|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 16, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
During your teenage years, did anything happen to you during those very sensitive years that developed a sort of fearful ...
The big event then of course was the death of my brother. That was the thing that had a very profound effect on me. And he got meningitis and seemed to be ill for a time and we didn't know what it was, because this was in the days before antibiotics and the diagnosis wouldn't have been nearly as accurate or as good and treatment, of course, was obviously virtually non-existent for this as a complaint and by the time they discovered what it was, the doctor looked at him and said there was no hope for him, that he had meningitis and that was it. This of course, had the ... the shock of that was profound and needless to say, my unfortunate mother nearly went out of her mind with it and we kept on. I remember she kept looking after him. She finally decided she could, might be able to save him and I remember she even got relieved after a time after looking after him because he seemed to be responding and so on, coming out of his coma and so on. And she even seemed happy with it, but anyhow one night, she ... I was sleeping out on the verandah then, she came out at three o'clock in the morning, crying out, 'Quick quick, Jack's going, Jack's going', and I was half asleep. I scrambled out of bed and went into the room and he was there stretched out on the bed and I, of course, ... the first thing I actually ... when she said he was going, it only meant one thing so I put my hand on his chest and as I did there, I felt his heart go [CLAPS HAND THREE TIMES] and stop, and that was it. That really shook me up needless to say, but since my parents were ... they were very good people, but like us all, I guess, bewildered by life, didn't know what it was all about, and there was a lot of negativism in their thinking because of the Depression, and the Hitler period in the thirties - all these things. Also being on a low wage and surviving on it. So they had a lot of negativism and they ... so my parents literally fell apart. They couldn't cope with it and I had to move in and, shall I say, be the man of the family and arrange everything. So I had to arrange the funeral. I had to ring them up. I'd never rung up on a telephone before. I'd never used one. Only wealth ... wealthy people had phones then. It's a thing that people today would find difficult to understand. This was how it was, just as no one had a car, no one had a refrigerator. They might have had an icebox and that was it. You had to be very wealthy to have any of those things, which are now commonplace and widely spread amongst the entire population, which is one form of progress one could say, but they were pretty negative and couldn't handle the situation. I had to ring up on the phone to the undertakers and get all these sort of arrangements going and they came out with a coffin and I remember them coming upstairs with it and [taking] it into the bedroom and they put me outside the room and as I stood outside I could hear them striking matches and I realised what they were doing is making sure my brother was dead, you know, seeing if there was dilation of the pupil when they lifted the eyelid. So they decided he was thoroughly dead and that was that, and put him in the coffin on a trestle and came out and the rest was left to us. I still remember the undertakers going downstairs, looking down on them, the light shining through the Victorian window that was there, a stain glassed window, and the coloured light coming through on his black clothes that one of the undertaker's assistants, who was a very young fellow and he ... I remember as he was going down the stairs, I could see all the back of his black coat covered with dandruff. [Laughs] These ludicrous little side observations one makes that sticks in one's mind for what? Sixty odd years, you see, which is rather extraordinary. So all that was attended to: the funerals and burial and the consoling of my mother but these were ... this was one of the major events of adolescence but against this background of shall I say, the declassed negativism and despair and endless battle about money, it was ... these are all things that I think stay with you for life.
You had some fairly bad experiences during your adolescence with the struggle for work and the death of your brother and so on. Were you also discovering girls?
Girls? Oh yes, I had the standard preoccupation with them and, but I never knew what to do about it [laughs]. Again extremely innocent, so we were very slow developers in those days because the opportunities were very few and, also, sex was a mysterious remote thing in a way, then too, not as it is now. It's on the table. You have it with your meals every night with the television and everything that comes out. Well again, it was some kind of remote and extraordinary and marvellous and sacrosanct kind of event there, which ... which very few people had anything to do with. You had to be married to know anything about that. And so this ... one's normal biological drives, as they took place there, this ... this put ... made one ... should I say, slowed one down. [Laughs]
But you did meet somebody.
I never had any particular girlfriend through that period. No, it was just the local girls that we'd grown up from childhood with there, but the sex factor in some mysterious way came into play in the ... what were the normal child relationships and all of a sudden they became potent in a peculiar way that ... that ... made us ... that confused us no end, you see. But anyhow we slowly bonded along and found out our way and talked about all these things with people who were ... characters who were a bit more advanced and you get information from them and so you built up some kind of shall I say, I wouldn't call it knowledge, I suppose, but some sort of information base [laughs] for what might happen next.
So who did you have your first really significant relationship with?
Well I would say the first significant one was Joy Hester. When I in the city I was about what, twenty-three I think at the time - in my early twenties. I was about six years older than her and she was seventeen. I met her through gallery art students and I was entranced with her because she was a very, very beautiful girl and also I'd learned enough then to have a certain line of approach in these things, so I immediately asked her to pose for a portrait. [Laughs] That's always a good way that never failed, and so ... so did this and she agreed readily and I made an appointment with her , and at this point I was in a studio in a place they called Motherwell's Gateway, between Collins and Little Collins Street and there is a marvellous old bloodstone structure there. It was a gateway and a couple of lofts, which was the rear part of the coach yard of an old inn that used to be there in Collins Street. It was a marvellous bit of surviving history which, of course, our city fathers in their wisdom allowed to be destroyed. So there was something there, like the Eastern Market. If we had preserved that, that would have been the most marvellous tourist attraction, if only they'd known it. Instead you've got the Southern Cross to look at and before it had this beautiful old market with a huge mezzanine floor, arcades of Victorian shops with curlicue iron work all around and the most extraordinary little shops were in ... in the place, and it had a marvellous atmosphere. But anyhow, that's ... that was also the place where the character named Colin Ross ... he used to ... lured a school girl and murdered her ...
Do you feel you were born with a sensitivity of what was going on around you that was particularly acute. The reason why I ask that is that you felt the things that happened to you in your childhood very deeply. You managed to have an intense experience of war, without even leaving Australia because of your sensitivity to the sights you saw in hospital. Do you think that you are particularly acutely aware of things around you?
Not necessarily, I don't think. I think it is the way experience comes to people and ... because there is no way of measuring your response because there is no way of relating it to anyone else's. You see, we've got no ... it's the old Western thing of trying to reduce everything to fixed measurements and little out points, absolute points, which we can't do. So there is no way of knowing a point like that, whether you are more or less sensitive than other people in certain areas. And I would say that with the military thing of course, the hospital, that was a kind of extreme crisis experience in a way, in which I was very fortunate, and that I ... the experiences I had was more in the position of being a witness. You see, how the way the whole thing worked out and my complete good fortune in that. I was put through the training camp and suffered all the normal discomforts that one would have in that circumstance and all the apprehensions and whatever that go with it. But when I was put into ... went to the hospital, I was given ... I was simply sitting around all the time, having my ... this rest I was sent down for and I wasn't getting any treatment for anything at all. So I was able to wander around the board walks and just chat to people and see all these things so I was really in a very fortunate spectator position and the same thing happened in '47 when I went to Europe, again I went more, almost in a tourist sense because I was getting material and images for the article Ross Galenko was doing, but it gave me the trip around you see which was very good. So I count myself as extremely fortunate to be so close to all those horrendous experiences without having to be ... suffered through them myself. I think the fairies are looking after me in that way but it could have easily gone the other way.
In this period of your life in which you are, in a sense, doing your own personal retrospective, looking back at things and revisiting things ... [INTERRUPTION] During this period that you've been doing your own sort of personal retrospective of your life, looking back revisiting things, thinking them through again, do you feel that there were any particular values or guiding principles that have emerged as the ones that have meant a lot to you?
Well I was really looking for loose ends almost in a sense, and the sense of trying ... knowing that one's life won't be permanent and whatever one has done, you are able to look back over it and you can get a fairly complete picture and then you want to complete it as fully as possible, because after all, it's whatever one has got to leave in this life that's it, what one does in it. So I wanted to try to leave as complete a story as possible, for what it's worth. Because I was driven to that, again, by that problem that I had that everybody seemed to falling, like leaves falling off a tree, they were all dying off one after the other. And all of a sudden, one morning you wake up and, oh my God, there are only two or three of us left, [laughs] which is a desolate feeling. You feel that the world that you grew up in, that you knew, that you based your life on, is slowly disintegrating and falling away and very shortly there won't be any of it left. This sort of thing. At the same time, it evoked a kind of a sense of responsibility towards it to try to fix it as firmly and completely and fully as possible, that one can.
So how would you like to be remembered?
Oh God, that's ... that would be a little ego thing, wouldn't it? I would like to be remembered probably as someone who succeeded in making a satisfactory record or image of the kind of life that I lived and so many of my contemporaries lived, and to be able to make something that, at least, will contribute towards explaining the period to the future. Or make it as real as possible for the future.
Living through that period, one of the things you were all described as, as you say, but you particularly, was angry when you were young. You'd been through experiences that made you express a sense of outrage at the world.
Yes, well I think all young people are pretty angry when they can't get what they want. [Laughs] You see, they want to have the experience to know that life is very resistant and these things, that older people don't get what they want either. But having got that energy and sense of frustration and you can't see why, you get that sense of injustice. And with me, this was probably emphasised by going through the army thing and the hospital thing, and then out in to civilian life and then finding all my little ... what I thought were fixed dreams or attitudes or expectations in life was suddenly shattered and twisted askew. I could see that life was going to be completely different and I didn't know whether I'd be able to cope with it and so you get a sense of outrage and irritation, anger and so on, and you tend to use that as energy to paint with.
Do you still get angry?
Not really, no. I'd say I can get irritated, yes, with small things which are obstacles when you are trying to do something because as you get older, you become less efficient in handling trivial things, small things, so I can get a certain irritation out of that but ... but really angry: I'll get angry on big issues, on the big issues such as I would on the destruction of the beautiful old Gippsland forests that have been there for thousands of years and we convert it into a few shiploads of chips in order to get another 500 million for the economy. Well, to hell with that! And that's when rage does rise, bubble to the surface for me, a terrific rage and it's very hard to hold myself back because it's sacrosanct. It's sacrilegious doing, doing that sort of thing and to compare say 500 million dollars worth of chips, to compare that to what was lost, with a magnificent ancient forest, I mean, it's such an appalling thing and I'm really very angry with the Australian people that they are permitting this to happen. I've made my protests in the past and had them almost censored out of existence. I have been able to make comments as I'm making them now and for this, I must say that I'm not even necessarily blaming the immediate people who do all this, but it's the Australian public at large for permitting that to happen and remaining silent in order to preserve the standard of living that we haven't really earned.
You are saying, as you get older, you have to sometimes make an effort to do things, and it's not as easy as it once was, but do you feel that you will ever stop painting?
Oh no, I never feel that. When I do, I'll really put myself down the drain [laughs] because very simply without that as a guiding beacon, or as a purpose, or as a discharge of energy in a positive way - without that life would be devoid of meaning for me, without meaning.
In the latter half of your life, of course, you have been able to support yourself through your painting but in the early years, money must have been an enormous obstacle, as it still is for artists, so when you were younger, when you were just beginning to make your way, how did you manage?
Well, I managed in a way you know in the way I've spoken. I got all these thousands of horrific little jobs that I detested doing and this all went on until I encountered the Reed's and then they helped out partially with what they provided.
Who were the Reeds?
John and Sunday Reed.
Who were they?
I beg your pardon?
Who were they.
Well, let me see, John and Sunday, they ... of course I am so accustomed to using those terms I forget other people wouldn't know who they were. But they were ...
Can I ask you to start by saying John and Sunday Reed were ...
Yes, well, John and Sunday Reed, they were well-to-do people, from a wealthy background. They both had overseas educations so in this sense they were more sophisticated in their ... than the average run of Australians that I'd encountered, including myself. And they seemed to be people more out of an Agatha Christie novel, rather than real people in one sense, but the advantage that they had ... was once they had left Europe, I think this was around 1934, I think, they reached one firm resolve, that they wanted whatever they had ... had to give in life, that they wanted to put it behind developing an indigenous Australian culture as fully as they could, or assist it to come into being as well as they could. And fortunately Sunday had a very good sensitive eye to these things and they got mixed up with Max Harris and he was very good on the literary end of it, and other people dealt with the musical end of it, and of course people like Nolan, myself, Perceval, dealt with the visual end of it. This all just simply came together quite involuntarily without any plots or plans or whatever. But Sunday, I'd say, was the magnetic centre of this that drew all these elements together and then held them together.
Why was it Sunday and not John?
Well, Sunday ... John knew nothing about contemporary art but he was married to Sunday. He was more the ... he was a lawyer, professionally, and he was the man of action, the professional man and he was the one who ... in a sense Sunday was the poor little rich girl on one side, on the negative side, and John was able to protect her from life and to enable her to carry out her ambitions for her, or create the situation for it. And so he went along with, you could say, her directives just about all the way.
Did you share this dream of an Australian art that was not European and peculiar to this country?
Oh yes. Everyone had that feeling very strongly because we knew we were in a ... from Europe, what we knew of Europe, through reading and inherited in family, the oral traditions in families, we realised that something quite different was trying to achieve birth here, so one became dedicated to this new vision as it were. There's no doubt Tom Roberts did and McCubbin and Walter Withers and a lot of these earlier painters and you become ... you become, you know, entranced with the Australian image, the Australian bush and this, again, is why ... what the politicians are doing and the economists are doing to this as a country as a place to live in, and experience and have ambience and being and create all these new qualities in life, that's why one gets so ... so frustrated and so terribly angry at this kind of thing, the total insensibility, insensitivity of these people. An interviewer the other night, using the economic determinism: well where would we get the 500 million from the year that we get out of chip ... woodchips? Well what a totally insensitive, imbecilic, imbecilic statement. To me the answer is very very very very simple: reduce our standard of living and save the forests. If it has to be reduced by 500 million a year, let it. I'll happily pay my share of all that or even more.
A lot of people at that time didn't feel that what happened in Australia really counted.
A lot of people at that time that you were younger didn't feel that what happened in Australia really counted. Did John and Sunday Reed give a sense to this group, a sense that it mattered?
They were devoted patriots, shall I say, as we all were - quite devoted patriots. This in a sense, it was a patriotism ... it was a, almost largely, I would say, the patriotism of place. Of the ... we realised the country had absolutely unique characteristics and had to be worked through into all it's art forms if we ... if we earned the right to be here, we had to do that in some way. But on the other hand we had to do it without losing the advantages of our European tradition.
What did you think about the Aboriginal Art that you saw?
This was magnificent when it was in it's tribal form, but not in it's present merchandising form, where it's been ... where these wretched institutions will deliver, you know, give them ... in an order to give them toilet, toilets and various other facilities, try to get to earn it themselves, then they buy them big canvasses and pots of acrylic colour and so on, which totally destroys the very thing that they were doing. You see, detribalise them and then gave them all the wrong material to work with and tried to get them to feed on ... become parasitic on the past that was established by their ancestors. This to me was a very ugly and destructive game.
You've talked about your view that there are limits to where rational thought can take you. Where did you develop those ideas and what are they, these ideas that you have about a world that has more meaning than is obvious?
Well I found that you couldn't reach these deeper meanings by rational means, because rationality depends on, usually, you could say, it all depends on measurement or making a nice verbal little machine which added up, and if it added up then you thought that was reality, which it isn't, and it, of course, couldn't deal with reality. As we are constantly finding with scientists who develop a hypothesis and then reality disproves it for them when they try to apply it and this is what we are doing all the time. The rationale will work so far and it's very useful for me, for example, to mix up paints or organise my materials but that's about it as far as I'm concerned. And also, of course, to clean your teeth or polish your shoes or do all those little practical things that we've mastered and learned how to do that the rational mind doesn't take us much further than that. If you take it too far, you finish up in bigotry, in an attempt to order reality what to do because you've got something that adds up.
In recent times, in trying to explain the world around you, you've looked to some sorts of supernatural explanations or explanations that don't find ready credence from a modern audience.
Oh, yes, that's so, because people live on ... on the immediate appearance of things really and as long as they can control it, they are usually happy with it. When you say 'supernatural', let's look more closely at the word. It means 'super' 'natural', it doesn't reject the natural world at all. It simply means that it's this phenomena that goes beyond the immediate and apparent meaning of things that we see but there are deeper meanings beyond that, and deeper experiences and so when one has that, you can develop a sense of other realities that co-exist with this one, and which we get occasional glimpses of them. And this is usually what this experience is based on - that many people will have a ... will have a ... and often without knowing it, will have quite unique sensing faculties, which will give them information that isn't collected by the normal five senses.
Do you have these?
Well, I ... I sometimes have prophetic flashes that will happen with that, or I'll have it with ... with often with auditory or more rarely visual phenomena, but this is very rare and, as I've said, on a very glimpse basis but a very impressive basis in the sense that that flash has got a tremendous and overwhelming sense of reality to it and so it becomes part of your sense of reality. And there are many people like this, although a lot who do it, will deny it because it doesn't fit the approved social models of thinking and behaviour.
So what if some of the things that you've found as evidence of powers in people that other people find it hard to credit.
Yes, well, one ... one starts, wanders into an area there, well, that one will be ... would be liable. I'd have to have far more time and spend much more on this sort of thing to deal with it properly or, if one can deal with it properly, because there are no final answers here than there is anywhere else. But the phenomena, there's no doubt, of what is known as paranormal phenomena. Even Jung, there, he followed that to a very great extent and gave very, very powerful explanations, and gave a number of personal experiences of it, and when you have one of these experiences like dreams, or nightmares or something - you have dreams of different orders or different levels of reality - but when you have an intense dream there, there was no mistaking that it's veracity and it's significance and you. This is part of reality as anything else. I mean, after all is dream any less real than the dreamer? It's the same thing. It's simply that whether we have a simplistic and ... and an arbitrary sense of reality, or knowledge of reality which just enables us to fulfil our immediate physical needs, or whether we're prepared to go further ahead and see reality as a more ... a far more complex phenomenon than it seems at first sight.
In the years that you've been struggling to make sense of life and struggling to work out a way of working with your art and relating that and so on to your life, are there ... are there ... is there anything that emerged for you as something you now know about how to live and what to live for that you didn't know when you were young?
Oh yes, the reality of, shall I say, the supreme powers and forces in this life. A lot of people, they say, you know, go on with this nonsense and say, 'Oh I don't believe in God', sort of thing, or 'God has no meaning for me'. Well, of course, the word itself has been debased by excessive usage and misusage and completely debased, but if one reduces it back to first principles then it's ... I can say ... make a very obvious statement that this world, that we can see in the operation within it, that there are vast even if it's silent and invisible creative forces at work. We have all the evidence of it in our own bodies and our souls in everything we do. If you look at a flower, what do you see? You see this extraordinary phenomena in any garden. You'll see a patch of dirt and out of there, a seed is put in and some silent directing energy or force will drive out of the seed there, it will grow up and out of ... apparently, out of this earth. You'll get the stem, the leaves, the flow of sap, you'll get buds, you'll get flowers, you'll get petals, the softness and gentleness of the petals of a flower, the fragrance and all these things, which will be evolved by some extraordinary invisible direct intelligence from a patch of dirt. Now if that isn't evidence of God, than what is? To me these things are and I use God in the sense of a vast all encompassing, infinite creative principle, which is the creative power behind everything we know, experience or see. And so, to me, to deny the existence of God, is evidence of a crass and infantile stupidity and also a crass egotism of the lowest kind. [Laughs] I mean, one has to know this power and be prepared to submit to it, and along with this power of creating ... creation of life, we also have to be aware that there is an almost - or I wouldn't know what the ratio is - the power to destroy life. That death is just as real as life itself and inextricably interwoven with life, and life is dependent on death and death is dependent on life, so these things are ... it's the world that we're in, in which these things cannot be evaded at all and so we personify these two vast forces of creation and destruction. This is where all the religions came from and all the images, religious imagery came from, imaging the ... all these creative forces at work and in conflict and in warfare with each other.
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