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Ralph Balson’s exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ galleries in Sydney in July of 1941 was the first one-person exhibition of abstract painting in Australia. Of that there is no doubt. There were some earlier local experiments in abstraction by others, that is also clear. But Balson’s 1941 show, as this long-overdue celebration of it demonstrated, was an unprecedented inventive triumph, the true beginning of modernism in Australia, the real ‘Exhibition 1’. The curators of this ‘re-creation’, Nicholas Chambers and Michael Whitworth, deserve great credit for their vision and determination to realise such a worthy initiative. So too does Nick Waterlow, the Director of the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, which was brought to life by a dizzying feast of colour and metallic form, a body of work that has been substantially overlooked by our major institutions (all bar two of the exhibited works came from private collections), but which has been lionised by a handful of artists and other less orthodox agencies of art in this country.
While the importance of Balson’s early geometric abstraction has been critically reconsidered on occasion over the years, the official histories have been both negligent and misleading, with, for instance, Bernard Smith in 1971 claiming that there was no tradition of Constructivist painting in Australia prior to 1965.1 In 1997 this claim was contested by the large historical survey ‘Geometric Painting in Australia 1941–1997’, which proposed that Balson’s 1941 paintings were the proper starting point for such a history.2 Despite this and other efforts, the genuinely eccentric and groundbreaking nature of Balson’s early geometric abstraction has remained relatively little known and appreciated. So the proposal to mount a re-creation of the artist’s 1941 exhibition appeared to be a most valuable exercise.
Yet was such an undertaking really possible? Could there be a re-creation of Balson’s 1941 exhibition? In the catalogue, the curators touch upon the problems and they are not insubstantial. There are no known photographs of the exhibition and the catalogue merely lists twenty-one paintings with prices, but does not state their dimensions. As a consequence, it is difficult to know what paintings were actually included in the show. Four of the thirteen works in the Ivan Dougherty Gallery exhibition can be positively identified as having been included in the 1941 show. Seven of the remaining nine paintings are signed and dated 1941 and the catalogue indicates that they too were included in the original show. The basis for this, however, is nowhere revealed. As for the remaining two works, both are unsigned and undated, and while the curators properly concede that they were ‘unlikely to have been exhibited in 1941’, these paintings were included on the basis that ‘they appear to have been executed very close to this time’. Putting aside the question of whether these paintings are actually finished works, their inclusion in what was titled and publicised as a ‘re-creation’ of the 1941 exhibition was, at the very least, misleading and worked against the curators’ stated aims.3
The problem here is that an exhibition cannot be properly described as a ‘re-creation’ when, on the most generous view, half of the works from the original show are missing. Having said that, while Balson’s 1941 exhibition may not be capable of re-creation, it can and should be celebrated. Certainly, it was wonderful to see so many of the 1941 paintings brought together under one roof. Even with only half the original exhibition on view the sense of exuberance that Balson’s early forays into pure abstraction entailed was palpable. So too was the sense of Balson trying things out: absorbing, filtering and transforming his influences—the presence of Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Sophie Taeuber could be felt in several works—into something all of his own. The level of playful experiment that these works entailed was astonishing and more than justifies any so-called ‘mythologising’ of the original exhibition, something Art Gallery of New South Wales senior curator Deborah Edwards was intent on criticising in the catalogue essay. Edwards’ attack on Balson in this regard is perplexing and, it must be said, wholly without merit. The real question is why the curators would publish such a mean-spirited and skewed piece of writing?4
For example, Edwards’ analysis of Balson’s use of metallic paint in the 1941 works is perplexing because she writes that he ‘followed an example set by Klee’ (p. 39). This assumes that metallic paint is something one associates with Klee, whereas the Swiss artist was known for a palette of rustic and pastel colours (had Edwards cited Gustav Klimt, Sophie Taeuber or Erich Buchholz, she might have been on firmer ground). Equally baffling is the suggestion that Balson’s metallic paint and related machine-like forms ‘were subsumed to the decorative’ (p. 39), the inference being that the artist lacked a serious programmatic intent. In order to bolster this claim, Edwards writes that Balson would have sourced his metallic paints from an art supply shop and that the customary use of such paints was ‘for decorative effects on frames’ (p. 42, footnote 19). The curators lend weight to this proposition by reproducing on the catalogue cover a 1941 painting in a gilded frame (all other catalogue plates are sans frame). In the exhibition this same work was installed so as to be seen first on entry, a gesture that not only served to reinforce claims that stand against the paintings themselves, but also ignores the fact that Balson was a house painter and that his metallic paints seem more likely to have been the product of his trade.5 This gesture was also problematic from a chronological perspective, as it is fairly clear that Balson’s 1941 painting in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, marked the artist’s first move beyond the semi-abstract. Had this painting been experienced first on entry to the exhibition, this would have demonstrated that Balson’s path to and through abstraction was not only progressive, but in dialogue with his own earlier work. In a footnote, Edwards speculates that the composition of this work may have derived from a 1918 painting by Picasso (p. 42, footnote 16); however, it is clear from the catalogue for the ‘Balson Crowley Fizelle Hinder’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1966, that the relevant compositional relation here is Balson’s post-cubist portrait Holiday, c.1936.
Perhaps the most anomalous statement in Edwards’ text is that ‘colour was consistently accorded pictorial supremacy in his art’. If Edwards had really wanted to demythologise Balson’s work, then this was definitely one myth to hone in on, not repeat. While there is no disputing that Balson had a great facility when it came to colour, the strong presence of metallic pigments in the 1941 paintings ought to have sounded warning bells here. Furthermore, the artist’s Matter Paintings substantially eschewed colour. Made between 1960–63, far from being colourful, they are dominated by a grisaille palette. Indeed, the seventeen works in Balson’s final exhibition during his lifetime, at the Macquarie Galleries in July 1963, were part of a larger work group that Daniel Thomas—the first and most eminent of Balson scholars—tagged the ‘Black Paintings’.6 Edwards reports James Gleeson’s ‘strong negative reaction’ to this exhibition (p. 43, footnote 35), but does not tell us that Gleeson later admitted that he misunderstood the work.7 Indeed, Thomas considered Balson’s Black Paintings to be ‘the grandest, most museum-worthy, most aristocratic pictures ever made in Australia’.8
Looking at the Matter Paintings, one can also discern that they are compositionally related to Balson’s early geometric abstraction. And, as anyone who has examined the Matter Paintings closely will attest, they were carefully composed, with the artist very often working into their surfaces with a brush after the initial act of pouring.9 The predominant compositional device common to both the Matter Paintings and Balson’s early geometric work, is a vortex of spiralling forms, which acts like a kind of snapshot of atomic motion and connects the artist’s material production to his scientific and philosophical concerns. This compositional feature substantially disappeared from Balson’s work when he started to adopt a more rectilinear formal vocabulary around 1945, but it began to make a comeback in the 1950s with the artist’s more painterly work and its ‘central area of heightened concentration and activity’.10 As the 1950s drew to a close, Balson commenced trailing and pouring liquid pigments, processes that soon led to the explosive return of the vortex image. This return firmly establishes the Matter Paintings, not as an aberration in line with the canon, but as perhaps the artist’s greatest achievement following Daniel Thomas’ 1969 re-appraisal of them.11
While the curators are to be commended for mounting this exhibition and for reproducing in the catalogue all of the exhibited works, as well as two additional 1941 paintings not included in the show, their efforts have been undermined by the poor quality of the printing. Almost without exception, the illustrations fail to capture the intense brightness of Balson’s colour and the reflectiveness of his metallic paint. On the printed page the paintings look dull and lifeless, while it is often impossible to know whether we are looking at, say, grey or silver, much less get a sense of the subtle variation in metallic paints. The saving grace is that the Ivan Dougherty Gallery recently published a collection of papers delivered at a symposium held on the opening weekend of the exhibition. This publication includes some genuine Balson research that enables us to conclude, finally, that the artist and his early abstract paintings were given the celebration that they so properly deserve.
1. Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.419. Smith was not alone in making such wilfully false statements. See, for example, J.D. Pringle, Australian Painting Today, Thames & Hudson, London, 1963, p.55.
2. David Pestorius (ed.), Geometric Painting in Australia 1941–1997, ex. cat., University Art Museum, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1998.
3. R-Balson-/41: Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Galleries, Nicholas Chambers and Michael Whitworth (eds), Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Paddington, NSW, 2008, p.3. Further references to the catalogue will be cited as page numbers within text. The exhibition was titled ‘R-BALSON-/41: Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Galleries’, while the printed announcement and other publicity stated that it was ‘A re-creation of Ralph Balson’s landmark 1941 exhibition …’.
4. Despite pages of footnotes and the outward appearance of scholarship, Edwards’ text is riddled with embarrassing errors and interpretative misconstrual. Commencing with a title that misquotes Eleanore Lange and an opening paragraph that refers to ‘Roger and Sonia Delaunay’ (sic), Edwards writes that Balson’s launch into abstraction was ‘firmly related to an interwar “call to order” or classicism’ (p. 36), when it is well-known that the ‘Call To Order’ was a call for a return to representation and the figurative. Edwards also writes that the Abstraction-Création group was a ‘rallying point’ for geometric abstraction, when, in fact, it was a large forum for a diverse range of positions, including biomorphic and surrealistic tendencies.
5. On the probable source of Balson’s metallic paints, see ADS Donaldson, ‘Metal Guru: Ralph Balson’s 1941 exhibition at Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Galleries, Sydney’, in Symposium Papers: Colour in Art—Revisiting 1919 & R-Balson–/41: Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Galleries, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney, 2008, p.42.
6. Daniel Thomas, ‘Black is Beautiful’, The Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, May 25, 1969.
7. James Gleeson quoted in David Pestorius, ‘High Achievement or Creative Byway: The erratic reception of Ralph Balson’s “Matter” Paintings’, Master of Arts (MA) thesis, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, 2003, p.32.
8. Daniel Thomas, op. cit.
9. This counters another Balson myth that contends the Matter Paintings were wholly ruled by chance—the misunderstanding at the centre of James Gleeson’s ‘strong negative reaction’.
10. Daniel Thomas, ‘Ralph Balson’, Art and Australia, Sydney, Vol.2 No.4, March 1965, p.257.
11. The canon was laid down by Daniel Thomas in his article on Balson for Art and Australia in 1965, and institutionally entrenched by Renée Free in her catalogue essay for the ‘Balson Crowley Fizelle Hinder’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1966. Both Thomas and Free present the ‘Matter’ Paintings as inferior to Balson’s work of the late 1950s, a conclusion reiterated by Bruce Adams’ important Balson research in the 1980s, although Adams appears not to have been aware of Thomas’ substantial re-appraisal of the ‘Matter’ Paintings in 1969.