Painting Forever: Tony Tuckson
Tuckson and Tradition

introduction | foreword | essay | checklist | learning | acknowledgements | selected works


Tony Tuckson No Title (Self portrait) c.1948 pencil on paper 51.3 x 38.4 cm (irreg) Collection: Michael Tuckson Tony Tuckson 'No title (Self portrait)' c.1948
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What is a painter basically? He’s a collector who wants to found a collection, doing the paintings himself that he likes by other people. That’s how I start, and then it turns into something else. Pablo Picasso (1934)1

If I find someone who can teach me something, I’m happy to benefit from it: in short, I don’t believe that an artist has ever ‘arrived’. When an artist develops, he evolves all the way to the end. We’re made up of a thousand things we must give up and we acquire even more than we leave behind. We have to reach the knowledge of the essential. Henri Matisse (1929)2

Tony Tuckson’s closest male friend among his fellow art students at the East Sydney Technical College in the late 1940s was Klaus Friedeberger who, shortly after he graduated from the school, decided to leave Australia to settle permanently in London.3 During the first year of separation the friends exchanged letters and postcards: Friedeberger sent Tuckson descriptions of exhibitions he saw in London, adding newspaper clippings and even the occasional exhibition catalogue, since in those days catalogues were slender, meagre things that didn’t incur high postal charges.

Tuckson kept all of the letters and added the clippings, the picture-postcards and the catalogues to his small archive of information about modern art. Of course, the early 1950s was a time when information was scarce in comparison to the glut of today, and Sydney seemed very remote indeed from the vital centres of modern art, so these modest gifts were prized for their rare, esoteric interest.

In 1950 Friedeberger sent Tuckson the catalogue of Ben Nicholson’s latest show at the Lefevre Gallery, annotating it with comments that shed a revealing light on attitudes the two friends shared. Friedeberger scorned the ‘absurd compromise’ of this erstwhile British abstract painter’s ‘return to NATURE’, and made pejorative comparisons between Ben Nicholson and Matisse and Mondrian.4 The implication, of course, was that art had only one way to go, which was forwards. Abstraction was the legitimate goal of contemporary artists, and turning away from it involved a loss of seriousness, a loss of intensity, a loss of authenticity. That was the implication of Friedeberger’s condemnation of Nicholson’s new works.

It is curious to note that neither Friedeberger nor Tuckson was an abstract painter at the time, although both had dabbled in abstraction while attending the courses held by Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson at the East Sydney Technical College.5  While they may already have been convinced that abstraction was the ultimate goal of contemporary painting, they believed that they had to prepare themselves for it in all diligence and humility, undergoing a thorough, rigorous apprenticeship to modern art – and, as a consequence, they would gain the right to paint in an ‘advanced’ way.

Tuckson’s output of paintings and drawings during the greater part of the 1950s reveals him to be spreading his roots, so to speak. He set out to acquire a personal artistic culture of sufficient breadth, richness and flexibility that would enable him to develop an idiom of his own, perfectly in tune with his disposition and talents, an idiom that was confident, open and free – not defensive, derivative and provincial (that is, not defined by the all too evident limitations of an artistic backwater, as 1950s Sydney would certainly have appeared to him).

Through a lucky accident, Tuckson found permanent employment the year after he left art school. He became a bureaucrat at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, yet – at the beginning of his tenure at least – he was an independent, highly opinionated individual in the Gallery and not of it. The Art Gallery of New South Wales’s cautious, erratic and generally negative engagement with modern art was difficult for the Gallery’s new director Hal Missingham to alter because of the undue influence exercised by trustees, the dearth of professional staff, the limited funds for acquisitions and the meagre extent of private benefaction, despite his (and Tony Tuckson’s) best efforts.6

During the 1950s the temporary exhibitions held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, French Painting Today (1953) andItalian Art of the 20th Century(1956), offered the public glimmers of the kind of painting and hearsay of the artistic issues that preoccupied Tuckson in his spare time while he worked in his studio in the far northern suburbs of Sydney, his head full of thoughts of Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Bonnard and Modigliani – later, of Dubuffet, Pollock, Motherwell, Twombly, and so on.7 In the 1950s none of these artists had ‘arrived’ in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – most of them never would.

As a consequence of this conspicuous lack, Tuckson had to ‘establish’ his exemplary artists, to make them physically present in the place he himself occupied, and to internalise the lessons he could extract from their works. He did this, not by copying reproductions of other artists’ works, but by making pastiches of their styles, assimilating their formal language, gaining knowledge of the dynamic principles of their work from within his own creative process.

Tuckson had two great advantages in his method of self-education. His exceptional talent had been immediately recognised by his teachers and fellow students at the East Sydney Technical College, and this bolstered his self-assurance, raised his sights, and provided a springboard for his daring in years to come.8 The other advantage was that Tuckson had come to Australia as an adult with some prior art school training in England, as well as a fair amount of first-hand experience of modern art, which he had seen in museums and exhibitions in London before he settled in Sydney in 1947.

Tuckson’s general conception of modern art seems to have been strikingly innocent compared to the sorts of views that prevail today. In his experience, modern art existed outside of institutions, ahead of the museums that would eventually coopt a small number of exemplary works to become part of tradition. In its authentic, living state, modern art was irremediably marginal – it was of no interest to the non-specialist public, it was heartily disliked by most art-world professionals, largely ignored by collectors, sometimes doubted and mistrusted even by its own creators.

Modern art had its centres (Paris, New York), but it was a universal culture sustained by thousands of independent artists who could be found scattered all over the world. Wherever they were, these artists approximated a recognisable type, seeking complete intellectual freedom and refusing to be bound by the limitations of their locality. In principle, modern artists were not beholden to the ‘consensual languages’ of their local cultural traditions, nor to the predilections of the local art market, nor to the policies of local museums or the rules of the local art academy.9 You could find examples of their type in Taos, New Mexico, and in St Ives, Cornwall; in San Francisco, Rome, Yokohama, Wellington, New Delhi and Bribie Island, where they stood out as somewhat marginalised figures, living in relative isolation, more or less estranged from their fellow citizens.

Being an artist made it alright to be a outsider, and this freed Tuckson from ever having recourse to any self-conscious politics of cultural identity – that is, from ever needing to define himself (and his art) as specifically Australian. Conversely, being an artist made it especially difficult for him to take the position of an insider (the Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, no less), a discomfort he expressed through sartorial codes, wearing a defiantly red tie with his charcoal suit or, after 1970, letting his hair and beard grow wild, or through temperamental outbursts when he felt one or another principle of his artistic conscience was contravened or insulted.

In the early 1950s it was self-evident to Tuckson that the influences of modern art had not reached Australia from abroad through institutional channels, by means of the official culture. They entered ‘through the grapevine’, in small-circulation magazines, in travellers’ tales and in trickles of information such as he received from Friedeberger, adding to a precious stock of personal experience which he, like all artists of that time, hoarded to defend himself against the encroaching dearth.

From his student days until 1962, Tuckson occasionally submitted paintings to the annual exhibitions of the New South Wales Society of Artists and the Contemporary Art Society. The Society of Artists was a middle-of-the-road organisation, but the CAS had been formed in 1938 in something like the spirit of a left-wing book club, with the objective of mitigating the isolation felt by Australian artists of modernist tendencies. The CAS held exhibitions, shared information, sought to educate the public, exerted pressure on the conservative trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and generally promoted the radical values of modern art.

The radicalism of modern art required little explanation in the 1950s: such a commitment to individualism, experimentation and cosmopolitanism flew in the face of the dowdy official culture of the British empire; it ran counter to Australian xenophobia and racism; it galled the spirit of smug, suburban normalcy that flourished during the Menzies era. Modern art was by definition progressive, and its adherents looked with admiration to the authentically progressive artists who had kept twentieth-century art in a state of perpetual transformation and self-renewal. The accredited saints and martyrs of modernism had evidently required huge resources of courage and perseverance, huge strength of character to maintain their positions ‘on the borderline’, seemingly beyond convention and without any assurance of success.

Friedeberger’s comments to Tuckson in 1950 indicate that both had already taken up the faith of modernism and resolved to live their lives in accordance with it. Yet, if we search for the earliest signs of Tuckson’s attraction to modern art, there is no evidence whatever of it in the watercolours or drawings he did in Darwin in the early 1940s, nor in the drawings that survive from his time as an art student at Hornsey and Kingston School of Art in the late 1930s (assuming that the art deco patterns in an early sketchbook are decorative ideas that have nothing to do with painting). It seems that the exhibitions Tuckson saw in London in 1945 provided a spark that was fanned by his sense of a new era dawning and of Australia as a land of opportunity hospitable to fresh ideas and infusions of youthful energy.

On leave from his airforce base in Cornwall, Tuckson had opportunities to see the Hugh Walpole collection at the Leicester Galleries in London (16 May – 9 June 1945), comprising 176 works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Klee and others, as well as the Matisse and Picasso exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in December 1945.10 He was familiar with the Tate Gallery collection – Bonnard’s painting The table 1925 seems to have had a special power to haunt him in later years; and Picasso’s Three dancers 1925 was given recurrent mention in his lecture notes. He went to Paris before the war with his sister Ruth and presumably would have looked at some art there. These first-hand encounters provided insights that served him well for many years to come. He did not leave Australia again until 1967, 20 years after his arrival, aside from a three-week trip to New Guinea in 1965.

In an exhibition held by the Society of Artists in Sydney in 1948, Tuckson sold his first painting, a still-life, for 25 guineas. The painting is rather stiff and naturalistic in treatment, and unpleasantly dour in colour. One of the objects it portrays is a Picasso monograph with the painting Girl before a mirror 1932 (in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) reproduced on the cover. The concentration of garish colours in Picasso’s image seems to incriminate Tuckson’s surrounding greys and browns, and the flamboyance of Picasso’s stylisation contradicts Tuckson’s plodding, dutiful naturalism – which has obviously resulted in a painting of lesser interest and impact than Picasso’s.11

Tuckson was disappointed to learn that his painting had not been sold to an enlightened connoisseur: the purchaser turned out to be his father-in-law, OD Bisset. Over time, the Bisset family would grow to regard the Picasso book in their still-life as a sort of Pandora’s box. The implications of its contents led Tony far away from the sort of art they were able to appreciate – and, in the long term, by indirect influence, it brought about sweeping changes to his mentality, his attitude to his in-laws, and his lifestyle.

Michael Tuckson remembers furious quarrels breaking out between his father and grandfather: on one occasion the latter goaded Tony with derogatory remarks about New Guineans, and Tony stormed out of a dinner at the Bisset’s home. OD Bisset was also outspokenly sceptical about abstract art, yet this never got a rise out of Tony, who explained to Michael that his grandfather’s unreceptiveness wasn’t worth bothering about.12

Yet there is abundant evidence that Tuckson was an energetic proselytiser for modern art, and for abstract painting especially. Almost invariably, he would begin his explanations with a homily: modern art was descended from Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and every important 20th-century painter had a demonstrable debt to one or more of them.13

The painters of Tuckson’s generation grew up in their thrall. Each of those artists had been a loner; none had undertaken a conventional art school education; each was gripped by a powerful, obsessive compulsion to paint; and they only achieved recognition late in life or posthumously. Each was a sort of ‘primitive’, and Tuckson credited them with having established the preconditions for Westerners to appreciate the artistic achievements of ‘tribal and so-called primitive peoples’, something he believed was of especial significance to Australians.14

In a typical passage from his lecture notes Tuckson characterised the artistic tradition he followed: ‘Cézanne is often quoted as saying I shall remain the primitive of the path I have opened up. Gauguin who painted his greatest pictures in the islands of the Pacific said there should be a frank return to the beginning, that is to say to primitive art. Van Gogh of all 19th-entury artists used colour in its finest state. He felt it expressed something in itself. These three artists have had tremendous influence on 20thcentury art – Cézanne, his colour and architectural construction in building his pictures – Gauguin, his colour, his simplifications and symbolism – Van Gogh, his emotional and symbolic use of pure colour ...’15

To all intents and purposes, Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh remained amateurs all their lives, and so did Tuckson. In a beautiful essay on Ian Fairweather, Simon Leys drew a striking analogy between the ‘amateur’ character of Fairweather’s painting and a tradition in Chinese art – omitting to mention, however, that Fairweather’s ascetic way of life was to a significant extent an emulation of the lives of Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh:

The theory of Chinese painting is based on a fundamental distinction between amateurs and professionals: only the art of amateurs is deemed to have true artistic value, as they alone are individual creators, whereas professionals are mere artisans who practise their craft on the same footing as carpenters, potters and other anonymous manual workers. No amount of skill and beauty can redeem the paintings of the professionals and make up for the spiritual deficiency that taints their origins. Technical virtuosity and seductiveness in a painting are considered vulgar, as they precisely suggest the slick fluency of a professional hand answering a client’s commission and betray a lack of inner compulsion on the part of the artist – for the professional works for an external reward whereas the amateur seeks self cultivation; to the professional, painting is only a trade; to the amateur, it is a spiritual discipline. Therefore, it was hardly a paradox if, for instance, a great painter of the Qing period could inscribe on one of his masterpieces the defiant calligraphic statement: ‘What I fear most is that my painting may look competent.’ A certain form of clumsiness was valued by the painters as it clearly established the non-professional character of their work and vouched for the purity of their inspiration.16

This certainly has tremendous relevance to Tuckson, whose ‘primitivism’ was a byword for his anti-academicism. His earlySelf portraitc.1948 is a brilliant pastiche of Cézanne’s style of drawing, strategically disarticulating the features of the face, transposing them into rhythmic relationships of line and cadences of hatching which simultaneously flatten and ‘model’ the form of the head. Tuckson has exaggerated Cézanne’s attack, his variations of emphasis and the different speeds of his marks. The image is ‘phrased’: lines, planes and patches of tone are given different visual weights according to their descriptive function and their dynamic role in the composition. The apparent disconnectedness of the marks serves to embed the image in the page, to unite the image with the surface and substance of the paper – a typically Cézannesque ploy.

In this drawing Tuckson has exaggerated and coarsened Cézanne’s graphic language – yet, as we have seen, he regarded Cézanne as a ‘primitive’. He understood primitivism to be a deliberate simplicity and coarseness in the handling of materials. Primitivism was synonymous with the primaryand theprimal: an authentically primitive work gave viewers an experience of optimum immediacy and intensity.

In 1895 the art critic Thadée Natanson visited an exhibition by Cézanne and was struck by ‘the intensity, the violence with which he knows how to be delicate and succulent’.17 This remark confounds us – it would probably never occur to anyone to say such a thing about Cézanne today. It is a striking fact, however, that Tuckson, even at this early stage of his career, sought to redeem Cézanne’s ‘attack’ from its academic fate.

Time does its work and assimilates the great modern painters of the past into a tradition, making their works accessible and popular. Success vindicates their efforts, but it may also occlude and mystify some of their most remarkable qualities. In the case of Cézanne, his chronic self-doubt acquired the appearance of certitude for posterity; his qualms about aesthetic sufficiency (when was a painting complete?) authorised a certain ‘look’ in modern painting; the beautiful unpredictability of his improvisations became, in the hands of others, a formula, a commonplace of ‘good painting’.

Acknowledging that time had run its course and academicised Cézanne, along with so many others among his modernist precursors, Tuckson took it upon himself to resurrect the paradox that Natanson had observed in Cézanne and to recreate modern primitivism afresh for his contemporaries.18 And so we are compelled to acknowledge that the tradition Tuckson followed was double-edged: it inspired, enabled and sustained him as a young artist, yet it impelled him ever onwards and outwards as a mature artist — ‘au fond de l’inconnu pour trouver du nouveau’ [‘to the depths of the Unknown, to find thenew’], in Baudelaire’s famous phrase.19

Although Tuckson’s paintings came to look less and less like Cézanne’s, they remained unswervingly loyal to Cézannian principles. In the nineteenth century Cézanne had devised a completely novel approach to composition, where the process of formulating the image remained more or less ‘transparent’. A viewer could grasp how the accumulation of coloured marks (Cézanne called them ‘rapports’) making up a picture was consequential, intuitive, improvised from scratch, and open to the unforeseen to an extraordinary degree.

Richard Shiff’s great book, Cézanne and The End of Impressionism (1986) gives an indispensable account of the influence that Cézanne cast over modern painting, an influence that is not always obvious – as, for example, in Tuckson’s case. Shiff stressed the importance that the concept of ‘l’enveloppe’ held for Cézanne: the term was commonly used by the Impressionists to refer to an effect of pervasive luminosity and atmosphere. For the Impressionists, however, and even more for Cézanne, it was an ambiguous concept. In a sense, l’enveloppe also extended into the ‘climate’ in a painting generated by the artist’s personality.20

The light in Cézanne’s painting is not as naturalistic as Monet’s, yet his canvases emanate a vivid, unitary energy all the same. The chief difference between the two artists is that there is a stronger intellectualism to Cézanne’s performance – because of the intricate, elaborate syntax he develops, gripping together the multitude of coloured brushmarks. The articulation of these images involves tremendous presence of mind, because ‘all is connexion, interchange, a ceaselessly shifting and reasserted balance of unbalanced forces’.21 As a consequence, the naturalistic illumination of the Impressionist ‘enveloppe’ altered into a somewhat different ‘field-effect’ where subjective expression and abstract synthesis were much more pronounced. The latter kind of ‘field-effect’ is fundamental to the way we look at Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Pollock and Tuckson: it is how the Cézanne school appraises its handiwork.

And it is where Tuckson’s disciplined freedom comes from – where he learnt how to endow the wild, erratic flailings of his abstract expressionist paintings with such nervy, stinging precision. While his paintings preserve a look of the utmost spontaneity, they are the result of a rigorous post-hoc appraisal of the overall effect. They undergo a sophisticated, critical assessment of whether or not the last skirmish with the canvas ‘works’. In actuality, the splurges of Tuckson’s ‘energy made visible’ are directed, measured, coordinated and evaluated with all the rigour and lucidity required of an adherent of the Cézanne school.

At a remarkably early stage in his career, Tuckson gained a mature, confident grasp of the vernacular of modern painting. While he sometimes inadvertently made works that resemble those of much better-known artists, there is no possibility that he could have been influenced by them. One case in point is a painting he did in his final year at art school, Musicians (No.1) 1949, which begs comparison with two paintings of jazz bands that Jean Dubuffet painted in 1944, which Tuckson could not possibly have seen.22

There is also a coincidental similarity between a gigantic drawing in charcoal on canvas by Matisse and some of Tuckson’s late abstract works. Yet Matisse’s Nymph and faun c.1935–43 only came into the public eye a decade after Tuckson’s death, and reproductions of it convey little or no intimation of its luminous beauty, the ferocious energy and tensile strength of the lines and the architectonic perfection of their interrelation, qualities that are only apparent at full scale, when the drawing is seen ‘in the flesh’.

How could one of Matisse’s masterpieces (which this drawing assuredly is) have lingered in obscurity for decades, coming to light so belatedly? 23 The answer may be sought in the Matisse experts’ (and perhaps his heirs’) belief in, or doubts about the work’s completeness. An artist usually draws in charcoal on canvas before beginning to paint – so is this a warm-up for a painting Matisse never followed through? On the other hand, if he was satisfied to leave the canvas in that state, are those few, stark lines sufficient to establish it as a fully-fledged work of art? And if we decide that it is to be seriously reckoned with, how slight or how substantial is the work?

Tony Tuckson Musicians (No.1) 1949 oil on canvas 71.0 x 90.2 cm Collection: Margaretl Tuckson
Tony Tuckson
'Musicians (No.1)' 1949 oil on canvas 71.0 x 90.2 cm Collection: Margaret Tuckson click to enlarge

These are typical questions that Matisse forced on the public throughout his productive life, questions that some of his less well-known, less sanctified works can still pose for viewers today. Faced with a provocatively flimsy, scruffy, raw visual proposition, we are thrown back on our wits, compelled to search for a sense of completeness, density and energy that Matisse was able to distil into highly reduced, abbreviated forms.

The thorny question of when and how to decide that a painting is finished was a conundrum Picasso and Matisse inherited from Cézanne. The generation of abstract expressionist painters in the 1950s and early 1960s continued to wrestle with it.24

Picasso and Matisse each gave a different spin to the question of finish, Picasso quite subversively and disturbingly. He said: ‘For me a picture is never an end in itself nor a terminus, but rather a lucky accident and an experiment’ (1926); and years later he added: ‘One doesn’t make a picture, one makes studies, one never ceases to approach it’ (1960).25

In other words, paintings were never finished; there was always something more, something different a painter could do to them.

Matisse on the other hand sought concentration, synthesis, wholeness, clarity, radiance and a certain air of inevitability in his paintings. Like Picasso, he claimed to reach his goal intuitively, working almost blindly: ‘In art the truth, the real begins when one no longer understands anything one does, and when there remains in you an energy that is all the stronger for being thwarted, compressed, condensed.’26 Yet this struggle ultimately led him, he believed, to a ‘knowledge of the essential’.27

It is a moot point whether Tuckson would have taken sides with Picasso or Matisse on this issue. My hunch is that he would have opted for Matisse, identifying his art with a quest for the ‘essential’.

Henry Matisse
'Nymph and faun' 1942 Collectios Mnami/Cci-Centre Georges Pompidou © Henry Matisse, 1942/Succession Matisse. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2000. Photo: Photothèque Pdes collections du Mnami/Cci

In the past, writers on Tuckson (including myself) have given more attention to his rapport with Picasso than his debt to Matisse, but now is the opportunity to redress the emphasis. In several of Tuckson’s paintings from the early 1950s, it is evident how, better than any other Australian painter of the time, he understood Matisse. He grasped that Matisse exploited the white primer in his paintings, varying the density of pigment in his scumbled colour so that the primer showed through, detonating an effect of great visual energy and luminosity.

There is no better account of this aspect of Matisse than the description written in 1966 by Clement Greenberg:

I see Matisse’s touchas the most constant factor of his style and quality. This may seem paradoxical, because he makes so little case of his touch in ways in which touch, in painting, is usually exploited. He never uses impasto, he never kneads or mauls his paint, he never makes it juicy … Colour is a matter of the eye’s choice, but Matisse’s touch goes a long way to carry out his choice. If his colour sings, it’s because his touch sings too. Very much depends on the exact pressure with which he puts brush to canvas and with which he moves it over the canvas. Very much depends on the fact that hesoaks his brush with paint rather than loads it. The primed surface is covered with a fluid, not a stuff, and makes itself felt as one with its covering. Matisse knows also how to exploit the seen priming, which he sometimes lets show between his brush strokes in order to breathe air and lightness into his colour.28

Tuckson’s intelligent appreciation of Matisse’s touch is evident in the exquisite pastiche he painted in the early 1950s, No title (Red table) c.1954, but the insight also feeds into, for example, No title (ROIE ) c.1964, where he wrings variety and energy from a single colour, decomposing the paint and exciting the translucent fluid in exactly the Matissean manner that Greenberg described. The fantastic vivacity and radiance of Tuckson’s double-panelled paintings from 1970–73 also owes a great deal, it seems to me, to his thorough assimilation of Matisse. (In addition, of course Tuckson would have been conscious of Matisse’s influence on Rothko, Newman, Motherwell and other American painters who interested him at the time.)

Jean Dubuffet
'Jazz' c.1935–43 © Jean Dubuffet, 1944/ADAGP Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2000

As we have seen, Tuckson was remarkable for the way he dealt with artistic influences on the level of principle rather than on the level of superficial appearance. Eventually, there was no overt resemblance between his works and those of Picasso, Matisse, et cetera, but he continued to seek to match his precursors in intensity, in quality, in brilliance.

Ultimately, there was no compulsion for his mature paintings and drawings to look like any precedent in ‘good art’, or even to look like art at all. Yet, paradoxically, his connection to tradition was all the more profound for this, because he was so powerfully focused on the lyricism of painting and drawing. Like Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne, his aspiration was to renew the lyricism of modern art in a uniquely personal, contemporary manner.

Tuckson inherited from the modernist tradition a disdain of the superficial, a desire to go beyond the outer appearance of things. We, the viewers of his paintings and drawings, are compelled to look ‘through’ the marks on the surface to their aggregate, to the energy and character of the painting or the drawing as a whole. I immediately think of Tuckson when I read these lines written in 1912 by a pioneer of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky:

The outer shell of the object, which is understood and fixed in the picture … and the simultaneous striking out of the usual obtrusive beauty, expose most surely the inner resonance of the thing. Especially through this shell and by this reducing of the ‘artistic’ to the minimum, the soul of the object stands out most strongly, since the outer palatable beauty can no longer divert.29

As an abstract painter and draughtsman with roots in Picasso and Matisse, Tuckson was interested in the qualities of radiance, energy, ‘presence’ and inner resonance. This aspect of his primitivism seems to have made him unusually receptive to the animistic beliefs (and to their related artistic expressions) of China, Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia. In fact, we need to turn to those cultures to find words and concepts for the vital forces that inform Tuckson’s art.

François Cheng has described an ‘expressionist’ current in classical Chinese landscape painting in terms of artists aiming to ‘capture the secret vibrations of objects steeped in the invisible “breaths” that animate the universe. What this kind of painting seeks to translate is reallya mental state, in so far as this is always the result of a long meditation.’30 The articulate energy that shapes someone’s or something’s character or expression is known by the Chinese as ch’i-yun sheng-tung – meaning ‘spirit resonance, life movement’ – and is this not the true subject of Tony Tuckson’s art? 31 Was his apprenticeship to tradition a means to an end, a way of learning to perceive and to deploy the vibrations of ch’i with ever greater sensitivity and accuracy?

Tony Tuckson
'No Title (Red table)' c.1954 oil on composition board 17.6 x 27.5 cm Private collection

Consistent with his predilections, Tuckson recognised the qualities of energy in Aboriginal art. In his published articles and lectures, he praised the vitality of pattern and rhythm, and the robustness of the artists’ ‘truth to materials’. Cross-hatching and dotting in bark paintings sets up a shimmering effect highly prized by Aboriginal artists, which they equate with beauty. This shimmer has a metaphysical significance for them: it indicates the animation of matter, the permeation of matter by spirit, the presence of the sacred.

Tuckson’s first important encounter with Aboriginal art occurred at an exhibition held at the David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, in 1949, and his interest grew apace over the next decade. Recently there has come to light a drawing from c.1954, one of a set of highly experimental studies for a painting entitled Cocktails for two. The drawing transposes the motif of a man, a woman and a bartender into a dazzling crossfire of diagonal hatchings in the manner of a north-eastern Arnhem Land bark painting.32 Aside from this drawing, it is very rare to encounter overt references to Aboriginal art in Tuckson’s work, despite the fact that we know he was steeped in a great passion for it.

From the late 1950s until the end of his life Tuckson worked as an unofficial curator of Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and he was the first person ever to assume this role in an Australian art gallery. He laid the foundations of the earliest public collection of Aboriginal art to be acquired for aesthetic rather than for ethnographic reasons. In the role of Aboriginal art expert, he had to take an opposing position to the anthropologists who, to put it crudely, generally argued for the radical dissimilarity of all things traditionally Aboriginal to all things traditionally European.

In refutation of them, Tuckson asserted that Aboriginal artists make their paintings with pleasure, imagination and intuition. They put their feelings into what they do. They exercise skill and ingenuity in their use of materials; they are considerate of the way their works are organised and elaborated and are sensitive to the resulting aesthetic effect. Bark paintings and other Aboriginal artefacts are not ethnographic curiosities, but genuine works of art. Furthermore, when non-Aboriginal people respond to bark paintings as art, they are prone to recognise ‘the underlying spirit of [the] imagery’ (in Tuckson’s very revealing phrase).33

Once we see Aboriginal works of art as inspirited, as Tuckson advocated that we should, we recognise that they are the unique creations of particular individuals. In addition, we intuit something important about the relationship between Aboriginal art and Aboriginal religious beliefs. And so, whatever Tuckson’s approach might have lacked in political correctness and intellectual rigour, there was (and is) a good deal to be said in favour of his open-heartedness.

Because his circumstances allowed him to be quite unselfconscious about his cultural identity, Tuckson’s art was also unusually open. In hindsight, this openness does not appear to us at all rootless and indeterminate, but quintessentially Australian. What strikes us today is how Tuckson situated himself at a crossroads of traditions. His art became, in effect, an arena of Australian multi-culturalism, bringing European, Aboriginal, Melanesian, Asian and American influences into rapport. The fantastic creative energy unleashed in their clash, magnified by Tuckson’s exceptional talent and his wide-ranging and sophisticated experience of modern art, made him a great artist of his time and also something of a prophet in his adopted country.

Terence Maloon


Tony Tuckson No Title (ROIE) c.1964 synthetic polymer paint and enamel on composition board 122.0 x 122.0 cm Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, D'Avergne Boxall Bequest
Tony Tuckson
No Title (ROIE)' c.1964 synthetic polymer paint and enamel on composition board 122.0 x 122.0 cm
Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, D’Avergne Boxall Bequest click to enlarge

1 Pablo Picasso, Propos sur l’art, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Androula Michael (eds), Paris: Gallimard, 1998, p.62.

2 Henri Matisse, Ecrits et propos sur l’art, Dominique Fourcade (ed.), Paris: Hermann, 1992, p.56, footnote 24.

3 Klaus Friedeberger is a quiet achiever, an excellent abstract painter who lives and works in Blackheath, London. I am grateful to him for discussing his friendship with Tuckson with me in March 1999, and respectfully dedicate this essay to him.

4 The catalogue is in the Tuckson archive at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

5 On Balson and Crowley’s classes in abstract painting at the East Sydney Technical College, see Daniel Thomas, Tony Tuckson, exhibition catalogue, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1976, p.9.

6 The director and trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales had adamantly refused to host the Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art organised by Sir Keith Murdoch’s Herald (Melbourne) and Daily Telegraph (Sydney) newspapers in 1939. The exhibition was shown instead at David Jones Sydney department store. Due to the dangers of transporting the exhibition back to Europe after the outbreak of war, the works were stored in the AGNSW’s basement until 1945. None of the paintings was exhibited during the ensuing six years, despite vigorous protests by local artists. The exhibition had included the first works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and other leading modernists ever to be shown in Sydney. Hal Missingham was appointed Director of the AGNSW in 1945. On the tyranny exercised by the trustees over the directorate during the post-war years, see Hal Missingham, They Kill You in the End, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973. Wallace Thornton recounted to me during a telephone interview in February 1989 that Missingham had nominated him as a trustee in 1971 as a parting gesture to the ‘demons of the Art Gallery Trust’.

7 There are also discernible influences in Tuckson’s early work of artists who are now not so well known, such as Marcel Gromaire, André Marchand, Alfred Manessier and Hans Hartung. Daniel Thomas gives a thorough run-down of the artists’ names Tuckson would have conjured with in Daniel Thomas, Tony Tuckson (1976), also reprinted in Daniel Thomas, Renée Free and Geoffrey Legge, Tony Tuckson, Roseville, NSW: Craftsman House, 1989.

8 Tuckson was awarded impossibly high grades at the East Sydney Technical College: 100 per cent in his first year, 90 in his second, 92 in his third. See Terence Maloon, Tony Tuckson – Themes and variations, exhibition catalogue, Melbourne: Heide Park and Art Gallery, 1989, p.12.

9 Christopher Butler has described some characteristically modernist art forms in terms of the artists’ ‘withdrawal from consensual languages’, an expression that sums up the avant-garde position very well. See Christopher Butler, Early Modernism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, p.4 passim.

10 The catalogues for both exhibitions are among his papers.

11 Alternatively, there is a brilliantly vivacious drawing interpreting the same Picasso motif, reproduced in Geoffrey Legge, Tony Tuckson — 100 small drawings, exhibition catalogue, Sydney: Watters Gallery, 1989, TD776.

12 In conversation with Michael Tuckson, October 1988.

13  It is no longer customary for artists and historians to discuss modern art in this way, yet Tuckson’s explanation had a strong tradition behind it: Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910 had focused on Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh (in addition to Manet and Seurat) and their influence on younger generations, and the inaugural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, curated by Alfred Barr, was Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh. In their theoretical writings, the pioneer abstract painters Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky described their experiments in abstraction as an extension of the freedoms won for painting by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

14 See J.A. Tuckson, ‘Aboriginal Art and the Western World’, in R M. Berndt (ed.), Australian Aboriginal Art, Sydney: Ure Smith, 1964, p.61.

15 Tony Tuckson, handwritten notes for the lecture ‘Facets of Modern Art’ [date unknown], Tuckson archive.

16 Simon Leys (the nom de plume of Pierre Ryckmans), ‘Fairweather’s Chinese Puzzle’, The Independent Monthly, September 1994, p.75. This is a shortened version of an essay by Pierre Ryckmans, ‘An Amateur Artist’, in Murray Bail, Fairweather, exhibition catalogue, Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1994.

17 ‘L’intensité, la violence avec laquelle il sait être délicat et savoureux’ – Thadée Natanson, ‘Paul Cézanne’ (1895), in Jean-Paul Bouillon, Nicole Dubreuil-Blondin et al. (eds), La Promenade du critique influent, Paris: Hazan, 1990, p.387.

18 In 1948 one of Tuckson’s teachers at the East Sydney Technical College, Douglas Dundas, went on record in praise of his star pupil: ‘Tuckson belongs in the Cézanne School. The outstanding features of his paintings are creative design and vibrant colour.’ – ‘Four Up and Coming Young Men in Australian Art’, Pix, Sydney, 4 December 1948, pp.14–15.

19 Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Voyage’, in Les Fleurs du Mal.

20 On the ‘enveloppe’, see Richard Shiff, Cézanne and The End of Impressionism, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 172, and Terence Maloon, ‘The Cézanne School’, in Tony Tuckson — Themes and variations (1989), pp. 13–15.

21 Jack Lindsay, Cézanne — His life and art, London: Evelyn, Adams and Mackay, 1969, p.170.

22 Dubuffet’s Jazz band 1944 is in the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in Paris, and Le grand jazz band 1944 is in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For a discussion of Tuckson’s Musicians No.1, see Terence Maloon, Tony Tuckson — Themes and variations (1989), pp. 15–17.

23 Matisse’s Nymph and faun was first reproduced in Pierre Schneider’s Matisse, published in 1984 (see footnote 29), and entered the collection of the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in Paris in the 1990s.

24 A debate about ‘finish’ took place among the abstract expressionists in 1950 – see Robert Goodnough (ed.), ‘Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35’, in Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt (eds), Modern Artists in America, New York: Wittenborn Schultz, 1951, pp.11–13. On the question of finish in Cézanne, see Felix Baumann, Evelyn Benesch et al., Cézanne Finished Unfinished, exhibition catalogue, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2000.

25 Pablo Picasso, Propos sur l’art, Bernadac and Gallimard (eds) (1998), p.22 and p.176.

26 Henri Matisse, ‘Jazz’ (1947), in Ecrits et propos sur l’art, Fourcade (ed.), (1992), p.238.

27 See ibid., footnote 2.

28 Clement Greenberg, ‘Matisse in 1966’, in The Collected Essays and Criticism (4 vols), John O’Brian (ed.), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993, vol.4, p.221.

29 Wassily Kandinsky, ‘On the Problem of Form’ (1912), trans. Kenneth Lindsay, in Herschel B. Chipp (ed.), Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, p.161. Pierre Schneider commented on the ‘abstract’ qualities in Matisse, and his remarks are as pertinent to Tuckson as they are to the foregoing quote from Kandinsky. ‘An image rather than a representation results from a work which reminds us that it is the product of action. It is therefore vital for the painter of human images to stress all those traces of human intervention that representation tried to minimize — the hand, the workmanship – and, even more crucially, to place each stage of his work under the sign of subjectivity: to activate the self ordinarily muzzled by objective consciousness. For the surface of our minds is engulfed, or has the illusion of being engulfed, in the objective world it reflects.’ – Pierre Schneider, Matisse, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984, p.227.

30 François Cheng, Vide et plein, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1991, p.19.

31 On Tuckson’s oriental affinities, see Terence Maloon, Tony Tuckson –Themes and variations (1989), p.20.

32 The series of studies is reproduced in Tony Tuckson, Cocktails for Two, exhibition catalogue, Sydney: Watters Gallery, 1999. The north-eastern Arnhem Land influenced motif is no.20 (TD 5443).

33 JA Tuckson, ‘Aboriginal Art and the Western World’ (1964), p.63.