this happened but at that stage, they appeared in that role. We'd been in direct conflict, pretty well all our lives and I was the biggest scoundrel unhung because I stopped the Communist Party getting hold of the Contemporary Arts Society and I've been one of their ... one of their ... In the cultural areas at least I'd been one of their worst enemies and in fact there's a little ... little aside there which I know, I won't say who, how or what, but right in those early days, when the conflicts were on, I was given the tip off by one in the know there, that when the war was over and they had their revolution and set up their communist paradise that I'd be one of the first to go, which does not warm you to people ... does not warm you to people. I remember I got very hostile to that. [laughs] I had my old violent reaction to it.
Well, with some of them I did. I got John Sinclair to sit for me for example and the wretch didn't turn up. Here I was all ready, with all my stuff all ready, and he didn't and I thought my God, you know, and I ... I really wanted to get as much done as I could and I'll be encountering this all the time and also the people will sit there and they go into a coma and into a trance and this all comes through in the painting. I said, 'It won't work', so I altered myself completely because already I'd had to start off with a couple of little black and white things I had there, a couple of Joy, and I found there that a curious phenomenon took place with that, when I used them as a starting point ...
I used ... a portrait ... a small of photograph of Joy.
That first one I did of Joy. No, one of the first one's. There are a couple in the gallery that I painted directly from Joy there which ... which are ... which are quite reasonably good ones too but they are rather fast ones and they work quite well. But I realise that the whole thing would be so cumbersome that it would never get done and ... but I had this little experience. I found ... The curious thing I found was that in working with this photograph, that afterwards, when I came back and looked at it, I found it was totally different than the photograph, that it was another version of Joy all together. That unwittingly this subconscious ... this subliminal thing I was ... talk ... talking about earlier, this sort of by osmosis, it had filtered it's way through into the way I was working. And I was actually, in a sense, painting, not only ... only the image that was revived or the ... a memory cue from the photograph of her, but I was painting her my entire life. that I knew her ... as I knew her all along. That this somehow or other was working it's way in, so I thought I'd develop on this and see if I could do more and I had a good camera then and I also knew Noel Counihan, for example, and I wanted to paint him very much and, you know, I still had this distant occasional encounter with him. And I knew his work had changed. I could see his attitude had changed and so I just took the bull by the horns, rang up and asked if I could come out and see him as I had this plan in mind to paint his portrait. So I went out and saw him. I brought my camera and I took a lot of photographs of him at the same time and I had a good talk with him and had a good look at him and ... which you do when you photograph. You are looking for certain things and changes and variations and so forth. You find there that you are looking at a person with a far greater intensity than you realise yourself [and] in a different way to the way you think you are. And, anyhow, so I got photographs that way and then I worked over them and let them settle down in my mind and then I'd use that as a basis for the portrait. This happened not in all cases, but in many cases, and I found it's quite a business keeping the ... if you lapse back into the old thing of 'look and put' in a painting, which one would be tempted to do because it was a cop out, the easy way out, and so on, it could finish up with dead mutton and so I knew enough then to keep the thing stimulated and going and I kept switching it around and seeing the people and I'd take a large number of photographs from different angles, different positions and so, finally compositing would ... would emerge from it, but hooked up with my knowledge and memory of them. And so on and so I'd get going and away it would go. That was generally the method that I used and this enabled me to paint about, oh, heavens above I must have painted about eighty or ninety portraits in the one year. See, I knew that I was doing the right thing as I had in the Images of Modern Evil because I felt this terrific flow of energy behind me that pushed me along. I was being told to do it. This is ... I did, so I did what I was told. And when the paintings were done and I had the exhibition and I did something there which I haven't mentioned to date, which I should have, because he was one of the big formative figures in my life, that is, T. S. Eliot. I encountered his poetry in the middle thirties and he was a dominant ... he's been a dominant figure in many ways, intermittently, right through my life because ...
Yes, Sweeney Agonistes, yeah. And so he was ... Eliot and also many passages on Eliot there I could say are, simply resolved many life problems for me and gave me information that I'd never have got otherwise and so to me he was a ... one of those great original sensibilities and I put him in the Einstein class, or Jung class - all these people. And I was devoted to Eliot and a lot of early paintings came out of Eliot in the late thirties. I'd say probably my first, what I call mature or mature paintings emerged in the very late thirties and early forties and they were based very largely on Eliot - very largely on the kind of charge he gave me when I read passages. Often the painting would have nothing to do with any particular passage in Eliot but I did do one called The Wasteland and The Futile City and things like that, images that came out of ... out of Eliot. And so when I had all these portraits together, one of the things that came ... came to mind straight away there was, 'there is time, there is time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet, there is time to murder and create'. So bingo I had ... I called the exhibition Faces I Have Met, [laughs] a paraphrase of this passage from Eliot. And so this ... this ... this worked and when the exhibition opened, all these people came along, you know, shall I say, the Lefty clan that I'd ... who generally regarded me as a drop out, a scoundrel, a traitor, everything else and so forth and I was totally rejected by them. They all emerged full force. They were all coming to look at what horrific revenge I'd taken them all, [laughs] you see, in the exhibition and they got the shock of their lives. They came along and I remember looking at Bernard looking at a painting and I went up there and, you know, indicated there, trying to get some response about ... about the painting and he was, you know ... quite ... quite ... He took it in a way ... I could see there what he ... what he should have had and what Noel should have had, because Noel, too, he had the same thing there. They looked. I saw them looking at my paintings and then they just walked away and made no complaints at all. [Laughs]
Well, not kinder, kinder wouldn't be the word. But I'd say that because of the the mental conflict these people plunged me into, to be looking at someone who'd been on the other side of the fence all my life and that we were in both the position - that they rejected me and I rejected them, that set up a peculiar kind of tension and it was the effort to resolve that, I think [that] sparked off a ... that acted ... acted as kind of foil to me and I went into it, quite possibly in many ways, on a deeper level, because I found curiously, that even though there were certain people I didn't care for in a personal sense, that I'd paint them better because I was hunting for what it was I didn't care for. [Laughs] You see, and people I liked or got on with, or I'd find I'd pick out elements. Now, I did this quite unwittingly with Nolan because I was quite prepared to be quite benevolent, even though I had problems with Nolan in my relationship with him, which had gone on for some time. But I had the highest ... still the highest [respect for him], as I still do, the highest regard for him as a painter, his extraordinary perceptual capacity, for his very surgical and very sharp and erudite mind that he had and he was someone there that I could ... we talked ad infinitum for a period of forty years. We'd meet frequently, and talk talk talk - in London, Paris, New York, here, all over the place and we'd even pick up sentences where that we left off say a year before, and we'd be able to complete the sentence. And so we had a very, very good relationship in that sense, but unfortunately that went by the board. And happily when they exhibited both Nolan and myself at the Gallery, Nolan's Kelly's on one side and my Images of Modern Evil on the other and this gave Nolan a tremendous shock and that was it.
Because I think ... I think he was led up the garden path himself. I think he came along expecting to be the whole thing to be based on him.
Oh, this was the opening of the National Gallery in Canberra and the Queen came along too and he had to share a meeting with the Queen with me. [Laughs] But I knew nothing about it until only a matter of ... I think it was only a week or two before. I knew nothing about it, about them using the Images of Modern Evil that way.
Well, it's ... it's a delicate area to go into because I don't want to speak against Nolan, but there is a side to him that I became very aware of there, which I had no rapport with at all, and this was one of them there. He ... he ... As a social engineer he was brilliant and this meant that you had to have a certain ruthlessness in all your relationships, so this unhappily happened, and that ... that was it.
He didn't say anything, just went red and that was it. Didn't speak.
No, maybe, we had accidentally ... We had, after that, over a ten or twelve year period, we had, you could say, accidental encounters really.
No, no, no. I never ... in a sense, I never had an opportunity because that was given, you see. This is how ... Nolan would have assumed that I would know that, but which I hadn't up to that time.
You see I am rather uncomfortable with dealing with this one, as you can imagine, because as I say ...
I know but the point is, as I said, that you ... when you get to know someone too well, you get to also know all their weaknesses and bad points as well as their good ones and it's a balancing act how it balances out and so you learn tolerance of the bad points and appreciation of the good points. This is the art of the human relationship, but surely?
Oh yes. That put me in a state of shock for quite awhile.
No, what could I do? It was flat, and of course, he was gone, he wasn't in the same town. He went straight off back to England or he'd be somewhere else, on another part of the globe. See, I'd go ... even when I knew him well, I'd only see him, sometimes, at long periods. Often a year or two would go by between encounters and then you'd have a period where you'd see a lot of one another, and so on and so on.
I tried in the sense that I was polite and pleasant to him and neutral with him when I ... on the occasions I did meet him and I'd be waiting in a sense to see his response. And in fact, I got it, but in a round about way. For example, he once told ... I understand he told Mollison - I think I can use his name there - when I had my retrospective on there that he came over and he told Mollison he wanted to see it and that came back to me, third removed, not directly, and apparently he did come in on the last day of the exhibition and he told Mollison that ... he asked how I was and said he'd get in touch with me but he never did. So this is very personal and uncomfortable stuff but nevertheless this is the way life ... life grinds it's way through. And so let me state again, I have the highest regard for Nolan's accomplishment, what he did, and for whole aspects of his personality. Other aspects of it, I don't, very simply because I was ... in time I was able to winnow out the elements that I could not accommodate or get on with and so on, but I put them in abeyance as it were and didn't allow them to activate in the course of the relationship. So in a sense, the last ... the last long stage of the relationship was one in which I was holding back on things that I knew and disagreed with him in, but I didn't bring out because they were too personal and too ... too tricksy, shall I say.
Only in the sense of a ... of a friend and a conversational companion because we all talked. We'd stimulate one another and we could both talk our heads off to each other. That I do miss enormously as I'm a talkative person, [laughs] as you've no doubt noticed. [Laughs]
Well it's a hard one to accommodate that one there, as it would say, if your mother or your brother or your sister or someone like that, someone that's very close to you. It's hard in that sense, I think, that's all.
Oh, yes, she gave me more trouble than anyone, trying to deal with her, because I knew ... again I knew this other side which had been harmful to my whole life and did me a tremendous amount of damage and I could track it right back to ... back to her and this one did ... I found very disturbing and one that I had great difficulty in confronting. But I think I've got a couple of reasonable portraits of Sunday out of it there, that don't show this hopefully, I don't know. Because as I was going to say earlier, in that portrait I did of Nolan, I thought I was keeping a balance and keeping everything out of it but then everyone who saw it there, said, 'Well, that's a job you did on Nolan'. That was the last thing on my mind, [laughs] but as I came later to see the ... via the distance [that] gave me a separation from it, but I had in fact unwittingly made a very critical comment on him.
Well, I had him first in a business suit in a desert, which already set up a peculiar sort of conflict. That's using the surrealist element coming into play, making use of it. And the angle I had his head and the position I used and the way I handled his eyes looking, looking, looking at the viewer there, made it look a very, say ... [laughs] gave him the dodgy customer look, which I had not intended at all.
No, because I didn't have those feelings. The kind of opinions or feelings I've been giving you now in talking to you, are very different to the ones I had then. As I said, I was still in the phase of women are the most gorgeous creatures of God's creations, you see, and that lasted with me for a long long time and it still does. I still have that, but as I have with some people there, I realise there's the good side and there's the bad side [laughs] and I've had ... had to make up on understanding the other side. I was giving too much on the good side, I think.
Well I tried to be merciless with myself. I don't know if I was. Oh, I've been told that I was. Somebody told me, 'Why do you make yourself such an unpleasant character', so then I knew I'd succeeded, you see. [Laughs]
Oh, naughty naughty, naughty, naughty. What characteristics? You want an explanation? You want a poem about it?
I think you can only experience that as the image, that's the only way. I'll not allow people to look at my paintings and ask for explanations. You've got to look at it and experience [it] as an image and it only points to a weakness and a fault in yourself, as it does with just about the bulk of our over self-conscious, over arrogant Western Civilisation. It's trying to play God and do God out of a job.
Which one? I did several.
[Laughs] Don't do it for that reason ...
Don't do it because it's the wrong thing ...
... you ask someone else to translate something into words for you to save you the trouble of really looking yourself and really looking at the image hard and getting it out of the image. That's what I'm trying to persuade people to do.
Well at times I've painted I've thought, that that's worked rather well and I'll look a reasonable presentable sort of character, and other times I'd do it and the thing would look back at me and say, 'I'm a louse, or ...', [laughs] and that feeling would come out of it. But I never make those ... so much those kinds of judgements even about people for that matter. I don't say, 'I hate so and so or like so and so'. It's never like this - it's always a mixture of both. And you've got all these things have to be balanced out and each circumstance and each person, each painting, it's quite a different experience and it's our duty to confront it as an experience, as an event in your life there, which you are trying to get to ... to comprehend and see what's happening. See, people they ... they stop on these things and take the ... it's what I call copping out when people ask for explanations. Paintings cannot be explained. There cannot be such a ridiculous institution as an art school. You cannot teach art. You can teach people certain things about it, you can teach them a history of art, if people are so inclined and interested. You can ... you can teach people how to ... the chemistry of colours and you can teach them how to stretch a canvas and all these things and certain laws of ... from physics of how colours operate and so on. These are all ... these are all factual things. They've got nothing to do with producing art. They've only got it to do with it in, as I say, where ... as I say we've got to have that thing going. We've got to have a complete awareness in one part of our mind and a complete ... complete unawareness in the other part of our mind. Just follow that line of potency, there we are. But any how, getting back to the portraits, the general effect was quite good and a lot of these people who'd ... in fact, I think I created some reconciliations with a lot of these people, these marginal fringe people on the Left, who'd assume that I was worst scoundrel unhung and after they saw the exhibition, they ... they ... they became more open and more, you know, they'd think, oh perhaps he's, you know ... perhaps, you know, perhaps he's ... there's something nice about him after all. [Laughs]
Oh, no. This ... this ... this same thing. I'd never have a discussion like myself like that, never.
I feel ... I'm searching the unknown and I feel for these lines of potency which are significant to me. And then Herbert Read titled a book of his, The Form of Things Unknown, then I try to get that sense of potency and try and find a form there which will work with it or fit it or express it in some way and keep blundering around and floundering around with it, until it comes clearer and clearer and that usually takes a long period of time, and finally there you'll get a hook you know. You'll hook into something and then bingo, then you'll ... the thing will go on and then it starts doing itself when you do that. Once you build up that bright energy flow, that pushes you along. You don't have to talk to yourself or have an argument with yourself or understand what you are doing or explain anything to yourself or to anyone else. This doesn't happen. At least not with me.
In certain ways. In certain ways I've gotten harder and nastier. In other ways, I think I got a lot more mellow and softer.
For example, in dealing with people who ask me what I'm going to do with my next painting. [Laughs]
I'm not going to spill any of that image out anywhere to start with ...
... in a false form.
Well, I hopefully got that across. [Laughs]
I don't know anything about that. Go on.
I do in a sense. I mean, I'm not telling quite the truth there because I realise time is limited on this earth and there are certain chores and things that I have to ... to tidy up my life as much as I can while I'm here and essentially that's what I'm basically engaged on, but keeping alert to tripping over nuggets of gold on the way and seizing them.
Affect me? Oh, it affected me very much at the time because I was, I had these bad experiences in earning a living through the thirties and also another thing that most of the current people wouldn't ... generations wouldn't comprehend, is that we knew absolutely nothing about what happened in Russia and what ... and the effects Communism was having. All we knew was that some great idealistic utopian programme was being put into operation and where all the information told us that it was working. In other words, there was such a rigorous censorship with the Russians that none of the nasty stuff got out, or very little of it.
Oh yes, well, one warms for utopian solutions to anything I guess and I was young and silly enough to ... to respond, which ... which I did, but also it seemed to be some kind of solution to the sense of outrage and injustice I felt in my struggles to survive and get a living. And so anything that's utopian solutions were marvellous to play with, at the time.
Well, at first there was a ... early when I was working at Gill's there, I had to work through weekends and not get any pay for it. I was told I was lucky to have a job. Also there was the sign writer on this staff. He was a Communist and he was pushing the Communist line all the way and so I was surrounded by this sort of thing. Not only that - in the world at large. All the young ... young people were all looking out and assessing and going along with the whole notion of Communism because it captured the idealism of that younger generation.
Now that's one of those questions now. That is a tricky question to answer in this sense, that I did not join it for quite a long time and I can't even remember the date I did. I think it was about somewhere around 1937, '38, when the Communists formed what they called an artist's branch for the Party. What had really happened as I realised subsequently is that they decided that culture was something that they could use and could become a political weapon and could be used for political purposes and so they were to try and get to see if they could white ant their way into existing cultural institutions and take them over. This is what they were really at but, of course, I was rather oblivious to the mechanics of the thing at the time. So when I was asked there that they wanted to deal with artists and would I join the artist's branch because they would then deal with all these questions of art and I thought: that's a good idea because a lot of things they said had already infuriated me and put me off. I thought they'd need a lot of education in this area so it might be a good idea to get into it and argue the whole thing out. In other words, to negotiate it and see how the artist was dealt with in this. So I cheerfully joined up on that basis, which I did - no cards, no party cards or anything. I just ... they just ... just trying to get money, they asked me to pay dues and so I paid - I forget - what was about one or two shillings a week or whatever it was, some very small amount and ...
No, well, this ... I thought at the time that I had, that this is what it was, in my rather naive state of mind. It was only later I found out that this was a new venture for other purposes for them and they were using the branch as, shall I say, a mediating point there, to get into the cultural world and convert people to Communism and get them into the Communist Party. This was the thing. And so we would have been in that position. We were the targets number one, shall I say. We were, you could say, on the outskirts of the Party, but not officially in it. I never had a party card for example. So whatever they call it, whatever it is or whatever they called it. And so ... but I paid the dues and for that reason, I thought, well, that makes me a Communist. So I said this. I said this publicly in Angry Penguins, that I was a member for three years when in actual fact, I was in what was simply a raw training ground area and I only lasted in it for half that time because I couldn't last for the time, but I paid up the three years because I wanted to get them off my back because they wouldn't let me go. You see, they were very persistent, you know. Heard of that one there: get them young, and, you know, you can't get out. They had ... there was no way of resigning or getting out of the thing.
I found that I couldn't stand the situation in it. I didn't mind the going around and talking to certain people and developing an argument about Marx and historical materialism, or what Marx had to say about art and so, which I did, and at the time I developed a fair amount of erudition in the Communist writings about art and this is where I realised that I had nothing in common with them. But in the meetings themselves I'd also have disputes and discussions and arguments, within the so called branch of the party and this is what I thought it was about, but then the main Party started to lean on us. You see, they weren't getting enough results so we had to be schooled as Communists so they then wanted us ... we had to go around and distribute leaflets. In other words, go around knocking on doors and all this kind of thing. So in other words, start taking ... trying to feed ... feed us into direct political action which I resisted strenuously. I wasn't going around knocking on doors and doing things. I remember I did one thing once, which I ... which I did more probably out of the excitement of the thing. We used to go down to the Yarra Bank and often Jack Blake, Ralph Gibson and the Communist leaders would speak down there and a lot of the crowd there would throw rocks at them and tomatoes and all sorts of rubbish at them, and so they had to form a phalanx of Communists around the platform as it were, to protect them. So I joined that at one stage there, not that I could do much protecting anyone in that situation, but I was indignant that there was ... what the thing that really I think got on my nerves was that the crowd wouldn't allow them to speak. See, this offended me deeply, that whether you agree or you don't agree, they should be allowed to speak. And so that got me in on their ... on the bodyguard side of it. What I was really doing was protecting free speech in my simple-minded way, but it also happened to be protecting Communists at the same time. When this ... one of the things, the crowd would surge in different ways and actually I was very lucky. There were a lot of police down there controlling it and I remember at one stage, someone threw a rock at Ralph Gibson I think it was and the police suddenly dived in on him to try and get him, and all of a sudden there was a swirl in the crowd and I found myself standing on my own, with a couple of policemen in front of me waving batons and one of them glared at me there and started advancing on me, swish, swish, swish, with his baton full bore so I beat a very hasty retreat. But there was no mistaking that if I had ... if I had stood my ground I would have really got clobbered because then they just whopped everything in sight, that was in their way. And so this in a way blooded me for it, as it were, but it also helped convince me there that this was not the sort of world I was interested in. I was interested in protecting free speech but not in Communists and there it was. So this went on for a time, in a sort of no-man's land thing and I never went to the meetings, any ... I refused to go to the meetings. And then they ... the Communists themselves, via Counihan, got on me and demanded that I come along, that I'd been ... I hadn't been doing my duty as it were and they wanted to clear this matter up there and I had to go along to be, for a meeting to discuss the whole matter. I went to the meeting and found that it was nothing more than an interro ..., a political interrogation led by Counihan. So I, very simply, very quickly lost my temper, abused the lot of them and told them to go to hell and went. And that was the end of it.
No, I was never asked the question. I was never asked. I got on so well with this chap in Canada that [laughs] ... that there ... that ... that it didn't come up.
Perhaps he was remiss in his job, I don't know, because he did check dossiers to see if I was known in any way and he always figured there that if I wasn't on the dossier, that I was in the clear, which of course, effectively, I was because that was years and years behind me at that point.
No, I didn't no what the Communist Party was. I thought it was some utopian body of like thinking people who were going to create heaven on earth. We were simple minded people then. Very simple. You see, people will keep dealing with history by projecting information they got long after the event, projecting it back into the event. And this is what so many people do and that is what that sort of ... sort of position does. I really, you know ... we were very simple people, we were very ... we were almost hillbillies you could say in a real sense. We were nice people, I think, in the main, but we were colonials. We simply had no sophistication whatsoever. The sophistication that we've got now is virtually a post-war thing, which has ... which has been imported and plagiarised really.
The big event then of course was the death of my brother. That was the thing that had a very profound effect on me. And he got meningitis and seemed to be ill for a time and we didn't know what it was, because this was in the days before antibiotics and the diagnosis wouldn't have been nearly as accurate or as good and treatment, of course, was obviously virtually non-existent for this as a complaint and by the time they discovered what it was, the doctor looked at him and said there was no hope for him, that he had meningitis and that was it. This of course, had the ... the shock of that was profound and needless to say, my unfortunate mother nearly went out of her mind with it and we kept on. I remember she kept looking after him. She finally decided she could, might be able to save him and I remember she even got relieved after a time after looking after him because he seemed to be responding and so on, coming out of his coma and so on. And she even seemed happy with it, but anyhow one night, she ... I was sleeping out on the verandah then, she came out at three o'clock in the morning, crying out, 'Quick quick, Jack's going, Jack's going', and I was half asleep. I scrambled out of bed and went into the room and he was there stretched out on the bed and I, of course, ... the first thing I actually ... when she said he was going, it only meant one thing so I put my hand on his chest and as I did there, I felt his heart go [CLAPS HAND THREE TIMES] and stop, and that was it. That really shook me up needless to say, but since my parents were ... they were very good people, but like us all, I guess, bewildered by life, didn't know what it was all about, and there was a lot of negativism in their thinking because of the Depression, and the Hitler period in the thirties - all these things. Also being on a low wage and surviving on it. So they had a lot of negativism and they ... so my parents literally fell apart. They couldn't cope with it and I had to move in and, shall I say, be the man of the family and arrange everything. So I had to arrange the funeral. I had to ring them up. I'd never rung up on a telephone before. I'd never used one. Only wealth ... wealthy people had phones then. It's a thing that people today would find difficult to understand. This was how it was, just as no one had a car, no one had a refrigerator. They might have had an icebox and that was it. You had to be very wealthy to have any of those things, which are now commonplace and widely spread amongst the entire population, which is one form of progress one could say, but they were pretty negative and couldn't handle the situation. I had to ring up on the phone to the undertakers and get all these sort of arrangements going and they came out with a coffin and I remember them coming upstairs with it and [taking] it into the bedroom and they put me outside the room and as I stood outside I could hear them striking matches and I realised what they were doing is making sure my brother was dead, you know, seeing if there was dilation of the pupil when they lifted the eyelid. So they decided he was thoroughly dead and that was that, and put him in the coffin on a trestle and came out and the rest was left to us. I still remember the undertakers going downstairs, looking down on them, the light shining through the Victorian window that was there, a stain glassed window, and the coloured light coming through on his black clothes that one of the undertaker's assistants, who was a very young fellow and he ... I remember as he was going down the stairs, I could see all the back of his black coat covered with dandruff. [Laughs] These ludicrous little side observations one makes that sticks in one's mind for what? Sixty odd years, you see, which is rather extraordinary. So all that was attended to: the funerals and burial and the consoling of my mother but these were ... this was one of the major events of adolescence but against this background of shall I say, the declassed negativism and despair and endless battle about money, it was ... these are all things that I think stay with you for life.
Girls? Oh yes, I had the standard preoccupation with them and, but I never knew what to do about it [laughs]. Again extremely innocent, so we were very slow developers in those days because the opportunities were very few and, also, sex was a mysterious remote thing in a way, then too, not as it is now. It's on the table. You have it with your meals every night with the television and everything that comes out. Well again, it was some kind of remote and extraordinary and marvellous and sacrosanct kind of event there, which ... which very few people had anything to do with. You had to be married to know anything about that. And so this ... one's normal biological drives, as they took place there, this ... this put ... made one ... should I say, slowed one down. [Laughs]
I never had any particular girlfriend through that period. No, it was just the local girls that we'd grown up from childhood with there, but the sex factor in some mysterious way came into play in the ... what were the normal child relationships and all of a sudden they became potent in a peculiar way that ... that ... made us ... that confused us no end, you see. But anyhow we slowly bonded along and found out our way and talked about all these things with people who were ... characters who were a bit more advanced and you get information from them and so you built up some kind of shall I say, I wouldn't call it knowledge, I suppose, but some sort of information base [laughs] for what might happen next.
Well I would say the first significant one was Joy Hester. When I in the city I was about what, twenty-three I think at the time - in my early twenties. I was about six years older than her and she was seventeen. I met her through gallery art students and I was entranced with her because she was a very, very beautiful girl and also I'd learned enough then to have a certain line of approach in these things, so I immediately asked her to pose for a portrait. [Laughs] That's always a good way that never failed, and so ... so did this and she agreed readily and I made an appointment with her , and at this point I was in a studio in a place they called Motherwell's Gateway, between Collins and Little Collins Street and there is a marvellous old bloodstone structure there. It was a gateway and a couple of lofts, which was the rear part of the coach yard of an old inn that used to be there in Collins Street. It was a marvellous bit of surviving history which, of course, our city fathers in their wisdom allowed to be destroyed. So there was something there, like the Eastern Market. If we had preserved that, that would have been the most marvellous tourist attraction, if only they'd known it. Instead you've got the Southern Cross to look at and before it had this beautiful old market with a huge mezzanine floor, arcades of Victorian shops with curlicue iron work all around and the most extraordinary little shops were in ... in the place, and it had a marvellous atmosphere. But anyhow, that's ... that was also the place where the character named Colin Ross ... he used to ... lured a school girl and murdered her ...
Do you feel you were born with a sensitivity of what was going on around you that was particularly acute. The reason why I ask that is that you felt the things that happened to you in your childhood very deeply. You managed to have an intense experience of war, without even leaving Australia because of your sensitivity to the sights you saw in hospital. Do you think that you are particularly acutely aware of things around you?
Not necessarily, I don't think. I think it is the way experience comes to people and ... because there is no way of measuring your response because there is no way of relating it to anyone else's. You see, we've got no ... it's the old Western thing of trying to reduce everything to fixed measurements and little out points, absolute points, which we can't do. So there is no way of knowing a point like that, whether you are more or less sensitive than other people in certain areas. And I would say that with the military thing of course, the hospital, that was a kind of extreme crisis experience in a way, in which I was very fortunate, and that I ... the experiences I had was more in the position of being a witness. You see, how the way the whole thing worked out and my complete good fortune in that. I was put through the training camp and suffered all the normal discomforts that one would have in that circumstance and all the apprehensions and whatever that go with it. But when I was put into ... went to the hospital, I was given ... I was simply sitting around all the time, having my ... this rest I was sent down for and I wasn't getting any treatment for anything at all. So I was able to wander around the board walks and just chat to people and see all these things so I was really in a very fortunate spectator position and the same thing happened in '47 when I went to Europe, again I went more, almost in a tourist sense because I was getting material and images for the article Ross Galenko was doing, but it gave me the trip around you see which was very good. So I count myself as extremely fortunate to be so close to all those horrendous experiences without having to be ... suffered through them myself. I think the fairies are looking after me in that way but it could have easily gone the other way.
In this period of your life in which you are, in a sense, doing your own personal retrospective, looking back at things and revisiting things ... [INTERRUPTION] During this period that you've been doing your own sort of personal retrospective of your life, looking back revisiting things, thinking them through again, do you feel that there were any particular values or guiding principles that have emerged as the ones that have meant a lot to you?
Well I was really looking for loose ends almost in a sense, and the sense of trying ... knowing that one's life won't be permanent and whatever one has done, you are able to look back over it and you can get a fairly complete picture and then you want to complete it as fully as possible, because after all, it's whatever one has got to leave in this life that's it, what one does in it. So I wanted to try to leave as complete a story as possible, for what it's worth. Because I was driven to that, again, by that problem that I had that everybody seemed to falling, like leaves falling off a tree, they were all dying off one after the other. And all of a sudden, one morning you wake up and, oh my God, there are only two or three of us left, [laughs] which is a desolate feeling. You feel that the world that you grew up in, that you knew, that you based your life on, is slowly disintegrating and falling away and very shortly there won't be any of it left. This sort of thing. At the same time, it evoked a kind of a sense of responsibility towards it to try to fix it as firmly and completely and fully as possible, that one can.
Oh God, that's ... that would be a little ego thing, wouldn't it? I would like to be remembered probably as someone who succeeded in making a satisfactory record or image of the kind of life that I lived and so many of my contemporaries lived, and to be able to make something that, at least, will contribute towards explaining the period to the future. Or make it as real as possible for the future.
Living through that period, one of the things you were all described as, as you say, but you particularly, was angry when you were young. You'd been through experiences that made you express a sense of outrage at the world.
Yes, well I think all young people are pretty angry when they can't get what they want. [Laughs] You see, they want to have the experience to know that life is very resistant and these things, that older people don't get what they want either. But having got that energy and sense of frustration and you can't see why, you get that sense of injustice. And with me, this was probably emphasised by going through the army thing and the hospital thing, and then out in to civilian life and then finding all my little ... what I thought were fixed dreams or attitudes or expectations in life was suddenly shattered and twisted askew. I could see that life was going to be completely different and I didn't know whether I'd be able to cope with it and so you get a sense of outrage and irritation, anger and so on, and you tend to use that as energy to paint with.
Not really, no. I'd say I can get irritated, yes, with small things which are obstacles when you are trying to do something because as you get older, you become less efficient in handling trivial things, small things, so I can get a certain irritation out of that but ... but really angry: I'll get angry on big issues, on the big issues such as I would on the destruction of the beautiful old Gippsland forests that have been there for thousands of years and we convert it into a few shiploads of chips in order to get another 500 million for the economy. Well, to hell with that! And that's when rage does rise, bubble to the surface for me, a terrific rage and it's very hard to hold myself back because it's sacrosanct. It's sacrilegious doing, doing that sort of thing and to compare say 500 million dollars worth of chips, to compare that to what was lost, with a magnificent ancient forest, I mean, it's such an appalling thing and I'm really very angry with the Australian people that they are permitting this to happen. I've made my protests in the past and had them almost censored out of existence. I have been able to make comments as I'm making them now and for this, I must say that I'm not even necessarily blaming the immediate people who do all this, but it's the Australian public at large for permitting that to happen and remaining silent in order to preserve the standard of living that we haven't really earned.
Oh no, I never feel that. When I do, I'll really put myself down the drain [laughs] because very simply without that as a guiding beacon, or as a purpose, or as a discharge of energy in a positive way - without that life would be devoid of meaning for me, without meaning.
In the latter half of your life, of course, you have been able to support yourself through your painting but in the early years, money must have been an enormous obstacle, as it still is for artists, so when you were younger, when you were just beginning to make your way, how did you manage?
Well, I managed in a way you know in the way I've spoken. I got all these thousands of horrific little jobs that I detested doing and this all went on until I encountered the Reed's and then they helped out partially with what they provided.
John and Sunday Reed.
I beg your pardon?
Well, let me see, John and Sunday, they ... of course I am so accustomed to using those terms I forget other people wouldn't know who they were. But they were ...
Yes, well, John and Sunday Reed, they were well-to-do people, from a wealthy background. They both had overseas educations so in this sense they were more sophisticated in their ... than the average run of Australians that I'd encountered, including myself. And they seemed to be people more out of an Agatha Christie novel, rather than real people in one sense, but the advantage that they had ... was once they had left Europe, I think this was around 1934, I think, they reached one firm resolve, that they wanted whatever they had ... had to give in life, that they wanted to put it behind developing an indigenous Australian culture as fully as they could, or assist it to come into being as well as they could. And fortunately Sunday had a very good sensitive eye to these things and they got mixed up with Max Harris and he was very good on the literary end of it, and other people dealt with the musical end of it, and of course people like Nolan, myself, Perceval, dealt with the visual end of it. This all just simply came together quite involuntarily without any plots or plans or whatever. But Sunday, I'd say, was the magnetic centre of this that drew all these elements together and then held them together.
Well, Sunday ... John knew nothing about contemporary art but he was married to Sunday. He was more the ... he was a lawyer, professionally, and he was the man of action, the professional man and he was the one who ... in a sense Sunday was the poor little rich girl on one side, on the negative side, and John was able to protect her from life and to enable her to carry out her ambitions for her, or create the situation for it. And so he went along with, you could say, her directives just about all the way.
Oh yes. Everyone had that feeling very strongly because we knew we were in a ... from Europe, what we knew of Europe, through reading and inherited in family, the oral traditions in families, we realised that something quite different was trying to achieve birth here, so one became dedicated to this new vision as it were. There's no doubt Tom Roberts did and McCubbin and Walter Withers and a lot of these earlier painters and you become ... you become, you know, entranced with the Australian image, the Australian bush and this, again, is why ... what the politicians are doing and the economists are doing to this as a country as a place to live in, and experience and have ambience and being and create all these new qualities in life, that's why one gets so ... so frustrated and so terribly angry at this kind of thing, the total insensibility, insensitivity of these people. An interviewer the other night, using the economic determinism: well where would we get the 500 million from the year that we get out of chip ... woodchips? Well what a totally insensitive, imbecilic, imbecilic statement. To me the answer is very very very very simple: reduce our standard of living and save the forests. If it has to be reduced by 500 million a year, let it. I'll happily pay my share of all that or even more.
They were devoted patriots, shall I say, as we all were - quite devoted patriots. This in a sense, it was a patriotism ... it was a, almost largely, I would say, the patriotism of place. Of the ... we realised the country had absolutely unique characteristics and had to be worked through into all it's art forms if we ... if we earned the right to be here, we had to do that in some way. But on the other hand we had to do it without losing the advantages of our European tradition.
This was magnificent when it was in it's tribal form, but not in it's present merchandising form, where it's been ... where these wretched institutions will deliver, you know, give them ... in an order to give them toilet, toilets and various other facilities, try to get to earn it themselves, then they buy them big canvasses and pots of acrylic colour and so on, which totally destroys the very thing that they were doing. You see, detribalise them and then gave them all the wrong material to work with and tried to get them to feed on ... become parasitic on the past that was established by their ancestors. This to me was a very ugly and destructive game.
You've talked about your view that there are limits to where rational thought can take you. Where did you develop those ideas and what are they, these ideas that you have about a world that has more meaning than is obvious?
Well I found that you couldn't reach these deeper meanings by rational means, because rationality depends on, usually, you could say, it all depends on measurement or making a nice verbal little machine which added up, and if it added up then you thought that was reality, which it isn't, and it, of course, couldn't deal with reality. As we are constantly finding with scientists who develop a hypothesis and then reality disproves it for them when they try to apply it and this is what we are doing all the time. The rationale will work so far and it's very useful for me, for example, to mix up paints or organise my materials but that's about it as far as I'm concerned. And also, of course, to clean your teeth or polish your shoes or do all those little practical things that we've mastered and learned how to do that the rational mind doesn't take us much further than that. If you take it too far, you finish up in bigotry, in an attempt to order reality what to do because you've got something that adds up.
Oh, yes, that's so, because people live on ... on the immediate appearance of things really and as long as they can control it, they are usually happy with it. When you say 'supernatural', let's look more closely at the word. It means 'super' 'natural', it doesn't reject the natural world at all. It simply means that it's this phenomena that goes beyond the immediate and apparent meaning of things that we see but there are deeper meanings beyond that, and deeper experiences and so when one has that, you can develop a sense of other realities that co-exist with this one, and which we get occasional glimpses of them. And this is usually what this experience is based on - that many people will have a ... will have a ... and often without knowing it, will have quite unique sensing faculties, which will give them information that isn't collected by the normal five senses.
Well, I ... I sometimes have prophetic flashes that will happen with that, or I'll have it with ... with often with auditory or more rarely visual phenomena, but this is very rare and, as I've said, on a very glimpse basis but a very impressive basis in the sense that that flash has got a tremendous and overwhelming sense of reality to it and so it becomes part of your sense of reality. And there are many people like this, although a lot who do it, will deny it because it doesn't fit the approved social models of thinking and behaviour.
Yes, well, one ... one starts, wanders into an area there, well, that one will be ... would be liable. I'd have to have far more time and spend much more on this sort of thing to deal with it properly or, if one can deal with it properly, because there are no final answers here than there is anywhere else. But the phenomena, there's no doubt, of what is known as paranormal phenomena. Even Jung, there, he followed that to a very great extent and gave very, very powerful explanations, and gave a number of personal experiences of it, and when you have one of these experiences like dreams, or nightmares or something - you have dreams of different orders or different levels of reality - but when you have an intense dream there, there was no mistaking that it's veracity and it's significance and you. This is part of reality as anything else. I mean, after all is dream any less real than the dreamer? It's the same thing. It's simply that whether we have a simplistic and ... and an arbitrary sense of reality, or knowledge of reality which just enables us to fulfil our immediate physical needs, or whether we're prepared to go further ahead and see reality as a more ... a far more complex phenomenon than it seems at first sight.
In the years that you've been struggling to make sense of life and struggling to work out a way of working with your art and relating that and so on to your life, are there ... are there ... is there anything that emerged for you as something you now know about how to live and what to live for that you didn't know when you were young?
Oh yes, the reality of, shall I say, the supreme powers and forces in this life. A lot of people, they say, you know, go on with this nonsense and say, 'Oh I don't believe in God', sort of thing, or 'God has no meaning for me'. Well, of course, the word itself has been debased by excessive usage and misusage and completely debased, but if one reduces it back to first principles then it's ... I can say ... make a very obvious statement that this world, that we can see in the operation within it, that there are vast even if it's silent and invisible creative forces at work. We have all the evidence of it in our own bodies and our souls in everything we do. If you look at a flower, what do you see? You see this extraordinary phenomena in any garden. You'll see a patch of dirt and out of there, a seed is put in and some silent directing energy or force will drive out of the seed there, it will grow up and out of ... apparently, out of this earth. You'll get the stem, the leaves, the flow of sap, you'll get buds, you'll get flowers, you'll get petals, the softness and gentleness of the petals of a flower, the fragrance and all these things, which will be evolved by some extraordinary invisible direct intelligence from a patch of dirt. Now if that isn't evidence of God, than what is? To me these things are and I use God in the sense of a vast all encompassing, infinite creative principle, which is the creative power behind everything we know, experience or see. And so, to me, to deny the existence of God, is evidence of a crass and infantile stupidity and also a crass egotism of the lowest kind. [Laughs] I mean, one has to know this power and be prepared to submit to it, and along with this power of creating ... creation of life, we also have to be aware that there is an almost - or I wouldn't know what the ratio is - the power to destroy life. That death is just as real as life itself and inextricably interwoven with life, and life is dependent on death and death is dependent on life, so these things are ... it's the world that we're in, in which these things cannot be evaded at all and so we personify these two vast forces of creation and destruction. This is where all the religions came from and all the images, religious imagery came from, imaging the ... all these creative forces at work and in conflict and in warfare with each other.
Oh yes. In one sense yes. I didn't use for the purpose of encouraging the destructive theme. I realised it was inseparable from the creative act and that one had to fight one's way through all the destructive forces that are ... that are array themselves against any one trying to make a creative gesture. This immediately evokes all the negatives of that gesture and so this makes it something that one has to have in control on the side, in a sense held almost on a leash as it were, and then when it escapes from a leash they have to be able to press it back. And you'll have to be able to finally let the whole thing add up, that are these forces that are working enough there, that the creative statement is the one that [it] finally works through. Which it does mind you if you make a statement which ... which apparently is destructive but by drawing people's attention to it and showing them what is happening, it then becomes a creative thing. It's this curious thing of how ... how forces can quickly reverse themselves and one thing can change into it's opposite then change back again. And one has to be aware of this, this quite incredible phenomenon, and try and keep it in balance and by keeping those forces in balance is where the real message emerges, that you are trying to get through. But you can never make ... if you fall into sentimentality at ; what I'd like to happen;, you immediately make a flat, dead, dull, corny statement which has ... has no meaning to it.
Oh yes, I went through phases of it but I fought my way clear of that one, but it's an easy one to fall into because often you can get paranoid and think that they are all set against you [laughs] and out to get you. So often that's a very strong feeling one can, you know ... if you get a sequence of defeats in something, it's ... it's ... these things affect us all, there's no question about that?
Oh, well it's hard to know where paranoia begins and ends, isn't it? I don't doubt that we can exhibit symptoms of it from time to time and I'm not ... not excluded at all from that. In fact, sometimes you might make a good painting out of it. [Laughs] It's once again a curious thing: you can take a destructive thing and make a creative thing out of it. It's a very delicate sort of thing and there, a strong philosophic grip is necessary to stop it falling too far in one way that makes the whole operation rather ridiculous.
Oh yes, oh yes, there's a creative potential in everything that happens to us, good or bad. It's got it's creative ... there is a resolution that can be a creative control and resolution of the problem. But it's very hard to keep on a creative course if all the negatives are at you from all sides, which sometimes they do gang up on you and do this. But likewise, happily, sometimes the good things will gang up on you and carry you along for a distance, which again, gives me a bit of comfort, [laughs] which ... because it has happened to me from time to time.
Not difficult, I just find it meaningless because it is a very superficial notion of what life is about. If I answered it in the broad sense, I'd say, I'm very happy to be alive and I'm very grateful to be alive and to have had the opportunity to fight the good battle and this makes me happy. And to feel that I get ... can win anything along the way or that I get to the end of it and feel that I've won more than I've lost, then this is an occasion to say that I've led a fulfilled and happy life.
Well, again ... again ... some times what seemed to be dead periods are often a preparation for a fruitful period. You see, it's very difficult to again ... to find the limits or beginnings or ends of these things because everything has it's ... you can discover virtue in everything if you look for it, it's there. As I said, you can find virtue in some personal disaster, or someone dying, that you can react to it in so many different ways and there are ways in which you can discover virtues in it. For example, if I hear that someone's died, there now, I've noticed that one of the first feelings I get there, well, they are very fortunate now, they've got passed the thing there, that all living things are afraid of, that point of death. They've got to the other side of it. So already, it's an achievement for them. And a part of some future growth, hopefully, for them.
Well it's not so much that I have a distrustful attitude in that area. Certainly, it rocks you to your foundations when, you know ... when you have some bad experiences. The same thing would happen to women with bad experiences with a male, there's no question about that. These things shoot both ways. And I think it's all part of the learning process actually because each of these collisions that we all have, there, will suddenly bring into view something that you never thought of or seen before. [Laughs]
Barbara ... I've been with Barbara now for, let me see: we've been married for thirty years and I was with her for about two years before then, so about thirty-four years, you see. So it becomes 'til death do us part, and she did a ... shall I say, in an area there, that both my earlier relationships with Joy and Mary, they lasted nine years each. So Barbara has succeeded in doing that in say, more about three and half times more than either of them. [Laughs]
Oh well, I can't find any single reason. There'd be a lot of reasons for that one. Of temperament, a way of life, of circumstance, of disillusion, of recover of allusions - all these things, they all come into play.
No, no, oh no, I wouldn't be able to stand that, that would drive me silly now, I think. [Laughs] I mean she might use ... use my materials the way Joy did, get stuck into them, and that I became very intolerant of.
This was in 1962, I think. Again I'm a bit hazy about dates. And I was out at Murrumbeena and I found that she was renting Arthur Boyd's old studio and living there on ... behind the Boyd's family home and she had a husband then, though, who was living there with her. But she had ... there were ... often the old old problems came up and he vanished into the wild blue yonder and things started off with Barbara. So this went on for a time and then finally she more or less moved in and then finally we got married and that was it. But ...
Well, oh well, aren't we all? [Laughs] I mean, one never knows when ... you know, when you make these major moves, you never know how they will finish up, do you? You have to just wait and find out. Anyhow that's, as you see, worked itself out very well.
That. We were in Hurstbridge for about twenty years and it simply became too much for me to handle plus the travelling into the city nearly every day, which I did. And also there were always trees falling down, branches falling down, maintenance. I had two houses. I had an old cottage which came with the property when I first bought it and it was full of termites, which I didn't notice at the time. And so it finished where a lot of it was falling apart and we moved into that and that's where Barbara was very very good with this, because we lived in a very primitive way for a about a year or more, while ... and the front room was good but we had very few in the way of facilities. And so while we were there, I set to work and worked like a demon to put in facilities and put a new floor in the kitchen, I remember, and put in different walls and did all sorts of things to it and made it quite liveable, which it still is to this day, quite a liveable place.
Yes, pretty similar, yes. [Laughs] But I also did, you could say, part of the house that I developed later because I needed to have a studio and after working on the house and I was frustrated with my work. I couldn't get at it, I had no space. And I read in some magazine about agricultural implement sheds where a steel structure - they put it up in two weeks so it would have, you know, sides and have a roof and all these things, and I thought, good God, that's it, I'll get them to do that but I'll get them to make the corner uprights stronger and put in a floor in between, and then having ... already having the roof and walls on it I'll get a carpenter in and then fix windows right along the side and then I'll have a studio, and so I went full bore and got that done. And so slowly like Topsy, it just grew from there, because then I found that when it was in the winter, the rain came down and it was washing half of it under the place. It was all clay and mud and stuff. So I built a wall against it. Started building a wall against the back. Then I got in people to help on that and finished building the wall and then built the rest of it around, which I did part of all this myself as well, because I was getting sick of building then and it was literally getting too much for me. And ...
Oh yes, I always felt that but then you spend most of your life doing things that you don't want to do that keep you away from your real work, but life is life and you just have to find a way of making them work together. So often you failed and often you succeeded. So, you know, you're swimming against the current all the way and things like that. That ... that's life, there's no escape from that. It's the resistances and one has to overcome them and just get your work done regardless.
No. That's totally unfair. I know I'm a bit dodgy about the whole human race if you want to know. [Laughs] I think both sides are making catastrophic errors in our time now, which they are. The sexes are getting mixed up. Families are destroyed. They don't know what a family is any more. Children don't know who their parents are and how things work out and they grow up with a whole bundle of appalling neuroses because of it. Because they seem ... they seem to forget how delicate an instrument, an infant is, a child is. It's incredibly delicate and incredibly impressionable and one of the things that's built into it, that it's got to have, is a father image and a mother image. They are absolutely crucial to it's mental and emotional health, I think. And so, I'm, as I say, anything but a misogynist because I think the ladies are very attractive and very necessary to life, obviously, but I'm also very angry with the males for allowing these divisions and antagonisms to develop, because the male himself has trapped himself, I think, on his own propaganda. One of which is a social ideal in which I think we developed with the French Revolution of egalitarianism. Well, this in the public mind is interpreted as 'the same as', which it isn't. You can't talk about egalitarianism with a cat and a rabbit because there are two different life forms, two different functions. Male and female are two different life forms, two different functions.
Well, no, not different species. They are the same species. I'd say together they form the human species and there are two halves that make it and all of us, what literally happens is that one half is always looking for the other half of themselves, and it's very hard to find the appropriate one that fits our own needs.
No, not angry with myself. I would say, no, I don't accuse ... I can't blame myself for being young and stupid and inexperienced, can I? If you don't know, you don't know, that's all there is to it. You don't think in terms of responsibility. A stupid person you can't say is responsible for doing stupid things. Because he's stupid that's all he knows how to do it and there it is. I have quite a different view of that one.
They ... they did in the area there in which I was hopelessly inadequate. I would have been able or was able to look after him, but on the other hand I couldn't do it in anything like a grand style or with the kind of security that I wanted him to have. They could. They could obviously give him far more than I could give him and I made I think, possibly, the mistake of over emphasising the importance of money and background and what would it all do for him. And I also miscalculated Sunday's attitude to Sweeney, which led her to over indulge him and make him develop expectations of life, which life would never fulfil for him, which meant he was foredoomed to a tremendous frustration.
I do. Yes, very much so. In fact, quaintly enough, to fit your position there, one of the things I'd loved to have, probably because I have got a friend like this there who has three daughters and they are quite marvellous to their father and I envy him enormously, believe me. [Laughs] The thought of having a couple of daughters there would be a marvellous thing. But on the other hand, I'd be terrifying of having to conduct them through adolescence. See, I'd like them up until they were twelve and then, [laughs] you know, I don't know whether I'd be able to cope after that. Of course, it's the same with a male for different reasons there. Once they start hitting puberty, there, you find yourself dealing with a home grown lunatic and then you are condemned to about eight years or whatever, there, before sanity restores itself. And in that time they really belt hell out of you in your middle years when you wanted a bit of peace. I see you are sympathising with that. [Laughs] I've struck a familiar note.
It does, yes. It does. That I've left a few hundred paintings, I don't know, I've never counted them, I don't know how many. But I do feel that whatever the struggles and conflicts and difficulties of my own life and I did work out the resolution of a lot of them through images and painting and I'd hope this plots gives a sort of an autobiographical diagram almost, a diagrammatical account of my life because I think it can be traced through all that now. And so I ... I feel that I have left a few footprints shall I say, and so that will have to be the substitute for the ... the children. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
It makes me feel peculiar when you say 'great names' because that sort of thing never, never occurs to me.
No, I'd say that we were totally, in a sense, like almost like zombies who were doing what we wanted to do at the moment and it's the way it ended up later on and other people afterwards, and long afterwards in many cases, put the titles, labels and categories on it and names and so on which ... which is, you know, and then fed it back into the social system. So don't forget that the people who do this, they are standing on their own blind spot and they are unaware of the other ... other peoples' reactions. I remember I had this for example, here's a little anecdote which I think would probably have been worthwhile including. When I was in Italy, I had a joint exhibition with Sidney Nolan. I happened to organise it at a place called the Stampa Estera, which was the Italian Press Club. And they made their rooms available for an exhibition so we put it on and when the exhibition opened and the Australian Ambassador came along and opened it for us, but ... one of the persons who came ... people who came along there, I was turned around and introduced to him was Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico, now, is one of the great legendary names in Modern Art and had influenced a lot of our work ... early work. And so I was introduced to him and so I remember, you know, you go into a curious fugue or blank there because I knew I was facing one of the great legends in the flesh and you don't know what to ... almost don't know what to say, you know. I remember hearing my voice say, more or less, 'How do you do Mr. de Chirico', you know, 'We know you very well in Australia and you are very highly regarded there'. De Chirico then looked at me in absolute astonishment. He said, 'In Australia, you mean, I'm ... am I known in Australia?' I said, 'You are highly known, not only known, but very highly respected. You are a major ... one of the major figures in the ... in the thinking of the Australian artist'. And de Chirico, his face ... he lit up like a Christmas tree: 'You mean I'm known in Australia?' [Laughs] It was a marvellous example of someone totally oblivious to the effects that he had on the world around him. So I think there, this is ... there's a thing there. I mean it showed the humility of the man in one sense, for him to be able to respond in that way. I remember it astonished me at the time and from then on, I got along very well with de Chirico. He asked me around to his soiree's he had every Sunday, and so on, and we used to sit down and talk about demavarish [?] and how he cooked it and all these various painters problems and his wife would come and drag him away and make him meet all the other Italian people that she had really set the evening up for him to meet and deal with. And I got along very, very well with him but he was a very remarkable and lovely man.
I was extremely lucky because where I tried to meet people, I'd fail miserably. It just wouldn't work. In London it was useless because the barriers between people there is very rigid. There is a kind of cultural and social artery-sclerosis at work there. And let's say if you met someone like Sir John Rothenstein, which I did, you just get a 'How do you do?' and that's the end of it. You knew then that you had to wait another two years before you could say, 'It's a nice day'. There they had this kind of thing and that didn't suit my temperament at all. I like the American thing and the experience I had. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get there because I could make ready and instant rapport with all levels of Americans about any problem at all and ... and so, let's see ... what was the point I was going to make then?
Yes. From then on, I simply have to attribute it in the absence of a better word, for luck, such as meeting Alfred Barr in the elevator in the Museum of Modern Art: pure luck. The pure luck of him walking into the Poindexter Gallery and seeing one of my paintings there. You see, all these things are the chance things and also the ... the luck of getting ... winning that prize, that thousand guineas, you see, at the very key moment when I was at my, the last stages of desperation as it were and that just floated in. [Laughs] These things, you can feel some kind of intelligence making decisions behind this and organising the circumstance. At least I do, I might be dreaming or ...
I don't know why. That's the ... the, shall I say, the allegorical meaning of that I wouldn't be able to pick up because I told you earlier having this visionary flash in London, which gave me this scene which I didn't recognise, but when I got to 53rd Street and stood on it, I found myself looking at this flash that I had in London some months before ... [INTERRUPTION] ... and that was exactly the same. [INTERRUPTION] Of course this notion of a visionary flash of that nature would be most unpopular with all our rational oriented society and all the ...
I saw the ... the ... this vision, standing in 53rd Street, I saw the whole facade of the Museum, I saw the revolving doors and I saw through it the paintings on the wall and one of them there, the first one I saw was the half view of one of mine hanging there.
It was still there. I mean, it was just simply concealed by the door. There was just enough of it for me to recognise it and when the real event came around and I walked there, there I was standing in this visionary flash or dream, or whatever you want to call it, and there it was exactly as I saw it except for this one thing: that there was a banner across the top saying 'recent acquisitions', which wasn't in the visionary flash I had.
Lunar Landscape. It was in the retrospective I had here. It's one that Alfred Barr, for some reason, responded to it very strongly and he described me later on, in an interview the Australian Women's Weekly he did with them about some of these things. He described me as ... described me as a master, master illusionist. [Laughs]
Not particularly. [Laughs] But obviously it did something as far as Barr was concerned because I used a very heavy paint and you know, I was making the surface of the paint approach some kind ... kind of reality situation. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I suppose you could say I'd have a twinge in that direction but on the other hand, that was very easily corrected by the situation I was in: that I had no hope of being able to do anything about it and then, secondly, right on hand was the perfect solution for all Sweeney's problems, right there, and I felt that it was my responsibility to let him have that opportunity, which I couldn't give him.
No, no, they were ... they were operating as best they knew how but the, it simply that it involved issues that they'd never encountered before. See, Sunday had expectations and notions, which just simply weren't geared into reality, that's all. So the collisions took place. She spoiled him and that was probably the worst thing and that she would ... Sweeney very quickly learned the tricks of getting around Sunday and getting what he wanted out of her. This is why I tend to be a Victorian disciplinarian in all of the business of handling children. To let children do their own thing, God help you. [Laughs]