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James Gleeson (1915 – 2008)

“’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’ might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilization.” Proclaimed James Gleeson in his paper “The Necessity of Surrealism” read to the Contemporary Art Society in 1941.

James Gleeson, the “father of Australian surrealism” has died after a long life and creating many great works of art. He enriched culture in Australia in many ways and I hope that his life and art serves as an inspiration for many more artists and critics. The world, especially Australia, still needs Surrealism; civilization is still in a desperate condition with war, imperialism, racism and repression. The suicide rate in Australia is still high, but this is rarely interpreted as an indication of a defective society or civilization.

My first encounter with Gleeson’s art was at the NGV when as an adolescent I saw his early small painting – We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit (1940). When I saw the Surrealism: Revolution by Night exhibition in Canberra I encountered Gleeson’s large impressive The citadel (1945). However, these early paintings with their apocalyptic ideas did not have big impact on me. Gleeson appeared to be another Surrealist inspired by Dali’s paintings.

This changed when I saw Gleeson’s post 1984 paintings; it was my first experience of Stendhal syndrome. The turgid liminal land-and-seascapes of these paintings created vertiginous sensations with their ambiguous details and subtle references to the composition of European masters. These large oil paintings were full of images created using classic Surrealist techniques of collage, decalcomania, automatic drawing and ‘psychic automatism’. Gleeson is the one Surrealist painter who can paint as well, perhaps better, than Dali.

In remembering the art and life of James Gleeson it is important to remember that he was not just an artist but also an important art critic, writer, teacher and served on the council of the NGA from 1976. As a critic for the Sydney Sun (1949-74) and Sun-Herald (1962-74). He also wrote several books, Australian Painters (1964) and William Dobell (1964). Gleeson was not a partisan critic arguing for a certain type of art, instead Gleeson described his criticism as a guide, an explorer in a new land. In this respect I hope that he will influence my own writing about art.

Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born and Gleeson carried it forward beyond the Cold War politics that shot at it from both sides; beyond the internal bickering of the Parisian Surrealism; to an international movement and into the 21st century. Gleeson’s late career paintings were his best and a demonstration that Surrealism is not a dead historical movement but a contemporary muse.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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