|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.
Is that why, in your own work, you've taken images and events that are associated with the destructive side of things and used them for your own creativity to interpret them?
Oh yes. In one sense yes. I didn't use for the purpose of encouraging the destructive theme. I realised it was inseparable from the creative act and that one had to fight one's way through all the destructive forces that are ... that are array themselves against any one trying to make a creative gesture. This immediately evokes all the negatives of that gesture and so this makes it something that one has to have in control on the side, in a sense held almost on a leash as it were, and then when it escapes from a leash they have to be able to press it back. And you'll have to be able to finally let the whole thing add up, that are these forces that are working enough there, that the creative statement is the one that [it] finally works through. Which it does mind you if you make a statement which ... which apparently is destructive but by drawing people's attention to it and showing them what is happening, it then becomes a creative thing. It's this curious thing of how ... how forces can quickly reverse themselves and one thing can change into it's opposite then change back again. And one has to be aware of this, this quite incredible phenomenon, and try and keep it in balance and by keeping those forces in balance is where the real message emerges, that you are trying to get through. But you can never make ... if you fall into sentimentality at ; what I'd like to happen;, you immediately make a flat, dead, dull, corny statement which has ... has no meaning to it.
With these very intense experiences you had of loss, of rejection, of betrayal in your earlier life, were you ever tempted into self pity? Did you ever have to struggle against it?
Oh yes, I went through phases of it but I fought my way clear of that one, but it's an easy one to fall into because often you can get paranoid and think that they are all set against you [laughs] and out to get you. So often that's a very strong feeling one can, you know ... if you get a sequence of defeats in something, it's ... it's ... these things affect us all, there's no question about that?
Do you still sometimes feel that, you know, that there is a little bit of a sense of paranoia about things for you?
Oh, well it's hard to know where paranoia begins and ends, isn't it? I don't doubt that we can exhibit symptoms of it from time to time and I'm not ... not excluded at all from that. In fact, sometimes you might make a good painting out of it. [Laughs] It's once again a curious thing: you can take a destructive thing and make a creative thing out of it. It's a very delicate sort of thing and there, a strong philosophic grip is necessary to stop it falling too far in one way that makes the whole operation rather ridiculous.
So the fears that have haunted you from time to time, do you feel they've also had a creative potency?
Oh yes, oh yes, there's a creative potential in everything that happens to us, good or bad. It's got it's creative ... there is a resolution that can be a creative control and resolution of the problem. But it's very hard to keep on a creative course if all the negatives are at you from all sides, which sometimes they do gang up on you and do this. But likewise, happily, sometimes the good things will gang up on you and carry you along for a distance, which again, gives me a bit of comfort, [laughs] which ... because it has happened to me from time to time.
What has been the happiest period of your life or do you find that word 'happy' a difficult one?
Not difficult, I just find it meaningless because it is a very superficial notion of what life is about. If I answered it in the broad sense, I'd say, I'm very happy to be alive and I'm very grateful to be alive and to have had the opportunity to fight the good battle and this makes me happy. And to feel that I get ... can win anything along the way or that I get to the end of it and feel that I've won more than I've lost, then this is an occasion to say that I've led a fulfilled and happy life.
Which period of your life has been your most productive?
Well, again ... again ... some times what seemed to be dead periods are often a preparation for a fruitful period. You see, it's very difficult to again ... to find the limits or beginnings or ends of these things because everything has it's ... you can discover virtue in everything if you look for it, it's there. As I said, you can find virtue in some personal disaster, or someone dying, that you can react to it in so many different ways and there are ways in which you can discover virtues in it. For example, if I hear that someone's died, there now, I've noticed that one of the first feelings I get there, well, they are very fortunate now, they've got passed the thing there, that all living things are afraid of, that point of death. They've got to the other side of it. So already, it's an achievement for them. And a part of some future growth, hopefully, for them.
After your very bad experiences with your first two major relationships, did it take you a while to trust women again or do you still not trust them?
Well it's not so much that I have a distrustful attitude in that area. Certainly, it rocks you to your foundations when, you know ... when you have some bad experiences. The same thing would happen to women with bad experiences with a male, there's no question about that. These things shoot both ways. And I think it's all part of the learning process actually because each of these collisions that we all have, there, will suddenly bring into view something that you never thought of or seen before. [Laughs]
How long have you been married to Barbara?
Barbara ... I've been with Barbara now for, let me see: we've been married for thirty years and I was with her for about two years before then, so about thirty-four years, you see. So it becomes 'til death do us part, and she did a ... shall I say, in an area there, that both my earlier relationships with Joy and Mary, they lasted nine years each. So Barbara has succeeded in doing that in say, more about three and half times more than either of them. [Laughs]
Why do you think that was?
Oh well, I can't find any single reason. There'd be a lot of reasons for that one. Of temperament, a way of life, of circumstance, of disillusion, of recover of allusions - all these things, they all come into play.
Is she an artist?
No, no, oh no, I wouldn't be able to stand that, that would drive me silly now, I think. [Laughs] I mean she might use ... use my materials the way Joy did, get stuck into them, and that I became very intolerant of.
How did you meet Barbara?
This was in 1962, I think. Again I'm a bit hazy about dates. And I was out at Murrumbeena and I found that she was renting Arthur Boyd's old studio and living there on ... behind the Boyd's family home and she had a husband then, though, who was living there with her. But she had ... there were ... often the old old problems came up and he vanished into the wild blue yonder and things started off with Barbara. So this went on for a time and then finally she more or less moved in and then finally we got married and that was it. But ...
Were you a bit nervous starting into a new relationship?
Well, oh well, aren't we all? [Laughs] I mean, one never knows when ... you know, when you make these major moves, you never know how they will finish up, do you? You have to just wait and find out. Anyhow that's, as you see, worked itself out very well.
And now here. You are living in St. Kilda. When did you make that move from the country?
That. We were in Hurstbridge for about twenty years and it simply became too much for me to handle plus the travelling into the city nearly every day, which I did. And also there were always trees falling down, branches falling down, maintenance. I had two houses. I had an old cottage which came with the property when I first bought it and it was full of termites, which I didn't notice at the time. And so it finished where a lot of it was falling apart and we moved into that and that's where Barbara was very very good with this, because we lived in a very primitive way for a about a year or more, while ... and the front room was good but we had very few in the way of facilities. And so while we were there, I set to work and worked like a demon to put in facilities and put a new floor in the kitchen, I remember, and put in different walls and did all sorts of things to it and made it quite liveable, which it still is to this day, quite a liveable place.
So physically built your own house, like you had the caravan in Paris?
Yes, pretty similar, yes. [Laughs] But I also did, you could say, part of the house that I developed later because I needed to have a studio and after working on the house and I was frustrated with my work. I couldn't get at it, I had no space. And I read in some magazine about agricultural implement sheds where a steel structure - they put it up in two weeks so it would have, you know, sides and have a roof and all these things, and I thought, good God, that's it, I'll get them to do that but I'll get them to make the corner uprights stronger and put in a floor in between, and then having ... already having the roof and walls on it I'll get a carpenter in and then fix windows right along the side and then I'll have a studio, and so I went full bore and got that done. And so slowly like Topsy, it just grew from there, because then I found that when it was in the winter, the rain came down and it was washing half of it under the place. It was all clay and mud and stuff. So I built a wall against it. Started building a wall against the back. Then I got in people to help on that and finished building the wall and then built the rest of it around, which I did part of all this myself as well, because I was getting sick of building then and it was literally getting too much for me. And ...
Did you ever feel when you were doing this work, that it was displacing time you should have been spending on your art?
Oh yes, I always felt that but then you spend most of your life doing things that you don't want to do that keep you away from your real work, but life is life and you just have to find a way of making them work together. So often you failed and often you succeeded. So, you know, you're swimming against the current all the way and things like that. That ... that's life, there's no escape from that. It's the resistances and one has to overcome them and just get your work done regardless.
Some people have referred to you as a misogynist, do you think that's fair?
No. That's totally unfair. I know I'm a bit dodgy about the whole human race if you want to know. [Laughs] I think both sides are making catastrophic errors in our time now, which they are. The sexes are getting mixed up. Families are destroyed. They don't know what a family is any more. Children don't know who their parents are and how things work out and they grow up with a whole bundle of appalling neuroses because of it. Because they seem ... they seem to forget how delicate an instrument, an infant is, a child is. It's incredibly delicate and incredibly impressionable and one of the things that's built into it, that it's got to have, is a father image and a mother image. They are absolutely crucial to it's mental and emotional health, I think. And so, I'm, as I say, anything but a misogynist because I think the ladies are very attractive and very necessary to life, obviously, but I'm also very angry with the males for allowing these divisions and antagonisms to develop, because the male himself has trapped himself, I think, on his own propaganda. One of which is a social ideal in which I think we developed with the French Revolution of egalitarianism. Well, this in the public mind is interpreted as 'the same as', which it isn't. You can't talk about egalitarianism with a cat and a rabbit because there are two different life forms, two different functions. Male and female are two different life forms, two different functions.
Different species you think?
Well, no, not different species. They are the same species. I'd say together they form the human species and there are two halves that make it and all of us, what literally happens is that one half is always looking for the other half of themselves, and it's very hard to find the appropriate one that fits our own needs.
Do you feel angry with yourself for not having been able to find a way to keep your first original family together around Sweeney?
No, not angry with myself. I would say, no, I don't accuse ... I can't blame myself for being young and stupid and inexperienced, can I? If you don't know, you don't know, that's all there is to it. You don't think in terms of responsibility. A stupid person you can't say is responsible for doing stupid things. Because he's stupid that's all he knows how to do it and there it is. I have quite a different view of that one.
Do you think John and Sunday were able to provide for Sweeney the substitute father and mother that he didn't have?
They ... they did in the area there in which I was hopelessly inadequate. I would have been able or was able to look after him, but on the other hand I couldn't do it in anything like a grand style or with the kind of security that I wanted him to have. They could. They could obviously give him far more than I could give him and I made I think, possibly, the mistake of over emphasising the importance of money and background and what would it all do for him. And I also miscalculated Sunday's attitude to Sweeney, which led her to over indulge him and make him develop expectations of life, which life would never fulfil for him, which meant he was foredoomed to a tremendous frustration.
You didn't ever have any other children?
So do you feel sad now that you are not leaving behind ...
I do. Yes, very much so. In fact, quaintly enough, to fit your position there, one of the things I'd loved to have, probably because I have got a friend like this there who has three daughters and they are quite marvellous to their father and I envy him enormously, believe me. [Laughs] The thought of having a couple of daughters there would be a marvellous thing. But on the other hand, I'd be terrifying of having to conduct them through adolescence. See, I'd like them up until they were twelve and then, [laughs] you know, I don't know whether I'd be able to cope after that. Of course, it's the same with a male for different reasons there. Once they start hitting puberty, there, you find yourself dealing with a home grown lunatic and then you are condemned to about eight years or whatever, there, before sanity restores itself. And in that time they really belt hell out of you in your middle years when you wanted a bit of peace. I see you are sympathising with that. [Laughs] I've struck a familiar note.
So ... But you will leaving behind you really a sort of legacy of a body of art. Does that give you a lot of satisfaction?
It does, yes. It does. That I've left a few hundred paintings, I don't know, I've never counted them, I don't know how many. But I do feel that whatever the struggles and conflicts and difficulties of my own life and I did work out the resolution of a lot of them through images and painting and I'd hope this plots gives a sort of an autobiographical diagram almost, a diagrammatical account of my life because I think it can be traced through all that now. And so I ... I feel that I have left a few footprints shall I say, and so that will have to be the substitute for the ... the children. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
Young people of today learn and read about that time that you were developing as an artist,along with Nolan and the Boyd's and all the other great names now of Australian art ...
It makes me feel peculiar when you say 'great names' because that sort of thing never, never occurs to me.
At that time were you at all conscious of where you were or what you were doing?
No, I'd say that we were totally, in a sense, like almost like zombies who were doing what we wanted to do at the moment and it's the way it ended up later on and other people afterwards, and long afterwards in many cases, put the titles, labels and categories on it and names and so on which ... which is, you know, and then fed it back into the social system. So don't forget that the people who do this, they are standing on their own blind spot and they are unaware of the other ... other peoples' reactions. I remember I had this for example, here's a little anecdote which I think would probably have been worthwhile including. When I was in Italy, I had a joint exhibition with Sidney Nolan. I happened to organise it at a place called the Stampa Estera, which was the Italian Press Club. And they made their rooms available for an exhibition so we put it on and when the exhibition opened and the Australian Ambassador came along and opened it for us, but ... one of the persons who came ... people who came along there, I was turned around and introduced to him was Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico, now, is one of the great legendary names in Modern Art and had influenced a lot of our work ... early work. And so I was introduced to him and so I remember, you know, you go into a curious fugue or blank there because I knew I was facing one of the great legends in the flesh and you don't know what to ... almost don't know what to say, you know. I remember hearing my voice say, more or less, 'How do you do Mr. de Chirico', you know, 'We know you very well in Australia and you are very highly regarded there'. De Chirico then looked at me in absolute astonishment. He said, 'In Australia, you mean, I'm ... am I known in Australia?' I said, 'You are highly known, not only known, but very highly respected. You are a major ... one of the major figures in the ... in the thinking of the Australian artist'. And de Chirico, his face ... he lit up like a Christmas tree: 'You mean I'm known in Australia?' [Laughs] It was a marvellous example of someone totally oblivious to the effects that he had on the world around him. So I think there, this is ... there's a thing there. I mean it showed the humility of the man in one sense, for him to be able to respond in that way. I remember it astonished me at the time and from then on, I got along very well with de Chirico. He asked me around to his soiree's he had every Sunday, and so on, and we used to sit down and talk about demavarish [?] and how he cooked it and all these various painters problems and his wife would come and drag him away and make him meet all the other Italian people that she had really set the evening up for him to meet and deal with. And I got along very, very well with him but he was a very remarkable and lovely man.
For a boy from Melbourne going off to these centres in Europe, did it take quite a lot of confidence to be able to mix and get what you needed out of it?
I was extremely lucky because where I tried to meet people, I'd fail miserably. It just wouldn't work. In London it was useless because the barriers between people there is very rigid. There is a kind of cultural and social artery-sclerosis at work there. And let's say if you met someone like Sir John Rothenstein, which I did, you just get a 'How do you do?' and that's the end of it. You knew then that you had to wait another two years before you could say, 'It's a nice day'. There they had this kind of thing and that didn't suit my temperament at all. I like the American thing and the experience I had. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get there because I could make ready and instant rapport with all levels of Americans about any problem at all and ... and so, let's see ... what was the point I was going to make then?
That you were able to meet people by chance.
Yes. From then on, I simply have to attribute it in the absence of a better word, for luck, such as meeting Alfred Barr in the elevator in the Museum of Modern Art: pure luck. The pure luck of him walking into the Poindexter Gallery and seeing one of my paintings there. You see, all these things are the chance things and also the ... the luck of getting ... winning that prize, that thousand guineas, you see, at the very key moment when I was at my, the last stages of desperation as it were and that just floated in. [Laughs] These things, you can feel some kind of intelligence making decisions behind this and organising the circumstance. At least I do, I might be dreaming or ...
Something curious you said when you went to see the Museum of Modern Art, that you looked through the door and saw half of one of your pictures hanging on the wall. Why only half?
I don't know why. That's the ... the, shall I say, the allegorical meaning of that I wouldn't be able to pick up because I told you earlier having this visionary flash in London, which gave me this scene which I didn't recognise, but when I got to 53rd Street and stood on it, I found myself looking at this flash that I had in London some months before ... [INTERRUPTION] ... and that was exactly the same. [INTERRUPTION] Of course this notion of a visionary flash of that nature would be most unpopular with all our rational oriented society and all the ...
What kind of a visionary flash did you have?
I saw the ... the ... this vision, standing in 53rd Street, I saw the whole facade of the Museum, I saw the revolving doors and I saw through it the paintings on the wall and one of them there, the first one I saw was the half view of one of mine hanging there.
Where was the other half?
It was still there. I mean, it was just simply concealed by the door. There was just enough of it for me to recognise it and when the real event came around and I walked there, there I was standing in this visionary flash or dream, or whatever you want to call it, and there it was exactly as I saw it except for this one thing: that there was a banner across the top saying 'recent acquisitions', which wasn't in the visionary flash I had.
What was the painting called?
Lunar Landscape. It was in the retrospective I had here. It's one that Alfred Barr, for some reason, responded to it very strongly and he described me later on, in an interview the Australian Women's Weekly he did with them about some of these things. He described me as ... described me as a master, master illusionist. [Laughs]
Do you like that description?
Not particularly. [Laughs] But obviously it did something as far as Barr was concerned because I used a very heavy paint and you know, I was making the surface of the paint approach some kind ... kind of reality situation. [INTERRUPTION]
When Sweeney died, did you feel at that time any sense that you had been in some way responsible by not taking care of him yourself up to that point?
Well, I suppose you could say I'd have a twinge in that direction but on the other hand, that was very easily corrected by the situation I was in: that I had no hope of being able to do anything about it and then, secondly, right on hand was the perfect solution for all Sweeney's problems, right there, and I felt that it was my responsibility to let him have that opportunity, which I couldn't give him.
Did you feel angry with them for not having done a better job in that sense?
No, no, they were ... they were operating as best they knew how but the, it simply that it involved issues that they'd never encountered before. See, Sunday had expectations and notions, which just simply weren't geared into reality, that's all. So the collisions took place. She spoiled him and that was probably the worst thing and that she would ... Sweeney very quickly learned the tricks of getting around Sunday and getting what he wanted out of her. This is why I tend to be a Victorian disciplinarian in all of the business of handling children. To let children do their own thing, God help you. [Laughs]
[end of interview]