The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Death of an aviator 1942
oil on plywood 74.6 x 55.5 cm
© Barbara Tucker courtesy Barbara Tucker
2 May 1979 at his house in Hurstbridge
James Gleeson: Bert, now we come to paintings that you did in the early war years. Death of an aviator, I think, is 1942.
Albert Tucker: Yes. 1942 was a significant year because this was the year I was called up. I became a chocko for a while—until they decided I was no good to them, and threw me out. But I was there for a few harrowing months through 1942, which gave me a lot of insight into what was happening. We were bombarded with all the news media about everything going on with the war, so it was impossible to get away from war themes. Every now and then I would become very conscious of it. You would get this urge to try to get an image out of the things that you were being incessantly bombarded with. These came out of that.
With the Children of Athens ones I remember that I was appalled by a very graphic account of starvation in Athens; it really worried me at the time. You feel this terrific empathy with people. It was a graphic and well-written account of children starving in the streets of Athens. It really upset me. It produced this little series there, which I called Children of Athens. At the time I had started reading T.S. Eliot. My own cultural background had been so poor. I really only went to school when I left school. When I was 14 or 15 I discovered the public library in Melbourne and the Fine Arts room. They were a godsend to me. I would work all day in some awful job and go there every evening, with the marvellous, endless energy of the young. Wouldn’t I like to have all that back again! I would go full bore from first thing in the morning till late at night, year in and year out. Most of the time I would be doing a full-time job but every evening I would go to the public library and also to the Victorian Artists Society. This was a terrific foundation for me—reading at the Fine Arts room and drawing at the Victorian Artist’s Society. It wasn’t a class—there were no teachers—but a model was provided. I remember drawing three nights a week for seven years. My God, that was the thing. It is only by incessant and continuous drawing that you can become a draftsman. At the Fine Arts room I started to branch out when I saw its marvellous and enormous collection of books. I realised how futile it was to hope to ever get anywhere near reading all of them, but I would start this disorganised and spasmodic reading. I came upon T.S. Eliot. Instantly I recognised a twin soul—he was full of horror, outrage, despair and futility, and used all the images that went with it.
James Gleeson: He had a tremendous influence on everybody. He was one of the seminal figures.
Albert Tucker: Completely. He was dealing with the period after the First World War and all the disillusion and despair of the time. With his kind of sensibility, some of the imagery was superb, and it confirmed my own feelings. Also, in a roundabout way it became a source of my imagery because of the imagery that would involuntary come up while reading the poetry. So this one there I called The wasteland.
James Gleeson: That is No. 16?
Albert Tucker: Yes.
James Gleeson: That was in, if I remember correctly, the first contemporary arts—
Albert Tucker: Quite possibly.
James Gleeson: The very early ones—not perhaps the first, but one of the early ones. Was Death of an Aviator based on any particular incident?
Albert Tucker: No, this was again a generalised thing. Obviously, I had been thinking about surrealism a lot then, which you would recognise. A few of these images came out at that time.