October 2021

Arts & Letters

Artful lodgers: The Heide Museum of Modern Art

By Quentin Sprague

“Breakfast at Heide” (from left: Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday Reed and John Reed), circa 1945. Photographer unknown. Image from the John and Sunday Reed papers, State Library of Victoria

The story of John and Sunday Reed’s influence on Sidney Nolan and other live-in protégés

There’s lots to enjoy about a visit to Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art, not least how the city recedes steadily in the rear-view mirror and is soon replaced by quieter rhythms: the way the snaking path of the Yarra River can be sensed close by, even when it’s not seen, or the way, once you arrive, there’s such a strong sense of what once was. Stand at the edge of Heide’s top car park and you can look out over rolling hills towards the ranges beyond. Yes, the whole view has long been gridded with suburban rooftops, but if you squint it’s easy to picture what it was that drew Heide’s well-known founders, John and Sunday Reed, to flee their established city lives in 1934 for a relatively humble weatherboard cottage on 15 green acres.

To pass through the usually imposing façades of most contemporary museums is to enter a land where art is most often cast free from the tangle of human life, but Heide is a different beast entirely. There are now three main buildings on the site, which together trace the Reeds’ story as well as what is, for better or for worse, the founding story of Australian modernism. But even if you’re not fully aware of the byzantine web of creative and social intrigue that helped secure the site its place in history, it’s still an affecting experience to walk the museum’s grounds and sense flashes of the lives that were lived there: the low vegetable beds and neatly pruned rosebushes that surround Heide I (the original cottage), or the uncompromisingly modern spaces that constitute Heide II, a “gallery to live in” that the Reeds commissioned from architect David McGlashan in 1963, and which was finally completed four years later. Heide III, a low, angular building constructed in 1993 and revamped in 2006, is far closer to a conventional museum than the others, but it too retains enough of a sense of the site’s history – perhaps a glimpse of the grounds through a plate glass window – for the experience to feel more layered and intimate than a usual museum visit.

To encounter at Heide a work by any of its more famous associated names – among them Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester – is to encounter it on the very grounds where those artists first kindled the energies that set them on their paths. I am a big believer in the human story of art. In fact, I’d go as far as arguing that to not grasp at least something of the social landscape upon which art is made is to risk missing its true spirit entirely. It’s for this reason that, regardless of whether I find the individual practices of its associated artists engaging or not, Heide still intrigues me. As with any story one returns to again and again, there’s a distinct sense that no matter how well known it is, a mystery lies somewhere under its surface, waiting to be solved.

So, when it comes to Heide, what is the story? Well, put simply, it’s a doozy. The shorthand version is the one that will be known by many readers: the Reeds were wealthy art patrons who opened their home to a handful of artists who would in turn become if not household names then as close to that as Australian artists might hope to become. The couple were stridently modern, a fact not only reflected in their cutting-edge taste in art and literature but also in their complex romantic lives: relationships were open, spirits free. After supporting the artists who would become key figures of Australian modernism, their lifelong commitment to arts patronage culminated in the opening of Heide as a public museum in 1981. It was an act of benefaction that can now be felt well beyond Heide itself: echoes of it exist across Australia’s thin but not insignificant array of privately established public art museums, which now includes Buxton Contemporary, the Lyon Housemuseum and Tarrawarra in Victoria, and White Rabbit in Sydney. Even MONA, David Walsh’s bacchanalian-branded art palace cum Bond villain bunker in Hobart, finds a precedent on Heide’s bucolic grounds.

So far, so good. But this version of Heide’s story sidesteps a more complex and intriguing aspect: the very particular model of the Reeds’ patronage was not as strictly altruistic as it might now appear. To differing extents, this is true for all significant acts of benefaction – inducements such as tax breaks ensure benefit flows both ways, not to mention the benefits that come from identifying oneself as a taste-maker on the cultural landscape. But the relationships the Reeds formed with the artists they supported came long before the government-funded arts bureaucracy more fully shaped the social make-up of the art world. This latter development relegated all players to clearly defined positions, if not to clearly defined roles: artists make the art, publicly funded galleries validate it, commercial galleries try to sell it, and collectors hopefully buy it. Somewhere on the sidelines public funding agencies seek to provide so-called strategic support, recently of the diminishingly small variety. As this ecosystem turns over, a handful of art collectors amass huge holdings. Many go on to generously donate either money or art to public museums, while a small handful have turned those holdings towards public outcomes of their own (cue the privately established museums listed above).

The Reeds became patrons at a time when little of that infrastructure was in place – the National Gallery of Victoria was yet to support anything like Australian modernism; the Australia Council for the Arts was not even a political dream; the number of commercial galleries was dismally low. Artists were unsurprisingly few and far between. What the Reeds offered was a model of direct support. They had an interest at the ground level, by which I mean in the artists themselves, and because of this were able to play a far more influential role than they otherwise might have. Many patrons – perhaps most – wield such influence softly, while some likely remain unaware of it, content to draw close to artists they admire. But for a select few it provides a means to exert control over an artist’s career, or even have influence on their creative process. It’s from this perspective that the most compelling aspect of the Heide story emerges: the Reeds’ explicit focus on the work of a small coterie of carefully selected protégés, and their resulting influence on what would eventually enter the historical canon. This occurred most famously with Sidney Nolan, whose work often features at Heide, and will once again be presented in a solo exhibition as the museum marks its 40th anniversary (Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise, originally scheduled to open this month, but recently pushed back to next year due to Victoria’s current round of COVID-19 lockdowns).

A 21-year-old Nolan first walked into John Reed’s city office in 1938, clutching a handful of drawings. He was soon deeply involved in the emerging Heide set, which would expand to include, among others, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, the Russian émigré Danila Vassilieff, and Max Harris, poet and editor of the famous Reed-supported literary journal Angry Penguins. In step, Nolan almost immediately entered into a tumultuous romance with Sunday in which her husband was also if not an active participant then at the very least a vicarious one. That Nolan was married soon after meeting the Reeds mattered little: the modern world that they and their ilk were trying to usher forth had no space for stifling convention. Indeed, the Reeds had previously entered into a three-way relationship with a fiery young Melbourne painter called Sam Atyeo, an often-forgotten figure who nonetheless provided the couple their first protégé, and helped set the scene for Nolan’s own arrival.

Like Atyeo before him, Nolan clearly provided the Reeds material with which they could work: he was ambitious but not yet fully formed. By contrast with both of them – Sunday came from the Baillieu dynasty, and John from a similarly powerful family in Tasmania – Nolan was also firmly working class, the son of a St Kilda tram driver. As detailed in Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan (who as well as being co-authors of a number of books about the Heide set are the museum’s artistic director and head curator, respectively), “Sunday groomed Nolan like she had groomed Atyeo, refining his rough edges and evidently preparing him for a life in the public eye”. She also fed the furnace of Nolan’s creativity, shovelling in the work of various modern artists and poets, not to mention making available the latest international art journals. Nolan biographer Nancy Underhill emphasises Nolan’s agency in this – he was a famously voracious reader, and thus uniquely receptive to Sunday’s input – but it’s clear that Nolan, like others, found at Heide a particularly enabling environment for intellectual and artistic growth. To now walk through the cottage’s library with this history in mind is to unavoidably picture not just Nolan but any number of creative names now associated with the place, hunched over one of the many volumes of art or literature, soaking it all in.

All of this occurred against a backdrop of broader change: World War Two was just beginning, the country’s political and cultural future was still being written, and modernism, which had of course initially flourished in the cultural centres of Europe, was finding more distinctive, local expression. With the active encouragement of the Reeds, and of Sunday in particular, Nolan, like Tucker, was well placed to catch the first wave. By the time he embarked upon his celebrated Ned Kelly series in 1946, he had already exercised his avant-garde tendencies against the bleached landscape of Victoria’s Wimmera region. He’d been stationed there during a relatively brief stint in the army, and had stayed in close contact with his patrons all the while: letters flowed back and forth between him and Sunday; she sent art materials, he returned paintings. The subject of Ned Kelly was arrived at soon after. Nolan had deserted the army in 1944 to avoid active service and Sunday, as always, was close at hand. Janine Burke, who published a biography of Sunday in 2004 (Burke is also the author of biographies on Joy Hester and Albert Tucker – Heide’s key figures are nothing if not well documented), caused a minor stir when she suggested that Sunday had physically worked on the series, and although others are more circumspect, the consensus is that her presence was integral. An account of the moment of creation is included in Modern Love, via Max Harris. In a letter to his wife he sniffily recounts Nolan and Sunday sitting up all night around Heide’s dining-room table, working furiously on the entire series. Harding and Morgan acknowledge that the scene is likely embellished due to Harris’s own sense of ownership over the Kelly story (he’d planned an epic poem on the same subject, and had recently travelled with Nolan through Kelly country), but it nonetheless flags another of the Heide story’s most fascinating questions: when does active patronage tip over into outright collaboration?

Whether or not you’re interested in the answer will likely come down to how much value you place on the ideals of individual authorship, and how much credence you grant attendant notions of authenticity. But it also comes down to how we define artistic collaboration in the first place. Most writers on the subject take a far too literal view: that collaboration involves two or more parties working in clearly defined concert on an artwork that is later acknowledged as being co-authored. Anything beyond that risks falling into a grey area wherein stalks the spectre of scandal, as if uncredited assistance might somehow compromise an artist’s singular vision. But I am an advocate of a more complex picture, one that the French theorist Gilles Deleuze summed up, in uncharacteristically succinct terms, as, “you’re always working in a group, even when you seem to be on your own”.

The quote is a good one because it acknowledges the many, and mostly invisible, forms that collaboration and cross-influence can take. No one practises in a vacuum. Or, put another way, as much as we love the myth of the lone genius, especially when it comes to art, creativity is rarely an individual thing; it is born of the mess of human relations and among the conversations, passions, jealousies and competitive spirit that groups so often engender. Some artists are hugely private and, while actually making their work, do everything in their power to shut this world out. But others actively welcome it. The fact Nolan could even work in Sunday’s presence suggests he very much belonged in the latter camp (as does his well-documented lifelong search for public affirmation and fame).

In this light, the Reeds’ involvement in the creation of Australian modernism can be seen more clearly. They didn’t simply reach into their deep pockets and open their home, they bought financially and emotionally into the lives of those they supported. Although it’s likely that the terms of the exchange were not fully understood by either party, one thing is nonetheless clear: in the process, the Reeds indelibly shaped the art that was made. But no matter how easy it is to cast them alongside the artists as co-voyagers on a journey of creative discovery, it is worth remembering that relations at Heide were often tumultuous, and at times even tawdry. Until recently reading Modern Love, the full detail had escaped me. To hold on as the book skims across its cascading catalogue of doomed romances and affairs is to understand just where the kind of radically modern revisioning of convention advocated by the Heide set fell short. As far as the art went, it often worked, but the human story was another matter. Nolan finally fled what he later characterised as Heide’s stifling environment, and soon washed up in Sydney where he quickly married John Reed’s estranged sister, Cynthia. Sunday Reed was so outraged and heartbroken that she attempted suicide. Not long afterwards, Joy Hester – an artist who was long under-sung but who has in recent decades emerged as central to the moment, in no small part due to the curatorial labours of the Heide Museum – was diagnosed with cancer. She took a lover, whom she would eventually marry, and left her and Tucker’s young son, Sweeney, to be raised by the Reeds (Hester would survive another 13 years, and have two more children). Tucker, meanwhile, left to chase his dreams in Europe; he expressed deep regret at leaving Sweeney behind, but, without diminishing what connection they had, it later emerged that he likely wasn’t Sweeney’s father anyway.

Sweeney’s story is the most tragic of the bunch. It casts a long enough shadow over the Heide story to be granted its own chapter in Janine Burke’s Australian Gothic: A Life of Albert Tucker, a gesture that the authors of Modern Love largely replicate. The shadow should be longer still. After a rocky childhood, Sweeney grew into a troubled youth, and although he later achieved some recognition as a Reed-supported gallerist and artist in his own right, his life spiralled – he died by suicide in 1979. I’ll leave the full details to the biographers, but suffice to say it’s too often the children who fall through the cracks when the lives of the adults are lived so determinedly centrestage.

By Nolan and Tucker’s departure, it was only the late 1940s, and although they would be remembered as Heide’s key figures, the story continued. The Reeds took the painter Charles Blackman under their wing, as well as the young Mirka Mora, and others, but the halcyon days were over. None of them would step into art history nearly as forcefully as Nolan and Tucker, and the Reeds’ established method of collaborative patronage might be said from this point onwards to have offered diminishing returns. Although what can you really expect? Collaboration not only hinges on the openness of both parties, which is in itself rare, but also upon the broader conditions that support it. These are hard to predict and, once they’ve occurred, nearly impossible to replicate. The Reeds continued to collect cutting-edge art, and John funnelled his energies into the short-run Museum of Modern Art of Australia, but by the 1970s much had changed. The history of Australian modernism was as good as secure, and the quick-moving art world was seeking new ground. The emerging threads of modernism’s period descendants – first postmodernism, and then contemporary art – were already gathering into coherent forms.

The effects would reach far further than simply limiting the Reeds’ influence. In their own ways, both developments would eventually draw into question the very legitimacy of the modern project, especially in light of Australia’s colonial history. It’s not strictly fair to apply a revisionist frame to the artists of yesteryear, but indulge me if only for a moment. With knowledge of the later emergence of Australian Aboriginal art as an art-world force – itself a rich form of local modernism – our view of artists such as Nolan and Tucker unavoidably shifts. The way in which they sought so stridently to write Australian modernism into the landscape, as if upon a tabula rasa lying in wait for their hand, can now seem distinctly on the nose. But then again, that’s the double-bind of all colonial artists: as earnest, and even successful, as their attempts to locate the colonial self upon the colonised land might be, they will always be skirting around the fact of their own illegitimacy. One might argue that this forms the very subject of Nolan’s and Tucker’s best known work – including Nolan’s Kellys – but I’m not fully convinced: that too is likely a revisionist reading.

Another question lies in why the Kelly series is still so often seen to symbolise the birth of Australian modernism. Putting aside the enduring grip that Ned Kelly holds on the popular imagination, it’s not a stretch to suggest Nolan made more significant inroads while painting in the Wimmera. Once again, the reason likely traces back to the Reeds. They too were trying to write Australian modernism into existence, and their medium was the artists they supported. Even after Nolan’s estrangement from Heide, which lasted for the rest of his life, the Reeds carried a deeply felt belief in him, and in the Kelly series in particular. But, once again, we’d be mistaken to see such support as strictly selfless. John Reed was known to refer to the works as the “definitive peak” of Nolan’s achievement, a claim that can only be understood to also mean the peak of his, and particularly Sunday’s, influence.

All art needs its champions to secure its place in history, and the way in which the Kelly series validated the Reeds’ own patronage and emotional investment was surely part of why they were so insistent that it was these paintings that mattered the most in Nolan’s oeuvre. Everything that followed, in their minds at least, charted a long course downhill. It’s hard not to think it’s for this reason that Nolan’s black-helmeted Kelly now stands so tall in histories of Australian art.

Since opening, the Heide museum has had to constantly review its relationship to this history. It’s surely been a far from easy task, but it has been successful. By comparison to established public institutions, Heide is a tiny operation, yet its influence outweighs its limitations.

When I recently spoke with Lesley Harding, she pointed out that Heide has long taken the view that the Reeds were passionate about the art of the day, rather than modernism per se. It’s from this perspective that the museum has championed contemporary art, even as it constantly circles back to the Reeds’ collection, and to figures such as Nolan. It’s also no coincidence that a number of the most influential guiding hands of contemporary art in Melbourne – among them Juliana Engberg and Max Delany (respectively the previous and current director of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) – cut their teeth there. And while Heide remains deeply concerned with the various threads of Australian modernism, the fact that significant contemporary artists such as Paul Yore, Naomi Eller and Mitch Cairns have all held early solo exhibitions in its project gallery has ensured the museum remains a destination for those whose interest extends to the ever-changing face of current practice.

During our conversation, Harding emphasised that the Heide of today was part of “a continuum” in Australian art history, by which she meant between modern and contemporary art. But the same time frame also traces the Reeds’ very personal journey, so it too must be addressed. “People remain fascinated by the lifestyle set up at Heide,” Harding explained. “But the museum is interested in re-interrogating the foundational story.” In this, a defining tension becomes clear: much like the many biographies written on the key players, the intimacy that colours one’s experience of Heide is a form of trespass. This is not a criticism but a simple fact. Heide asks us not simply to look at the art but at the lives too, which in turn means looking at the mess of human relations.

It’s certainly this that grants Heide much of its allure, but it also imparts a deeper understanding of the interconnected acts from which the museum grew: patronage and philanthropy. Each crosses into the other, but there is nonetheless a difference. Philanthropy directs benevolence towards the common good of usually unknown recipients, while patronage of the kind that the Reeds practised is sparked by far more personal, and at times private, relations. When the museum opened in December 1981, these acts collided: an inner sanctum was by necessity breached. Sunday, it seems, felt this keenly. As recounted in Modern Love, on the opening night she refused to join celebrations at Heide II, remaining instead in the cottage. Three weeks later, her husband, who’d been battling cancer, was dead. Sunday followed just 10 days after, swallowing a fatal dose of sleeping pills under the watchful gaze of a close friend.

Nolan, who seemed always to look back on his time at Heide with pronounced bitterness, had in 1971 published a group of vitriolic and at times openly misogynistic poems concerning his time with John and Sunday. He would outlive the couple by 11 years, but was destined to be asked about their patronage until his final days. He can be seen in an interview filmed for the ABC in 1992, shifting uncomfortably as he tries to duck even the most basic questioning about the brief period that so firmly set him on his path. By then he’d lived in the United Kingdom for decades, and had been knighted. He’d lost Cynthia to suicide in 1976, and had been married to his third wife, Mary – a Boyd and an artist in her own right who’d been previously married to the painter John Perceval – since 1978. In his dark-rimmed glasses and linen suit, Nolan appears not only a long way from his St Kilda origins, but about as far from the bohemian scene of Heide as humanly possible. Even from today’s perspective, when the letters and archives have been so thoroughly combed over, and the biographies and art histories written, the question still remains: what, exactly, happened?

The Reeds’ ashes were scattered under an immense river red gum on Heide’s grounds, which may strike readers as a fitting note to end on unless one prefers, as I do, something a touch more inscrutable. In my mind inscrutability suits the story far better, because no matter how many attempts are made to fully parse it, it’s likely the mystery at the centre of the Heide story will never be truly solved. It goes like this: as Sunday died, she was read to from Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece of modernist interiority The Waves, in which, over a series of interwoven soliloquies, six friends ruminate obsessively over their intense lifelong bonds. In the end, though, they are only ever talking to themselves.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Adelaide today. Image © Matt Turner / AAP Images

Archer becomes the target

Morrison yet again undermines a female MP, while publicly showing “support”

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones

Cover of ‘The Magician’

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín

The Irish novelist’s latest ponders creativity and the unacknowledged life of Thomas Mann

In This Issue

A spiral galaxy in the Coma Berenices constellation. Photographed at Lick Observatory, California, in the late 1800s.

The search for extraterrestrial minds

That we understand the nature of the cosmos has profound implications in the search for life

Image of hands

Helen Garner’s lockdown diaries, 2021

Notes from Melbourne as the pandemic persists

Still from ‘The French Dispatch’

The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

Still from ‘Nitram’

An eye on the outlier: ‘Nitram’

Justin Kurzel’s biopic of the Port Arthur killer is a warning on suburban neglect and gun control

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns

More in Art

Detail from ‘Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood’ by Hilma af Klint (1907)

A shock of renewal: ‘Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings’

The transcendent works of the modernist who regarded herself not an artist but a medium

Image of Claude Monet, ‘Poppy field in a hollow near Giverny’, 1885

Boston and Japan: ‘French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’

What connects Boston’s peerless collections of French Impressionism and historic Japanese art and design?

Image of ‘Untitled (Death Song)’, 2020. Artwork by Megan Cope.

Listening to country: ‘Fractures & Frequencies’ and ‘Infractions’

Elegiac installations from Megan Cope and Rachel O’Reilly at UNSW Galleries call for an understanding of the land as a living entity under threat

Image of ‘Queen Elizabeth and Vincent (on country)’, 2018

The paintbrush is a weapon: Vincent Namatjira

The Archibald Prize winner’s politics are less straightforward than the art world might like to think

Online exclusives

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

Image of test cricket captain Tim Paine announcing his resignation. Image via ABC News

Cricketing institutions are on a sticky wicket

Tim Paine’s sexting scandal reveals more about institutional failures than personal ones

Craig Kelly addresses protestors outside Victoria's Parliament, 12 November 2021

At the end of our rope

The prime minister’s belated response to death threats against political leaders is a sign of our dangerously hollowed-out politics

Image showing a statue of Lady Justice © Piotr Adamowicz / Alamy Stock Photo

The legal system is failing survivors of sexual violence, so why is it being maintained?

Faced with the choice between a gruelling court process or nothing, victim-survivors are often coming away more bruised from the experience than they were beforehand