Sometime in the mid-1980s is when it hit me… I’d walked into Tolarno Galleries in River Street, South Yarra, to view Albert Tucker’s latest exhibition, Faces I have Met. I was blown away, thrilled and overwhelmed with excitement because Tucker – Bert, as I respectfully call him – was always my favourite artist, and seeing his new direction, all portraits, of people I had also met, gifted me an important lesson in what art’s all about: not to be afraid to display deep personal emotions.
Luckily we know why Bert went on this new painting adventure. To quote him: ‘I was not only an accidental historian, but I succeeded in completing the thing that really worried me some years ago… when John and Sunday Reed died within a week or two of one another and Joy [Hester] had been dead for several years, Vassilieff was dead, he died while I was in Europe, and I thought … my god, they’re all going. Then I thought this knowledge that I’ve got of them, I’ve known them all my adult life, all these people, and they’re already dying off and my turn will come of course along with everyone else. And then I thought, this image, this knowledge I have of them, will go with me.
‘Whatever happened I had to paint it out. So I started off, and in one year I painted 80 portraits. I used a lot of old drawings, I used my memory. The camera, the photograph – there’s nothing like it for stimulating the memory, suddenly opening up the door inside your head which leads to other doors … and so I was able to get a lot of material from that.’
Tucker’s Self Portrait 1983 is frighteningly rigid and stern, full of strength and determination, an unshakeable force.
Bert had struggled through virtual starvation for almost 40 years, never wavering from his belief that art was a serious business. He never wasted his time on the occasional pot-boiler just for money, as did so many of his friends, like Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. No matter what, he was going to stick to his guns, die standing up believing in his passion.
It’s no coincidence that his portrait resembles one of his strongest motifs, The Antipodean Man: a chisel-faced half-human half-burnt-out tree trunk; a trunk that defied bush fires and everything thrown at it by nature, standing proud in a devastated landscape. Yes, that sounds like Bert to me: ‘Throw what you will at me, I won’t be shifted.’
Take a look at that beard: it’s spackled on and even through a magnifying glass you’d swear it’s a chunk of burnt ironbark. And the pattern on his quietly gaudy vest mimics the wings of a mob of black cockatoos in flight and definitely yellow-tailed ones at that. Parrots, to Bert, were a reminder that nature could be on one hand magnificently beautiful but on the other extremely brutal, like life itself: their plumage like a feathered rainbow, but their beaks, if tested, could torturously rip into your flesh. Yes, his portrait tells it all. It’s him and all he’s learnt.
Bert’s John Perceval 1976 gets right to the character of the man. I visited John many times during the last decade of his life and loved his Van Gogh-like ability to paint with such expression, but quickly learnt how sad and volatile, how completely manic he could be. There was a time when he was invited to a party with fellow artists at David Boyd’s house. Mentally flipped in a drunken rage, he pulled over a large cabinet containing volumes of Boyd family pottery, smashing the lot. Poor John spent many years in and out of psychiatric wards.
Standing in front of this brilliant work, it’s not possible to miss the disturbed, confused, yet schizophrenic gentleness of Perceval. There’s a quiet melancholy in his face: skin that hasn’t seen a lot of health-giving sunlight, full but lifeless lips and bulging, blood-pressure-vein-popping eyes carrying the knowledge of all his misdemeanors. Yet those eyes open a window to Perceval’s greatness.
John’s ability to use colour by swirling and twisting paint in such a free, expressionist manner, particularly in his vigorously vibrant tugboat, beach and bush paintings, went far beyond anyone but Vincent. Here, it’s almost as if Tucker had painted his portrait and said to Perceval: ‘Finish it mate; you do the eyes.’ The seascape blues and the brilliance of the surf-breaker white in these eyes are Perceval’s DNA… Bert, you’re a genius.
Bert’s portait of his great friend Danila Vassilieff, Vassilieff 1985, is the most mysterious and surprising of all his pieces. Vassilieff the outgoing Cossack lit up the art world in the late 30s through to the 50s, and was an enormous inspiration to Tucker and all the Angry Penguin painters: Nolan, Boyd, Perceval etc.
I somehow feel Tucker was disappointingly grieved that Vassilieff wasn’t able to stick it out as an artist. After all, he was Bert’s original hero. Out of money, he eventually turned to teaching art at Mildura High school and faded away into the distance, not living up to his presumed contract of going the full distance. So we see a man slouched back, tired, maybe in a wheelchair, with the painful gasp of his last breath of life distorting his chest as he hides in the shadows too afraid to face himself or the world. The only reminder of a previous life is the sunshine echoed in the small blue window at the back of his mournfully dark and depressing room. It’s such a moving portrait but it tells us more about Albert Tucker’s standards than it does about Vassilieff himself.
Bert set the bar unachievably high for all but the toughest. If art’s about revealing your deepest emotions, there’s no better example than this.
Nine of Albert Tucker’s portraits are now on show at the Benalla Art Gallery. We all
owe an enormous thank you to Barbara Tucker, a beautifully kind friend who’s always so willing to share Bert’s work with the world.
Don’t miss this exhibition. If ever there’s a must-see, this is it.
Until June 29 at the Benalla Art Gallery,
74 Bridge Street, Benalla,Victoria
Tel 03 5760 2619