Australian icon Cecil John Brack was a late-blooming artist, originally aspiring to be a poet. He was born into a working-class family in Hawthorn East, Victoria on 10 May 1920 to a labourer father and housewife mother.
The local grammar school offered John a scholarship which he was unable to accept as his parents were too poor to afford the uniform. At age 15, with Australia was still suffering the effects of the depression emanating from the 1929 Wall Street Crash, he left school to take up employment as a junior insurance clerk with the Victorian Insurance Company.
At this stage he had no aspirations of being an artist, rather leaning towards poetry; he was an avid reader, absorbing the writings of Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, WB Yeats, TS Eliot and WH Auden and later Jean-Paul Sartre and Georges Seurat. His first inclination to art was when at 17, he came across a reproduction of Vincent van
Gogh’s The Night Café in a local bookshop. In 1938 he enrolled in night drawing classes for two years at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School under Charles Wheeler. World War II interrupted his studies and he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940. He climbed the military ranks with the 10th Field Artillery, attaining the rank of Lieutenant by the time he resigned his service in 1948. His agoraphobia was not helped by the conditions of war.
John returned to his art studies, now full-time under William Dargie, graduating in 1949. His sense of perfection caused him to burn most of his earlier work before he was employed by the National Gallery of Victoria making picture frames. He then took up a teaching post as Art Master at the Melbourne Grammar School for eleven years from 1952. He was able to work only two days a week, thus allowing him time to paint on the intervening days. In 1962 he was invited to take up a temporary position as Head of the National Gallery School, before being convinced to remain permanently until his resignation in 1968.
Brack’s profile as an artist manifested in the 1950’s, when he joined the Antipodeans Group. This circle comprised art historian Bernard Smith and six other modern painters including Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and his brother David, Robert Dickerson, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh. Their Manifesto supported the concept of figurative – representational – art, contrasting with the growing interest in abstract art, especially that emanating from America. Their view was countered by critics who believed the group’s view was too traditionalist and an attempt to isolate Australia from the international art stage.
Sold for A$1.6 million in June 2013, The New House, painted by Brack in 1953, typified the culture of the Menzies Era which lasted from 1949 to 1972. These years were regarded as a “golden age” for Australia. Prime Minister Robert Menzies presided over the burgeoning wealth of the country with coal and mineral mining leading to new factories and jobs that went with it. Families were able to afford a house, car, appliances, holidays and educational opportunities that were not available to previous generations. The Sydney Opera House was built and in 1956 Melbourne hosted the Summer Olympic Games. ‘Home’ was the epitome of Australian culture.
Brack’s social commentary on the deterioration of communication was depicted in his The telephone box (1954) and The bar (1954). The latter, a satirical observation on the “six o’ clock swill” (pub closing time), sold for A$3.2 million in April 2006. Probably Brack’s most iconic work was Collins St, 5p.m. (1955). The monochromatic depiction of the Caucasian subjects referenced in part the White Australia Policy established in 1901 and lasting until 1973, which placed restrictions on people of colour and endorsed Australia’s British heritage.
A solo auction held at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne in March 1955 included his work First daughter (1955), depicting his daughter Clara, where it sold for 35 guineas. Two years later it sold for 40 guineas and slipped out of public sight for almost 60 years. In April 2015 it appeared as the star turn of the 43 pieces of David Clarke’s estate (co-founder of the Macquarie Bank) auctioned by Sotheby’s Australia, where it went under the hammer for A$725 000.
DIVERSITY CAPTURED ON CANVAS
Throughout his career Brack himself, his family and friends made perennial portrait subjects along with his nudes, but he created work of diverse themes over the years.
During his time in the army, Brack developed his artistic skills by creating drawings and sketches of his comrades. His depictions of urban life began in 1952 and was a life-long interest. For six months in 1956, Brack attended the racecourse at Flemington every Saturday. From his studies there, he created his racecourse series, with pen-and-ink and watercolour drawings, some later to be re-created as etchings. The jockeys in their colourful racing silks and character-lined faces were the subjects he found most interesting.
Other subjects he covered in the late 60’s included school playgrounds, weddings, shop windows and ballroom dancers. On this last theme, The old time (1969) sold for A$3.36 million in Sydney in May 2007, making it the then highest-priced Australian painting. His Backs and fronts, also painted in 1969, realised A$215 000 in 1997, going on to sell for slightly less than A$393 000 in 2004, leapfrogging to A$1.7 million in 2007, A$1.8 million in 2010 and selling again for the same price in December 2014.
Australian comedian Barry Humphries AO, CBE sat for Brack in 1969 for Barry Humphries in the character of Mrs. Everage. They had become friends and mutual admirers of their crafts in the late 50’s. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010, Humphries recalled that he acquired the green, pink and mauve fabrics that comprised his dress, complemented by pink gloves, plastic pearls, and synthetic flowers. Barry says that John commented continually while creating his groundwork sketches, calling them “frightful, horrible!” When Barry suggested they give up, John demurred, saying they were his “highest terms of praise.” The final work was a finalist for the Archibald Prize in 1969 and in 1975 was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In an interview with fellow artist James Gleeson in 1978, Brack describes his wedding series, comprising five paintings in oil on canvas, as revolving around the day that is “the only time when two people are as one – not before and not after.”
John believed that too much attention was paid to artists, that they were touted as heroes regardless of the work they produced. He theorised that this attitude began in the 16th century with Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), considered to be the first art historian. Brack and his wife Helen travelled to Europe in 1972 where John collected postcards from the museums they visited. These included reproductions of ancient history, from which he later created a series of paintings on early cultures. In collecting the postcards, John was struck by thousands of other visitors preferring to buy the coloured-up mementos rather than scrutinising the original artworks.
The pencil series begun in the early 80’s was John’s metaphor for figures. As he discussed with Gleeson; “so you could say that the pencils symbolise figures and, in this case, figures in precarious balance – a balance, though, which I intend the composition to counteract. Although there seems to be the sense of falling, the structure of the picture locks it in, in such a way that it does not collapse.” Brack also used pens, knives, forks and walking sticks to reinforce this imagery.
Brack’s nudes featured throughout his career, created in various mediums including lithographs, etchings, conte, pencil, and oil. His Double nude I sold for almost A$1.2 million in 2013. The works were never erotic; he is on record as stating “When I paint a woman … I am not interested in how she looks sitting in the studio, but in how she looks at all times, in all lights, what she looked like before and what she is going to look like, what she thinks, hopes, believes and dreams.”
In an interview with historian Hazel de Berg in 1962, John defined his painting techniques. He would only begin work on a canvas after creating meticulous drawings, often developing these into a series. He worked slowly and painstakingly, sometimes making use of compasses, rulers, and stencils, especially in his later compositions. He used fine brushes to create up to fifteen layers of oil paint thickened with his home-made linseed oil, creating smooth, precise edges and lines. His work continues to be highly collectible due to his self-imposed exacting standards.
THE LOSS OF AN ICONIC ARTIST
Brack stopped painting some four years before his passing in Melbourne on 11 February 1999. He is survived by his wife Helen, née Maudsley, herself a recognised artist. They married in 1948 and had four daughters, Clara, Vicki, Freda, and Charlotte, all of whom became subjects of their father’s art.
Interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, Helen stated that she planned to dispose of her late husband’s work by “placing” pieces before they ended up as landfill; an unlikely scenario indeed.