Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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In the early sixties, there was a very famous exhibition that occurred at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, that put Australian artists, at the time, on the map, and some of our biggest names were exhibited there. Could you tell me about that exhibition and how you came to be included in it?

Well, it was curated by Brian Robertson, who was the curator, or the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and he came out to Australia to ... to collect paintings for it. And ... and in those days the passage between England and Australia was made by boat. It was before the planes took over. And I think our director of the gallery here, Laurie Thomas, must have mentioned a few studios to visit and ... and certainly I was included in that. And I recall his visit to me with ... with great pleasure, because he was very responsive to the work and in fact, he said, 'This is what I've come to see in Australia', and he was looking at some of the social realism paintings that I'd done in the eastern gold fields. And also it must have been the beginning of the Melted Image paintings. And yes, there were ... and he chose several for the exhibition. But by the time he got to the eastern states and saw that the big weight of artists was in ... in that part of Australia, he wrote back and said, 'I'm very sorry, but I couldn't include more than two of yours, because there's so many coming forward', but ... but we continued to correspond for quite a long time. Or if I was in London, I'd always ring him up. And yes, it was really quite a watershed exhibition. But I wasn't able to go over to London. I was living in Perth at the time, working out from Perth, around, and the children were at the height of their educational demands, and so, although a great many of the artists went over for the exhibition and set up other exhibitions at that time, and ongoing, I didn't.

You were busy being a mother.

Well, that was always perhaps the first priority. Through all this we have emphasised the art, but through it there is the ... a woman's first priority, which is the children.

Who were the artists that really made their name in England through that exhibition?

I think Nolan was already known. Drysdale and Blackman. I remember Blackman went over with his wife. And I have the catalogue, but I can't recall them all.

Albert Tucker. Really ...

Yes, Albert Tucker was in it.

... a catalogue of all the people who were subsequently quite famous.


You say that at the time you were very busy with your private life. Was ... how were you managing as a single mother by this stage? How were you managing financially? Had you inherited enough money to be able to live on?

No, I hadn't inherited any money. The ... the ... our father died very soon after the disposal of the properties, and the ... the ... it was a time of very heavy tax, and the whatever it was ... the sale was heavily taxed, both in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory. And ... and our dad's entire will, in his wisdom, went to mother, so there wasn't any inheritance there. So it was always a matter of healthy hard work and planning exhibitions, and ... and moving from one activity to another. I suppose it ... it was the stimulus in a way, the very fact that I had to work, and had to sell.

And so what did you live off? You lived off your paintings?

Off my paintings, yes I did. I worked intensively. And sometimes I'd have perhaps two or three exhibitions. And the little side studio that I think I showed you, that ... that was more or less open. People would ring a lot and come down and ... and buy from the studio. Then I'd have an exhibition a year at one of ... somewhere. There weren't many galleries in Perth at the time at all. Very different today - there are dozens of galleries. But at the time I think the only private gallery was Newspaper House, where I showed the Cord To Altcheringa, that I referred to a minute ago. And that was when I had this huge mass of paintings. There were a hundred paintings or so that I'd done in Broome, in the late forties, and there wasn't any gallery in Perth to show at. And at the time old Mr. Battye, I was talking to him, or Mary talked to him, because Mary always had fair influence in Perth, and they cleared out the bottom section of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which had a big range of classical or plaster of Paris images from Greece in it. And they moved those out, and in came the hideous Elizabeth Durack paintings. And that's where it was held for a month or so.

Did the need to make a living out of your work affect the type of work you did?

Well, it was very easy to see what was popular, yes. An interesting feature of that was that at that time, also moved by the fact that certain works were very popular, I devised a method of ... of making an artist's type of reproduction. I don't think any other artist has used it. It was an idea I got from my architect brother. There is an architect way of getting a plan. They don't use it nowadays. It was called dyeline. And it gave a faint line of a drawing that literally did dye. Well, I used to get these done of some of the popular ones, particularly drawings of ... of Aboriginal children and so forth, which people very ... loved. They loved the Aboriginal people. The work was popular at that level. And then sketchy ... sketchy ones of Aboriginals and children. And I'd get this ... each one was done separately, and I'd get it, and then I'd outline the line in ... in a stronger ... in a lasting medium, like pencil, over the line, and then I'd paint them. So there are several of that ... they're facsimiles, but never is one exactly the same. And these mainly are the ones that are coming back into the sale rooms of the ... of the auctioneers. Of course, at the time I was selling them for two or three guineas each and they have ... they have greatly increased in value.

But it was the ...

I was doing it because two guineas meant a lot to me. Yes. And if a thing was very popular, I would say, 'Perhaps I can get you one like it'. Another interesting feature of the time: I would then sometimes write on it 'reproduced', 'reproduction', or I'd even sometimes call them a print, because the second the word 'print' was used, the people had more confidence in them. It's a complete reversal now. If ... people ... people perhaps had never seen any paintings other than in prints ... good paintings other than in prints. That's ... that's not quite accurate, because there was the Perth Society of Artists doing lovely water colours and having their regular exhibitions. I'm simplifying it a bit. But there weren't ... if anything was in reproduction people had total trust in it. They would buy a print more readily than they'd buy an original. I could hang ... my ... my most popular drawing, which is The Kid, hung in three exhibitions unsold. I then did it in this dyeline, and it sold immediately. I remember I gave the original ... The original of that painting is at Mandeville Hall. I gave it to the nuns there because they were looking after Perpetua while I was working in the north.

Now with this ... with the Melted Image paintings, and then later the more abstract type sort of paintings that you were developing, were they as popular as your realistic paintings?

In a limited way they were because I dared to put a little higher price on them, too, you see. Works that were selling under ten guineas ... there are whole exhibitions of mine there in my catalogues where there's nothing over twenty ... twenty guineas. And I think the terrible ...

Was there a difference at all between the work that you deliberately did because you knew the public liked it, and the work you were doing for your own development as an artist?

Was there a difference between the two?


Yes, perhaps the ... the active area of one's total creative urge was somewhat separate, yes, yes. If I had have been independent I probably would never have produced dyelines or reproductions that I knew were popular. And again, it was always a black mark against an artist to be popular, or is, for some vague reason.

Now the work that you were doing, that you were exploring different ideas with, did you always exhibit that?

No, not always. Not always. There's quite a lot of work I've never exhibited.

Why not?

Oh, just sort of private work, you know, or ideas working themselves out, or not enough developed to have taken off and things like that. Yes.

By the mid-sixties you'd started travelling. How did that come about?

Well, by that time the children were on ... more or less they'd finished their education. They both went through university here. My son was starting to branch out, getting ... getting jobs. My daughter went to Africa on a special arrangement for ... for the old Rhodesia collecting teachers from here, so she was teaching in Africa by 1965. And I'd ... I'd ... Frank Clancy died, and I was socially free, perhaps for a very long time, and ... and I was able to get away then, yes. [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]

By the mid-sixties, you'd started to travel. How did that come about?

Well, by the mid-sixties, the children were through their main education. They both went through the university here. Michael got a degree in engineering, and my daughter in education and arts and she went to ... went to Rhodesia - what was then Rhodesia, present day Zimbabwe - to the university there. They sent over one of their professors, trying to collect teachers, because actually it was at the time when the English teachers, seeing the writing on the wall, were leaving Rhodesia in droves and they were getting short of teachers. So it was a pretty big experience for my daughter to go over there. And I then started having more social freedom than ... than I'd had previously. I was a widow by that time. And the first leg of that journey was to see my daughter in Africa, and that was ... no, not my first ... that wasn't my first visit to Africa, because it's such a huge place. My ... my sister and I had been in North Africa, in Algeria, in the 1930s, briefly. So it was my second visit to Africa, and then I went through there up to Cairo and ... and that was the beginning of a big period of travel.

And you went a lot to islands around the Pacific as well, didn't you?

I did, yes.

Now that was partly sponsored work that you were doing, doing that, wasn't it? Could you explain that whole period and that period of work where you got sponsorship?

My Seeing Through books?


Yes. The first of those was one that occurred through a link with the Australian Government, Mr Barnes. Mr Seth Barnes was Minister for Territories at the time and we met in some way through ... in Canberra and I said, 'I'd love to go to Papua New Guinea'. And then it was worked out through his department that they didn't think that the women ... though the men were coming forward towards the oncoming independence, the women ... women were not getting the same amount of attention. He said, 'Do something on the women of Papua New Guinea', and so that's how that ... that came about. I went up to Papua New Guinea, and moved right through, drawing the women and that took the shape of a book called The Women of Papua New Guinea, I think. Face Value. Face Value. It's a word I often use because I've got a huge assemblage of drawings of Aboriginals that I call Face Value, that itself would make a book. And then on to that I wrote the experiences of travelling through this country which was a marvellous adventure. And that ... that came out in a book called Seeing Through Papua New Guinea, published by Hawthorn Press in Melbourne. So that was the beginning of that. Then ... then the second one was Seeing Through the Philippines, that I went to, yes. There was a lead up to that. The lead up to that was that my friend - I might have mentioned her before, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, the writer - she ... we met in London. Yes, we met in London, in the same year that I'd been to Africa. And she said, 'There's a big PEN conference on in New York. Could you come over?' And I thought, no I couldn't either ... I couldn't dare go to New York and I couldn't afford to go to New York. And she said, 'But a special fee ... a special passage across the Atlantic', and ... and all the rest of it. And she persuaded me to go with her and of course, when I ... so I went to the PEN conference in New York, which was an absolutely mind blowing experience, meeting all the great authors. And ... and it ... and living in the ... it was summertime ... living in the residential areas of universities ... of the University of New York, I think we lived. And then I thought I'd like to stay longer than the conference. And then somebody said, 'Well, put in for a fellowship'. We were meeting people. Like all these conferences, we were ... it was a lovely party. You know, we had special receptions at ... at the Museum of Modern Art and went out to Long Island to some of the wonderful luxurious homes there, and all sorts of wonderful adventures. Then I thought, oh, that's hopeless, because I've put in for things in Australia and they never ... come come off. But somehow the Ford Foundation, who'd partly sponsored the PEN event in New York, they ... they ... I found myself at any rate filling in forms, and to my amazement, they ... then they said ... the person that was in charge of the Ford Foundation said, 'Well what area are you interested in?' And I said, 'Oh, ethnology, anthropology, indigenous people'. 'Oh righto, well put down Red Indians'. So before I knew where I was, I'd got this fellowship from the Ford Foundation, and I was being bounced from bosom to bosom through a wonderful range of states in the United States, from the heads of departments of the ... of the ... it was called the Indian Affairs. It was Indian Affairs, right through. And of course, it was summary, and of course it was ... but it gave me a marvellous insight into it, right from the Algonquins to the Pueblo Indians. And they had it arranged in the typical way of the largesse of the United States, that when you were part of this organisation, you'd be met, and looked after when you got to the place, you see. And you were a guest often of ... in someone's house and so that was just wonderful. I would have liked to have extended it, naturally. It was wonderful. I got as far as ... as ... but then I ... I got as far as Honolulu, which was also wonderful, from all the areas that I was interested in. And I thought I'd like to ... like to stay longer. But I couldn't. And they were seeing that the visa was that long, you see. You couldn't do anything. At any rate, before I knew where I was, all too soon, I was back in Australia. And then I remember coming back here, and the house was ... I was all on my own. And I remember thinking, what on earth am I doing here, in this dead end of the world, having literally, sort of seen all these marvellous sites and scenes and ... and being totally infatuated with the culture of the United States. I couldn't help but be. I'd seen the absolute lovely golden edge of it, and participated in it in a small way. And another thing that struck me, for somehow, after all the negation of Australia and all the effort of Australia, you ... I seem to be more accepted on an even keel with men or women to whom I spoke. Although I do remember the women, we went to some big lunch party and there were women there and they were nodding their heads, very ... you know, women that had gone - as far as I could see - already through the glass ceiling. And they would say, 'It's a man's world'. And I thought oh my goodness, if you only knew what a man's world is. You don't know anything my dear girls. But all those sort of influences were around, and I thought well, what's the nearest thing that I could ever get to that's the United States? And I thought the Philippines because they've had ... they've been there for all that time. And so ... but how can I get there? And as it turned out, I had some original drawings of Dobell's and I sold those through Rose Skinner, who had a gallery here. And she sold them for me. And I got enough money together to go to the Philippines, which again was a wonderful eye-opening experience. Travelled widely through there, with some very valuable links with Helena Benitez, who was one of the main ... if not she owned ... probably owned the ... the university of ... the women's university in central Manila, where I stayed as a resident, and saw through the islands, and went travelling with her, too. That was all wonderful, but of course, for ... for all that the Philippines is not the United States. You're starting to get into the bog of Asia. In ... But it ... it was wonderful and stimulating. And then following on that, I wrote the book, Seeing Through the Philippines, and that too was published by Hawthorn Press. Then the third one ... what did I do for the third one? Seeing Through Indonesia. Don't know how I got there. Don't know how I funded myself there but I did somehow. And then I went on travelling. But through this somewhere, there's been my time that I did the work for ... for CRA.

And what was the work you did for CRA?

It's a very crowded time, those sixties, because I'd had an exhibition in Melbourne, and ... at the old Athenaeum in Collins Street and Sir Morris Mawby came to the exhibition and he bought a painting and was nicely interested in the work. And then I followed it up in some way: called at his office, and we started talking. And to make a long story short, he said, 'Would you consider going to Bougainville Island and doing some drawings for us?' And I said, 'Just give me half a chance'. And the next thing I knew, I was relegated into the travel department of the great company of ... of CRA and they had all my tickets drafted and everything, and off I went to ... to Bougainville Island and did a very big body of work, which has now all been carefully documented and put together by ... by Marlene Stafford, who has ... She's the curator of the collection - the Hamersley Iron-CRA collection.

And what were you drawing there in Bougainville?

Drawing everything I saw. Drawing the excitement of the country, the scenery, the greatest contrast Australia you could never find. From flat and dry, here was mountains and vegetation that you could see growing in front of your eyes. On the ... high on the mountain, where the mine was at Panguna, the sun only shone for a few hours of the day, and rain came down every afternoon. And between about nine o'clock and eleven o'clock, you could watch a plant putting up a leaf. You could literally watch it grow, before ... before the rain came down. And so the growth was immense. And there were trees that were like a vast garden in themselves, with different ferns, and orchids dangling and ... and vines hanging. You know, one big tree would be the parent for an enormous amount of auxiliary growth. It was terribly thrilling, the ... the ... the jungle, the jungle of Bougainville Island.

And was there then, in the sixties, any indication of the environmental destruction that the mine was causing?

Yes, yes, they were being worried about it. Because the island ... the mine was on top of the island and on this ridge some rivers flowed down to the east, and some flowed to the west. And there was one river, or big stream, into which they were pouring the tailings from the mine. And that was ... it was not really adequate to accept it. And so the tailings were going down at the mouth of the stream, they were accumulating and setting up a big mud bath. And into this ... the ... they were already worried about it. The mining people were worried about it, and they were calling in engineering advice. And this was where my brother, David, who is an engineer, he put in an idea for how you could widen the stream or direct it in some way. And we were talking about it. We happened to be ... we didn't actually meet on the island, but we'd been there at recent times. And he said 'Oh, Elizabeth, if anything was an argument for the environmentalists, it's ... it's Bougainville Island. You've no idea, to go over the mouth of the river' - I can't remember its name - 'and see in the mud the crocodiles floating with their bellies exposed, dead'. Great creatures that had probably lived for centuries, could have lived for two or three hundred years in the area. The ... the desecration was incredible. I think, whether or not they did get in an alternative method of dealing with the tailings, I don't know, because there've been all the enormous ructions there ever since. Or lately, over the last decade or so. But then, although it ... from my point of view, too, it was terribly exciting, seeing a mine developing, and seeing people coming and going, and seeing all the indigenous people and the women coming in with their vegetables to the mine itself, and selling. And so all that came through in the drawings, you see. But then when I did some of the ... without my using the words 'ecological destruction' it came through in some big panels that I did where I did paintings on paper of the streaming jungles. Then I got big ... big boards of masonite, six by three - it's a favourite size - six by three, and I painted copper on top of the board and then I tore up the jungle painting, and ... and loosely patterned it on top with the copper showing through. It was ... I hadn't thought it through, but then these works were shown in the ... actually to the board room of CRA in Melbourne. And they acquired quite a lot of them. But where ... where my jungle ones, whether they were too contentious or not, the jungle panels have disappeared off the face of the earth, which is a bit sad, because I'd love to see them again. You know, I went mad about doing the jungle panels, you know. But ... So ... that ... that was what happened over the Bougainville Island work.

How did you feel doing works that were implicitly critical of the piper who was paying for the tune, as it were?

Ah yes. Well, I suppose in fairness to the mining company, the usual justification of the wealth that it was going to bring towards an emerging nation, was a ... was a fair justification. You see, it is the richest mine in the whole area. They wanted to be fair to the natives. They went to endless trouble to make arrangements with them. So it is an ongoing world argument: development or the ... God's garden. And we haven't solved it. In fact, you know, we're losing out, aren't we, with the destruction of the huge forest areas.

The idea of destruction and disintegration was there in what was a next phase of work for you, during this time, which was the work relating to what you called 'the rim of the disintegrating world'.

Yes, yes.

Could you talk about that series and that phase of your work.

Yes, I could I think, because I think all this marvellous exposure to the outside world, after the confinement of ... of this state, we'll say, although I did move over the state, travelled around. But it's enormously confined, and suddenly the world was open to me. I think it ... it had ... had a sort of a ... I was feeling ... in fact it's a curious thing. It was that politician in England that used the 'winds of change'. But I was calling paintings The Winds of Change before he used it. Which one referred to the winds of change sweeping Africa?

I think it might have been Macmillan.

Mm, I think, one of those. And I could feel change coming and I could feel the fragility of the environment that I'd been dealing with and somewhere through this, I was back, as ever, at Warburton Range I think I was. Often been to Warburton Range from the time it was a mission to when ... it's now an Aboriginal community. And I was ... I sort of got ... I think I travelled by plane at that time. I wasn't motoring. And I think as the plane took off, I was looking at an old Aboriginal woman bending one of the little desert trees over, which is what they often do and then they throw a bit ... a bit of canvas or something against that, you know. It's a sort of ancient way of making an Aboriginal house. And as she was doing it, a whirlwind came and blew it away and it was then that I thought of that line. I don't know whether it's a quote or not, but the line came into my head, 'the rim ... the rim of our brittle and disintegrating world.' Everything started levitating and that came into the paintings. And another big set of paintings that were certainly crucial at this time to that 'disintegrating' work was the political crisis that we had here, with the ... with Gough Whitlam, in November 1970. And I think again, Australia ... all Australians sort of felt that, either negatively or affirmatively, there was a big national reaction to it.

In November 1975.

Yes, 1975. You'd remember that, would you? And I did ... I was sort of somewhat ambivalent but I ... I ... I did think his stand was too, too - I don't know what. I didn't see a future for it. I didn't know what had happened. No one did. And I did, quite quickly, a big set of paintings called Flightless Birds Achieve Lift-Off. I could show it to you. And then that went into this ... this world. And it's sort of like emus and thinking they're taking off. But it's all disintegration again, and that went through to all the work of the later seventies and into the eighties, when it went even further. Because I then got into further pushing that concept of disintegration into another big continuum of paintings, called The Rim and Beyond. The Rim and Beyond. And it was getting further and further into ... Parallel with this I was keeping the wolf from the door by doing quite simple graphic landscapes. In some ways they were a relief from the sort of rather passionate images that were flowing through my mind. And I recalled them, and used the title for another big set of paintings called Bett-Bett's Wonderful Lonely Palace and that derives from a line going right back to the first, one of the very first that were ever read to me, which was Aeneas Gunn's The Little Black Princess. And Aeneas Gunn ends somewhere that she'd been looking after the little girl that is the feature of the book and then she said, 'And I watched Bet-Bet walk off into her wonderful lonely palace'. She was going ... leaving the place where she'd been with the white woman. And somehow, as a little girl, I was only five at the time ... it must have been an early edition and one of the nuns read that to us little children. And somehow I identified as Bet-Bet and so I called this big serious ... series of paintings ... they were not paintings, they were pastels, Bet-Bet's Wonderful Lonely Palace. And it would be a drift of ... of figures against a Kimberley landscape. Very serene paintings, very gentle paintings and very popular paintings. So while all these crazy ideas were going on in my head, I was perhaps even stabilising myself with the more gentle landscapes because I liked doing them, and they were a relief somehow, you know. I'm not mad, but you could go mad in this world, you know what I mean? What with all the pressures that we're under, and all the ... all the contrasts.

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