The Agapitos / Wilson collection
The story of Surrealism in Australia has until recently remained largely unknown. It was only in 1993 with the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Surrealism: revolution by night that the extent of Surrealist practice in this country was revealed. That seminal exhibition led the Sydney collectors James Agapitos, OAM, and Ray Wilson, OAM, to focus their energies towards collecting Australian Surrealist art.1 Assembled with intellect and passion, their collection became the largest and most important repository of Australian Surrealist art in private hands.
The National Gallery of Australia acquired the Agapitos/Wilson collection through a combination of gift and purchase. Covering the period 1925 to 1955, the Agapitos/Wilson collection includes 285 paintings, prints, collages, drawings, photographs and sculptures by the foremost artists associated with Surrealist art practice in Australia.
While there was no organised Surrealist movement in Australia, its importance lies in the fact that some of Australia’s leading artists were influenced by Surrealism at a formative period of their careers. James Gleeson, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Robert Klippel and Max Dupain all experimented with Surrealist ideas and methods, and the impact it had on their art at that time and on their future development was decisive. Other artists, such as Ivor Francis, produced their best works under its influence. The story of Surrealism in Australia is of artists responding in individualistic ways to the possibilities it offered. With the exception of Gleeson, Australian artists did not become committed Surrealists; rather, they dipped in and out of Surrealism, selectively taking what they wanted for the enrichment of their art.
While Surrealism was not conceived as an artistic movement, its influence was to be felt most strongly in the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, photography and film. Surrealism was officially born in Paris in 1924 with the publication of French poet and intellectual André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism. For the Surrealists, the exploration of the unconscious mind, pioneered by Sigmund Freud, was a way to liberate the imagination from the dominance of reason. This would lead to the breaking of restrictive social conventions, bring to light previously repressed feelings and result in the greater happiness of mankind. The Surrealists’ aim was to revolutionise society at all levels, and Breton argued that the way forward was ‘the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality,
Surrealism’s fascination with dreams and the unconscious led the way to a new kind of imagery: the precise portrayal of dream-like scenes and disassociated narratives of Salvador Dalí and René Magritte. Just as influential was Breton’s definition of Surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism’, which opened the door to new creative processes such as exquisite corpse, decalcomania and frottage, all means of liberating the subconscious mind through the relaxation of conscious control.
While it is not possible to speak of a Surrealist style, at the heart of the Surrealist aesthetic was the illogical, unexpected juxtapositions of disparate elements, conveyed by the nineteenth-century writer Lautréamont’s phrase ‘beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’ from his 1869 novel Les chants du Maldoror. This idea of the junction of disjunctive elements also informed the practice of collage—the quintessential Surrealist medium.
While the 1920s are considered the high point of Surrealism in France, the 1930s saw a resurgence of interest in Surrealism in England and America. The highly successful International Surrealist exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London in 1936 included almost 400 works. The same year in New York, the Museum of Modern Art staged Fantastic art, Dada and Surrealism and Julien Levy held an exhibition of Surrealism at his gallery. ‘These three major exhibitions in 1936 … together with their various publications, related lectures and newspaper and radio reports firmly cemented the place of Surrealism within the English-speaking world.’3
Australian artist Peter Purves Smith, then living in London, is known to have visited the International Surrealist exhibition and his subsequent works show the stylistic influence of Surrealism in their strange figurative distortion and mood of disquiet. Fellow Australian expatriates James Cant, Clifford Bayliss, Geoffrey Graham and Roy de Maistre all experimented with Surrealism. Of these, Cant was the most strongly influenced and painted in a Surrealist style influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Magritte. Cant had arrived in London in 1935 and through de Maistre was introduced to the Mayor Gallery, which had held solo exhibitions of the Surrealists Max Ernst and Joan Miró. Almost immediately Cant was invited to become a member of the British Surrealist Group and his work was regularly exhibited in Surrealist exhibitions to critical acclaim. In 1940 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Cant returned to Sydney. Joining the Communist party, Cant repudiated Surrealism in favour of social realism.
In the 1930s in Australia, Surrealism was often more visible in the realm of popular culture than in the fine arts.4 In 1938 the fashionable The Home magazine commissioned Max Dupain to take a series of Surrealist inspired portraits of socialites.5 Dupain was the only Australian photographer of his generation who felt the lure of Surrealism. In 1935 he had enthusiastically reviewed JT Scoby’s book on Man Ray for The Home, and he experimented with the techniques of solarisation, double exposure and photomontage, also producing his own ‘Rayographs’.6 His Doll’s head & goat’s skull c 1935 uses the Surrealist strategy of juxtaposition: ‘In a bed of straw coiffed into pubic tufts, two unlikely lovers prepare to conjugate … the mannequin’s lips promise pleasure, and the animal’s maw presages death’.7 In the implicit erotic content of this, and other of his Surrealist photographs, Dupain was one of the few Australian artists who responded (albeit in a restrained manner) to Surrealism’s espousal of the liberation of sexual desire.
In the realm of painting, the influence of Surrealism had been seen in the works of Melbourne artists Sam Atyeo and Eric Thake in the early 1930s. However, these remained relatively isolated incidents, and as late as 1938 Basil Burdett begun his review of modern art in Melbourne with the observation that ‘surrealism is practically non existent’.8
The year 1939 can be seen as the watershed in Australian art when the tide finally turned in favour of Modernism. That year saw the first exhibition of the Contemporary Art Society, a group whose aim was to promote new ideas in art. This exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in June 1939, was an important showcase for modern art and attracted widespread attention. The exhibition included the Surrealist paintings Happy landing (The happy father) c 1939, The philosopher 1939 and The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain 1939 by Thake, Tucker and Gleeson respectively. With the publicity received by these works—The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain was reproduced both in the popular press and Art in Australia—Surrealism announced its arrival on the Australian scene.9
The ensuing uptake of Surrealism by artists from 1939 must be considered in the light of several factors. The revitalisation of Surrealism in England in the 1930s and 1940s and the increasing availability of publications in English had a decisive impact. Of these, Herbert Read’s Art now, which included a discussion on Surrealism, was the most widely read book on contemporary art of the period.10 The year 1939 was also the first time that works of European Surrealism were seen in Australia. The hugely successful Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art of over 200 modernist paintings and sculpture toured Australia in 1939, and included paintings by Ernst, de Chirico and Dalí. Dalí’s L’homme fleur 1932 (now titled Memory of the child-woman) was ‘the prime target for abuse and admiration’.11 In response to the interest generated by these works, Art in Australia asked Gleeson to write an article on Surrealism. ‘What is Surrealism?’ was published in 1940 and includes the first discussion of Australian Surrealist artists.12 The following year Breton, the ‘pope of Surrealism’, also contributed an article to Art in Australia.13 Surrealism was now firmly established as one of the most visible of the modern movements.
The adoption of Surrealism by (almost exclusively) younger artists from 1939 onwards was also related to the widespread anxiety and increasing politicisation of society as Australia entered the Second World War. Richard Haese considers that, ‘To advocate Surrealism (good or bad Surrealism, nobody knew the difference) was to lay claim to being on the side of a radical and anarchic future’.14
Surrealism, born in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, found a receptive home in Australia at the outbreak of the second. For many artists the war and Surrealism were inextricably linked and Gleeson recalled:
For a while, especially during the war years, I did think of Surrealism as a revolutionary weapon. I accepted Breton’s contention that by utilising the subconscious one could arrive at a condition that held the rational mind in balance and perhaps prevent such disasters as war, indifference or fanaticism.15
Gleeson, born in 1915, is the Australian artist who has been most closely connected with Surrealism, its longest practitioner and most prominent spokesman. Indeed, he considers that, ‘I was born a Surrealist’.16 Gleeson studied at the East Sydney Technical College and the Sydney Teachers College where he had access to a large library of art books and journals. As early as 1938 Gleeson was painting Surrealist inspired images and producing poem—drawings which sought to integrate text and image.
Gleeson’s first exhibited Surrealist painting was The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain. Dalí’s influence is strongly evident in the deep space and dream-like qualities of the scene and the precise realism with which it is painted. A towering feminine biomorphic rock formation, its eroded surface recalling the drapery of classical statuary, stands in front of a smaller form. Both anthropomorphic shapes are repeated in a silhouette cut-out on the horizon. The fluid forms of the lightning are juxtaposed with the rigid architectural forms in the foreground. Renée Free has argued that the theory of opposites and metamorphosis are at the core of Gleeson’s art and philosophy. In this work, lightning is the agent of change and of metamorphosis.17 The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain was the first Surrealist work acquired by James Agapitos and Ray Wilson and a key factor in their decision to devote themselves to collecting Australian Surrealism.
In 1947 Gleeson left Australia for England. After a short stay in London he took up residence at ‘The Abbey’, art dealer William Ohly’s property in Hertfordshire, which had been set up as artist studios. There, Gleeson met fellow expatriate Robert Klippel who was to become a lifelong friend.
Klippel had arrived in England earlier in the year on a three-year stipend from his father. His friendship with Gleeson was to have a significant influence on his work and their collaboration on Madame Sophie Sesostoris (a pre-raphaelite satire) 1947–48 (in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales) marks the beginning of a period of Surrealist explorations. In December 1948 Klippel moved to Paris. Together with Gleeson he visited Breton (although Gleeson recalled that the meeting was not fruitful as Breton spoke no English and Gleeson’s French was poor) and soon became part of the Surrealist group centred around Breton at La Dragonne Gallery. In Paris, Klippel turned his energies to drawing, creating an extraordinary series of drawings of sinister biomorphic forms, including Drawing P19 c 1949. Full of menace, three spiky plant-machines face towards a floating form. We sense that any change to the equilibrium will result in the immediate demise of this unfortunate creature. Gleeson considered that ‘it is with this sequence of drawings that he [Klippel] makes his closest approach to Surrealism, and through them we are drawn into the darkest chambers of his imagination’.18
Sidney Nolan, born in 1917, was Australia’s most original artist of the late 1930s, exploring Abstraction and Surrealism and experimenting with a wide range of unconventional techniques. Enrolled as a student at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1936–37 Nolan attended classes sporadically, preferring to spend his time in the reading room of the state library. There, he encountered the works of the poets Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and William Blake, and writers James Joyce and DH Lawrence, among others. According to Haese, as late as 1939, Nolan was undecided as to whether to be a painter or a poet, and while he chose the former Nolan maintained a lifelong interest in literature, collaborating with writers and poets, and publishing his own poetry.19 Arthur Rimbaud, the nineteenth-century poet beloved by the Surrealists, was Nolan’s anti-hero—his poetry and unconventional life a guide in charting his own artistic journey.
During 1939–40 Nolan undertook an ambitious series of collages in homage to Rimbaud. As Bruce James points out, these works are in no way illustrations of Rimbaud’s poems; rather, their blend of ethnographic and geographic source material, ‘white imperialist themes’ and exoticism resonates with the poet’s biography and ‘succeed in emulating the poet’s signature fracturing of mood and sense’.20 Surrealistic in intent, mood and method, these collages are amongst the earliest forays into the quintessential Surrealist medium of collage by an Australian artist.
Constructed of cut-up and re-arranged squares of nineteenth-century black-and-white engravings, which are glued onto another engraving, the result is an unstable, constantly shifting image, a jumbled ‘nonsense’ image, defying visual or narrative interpretation. While Ernst had earlier used steel engraving for his collages, their aims were dissimilar. Ernst used the collage process to create new fantastical imagery whereas Nolan’s collages destroy the conventions of representation and linear narrative. In several of Nolan’s collages, this idea is carried further with the inclusion of completely abstract elements—coloured squares—arranged in a checkerboard pattern over the engravings.
In 1948 Nolan was asked to design the stage set for Jean Cocteau’s Orphée 1926 to be performed by the Sydney University Dramatic Society. Orphée was a modernisation of the Orpheus myth, and Cocteau introduced the device of the mirror as the passageway from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Nolan recalled: ‘I followed all of Cocteau’s instructions quite literally. I had mirrors all over the place made of silver paper … the mirrors blinded the audience at rehearsals’.21 Nolan’s painting Orphée, as self-consciously stylish as Cocteau himself, is based on Nolan’s collaged design for the play’s drop curtain. In the painting Nolan uses the silver foil wrapping of a Cadbury chocolate bar to indicate the mirror—appropriately, the embossed ‘Cadbury’ is reversed, as in mirror writing.22
In Adelaide, Surrealism crystallised around the precocious poet and intellectual Max Harris. In 1940, while still a student at the University of Adelaide, Harris had established the literary journal Angry Penguins. Harris declared himself an anarchist and a Surrealist, and the second issue of Angry Penguins featured a reproduction of Gleeson’s Surrealist painting Images of spring. Ivor Francis was Adelaide’s most prominent Surrealist painter. Around 1940, he met Max Harris and began his own investigations into Surrealism. Francis was also greatly inspired by Harris’s writing, particularly his Surrealist novel The vegetative eye of 1943. Investigation, scientific or otherwise, of matter without form 1943 employs a nightmarish dream-imagery to suggest the fate of man at the mercy of psychic forces.
While Francis’s painting activities declined in the late 1940s after his appointment to the Education Board of the then Australian Broadcast Commission, Adelaide soon received another adherent of Surrealism. Dusan Marek arrived in Adelaide in 1948 after fleeing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Marek had studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Prague where his teachers included Frantisek Tichy, a supporter of Surrealism. Gravitation—the return of Christ 1949 is one of Marek’s masterworks. In this meticulously painted work, Marek creates a mood of menace with a canon dominating the left side of the composition. Adding to the sense of unease, a convex mirror on a boat floating on the rolling ocean gives a distorted view back onto the viewer, and acts as an opening onto another reality. The boat and the ocean are suggestive of journeys and transformations, as is the evolutionary appearance of the man–ape who holds aloft another figure.
A Surrealist undercurrent runs through Arthur Boyd’s darkly expressionistic paintings of wartime Melbourne. Franz Philipp considers that ‘[m]etamorphosis—or rather its literal visualization—is a fundamental feature of Boyd’s iconography, and is more closely related to surrealist than to expressionist notions’.23 Boyd’s remarkable ceramic sculpture The bride 1953/54 is explicitly concerned with this concept. The bride is composed of multiple fleshy protuberances of breasts and buttocks juxtaposed against a beak-like nose. An image of a butterfly, a recurring motif in Boyd’s art symbolic of metamorphosis, is emblazoned across her breasts. Philipp notes that in Graeco-Roman art the butterfly is a symbol of the soul, while in Christian iconography it stands as a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.24 This symbolism is in stark contrast with the earthy fecundity of the bride, and a reminder of the presence of death in the midst of life.
In February 2008, the National Gallery of Australia mounted a special exhibition devoted to the Agapitos/Wilson collection of Australian Surrealist art, which included The bride and other key works from the collection. Sadly, James Agapitos passed away in early 2007. The acquisition of the collection by the National Gallery of Australia is the fulfilment of his and Ray Wilson’s long-held dream to make their collection available to the nation for the enjoyment of visitors for generations to come. It constitutes a remarkable act of generosity and will forever remain testimony to the insight, vision and commitment of James Agapitos and Ray Wilson to Australian art.
Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
- 1 As they wrote in the foreword to the publication documenting their collection: ‘The exhibition catalogue became a bible to us, a valued guide that led us to a number of our later acquisitions. Our original enthusiasm for Australian art returned with a vengeance. We searched through books and catalogues and enjoyed the chase and each new discovery. We contacted many artists, their families and friends of deceased artists’. Bruce James, Australian Surrealism: the Agapitos/Wilson collection, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2003, p. 14.
- 2 André Breton, ‘The Surrealist manifesto’ (1924), in Lucy Lippard (ed.), Surrealists on art, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1970, p.15.
- 3 Ken Wach, ‘James Gleeson and Surrealism: the inexhaustible murmur’, in Lou Klepac, James Gleeson: beyond the screen of sight, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2004, p.41.
- 4 Man Ray’s photograph Glass tears c. 1930 was reproduced in The Home magazine in February 1934 accompanying salad recipes. For a discussion of Surrealism and popular culture in Australia, see Christopher Chapman, ‘Surrealism in Australia’, in Surrealism: revolution by night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, pp. 268–75.
- 5 ‘A gallery of Surrealist portraits’, The Home, vol. 19 no. 6, June 1938, pp. 39–46.
- 6 Gael Newton, Max Dupain, David Ell Press, Sydney, 1980, p. 25.
- 7 James, p.56.
- 8 Basil Burdett, ‘Modern art in Melbourne’, Art in Australia, no. 73, 15 November 1938, pp. 12–23.
- 9 With the National Gallery of Australia’s acquisition of Happy landing (The happy father) and The attitude of lightning towards a lady-mountain from the Agapitos/Wilson collection, all three works are now reunited in the Gallery’s collection.
- 10 For a comprehensive listing of books and reproductions of Surrealism available in Australia see Christopher Chapman, ‘A bibliographic chronology of Surrealism in Australia 1923–49’, in Surrealism: revolution by night, pp. 310–15.
- 11 Mary Eagle, Australian modern painting between the wars 1914–1939, Bay Books, Sydney, 1989, p. 201. Mary Eagle also notes that the Empire Loans collection of twentieth-century British art, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1939, also included a Surrealist section. p. 198.
- 12 James Gleeson, ‘What is Surrealism?’, Art in Australia, no. 81, 25 November 1940, pp. 27–30.
- 13 André Breton, ‘Originality and liberty’, Art in Australia, no. 4, 1 December 1941, pp. 11–17.
- 14 Richard Haese, Rebels and precursors: the revolutionary years of Australian art, 2nd edn, Penguin, Melbourne, p.105.
- 15 James Gleeson, interview with Lou Klepac, in James Gleeson: landscape out of nature, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 1987, p. 14.
- 16 Lou Klepac, James Gleeson: landscape out of nature, p. 12.
- 17 Renee Free, ‘James Gleeson: ideas from the shadows’, in James Gleeson: beyond the screen of sight, p. 56.
- 18 James Gleeson, Robert Klippel, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983, p. 119.
- 19 Haese, p. 90.
- 20 James, p. 119.
- 21 Sidney Nolan, ‘Painting and the stage’, lecture presented to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1988, quoted in TG Rosenthal, Sidney Nolan, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, p. 255.
- 22 Nolan’s Orphée is one of the earliest Australian paintings to incorporate collaged elements. The Agapitos/Wilson collection contains an earlier painting by Herbert McClintock (aka Max Ebert), Approximate portrait in a drawing room 1938, incorporating collage. Nolan himself used collage in the Kelly subject K & Sergeant Kennedy 1945. See James, p. 50.
- 23 Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, p. 32.
- 24 Philipp, p. 173.