ALBERT TUCKER: Painting Life’s Different Colours

Albert Tucker, Image of Modern Evil, 1943, watercolour and ink on paper - photo by Invaluable

Australian artist Albert Tucker was born in Melbourne on 29th December 1914 to John and Clara (née Davis) Tucker. He had two older siblings, his brother Jack and a sister. Jack died of meningitis when Albert was 17, and his sister’s daughter Claire, died of the same disease a couple of years later. Both deaths were traumatic for Albert; he had his hands on John’s chest when he felt his heart stop.

Their father John was employed as a railway undergear repairman, earning a lowly wage that kept the family in meagre financial circumstances. Clara had ambitions of a middle-class standard of living, but to maintain this façade, the family lived in debt, having to constantly avoid and hide from debt collectors. The constant friction over money was exacerbated by Jack insisting on keeping a few shillings for himself, to lay a weekly Saturday bet. Their financial situation was so dire that they lost their home, being forced to rent an old Victorian house.

Photograph portrait of Albert Tucker, taken at his studio in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 1940 – photo by National Library of Australia

Tucker was interested in art from a very young age. He was enrolled in kindergarten at age five and had a premonition even then that he would become an artist. His Uncle Arthur lived in a tent on John and Clara’s property. He had been an aspiring artist but had also become an alcoholic. As a toddler, Albert spent a lot of time with Uncle Arthur; he recalled being fed alcohol until his mother became aware of what was happening, and the visits stopped abruptly. But Albert also inherited Uncle Arthur’s paint box and recalled the enormous effect squeezing a tube of Prussian Blue had on him. Albert’s mother had had his palm read by a fortune teller when he was a child, apparently being told that “He’ll be all right. He’ll have quite enough money in later life.”

Albert left school at fourteen and a half, to help supplement the family income. He had always received top marks in drawing but also had an interest in history and geography and an aptitude for mental arithmetic. Despite this, his first job was as a house painter, where he developed lead poisoning after being tasked with sanding a corrugated metal shower screen. He was forced to give up the work as he was so ill, but only recognised the symptoms for what they were years later.

In 1933, Albert signed up for life drawing evening classes at the Victorian Artists Society, which he attended three nights a week for seven years. He held his first exhibition there in the same year. He spent his evenings in the reading room of the State Library as well as frequenting Italian artist art critic Gino Nibbi’s Leonardo Bookshop at 166 Little Collins Street. Nibbi returned to Italy in 1947 when the lease on his shop was not renewed and in 1952, he hosted an exhibition of Tucker’s and Sidney Nolan’s work in his new shop/gallery, Ai Quattro Venti, in Rome.

Albert Tucker, Self-portrait, 1937 – photo by National Gallery of Australia

By 1934, Albert went on to work for John Vickery, a commercial artist, making drawings of cars. He was also doing freelance drawings for women’s magazines. He became exposed to Melbourne’s artistic community, meeting Sam Atyeo who would also later become a member of John & Sunday Reed’s circle at Heide. He stayed with Vickery for three months before taking on a position doing adverts for Fayrefield Hats.

Albert claimed that this period turned him towards Communism; he felt exploited by having to work weekends without pay, also by learning that he earned five shillings less per week than a co-worker, but the last straw was his head of department playing golf while Albert did his work. Albert left the company in 1937 when a self-portrait was noticed by Basil Burdett, the art critic of the Herald newspaper. Ironically, Albert’s replacement was fellow artist Sidney Nolan, but the two did not meet until 1939.

In 1938, George Bell founded the Contemporary Art Society. He and a group of like-minded artists, including Tucker, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd believed that the Australian Government continued to support contemporary conservative art rather than emerging modernist surrealism. John and Sunday Reed, wealthy patrons who hosted emerging artists at their home Heide in Melbourne, also joined the group, which became known as The Angry Penguins. Russian immigrant artist Danila Vassilieff and fellow émigré, Israeli Yosi Bergner who had arrived in Melbourne in the 1930s were an important influence on Tucker’s work.

Cover design for the magazine “Angry Penguins”, 1945 – photo by National Gallery of Australia

In 1939, Albert had bought a second-hand camera; his photographs were to become invaluable as a record of contemporary life of The Angry Penguins in the 1940s. His own art was to be influenced by an exhibition hosted by the Herald of French and British contemporary art, including works by surrealist artists including Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso.

A year earlier, in 1938, Albert and Joy Hester, a student at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, became romantically involved when she began life drawing classes at the Victorian Artists Society. They began living together in 1939 and married on 1 January 1941. Their courtship began when Albert asked to paint her portrait – as he said, it was “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.” Tucker always denied being a misogynist, despite many quotes defining his views of women as cunning and deceitful manipulators with enormous power over men.

Joy was seventeen and Albert six years her senior at 23. They had to lie about her age on their marriage certificate.

Albert Tucker, John and Sunday Reed, 1982 – photo by MutualArt

Sweeney was born on 4th February 1945. It transpired much later that Sweeney was possibly not Albert’s child, that he could have been fathered by musician Billy Hyde, with whom Joy had enjoyed a brief fling.

His association with the Reeds at their home Heide saw him receive a stipend from them, which he reciprocated by occasionally donating paintings to them. Albert had a better relationship with John Reed than with Sunday; Tucker believed that John came to depend on his points of view. Albert was impressed with the standard of living at Heide, commenting on the rich and sometimes exotic food the group – The Angry Penguins – was given.

In 1940, Tucker was called up for military service. He was seconded to the Heidelberg Military Hospital where he sketched war-wounded patients. In an interview with Robin Hughes in February 1994, Tucker described the horror of being asked to draw a man whose nose had been sliced off by a shell splinter. His nasal passages were exposed, and the patient repeatedly apologised while he attempted to wipe away the constant secretions. Tucker’s work Man at Table was a rendition of the man’s suffering. Two other works from this period include The Waste Land and Floating Figures.

Albert Tucker, Victory girls, 1943 – photo by National Gallery of Australia

Tucker returned to Melbourne when he was discharged from military service in 1942. His series Images of Modern Evil painted between 1943-1947 include the piece Victory Girls, which he believed was a true depiction of young Australian girls being wooed and exploited by wealthy American servicemen, at the expense of poorer locals. Historians, however, have failed to confirm that these episodes actually occurred. His Evening Landscape, Images of Modern Evil Series in gouache sold for A$30 000 in November 1988 and Images of Modern Evil, 13th April 1943, watercolour on paper, sold for A$25 000 in November 1998.

During the time that Albert was at Heide, the notorious ‘Ern Malley Affair’ occurred in 1943. It was a grand hoax conceived by James McAuley and Harold Stewart which ultimately destroyed The Angry Penguins. The two poets concocted a collection of modernist poems, supposedly written by one Ernest Lalor Malley. The idea was to ridicule The Angry Penguins liberal way of thinking. The collection, called The Darkening Ecliptic and comprising seventeen poems of jumbled nonsense, were submitted to Max Harris, editor of the Angry Penguins magazine in the name of Malley’s equally fictitious sister Ethel. She professed that her brother had died at the age of 25 of Grave’s Disease and she had been advised by a friend to submit them to someone who would know what to do with them. Harris and The Angry Penguins accepted the work at face value and one whole issue of the magazine was dedicated to Malley’s work. When the deception was revealed, Harris was eventually convicted of publishing obscene material. The magazine collapsed in 1946; ironically the poems of ‘Ern Malley’ remain in print.

Albert Tucker, Sweeney in High Chair, 1943 – photo by Curiator

Following the demise of The Angry Penguins, the Communist Party attempted a coup of the Contemporary Art Society, endeavouring to make it their political tool. Despite Albert’s tacit support of communism, he was pleased that at the Annual General Meeting, when he was president, the vote for the communist nominee Vic O’Connor was defeated by fifty-one to fifty, in favour of John Reed.

Albert, Joy and their son Sweeney continued to live with the Reeds until 1947 when Albert went to Japan for three months as an official Allied war artist with American journalist Harry Roskolenko. During this time, Joy had an affair and her marriage to Albert collapsed. Joy was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Sunday Reed adopted the then three-year-old Sweeney; she and John had no children of their own. Despite his vehement opposition to the arrangement, Albert was not in a position to raise his son alone. Joy died in 1960 and in 1979, Sweeney committed suicide. Tucker’s oil on board Sweeney in High Chair (1946) sold for A$36 000 in April 2011.

The aftermath of the war had a profound effect on Tucker during his time in Japan. He witnessed the ruination caused not only by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by the incendiary bombs used on Tokyo, and the high explosive on Osaka. Each method of destruction was designed to cause maximum damage according to the composition of the city, for example, Tokyo buildings comprised mostly wood, paper and cement. Tucker remembered a Japanese politician laughing in hysteria at bodies being collected and piled ten feet high in the streets.

Tucker had earned money in Japan painting portraits of Americans; on his return, he borrowed the balance of the fare of sixty pounds that he needed to get to London. He sailed on the Largs Bay and arrived in Waterloo. He would remain in Europe and the USA for the next thirteen years.

Albert Tucker, Apocalyptic horse, 1956 – photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales

During the four years he spent in Paris, Tucker met and became involved with an American girl called Mary. Their relationship lasted nine years (the same length of time as his marriage to Joy) until Mary returned to America to see her mother. She met another man and did not return to Albert.

In Rome, he was introduced to a new product, polyvinyl acetate, a synthetic resin used in latex paints. He and Sidney Nolan also met up in the city; Nolan showed him photos of the desiccated cattle carcasses resulting from the 1952 drought in Queensland. The images remained with Tucker and in 1956 he painted Apocalyptic Horse.

In 1959, he was awarded the Australian Women’s Weekly Prize; he subsequently spent two years in New York where he painted his Manhattan and Antipodean Head series. In 1960, Tucker returned to Melbourne where the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased Antipodean Head II (1959), the first public sale of his work. Later works in the series, Antipodean Head and Parrot sold for approximately €8 000 in May 2000 and Antipodean Head (Intruder) (1962) sold for a similar price in August 2000.

Albert Tucker, The intruder, 1964 – photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales

In 1960 MOMA, Australia awarded Tucker the Kurt Geiger Award. This enabled him to return to Australia, where he held his first solo exhibition. He settled in Victoria and married his second wife Barbara Bilcock in 1964.

In 1967, at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil was exhibited alongside Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly. Their relationship had broken down by then and Nolan was upset at having to share the limelight with his former friend. They saw each other only by accident over the next few years.

John Reed died on 5th December 1981, followed by Sunday’s death a mere ten days later, on the 15th December. Other friends including Danila Vassilieff had also passed, as well as Joy and Sweeny. Tucker began his series Faces I Have Met, painting over 80 portraits from memory and photographs he had kept.

Albert Tucker died of a heart attack on 23 October 1999. He is survived by his wife Barbara; they were married for over thirty years.

A retrospective of Tucker’s work was held in 1990, attracting more than 90 000 people.