As the First World War drew to its grinding, blood-soaked close, Australia was a divided country. The first conscription referendum had rent the populace in two, and prime minister William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes was pushing to hold another in the aftermath of the general strike of 1917.
That strike had run for a month between August and September, and over 100,000 men and women took part. It featured mass rallies in support of the workers on one side, and the mass employment of strikebreakers on the other.
The strikebreakers were largely drawn from the middle classes, and the marked difference in wealth between them and the striking workers they replaced soon led to a rise in socialist and communist sentiment among trade unions and unionists, many of whom did not get their jobs back post strike.
A worldwide phenomenon, the rise in political activism and awareness was matched and metered by a movement in contemporary art which came to be known as social realism.
Though its roots were in the paintings of the horrors of WWI by such artists as Paul Nash, the social realist movement blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s, as the after-effects of the Great Depression took their toll.
In the United States and Mexico painters including Grant Wood, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel and Edward Hopper recorded the lives of farmers, itinerant workers and labourers, while in the United Kingdom and Europe schools of social realism reacted against the ideals of ‘fine’ art as espoused by the Romantic and Classical schools.
The consequences of the Depression lingered long and hard in Australia, a country that had already endured a number of boom and bust periods up until 1921. In regional Australia, including Ballarat, the demarcation between the truly poor and those simply getting by was not great, and lasted well into the Second World War. But the representation of that hardship was rarely reflected in works owned to that point by the gallery, which tended to concentrate on idyllic and impressionistic scenes of bush life and portraits of the well-off.
Little surprise then that the decision by George Bell, the judge of the 1940 George Crouch Prize for contemporary art awarded annually by the gallery, to give it to Nutter Buzacott for a work entitled Scene at Doncaster, caused great controversy.
The story is told in a new and sumptuous book released by the Art Gallery of of Ballarat entitled Stories from the Collection.
A comprehensive 500-page survey of the works of the art gallery, it contains hundreds of images of significant works held in the collection as well as 22 essays covering everything from the establishment of the gallery through to the Lindsay family’s influence, prizes offered by the gallery, the rise of modernism and sculpture and ceramics.
It’s reasonable to infer The Courier columnist of the day was one of those not impressed by Mr Bell’s choice.
“The winning picture hurts my eyes,” ‘Art Lover’ wrote in these pages on March 28, 1940.
“To me the colouring seems cruel and harsh… the perspective is all out… The sky is the weirdest effect possible, and the whole thing is uncouth, unsatisfying and false. I shall be delighted to have [the merits of the picture] shown. So will hundreds of Ballarat art lovers who have looked with horror at it, wondering why it was not placed with the rejected pictures.”
It must be remembered that The Courier was at the time a very conservative newspaper, reflecting the views of a conservative town. So it is to the credit of the gallery board that its Suggested buying policy for the Ballarat Art Gallery written in the late 1940s advocated the purchasing of ‘representations of all “schools” of painting’, as current director Gordon Morrison points out in his essay on social realism in Stories from the Collection.
“The Herald art critic Basil Burdett commented that Ballarat had shown ‘commendable courage’ even for choosing George Bell as the judge,” writes Morrison in Conscience and Commitment: The Social Realists.
“A public gallery should lead public taste, not follow it. The popular choice is not always the right one,” says Burdett in Morison’s essay. That advice can be seen in the tenor of some of the works acquired by the gallery in the coming decades, including those by the Australian painter Noel Counihan (1913-1986), a fierce advocate for the downtrodden worker and an avowed Australian Communist Party member.
A member of art groups that openly argued for ‘democratic art combining beauty of treatment with a realistic statement of man in his contemporary environment’, Counihan won the Crouch Prize in 1955 with his painting On Parliament steps, which depicts an impoverished man approaching “a politician... almost certainly Bill Barry, a former trade union official and minister in the Cain Victorian Labor Government at the time of the 1955 split,” according to Gordon Morrison.
The distinction between the two men could not be more heightened: the sharp cheekbones of the gaunt petitioner contrast with the portly jowls of Bill Barry in his black homburg. The man on the left reaches out in what could be a handshake or a request; Barry responds with a dismissive wave, already leaning out of the picture. It’s a painting that symbolises in light and shade one of the bitterest periods of division in Australian political, religious and social life, most realistically.
Art Gallery of Ballarat: Stories from the Collection is available from the gallery shop and online. It retails for $95.