Brett Whiteley met Francis Bacon in the ’60s. This wasn’t so difficult. Earlier, on a trip through Italy with Michael Johnson, Whiteley had knocked unannounced on Giorgio Morandi’s door in Grizzana – Morandi welcomed the two young Australian painters, although they spoke no Italian, and led them into his studio, which meant passing through the bedroom of his two elderly unmarried sisters. As well, Whiteley and Bacon shared the same gallery in London, Marlborough. Bacon was then the most admired painter in Britain. He agreed to see Whiteley’s new work. Whiteley arranged his paintings at intervals along the floor of his studio, leaning them against the walls for Bacon’s inspection. They were based around the mass-murderer Christie, and his convoluted victims. Bacon arrived wearing a raincoat. He immediately began walking at an even pace around the walls, looking at the paintings without stopping, without saying a word, until he reached the door again, where he turned. Bacon had a slightly high-pitched voice. “I see you have taken from me, as I took from Velásquez.”
On a visit to London in 1973, Helen and John Brack dined with the Boyds, Arthur and Yvonne, at their house at Highgate. After dessert and coffee, Arthur said he would like John to see the recent work of his children, Polly and Jamie, already making careers in painting, continuing the Boyd dynasty. “They have such talent,” said Arthur, leaving the room to get some of their work. He came back in, and held up one of their paintings in front of Brack, giving ample time for it to be digested, then leaving the dining room and coming back in, each time presenting another painting, all of which took the best part of an hour. He then returned to his seat at the head of the table. Everyone waited. Brack looked down at his wine glass, and avoided the glance of his wife, Helen, opposite. “Arthur,” he finally said, “you are a painter. Your children are artists.” In the silence, Arthur Boyd remained gazing at Brack, his cheek resting against his hand. “John,” he said eventually, “I’m going to give you a Goya etching.” And he went out and came back with it. This was the Goya etching hanging in the hall at the Bracks’ house in Surrey Hills.
The women at Macquarie Galleries bought from Woolworths winter pyjamas for Ian Fairweather. Thanking them from Bribie Island, he kept the top but returned the bottoms, explaining he already had a pair of them.
Robert Klippel’s father was in the necktie business – Klippel’s Clipper Ties and Cravats. Whenever his son had an exhibition of his abstract sculptures, his father would cut out the worst review and post it to him, without a note.
In the late 1940s, Klippel went to London, then to Paris, where he met a young American woman and her mother, visiting Europe in pursuit of psychoanalysis. Although he fancied the daughter, Klippel said, he thought it was the mother who was interested in him – more interested than the daughter, whom some years later he married. On their way to New York, during an argument in the cabin, the American wife in a fit of fury threw out of the porthole some of his sculptures, which quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic. This is why only a few examples of his early work have survived. “When the chips are down,” Klippel said, “women don’t give a fuck about art.” And it was something he said often, not quite seriously.
In the histories, Sam Atyeo’s Organised Line to Yellow, now in the National Gallery of Australia, has always held an important position. Here was one of the earliest abstract paintings in Australian art. Obviously, in 1934 Melbourne it required a lot of guts to paint and exhibit such a work. In the late ’70s, one of Atyeo’s former girlfriends from Melbourne, a George Bell student, a straight-backed silver-haired woman living in Perth, was visiting the Drysdales, north of Sydney. Recalling Atyeo, she told how she had gone with him to have the yellow painting framed. Out of embarrassment, Atyeo had told the framer it had been painted by an Aborigine.
After the war, Atyeo settled in a small two-storey farmhouse outside Vence, where he grew roses for the French perfume industry. He came down the stairs – it was the late 1970s – a short, broad man using a thick walking stick. His wife was Swiss, tall, short grey hair, elegant. She was gentle. Atyeo had become corroded by contempt. The word he used most often was “shit”. The first Kelly paintings were spread out on the kitchen table at Heide. Atyeo said, “Who painted this shit?” Leger was a “shit”. Picasso was a “shit”. As an old man, he had not softened. Although the Matisse Chapel was only a few minutes from Atyeo’s farm, he had never gone to see it. “Why would I go to see that shit?” He had been Bert Evatt’s secretary. And he said he was the last living member of the Palestine Commission. On a visit to Paris, Evatt had asked Atyeo to take him to visit Picasso. Evatt’s first words were, “Why are you a communist?” Picasso answered, “When you get rid of Franco, I’ll join your Labor Party.” It was dispiriting spending any time with Atyeo. There was never any optimism, only contempt. He was a shit.
Grace Crowley’s apartment on the third or fourth floor of a ’60s block on Addison Road, Manly, had white walls, pale-grey carpet, Scandinavian furniture, proclaiming a modernism which was not disorderly but clean and hopeful. The paintings were almost entirely abstract – Balsons, and Klippel assemblages and sculptures, none of her own abstract paintings, only a figure of a woman with faint touches of cubism. Crowley would open the door wearing a dress bought in Paris in the 1930s, sometimes a turban. She was a grazier’s daughter. Meeting Ralph Balson, a house painter with a family, changed the course of her life and art. Working alongside Balson, she turned in 1940 from tasteful School of Paris to abstract painting. After Balson retired, he worked in a studio at the bottom of the garden at Crowley’s house at Mittagong. It would appear that he was living there. For most of 1960 they travelled together to England, the United States, France. They rented an apartment in Devon. They returned to Sydney in early 1961. Balson died unexpectedly, in August 1964. From that moment, Crowley stopped painting. Was there a relationship more than artistic friendship? Her last words, 15 years later, were, “Now I’ll be with Balson.”
What is the problem with Roland Wakelin? In 1919 he ventured into Sydney modernism and produced the beginnings of interesting work – small ‘colour theory’ landscapes. For a while he didn’t just believe in modernism, he proclaimed it. Instead of EMOHRUO on the front of his house at Waverton, Wakelin named his house CEZANNE. But he stayed too long in advertising. His wife was “the last woman in Sydney to wear long white gloves”. And he did something else Cezanne would never have done. In the 1960s, Lloyd Rees, George Lawrence and Wakelin had made a practice on the weekends of going out of Sydney by train on painting expeditions. On this day they got out at a place which had hardly any people at all, just a few peeling weatherboards and shops on either side of an empty street. There were some trees in the distance. The last building was a flyblown shop selling bread and tinned peaches. Here Wakelin stopped. “Come along,” Rees pointed ahead, “there are trees.” “This’ll do.” Wakelin began setting up his easel. “They’ve got pies.”
As John Passmore became older he looked more like Rouault. But his idea of how an artist should live was more British than French. In 1933, after working as a commercial artist, Passmore left his marriage and a three-year-old son and sailed for England on the Oronsay. In his luggage was a small ‘colour theory’ painting Roland Wakelin had given him. For Passmore, it represented Sydney, friendship and the modern direction. In London, he lived at various addresses, and later in Suffolk. At some point, Passmore got into a spot of bother with one of his landladies, and nothing to do with late rent. “I was in a spot. I had to think on my feet,” he recalled. He quickly said he would paint her portrait. But he found he had nothing to paint it on, except – this was an emergency – the small Wakelin landscape. He painted her portrait over it, and gave it to her, which seemed to satisfy the landlady.
The word ‘surreal’ has been debased over the years. Anything merely unusual is ‘surreal’. James Gleeson’s family owned the main hotel in Gosford. This was before the bridge to Sydney had been built across the Hawkesbury. As a consequence, whenever there was an accident on the road, or a timber worker was killed, the body would be taken to the Gleeson family hotel and stored in the cool room, alongside the beer kegs, while Gleeson, a small boy, looked on, and later would go in alone to look again at the dead body. Gleeson was always neat, a courteous, quiet man; a ‘surrealist’.
According to Grace Crowley, Margaret Preston’s paintings were “conservative, not worth talking about”. Preston had a different idea of herself. If she was in a group exhibition she was known for coming in early to move the work of others to place her paintings in a more prominent position. One afternoon she called on her friend Thea Proctor in her studio on George Street, after a nearby opening, where they both had works. To celebrate, Preston had brought along a sponge cake. She immediately asked if the trustees from the Art Gallery of NSW had been in. And what did they buy? They had been in, Proctor was forced to say, but bought only one thing – one of Thea’s. At this, Preston threw the sponge cake, hitting Proctor on her shoulder and going everywhere, and turned and left. It was 20 years or more before Preston spoke again to her friend, Thea.
Lina Bryans drove a Bristol; Russell Drysdale a Mercedes sedan; Fred Cress a Bentley; Sidney Nolan in London a silver Citroën Goddess – this is the car with the pneumatic suspension which lets out a sigh as it settles when it comes to rest. Mike Parr has been seen driving a car. Otherwise, a conspicuous number of painters – unlike photographers, who take part in a mechanical process – have made it clear they had no intention of driving a car. They include Arthur Boyd, Brack, Fred Williams – inconvenient for a landscape painter – Kemp, Mirka Mora, Gleeson, Rees, Whisson, Cossington Smith, Aspden, Christmann, Tillers. It is unimaginable that Passmore, Fairweather, Aida Tomescu would get behind the wheel. Godfrey Miller, who never drove, spent ten weeks in a Paris hospital after being knocked down by a car. And there were the unfortunate accidents of Dorrit Black, killed after hitting a tram bollard in Adelaide in 1951, and George Baldessin, aged 39, at a roundabout in Melbourne’s south-east.
In Sydney at a party for Anselm Kiefer during his visit in 1992, a painter, whose name begins with ‘J’, went up and introduced himself, “I’m the best painter in Australia.” Kiefer was still perplexed the next day. “Why would he say that?” A level of sophistication went with being a world artist; and it was Kiefer who had an efficient, matter-of-fact modesty.
It can be easy to develop exaggerated, even melodramatic attitudes towards painters, especially the solitary ones. Passmore became so secretive about his work it was rumoured that a dealer in Sydney was training a monkey to climb up the downpipe to get in through the window of Passmore’s apartment, and search for any paintings under his bed. Drysdale went to Macquarie Galleries in King Street to collect a parcel left by Donald Friend. At the door he met Godfrey Miller coming in. After a few minutes, Drysdale could not help noticing an unpleasant smell and looked at Miller who was still talking. “Poor Godfrey, he really is in a bad way, living by himself, mess everywhere.” Back in his car, he couldn’t escape the smell. If anything it was stronger. Drysdale opened the parcel to find a pair of chappals made from poorly tanned leather that Donald Friend had sent from India.
According to Lloyd Rees, his mother, who was born in Mauritius, was a leper. From 1943, she lived in quarantine on an island in Moreton Bay, where she died of pneumonia in 1945.
Fred Williams had set up his easel one morning, facing the distant You Yangs. As he arranged his paints and paper, a watercolour club arrived, about a dozen people, each with their equipment, glancing at Williams already working, on their way to find their own motifs. Four or five hours later they returned, stopped and looked over his shoulder. Williams went on working. Their leader, or teacher, considered the painting Williams was finishing. “No,” he told Williams, and for the others, “there’s no point. You’re just doing a Fred Williams.”
Murray Bail is a writer. His most recent novel is The Voyage.
Brett Whiteley met Francis Bacon in the ’60s. This wasn’t so difficult. Earlier, on a trip through Italy with Michael Johnson, Whiteley had knocked unannounced on Giorgio Morandi’s door in Grizzana – Morandi welcomed the two young Australian painters, although they spoke no Italian, and led them into his studio, which meant passing through the bedroom of his two elderly unmarried sisters. As well, Whiteley and Bacon shared the same gallery in London, Marlborough. Bacon was then the most admired painter in Britain. He agreed to see Whiteley’s new work. Whiteley arranged his paintings at intervals along the floor of his studio, leaning them against the walls for Bacon’s inspection. They were based around the mass-murderer Christie, and his convoluted victims. Bacon arrived wearing a raincoat. He immediately began walking at an even...