Melbourne in the Fifties
The ancient wisdom of the enneagram—that diagram of two inter-locking triangles within the circle that graphs the magic power of seven—suggests that for a creative act or new configuration to take place, there must be an element of the unknown to animate the known elements. There we were in Melbourne in the fifties, the new wave of painters, class of 1928, with those active figures of the forties art revolution who had not been swept away by the end-of-decade diaspora to Europe, needing some steering, some ship in which to sail, some destination of intent.
Europe gave it to us, movers of the new force, disguised as the arrival of a salesman for Continental Chicken Noodle soup and a Parisian seamstress. Georges and Mirka Mora came from the heart of that war-wounded Europe which we, in our protected isolation, were only slowly coming to understand. Both Jewish, Georges had worked in the underground, living on grapes (for which reason he never ate fruits or took country holidays thereafter), smuggling people out to Switzerland and, later, managing camps of displaced children. Mirka had fled by night with her mother from Paris and spent her girlhood years hidden in the forest, emerging a mistress of invention untainted by formal education. After the war they frequented the Parisian theatre world but yearned for a new life away from the dark shadows. A toss of a coin brought them to Melbourne—Singapore’s loss.
City dwellers, they rented a basement studio with low upper room at 9 Collins Street (Paris end). Sunday Reed discovered Mirka, directed to this maker of original costume by the music critic John Sinclair, with whom Mirka, in joint shyness, had shared a sofa at a stranger’s soiree. ‘Down at the end of a dingy corridor and steps so dark you fall down, sitting with an infant playing on the floor and surrounded by waves of cloth and pins, beautiful as a young fawn.’ Sunday never wore the dress that Mirka made for her. Instead she hung it on her wall along with paintings by Nolan, Tucker and Sam Atyeo.
By this time Charles and I had met the Moras and I asked Georges naively after his first visit to the court of Heide, ‘Are there such people as the Reeds in Paris?’ Of course’, he said with an unfamiliar urbanity. ‘Lots of them.’ I had a lot to learn. Georges was off to Adelaide with his two suitcases, one containing his continental square pillow without which he could not sleep, the other full of the packets of the new comestible. So it was Mirka who ventured to the suburbs to our coach-house in Hawthorn in the company of her close small friend, the infant Phillippe. She had an immediate affinity with Charles and his schoolgirl paintings, and almost leapt into the picture plane herself. She had the idea that she would at once turn her studio apartment into a gallery and exhibit them. This should happen in a few weeks, when beds and things were moved to the room upstairs and walls painted—all this despite an official first Blackman exhibition, of schoolgirl paintings, scheduled to open at the most prestigious city gallery in a few weeks time,’ and the imminent arrival of her own second child.
Their urgent, impish, rule-breaking spirits flared up together. A spark was struck, the audacity to have two shows of the same subject one straight after the other, one up front, the other decidedly underground. After a few days of elaborating this wild plan, we all realized we had to smooth it down for Georges’ approval. He was adept at taming Mirka’s enfant terrible escapades. Charles and I circled nervously outside the corner telephone box awaiting Georges’ decision, fearing that he might be, after all, a businessman with only a token interest in art. But Georges, as ever after, grasped and elevated the daring idea, while grounding it with realistic caution.
So in 1953 Charles Blackman burst upon the scene with two shows: one in May at the Peter Bray Gallery and one in August at the new Mirka Studio. Most Melbourne galleries then were on do-it-yourself lines, most attached to furniture shops, so attachment to a couturiere’s was not so strange. But Mirka, with her flamboyant dress, ‘sharming axont’ and invitation to coffees and cake, her desire to meet new people and her naivety, was something quite new.
Mirka’s Studio became a centre of gravity (and much levity), a place of meetings, parties, drarnatic moments, tableaux \ivants, plots, confrontations, improvisations, last suppers, diagnoses and prognostications, exhibition after exhibition—the vortex of our marvellous lives. Endlessly we sat around on those two steps down into the telephone- booth-sized kitchen. Saturday after Saturday Georges carried in cases of ‘cheapest and best’ Agostino wine. Ping after ping of the door bell admitted the unexpected welcome visitor.
Georges and Mirka offered us new sites. They were happeners, not owners. They had lost families, home, land of birth, friendships, memorabilia of their youth, and now lived in the focus of the present and its possibilities. Georges never personally owned much more than that pillow, a change of clothes and the bedside book he was reading. Good food and good conversation, that was his stock in hand. He hosted endless discussions in the awareness that politics—not just the party politics of government, but the politics of time and event, opportunity and action—were the pivot of civilized life. Bails Myer once said of him that he was ‘a man who made Melbourne into a city’. Certainly he ‘grew us up’ as assuredly as Mirka never let us escape our child-hearted spontaneity.
The new Contemporary Art Society foundation meeting in 1953 happened at Mirka’s studio. The elders, John and Sunday Reed and Danila Vassilieff, took office on the new committee. With them came John Perceval, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, Neil Douglas and other veterans, Barrie Reid and Laurence Hope from the Brisbane Barjai, Clif Pugh and other Rehab Gallery students, migrant sculptors Gunter Stein, Julius Kuhn and Clifford Last, the new runners Lawrence Daws and Erica McGilchrist from Adelaide, Bob Dickerson, a Sydney ring-in, Ian Sime with his new language of the abstract and his precise wife Dawn, odd balls and evens of the new exhibitors. All crowded expectantly into that room. Some who were asked held back, waiting to see if it were kosher before stepping aboard. Others like Len French, suspicious even of his own shadow, always stood outside looking on. I magnetized inevitably into the position of treasurer, becoming for years a filing field of endless hours of office, lengthy telephone calls, inflated crises, celebrations of success. It was the insistent belief of John and Sunday Reed that art springs not only from the creator but also from the audience. Artists and laymen always carried equal weight in the Society, men and women equal power.
That was how it was in our young lives. We worked flat out, the painters on the job twelve hours or more a day, those with jobs half the night. I worked as a life class model, doing classes six days and five nights a week in term. On Sundays I wept because my husband would not stop working. Time was boundless in a youth that flung us out of bed before dawn to walk for miles to reach the Victoria Market as stalls were opening, and stretched our nights discovering each other’s thoughts till we could delve no deeper. Lawrence Daws burst into a party one night in 1956, cleared a path to the gramophone and changed the dance. Haley’s Comets sounded out loud and clear and we rocked around the clock at parties ever after; as when, in late 1962 with Brett Whiteley, he burst into our London terrace house and charged straight to the television set—’It’s all happening!’—there were the Beatles express delivery arriving over the horizon.
Mirka’s Studio became a home away from home for us, meals and children fitting in among and around, the reek of paint and turps intermingling with soups and boiling nappies, the viewing of new works taking priority. Mirka, who had brought four canvases of her own from Paris, never stopped painting amid it all, even if, at the ping of a door bell, her hair was combed, her easel bundled back into the lavatory Our studios were generally as big as the rest of the house put together and their needs devoured at least an equal share of the family income. We were a generation who married early, aware of the gaps in the lives of those before us, for whom the war had kept marriage at bay or precipitated ‘mistakes’. A woman was ‘on the shelf if not married by twenty-one. Most of my friends had several babies before they had that key to the door—babies bom in bedsits, makeshift back-room flats, converted lofts. Sales of paintings were rare. Swapping was more common. Painters showed spontaneous admiration and fellow feeling for each other by swapping shirts. ‘Shirts off!’ became a term of salute.
Right from the beginning of the decade we women wore a new garb: jeans, T-shirts, Roman sandals (bought for two-and-sixpence at the markets) and wide elastic belts. We ironed our jeans to a shine and soft-starched our cotton shirts. I kept an array of splendid, widestriped, embroidered, tartan, tricolour ribbons for my ponytail. Alanah Coleman, a shocker, was the first to wear zip-fly jeans. Everyone except me had a sewing machine and whipped up a swirling party dress from cheap cotton gingham or ticking, corduroy or pinwhale; padded skirts were common where central heating was not. We knitted. I cut out an ad for a continental doona, sold at just one place in Preston at a cost of eighty pounds, and dreamed of owning one one day. We slept under a mound of half a dozen second-hand blankets, often with overcoats on top. Bessie Smith sang to us of love, o careless love, and aprons worn up high. We knew the names of the three best abortionists in town and for their charge of thirty pounds the hat was often passed around. The wisdom of the women decreed the Grattenberg ring, known affectionately as ‘the wedding ring’.
Few photographs survive. Not many of us had cameras, let alone home movie devices. Some had old cars. Arthur Boyd’s Dodge had its tyres stuffed with straw the day he went into Tye’s to collect his Dunlop Prize, and was hand-cranked in Bourke Street to start up for home. Almost everyone had a telephone because talk was of the essence. Before we could afford one, I used to go out for the night to a quiet phone box at the other end of Chrystobel Crescent with a kangaroo high stack of pennies to make calls at tuppence a go. A friend of a friend cracked the code for making free calls through a roadside booth in Albury, but the fault on the line was soon corrected.
In 1954 the CAS erupted with its alternative Royal Tour Exhibition and put Mirka’s Studio on the map. ‘The mother and father of all our angers and frustrations’, the Menzies mediocre art establishment, staged an exhibition at the Town Hall as part of its celebration of the visit of Our Queen, parading all the dead wood of the art landscape. We retaliated. Everyone put up their toughest and best works, and architect Jim Birrell brought out a bold, glossy catalogue proclaiming protest. Mobs came, mockers and discoverers. Namatjira defected to us.
Group and solo shows followed one after another. Celebrities joined us as openers—Larry Adler, Hephzibah Menuhin, Melvyn Douglas, Sally Gilmour, Isaac Stern, Gene Krupa. After openings we partied on into the night.
Sometimes the Mirka Studio entourage went on circuit. On Sunday afternoons Gertie and Klaus Anschel, the handsome Viennese couple who kept ‘The Little Nut Shop’, the best confectionery in town, held open house. We decked ourselves out, sat in their elegant rooms, discussing plays, concerts and exhibitions, playing chess, dancing out on their deck, flirting, eating the bountiful meals of wieners and sauerkraut, meatballs and noodles that they cooked. Sometimes we took cushions and went out in rowing boats from Studley Park. Neil Douglas, the potter, always left any party, his homeward sack slung over his shoulder, in time to catch the last train to Bayswater, back to his garden.
At our first visit there we felt on that long walk up from the station as though we were chasing the wild goose through cow paddocks until, suddenly, the garden was upon us. In through a wicket gate, into a tree of life that caught you in its branches. Neil loved to be come upon by visitors, burrowing or kneeling over among the foliage or stooping to scythe his grass, deft as a barber. The bosoming mounds of lawn were formed to enfold and rivulet the rain, for this was a waterless garden and for him it flowered in all seasons.
For Neil landscape and foliage were paintings already. His house, discovered like a face hiding behind tumbling tresses, was a little old Lutheran church covered with draping vines, once derelict at this end of his mother’s farm. Inside it had the tree-trunk smell of drying herbs and scrubbed wood. His infant children, with hair as pale and curly as woodwork shavings, played quietly between large decorated bowls on the low shelf, one of nuts and one of eggs, diligently hammering the one but not the other. Neil, tall, home-grown, elfin, soft-voiced, played the old organ, made sage or peppermint tea, concocted a meal out of whatever he could rustle up from the garden eked out with barley.
Neil’s garden became our weekend Eden. We swarmed up from the station or landed in droves when people had cars. We lay sprawled out in the sun, peering into the secretive shadows, crushing aromatic leafage between fingers, reading poems, arguing, nibbling away at pungent herbs. The children tumbled among the pottery teapots and cups. I drank and saw the painted tail within the cup lead down into a rat at the base. This garden oasis among the paddocks seemed, in its intensity of detail, somehow huge, like a drop of water under a microscope.
One day Fred Williams, Hal Hattam and a few others scrambled through to the paddock and set up a game of cricket, the Listerfield hills calm in their distance. Both later painted it. Once a whole Mirka Studio Saturday night party arrived the next day at noon, twenty hungry people. The small wheelbarrow was trundled out and all hands to the dig to pile it with potatoes. Mirka proposed a parsley soup, parsley gathered not by sprig or posy but in such armfuls that the winter doorstep mass of bush parsley was all uplifted. Such a tasty, rustic soup resulted.
Momentum grew. The CAS grew large and hired first Tye’s, the largest city gallery, and the next year persuaded Preston Motors to give over their corner plate-glass showroom for the exhibition. In the forties Bert Tucker had once got a painting into a Collins Street dress shop window. Now the city had the whole CAS in its midst. Ralph Richardson opened the show. Joy Hester and John Perceval returned to the exhibiting scene. Arthur Boyd came back from a visit to Hermannsburg Mission with a new dream: the black man and his bride. Mirka went professional and opened her own cafe in Exhibition Street.
Terrace tables with gingham cloths, tres parisien, were put out on the footpath. Each time the Council ordered them removed. Mirka got the first espresso coffee machine in Melbourne, a Gagia, and from it a black eye at the first use. We, who had enjoyed the bounty of her cooking for so long, now came and paid, and stayed.’Madame Otier from Georges’ underground days came on the scene and served. The soups Normandie or onion appeared in lidded pottery ramekins. Pate, coarse country-style, fresh mayonnaise, duck in orange, creme caramel, dinkum homespun French. The room above was ‘family only’ where we could take wine.
The CAS meetings were held there. Gradually they became stormier. Barrie Reid and I put out a broadsheet, he informing the fifties members of the feats of their forebears, I discovering that the painters who argued so convincingly at table were less convincing on the printed page. Some paintings sold to bigwigs, and the Gallery of Victoria actually bought a Bob Dickerson but took a nervously long time to pay, during which I censored Bob’s ‘punch on the nose’ letters of demand. Among ourselves we knew that a lot of the paintings were good, but nobody in their wildest imagination contemplated a latest-model Mercedes car, a one-man show at the New York Museum of Modern Art, sales to the Tate, high-priced sell-out exhibitions and celebrity status, London houses and whirlwind European trips, as possibilities in ten or twenty years time.
We scratched about. The news that in Japan an artist could get a part-time job and could have all his work photographed by the state astounded us. We Blackmans paid thirty shillings a week rent for our coach-house, used the City Baths, had water from an outdoor tap. The Providence Trustee, who had to pass our conversion as rentworthy, tapped me paternally on the shoulder and said Jesus Christ was born in a stable.’ John Brack, a most respectable and wellspoken person, applied for a housing loan and was rudely refused by a bank manager who explained that a loan to an artist was out of the question, adding consolingly, not even if it were William Dobell himself—Dobell at home and Picasso overseas being the everyman concept of a modern artist. Arthur brought his tax return papers round to our coach-house—I being treasurer of the CAS and presumed intellectual— to ask, since this was his umpteenth year of income below tax level, whether he ought to add ‘Will try harder next year’. I was considered ‘a woman of independent means’ on account of my blind pension.
Sunday Reed, when she saw a convincing gush of paintings, would insert a small gift of money into the works. We went off for a trip to Queensland early in the piece with one such gift all spent on a plumber’s leather bag packed with tins of Dulux enamel. Charles sent back a couple of dozen small paintings on board from Stradbroke Island as evidence of the need for more supplies. An answer came, quoting the wisdom of Sweeney (then a child of seven), who had remarked on their unpacking. Just practising. Sun,’ and the admonition ‘lick those paint tins clean’. The letter was on damask paper, no cheque. We back-tracked to Melbourne, Charles to odd-job gardening, and I to life modelling again.
The Mirka Cafe and the Preston Motors exhibitions of the mid-fifties were first steps before bigger strides. Georges left the food company and set up as restaurateur. He bought into the Eastbourne Cafe in East Melbourne within cooee of our first tin-shed habitat and, as it turned out, the 1956 Olympic Games. He got a liquor licence for the Games but waited a couple of years for a permanent one. CAS meetings were now held in the after-hours cafe.
The wisdom of Sunday Reed was that ‘artists shouldn’t have wives’ and on hearing of my first pregnancy she endowed Charles with train fare and enough money to escape to Sydney. Upon his return she sent him baskets of fresh farm eggs for use in his tempera painting, ‘but throw the whites away’. Georges, however, gave Charles a regular evening job as short-order cook at the Eastbourne with plenty of take-home leftovers. The Alice in Wonderland paintings with their iconography of tables, chairs and teapots, women changing shape, emerged with subtle tempera lustre. A couple of years later a greyly lavender well-polished lady from the Society for the Amelioration of Hardship among Indigent Persons of Talent and Scholarship knocked at our stable door. I held in check our eighteen-month-old child. Charles in his loft above stretched out on the floor, ear to a crack. After a lengthy interrogation, she gave me a promise that fifty pounds would be forthcoming to pay outstanding dentist’s and doctor’s bills and something over for a pusher for the little one. With due words of gratitude I showed her to the door and, in something like defeat, she observed ‘And am I to presume you are yet again in a certain condition?’ Joyously I was.
Georges, now president of the CAS, was in his stride, John Reed keeping pace. It was time for the Society to have its own Gallery of Contemporary Art, to mount survey as well as group and one-man shows. A warehouse in Flinders Lane was found, two upper floors of it. Peter Burns, long-time secretary and visionary architect, was given free rein with the transformation. He cornered off the office space with panels of tinted perspex, a new material, and proposed a wild and wonderful solution to the dreary old brick walls. A metal lattice mesh in interlocking panels would skin the wall with an illusory grey shadowy form upon which paintings could be easily clipped.
The opening exhibition was an act of faith, a gift. Each artist member presented a major painting for sale to support the gallery. It was a splendid show. Doc Evatt, an old friend of the Reeds from the forties, was to be the opener. Hopes were high.
All was ready. A hush of expectation prevailed. Almost time for the guests to arrive. A thud on the stairs below. The sandwich woman, carrying the tray of little cocktail offerings, had tripped. All was righted just in time. The Evatts came early to survey. Just as the first guests arrived, however, there was an ominous rumble from the walls. The lattice did not hold, the panels came unstuck, the metal buckled. Peter, on the deck of the ship, ordered all friends to the walls. We pressed our backs firmly against the quivering panels, forcing them to stay in their locks, while smiling expansively at arriving guests. We were magnificent. As the last guest left we sagged, and the walls with their burden of paintings sagged down with us.
John Reed took his place in the venture as gallery director, reappearing out of his country ivory castle to be a city man again as in his lawyer days. At a committee meeting, with Capricornian practicality, I had asked, ‘John, as director, are you prepared to sell a painting you do not like to a person you do not like?’ ‘Of course,’ he said in his ‘dovra, Bonzo’ voice. ‘It is part of the job.’ On that first night, when David Wynn, a wine-maker on the glamorous fringe of culture, came up to him to purchase the Charles Bush picture, John said ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Nevertheless, the gallery thrived. The shows went on: the original Sid Nolan Ned Kellys, the first Blackman Alice show, the Perceval Lerderderg landscapes and the first Boyd Black Man and his Bride, a show by Bill Dobell who came in person, standing frail and famous in the middle of the room as long as he could bear it, and one by the newly discovered primitive Belgian painter and opal-miner Henri Bastin, who stood a pot of brushes in place of the usual vase of flowers and subsequently made me a ‘feel picture’ out of string and bobbins.
To balance this widening there was a centring. A handful of painters took to plein-air. As Sunday painters at Williamstown, an unsmart bayside suburb, they set up easels at the dry docks in somewhat removed homage to Turner, who had lashed himself to the mast to experience storms at sea. Wives and children picnicked. The public gazed. One member of the public approached Arthur. ‘Are you painting a picture?’ ‘Do you come here often?’ ‘Do you like painting?’ ‘What do you do with them after?’ Arthur replied monosyllabically with the patience of fly-swatting, then went silent. Another approached Charles and got an immediate swift reply: ‘Piss off!’ Yet another to Perceval, who parried ‘Would you like to be in my painting? Then stand way over there near that pier, and don’t move.’ Charles never came to grips with this painting on the spot. At home he painted on paper a huge bateau ivre out of Williamstown, a contradiction that so annoyed Perceval that he lunged to snatch it off the wall. He was deflected and it was a first purchase by the Melbourne Gallery from the Gift show.
Times were changing. GCA shows got major reviews. The National Gallery of Victoria got a new director, Eric Westbrook, who took our measure and mounted Perspective Exhibitions of local contemporary art. An Australian Museum of Modern Art with permanent and current exhibitions was now our goal, the transformation of Melbourne into a city with contemporary-art sophistication. We had good shows and growing audiences. All we needed was backers.
Georges’ urbanity led us forward. ‘We invite the most important businessmen in Melbourne, the creme de la creme. The others will follow. Just one prestigious event, not a splashy fund-raising dinner— bad taste. With our quality of work and our confidence we shall raise a lot of money from businessmen used to handling big projects who understand such things. You will see.’ The day came. All the ‘photographed living’ were there. Dubonnet only was served with oysters, smoked salmon and rare roast beef. Speeches were made, right things said. The spirit was rising in the room. John Reed, as director, came forward and asked for generous donations and himself pulled out his founding cheque already written and showed it— one hundred pounds. That was worse than all the walls falling down around us! Not a thousand, just a hundred—the one wrong word, the gesture of someone too long out of the real world of finance. The effect was a trivializing, a touch that turned the balloon to lead. Shame and disappointment; the Museum at one damp spark fizzled into amateurism. Dick Seddon, then chairman of the National Gallery Board, had been offering Georges every support but had to report that the hoped-for backers did not take a hundred-pound museum seriously. Georges tore his hair but no good came of it.
Then came the dispersion of CAS members to other states, other galleries, some travelling abroad. Tension flamed between figurative and non-figurative painters. Words flared. ‘Faces have had it.’ Tachism was a facet of abstract art. ‘The Tachist Emperor has no clothes.’ The Sydney virus of imported American abstract painting was spreading south. Up at Clif Pugh’s ever-expanding mud-brick mansion, or down at Arthur’s home at Beaumaris by the sea, or in the opened-out, glasswalled house of the Percevals at Canterbury, discussion mounted, focused, became militant.
Art was about people, the human condition. It was more than pleasurable picture plane-decoration. Figurative painting must take a stand. Seven ‘brothers of the brush’ took oath on it: Clif Pugh, David Boyd, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Bob Dickerson and, the youngest of the pack, Charles Blackman. Their argument needed an articulate philosopher-spokesman. Bernard Smith got the job. A movement took shape and a name: the Antipodeans. They closed ranks and prepared for action. A manifesto was drafted. They laboured as if on a holy writ.
We wives went to meetings at first but, as the plotting of the Antipodeans Exhibition got serious, were refused entry because of our irritating habit of feeding babies and making commonsense suggestions at the height of the proceedings. This led Helen Brack to dub them ‘the Secret Seven’ and ‘the Brotherhood of St Bernard’.
Word came of Nolan’s first show in London and the interest of the great Sir Kenneth Clark in work from the Antipodes. The definitive Antipodeans came out with their mighty show in the middle of 1959, not at the GCA but at the largest space in town, the gallery of the most hidebound old guard, the Victorian Artists’ Society Mattiwilda Dobbs, the black American singer, opened it. It was undeniably a demonstration of major painters producing major works. It was, however, accompanied by a manifesto so dangerous and unnecessary that the brotherhood blushed individual denial of the hand that signed the paper.
Each of the seven had seen the show as the beginning of a new movement. The shock was in the recognition that it was the grand culmination of a decade of feeding from one another, visiting one another’s studios, spurring each other to heights of creation. Each was a proved professional. All the paintings sold.
The climate for contemporary art was changed utterly. Professional commercial galleries sprang up in all the capital cities. Travelling scholarships brought on a diaspora. The Helena Rubenstein trumpet blew five times and at each blast a painter left for Europe as though from the Farewell Symphony. Georges became a professional restaurateur. At his now-licensed, newly named Balzac, with Perceval ceramic angel sculptures on the walls and David Boyd carafes carrying the wine, our departure was celebrated. We drank. We cheered. We danced—Mirka on the table figuratively seducing a bread roll. The good ship Mora had brought us to port.
Barbara Blackman (1928) is an Australian writer, poet, librettist, broadcaster, model and patron of the arts.