John Brack in Melbourne

Two things that I have quickly noticed about the city of Melbourne is their love for AFL (Australian Football League) and their love for Melbourne artists. I passed thousands of supporters dressed in brown and yellow everything yesterday, so I’m glad I wasn’t wearing the colors of the opposing team. It’s not just guys that are fanatical about the sport, everyone seems to be. If I hang around Melbourne for much longer I might even go to a game to see what they’re all so excited about.

John Brack Collins St 5pmAfter reading a few reviews in local newspapers of the current John Brack exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, it makes me think that they love their artists as much as their athletes. I can’t remember the exact words of one glowing review in a major newspaper but it called it a perfect exhibition and urged anyone with an Australian bone in their body to rush down and experience this art utopia.

I wouldn’t dare tell this to a Melbournite, but I wasn’t that impressed with the John Brack exhibition. Although he does have a few iconic pictures that depict a particular time and place in Australia like Collins St, 5p.m. from 1955 (pictured), The Car from 1955, and The Bar from 1954.

After the 1950s I started to lose concentration. It was like he was trying to be something that he wasn’t, trying to be new like a lot of art being produced in America around the same time. I became a little more interested in the 1980s when he was painting pencils, but I eventually returned to the 1950s rooms to leave the exhibition on a high note.

John Brack the Battle Pencils
The Battle – 1983 – John Brack uses pencils to depict French and British soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo

I was much more impressed by a room of Fred Williams paintings in the free section of the gallery. Here’s some work by Fred Williams online. Fred Williams is also from this area, so I probably wouldn’t be hung for admitting that I like him more.

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. Are those Prussian pencils attacking from the upper flank?

    Gotta agree with you, I like the other artist you liked much better. Experimented, and like a couple very much. tiny though they are. I guess they just like the Brack fellow because of the yellow and brown people. Better not make a Oakland Raider fan painting of silver and black, those are some scary idiots. Make KISS look tame.

  2. I think the blue pencils were the French and the red pencils the British. Im not much of a war history buff though, so I can’t even tell you much about the battle. The only reason I know anything at all about history is because of art. While learning about art you just automatically pick up a little history.

  3. Fred Williams was in fact a good friend of Brack. They studied together in London in the 50s, I think.

    That’s probably where Brack picked up his fatal Bernard Buffet affectation (a common 50′s ailment, for those loitering near or on ‘the continent’, now all but forgotten).

    They were both intensely establishment figures in the Melbourne art world of the 60s. Brack, head of the National Gallery Art School of Victoria (an appendage, as you might suppose, to the state’s ‘national’ gallery – a title inherited from pre-federation days, when each colony presented itself as a ‘nation’.) Williams a dogged proponent of landscape, in an era largely given to hard-edge abstraction on a vast scale.

    According to his dealer from that time, Brack didn’t sell a painting for about 15 years! – only well into retirement, when he turned to the obsessive, not to say tedious, allegories of pencils and cutlery, etc, did Brack enjoy a renewed market interest.

    You’re right it’s the emblematic Melbourne subjects of the 50s, for which he is best known. Although some of his later portraits and dancers have striking design to them, Brack never quite knew what to do with his Buffet-inspired line and brittle stylisation – the colour or fill flattened out in the 60s (most timely) but beyond that things just got tighter and tighter, squeezing the life out of everything until we’re left with the remote and arid models with pencils etc.

    Bracks was never really a populist though, his view of the masses in Collins Street or at Young & Jacksons were always a little cold and condescending. He liked his Melbournians in strict outline if not caricature. Formal, when not formalist. You certainly wouldn’t catch him painting (much less going to) the footy.

    As a Hawks supporter and Victorian (although not a Melbournian) I have about as much respect for him as I have for Lucien Freud or Alice Neel.

  4. Cap, there’s a portrait of Fred Williams at the John Brack exhibition. I havent flicked through the Fred Williams book in a while but Im pretty sure Williams painted Brack too.

    Also, most people look at me funny when I say that I love Bernard Buffet. Not all of him, as he has painted some very bad paintings, but the best of Buffet is really worth looking at.

    I think the thousands of people that I passed on the street were Hawks supporters too (brown and yellow?). I did plan to watch a game but I left Melbourne earlier than I expected. I have never watched a game of AFL in my life, I just wanted to go and see what kind of atmosphere was created.


  5. Dion, – I didn’t go to the Brack show, as I’d seen a comprehensive retrospective at the NGV some years ago. But yes! Williams and Brack painted portraits of eachother!

    Buffet’s reputation has recovered somewhat in recent years, partly because of the interest in the intense mannerism adopted by the likes of John Currin and Yuskavage. The AiA critic Brooks Adams registered the swing sometime around the start of the century, and post-war Miserablism, such as early Buffet and Gruber, has been a big beneficiary.

    I saw a French documentary once about BB – suffered a lot from enormous success very early in his career, subsequent indulgence or excess and then inevitably, abrupt neglect that sadly led to his suicide. He was never going to be destitute, but you got the feeling he was having trouble knowing quite what he was doing.

    There was a big show in one of the German city surveys, (Cologne? Berlin?) around the turn of the century where those enormous paintings of lobsters and so on looked absolutely in step with contemporary developments. Unfortunately BB didn’t live to see his star re-ascend.

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