James Gleeson, born 21/11/1915, died 20/10/2008.
Gleeson Australian surrealism
Gleeson died early last week. The hagiographies are already being written.
Gleeson is generally considered to be the sole Australian surrealist. And, if books on the history of art in Australia are to be accepted, then the absence of reference to any other surrealist artists within their pages means that he is the only "surrealist" that this country ever produced. He was the only artist of the imagination whose work was regularly reviewed by the mainstream Australian media and is Australia's only "successful" artist of the genre - that is, he could survive from the income generated from the sales of his paintings.
The obituary written on him in The Australian by Christopher Allen, 20/10/2008 reads
Though Gleeson wrote books on those artists accepted by the orthodox Australian arts intelligentsia, it should be noted that he never wrote (to my knowledge) any books about surrealists/surrealism in Australia, nor did what he write ever challenge the orthodox Australian art propaganda. In France, surrealist artist and author Rene Passeron wrote an encylopaedia of surrealism placing the movement into its proper historical context as a continuum of art of the marvellous which preceded official surrealism by hundreds of years. In Australia Gleeson who had both the means and ability to make a similar undertaking did nothing of the sort. By not writing on the subject and extolling instead orthodox artistic propaganda he helped in the marginalisation of artists of the imagination. Gleeson practiced his art as an hypocrite.
He is considered to be a unique and original contributor to surrealism in Australia, yet this was achieved solely because he never acknowledged the artists who influenced him. He is considered unique in the Australian art scene, because he supported the position of the orthodox australian arts intelligentsia, which meant that artists of the surreal were marginalised, and eventually abandoned either surrealism or the production of art altogether.
Gleeson's claim to greatness was a consequence of the impression made of his apparent "uniqueness", and that though other artists who took up surrealism in Australia soon abandoned it, he alone stuck it out till the end. He made sure that he never acknowledged the existence of other surrealists so he could remain the "father" of Australian surrealism.
Hughes wrote that Gleeson was "fundamentally, a painter of allegories and literary symbols" and that "irrational processes were not of prime importance to him; once you had the symbolic code, the painting could be deciphered at once." p. 144, The Art of Australia; and that Gleeson "only went through the motions" of surrealism's irrational processes (p. 412).
This criticism by Hughes is based on an explanation Gleeson proffered in 1945 for two of his works:
What Gleeson wrote on his works in 1945 was not outside the ambit of what surrealism is - one only has to think of Ernst's Europe after the Rain and The Eye of Silence, and even Dalí's explanation for his painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: A Premonition of Civil War. Hughes' understanding of surrealism though was obviously limited to an imprecise, partial and selective knowledge of Dalí, and points to his distaste for surrealism, more so than anything else. Hughes first condemns Gleeson for being a "pasticheur" of Dalí, and then condemns him for his divergence from Dalí when he can no longer criticise him for producing pastiches!
interest in the quoting of Hughes here however lies in Gleeson's
reaction to such criticism. Rather than defend his work, he merely
acquiesced to the criticism. He eventually came to claim his paintings
to be the product of purely random processes, in keeping with
surrealism as it was understood by critics such as Hughes, when in fact
his works were never anything of the sort. He was, it came to be
claimed, "fascinated by the world of the unconscious mind revealed by
Freud and Jung.", so that paintings of his with homoerotic overtones
were given Jungian interpretations (as is claimed in Renee Free's
biography on Gleeson).
That the criticism of Gleeson by Hughes was motivated by dishonesty is evident by his overlooking other influences on Gleeson; Dalí was never his sole model. Picasso was one obvious early influence. Gleeson's interest in Picasso as a surrealist is not an unreasonable one, after-all, Picasso was the artist Breton originally claimed to represent visual surrealism (surrealism began as a literary movement), and for a short while he formed associations with the surrealists, even producing a cover for the surrealist magazine Minotaur.
One of the curiosities about Gleeson's paintings is that he prefers to keep the sources of his ideas secret. In the book by Klepac, Gleeson cites artists such as Turner and Matta (p.16) as influences, on his style and subject thus establishing an orthodox pedigree for his images. This ascription is a fabrication. Perhaps this was to deny critics like Hughes ammunition? Alternately though, by keeping those who exerted influence on him a secret, Gleeson could lay claim to an originality without precedent. Gleeson did, as Hughes states, begin as a pasticheur of Dalí, but Dalí was not the sole artist whose ideas appear in his work without any attribution. Gleeson has plundered comic books, Picasso, Johfra and Giger. Of those only Picasso is considered "orthodox", hence the absence of reference to the others. Eventually his art diverged from these sources - producing paintings of the Australian landscape "surrealised". But this surrealised landscape which at first appeared 'without precedent' is obviously dependant upon a merger of Picasso and Giger first, before absorbing the oeuvre of others, like Johfra's, into his own visual repertoire.
Gleeson's own statements on his works are intended to give his art an impeccable pedigree. In Klepac's book he claims:
According to Free
The claim here is that Gleeson's inspiration is derived from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the Australian coast, rendered by an artist with an impeccable pedigree. However, the crustacean elements which are fused with the landscape which appear in his works are not, as is claimed, the elements that are found washed up on the Australian littoral, but elements of Giger's crustacean Alien monster fused into the Australian landscape. If anything can be said about Australian art, it is that it is embarrassingly unashamedly nationalistic. The landscape is the cause celebré of Australia's mindless nationalists and is used to define what it is to be "Australian". And though all artists cannot but be influenced by those who preceded them, Gleeson resolutely denies, by his silence, the existence of any influence by artists who might contradict his carefully crafted persona, and instead the source of his inspiration is ascribed to the Australian landscape. (Of course, Dalí made similar claims about the landforms of Cadeques which he claimed to be the inspiration for his surrealist forms.)
Gleeson, in Klepac's book claims:
And Klepac goes on to state:
Thus we have Free telling us that Gleeson's images are derived from a Jungian ether (wherein which must lie the "Collective Consciosness"), and Klepac telling us that he has the abilities of the medium to tap into this ether... Remarkably, and uncannily, the sources of his ideas which can be traced to works by artists who Gleeson refuses to acknowledge or mention, must have been transmitted by those artists into Jung's ether for our medium, Gleeson, to tap into and retrieve.
Demetrios Vakras 30/10/2008.
There are books on Australian Surrealism which do mention other practitioners. However these artists only produced a limited number of surreal works, and only for a short period of their productive life:
SURREALISM revolution by night (and its offshoot)