|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 14, 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.
When you left the army and came out into civilian life, did that put an end to these awful images of war that you'd been encountering in hospital?
Oh no. Images like that last because to go on, to shoot off on another track there, is because later on I left Australia, went to Europe and I saw all the whole thing through Japan and Germany and Europe. And so that renewed the whole thing and gave me another kind of angle. But back to the civilian side of it. I was a simple suburban soul, as so many of us ... we Australians are, and still believed in the fairy princess notion of women. That they were the most gorgeous creatures of the world that you had to protect at all costs, something which the modern, post-war female, a power that she seems to have surrendered without knowing it. But the male is very aware of it. But there were these schoolgirls who'd come out, innocent little virgins in school uniforms. The next thing they appear in victory skirts and heavy make up, and up and down Princes Bridge and down to St. Kilda, and St. Kilda Road there, after all the G. I.'s particularly, because they took no interest in the Australian diggers who were back there because they didn't have any money. They were the six-bob-a-day ones, whereas the Americans had been on islands in the Pacific for long periods and saved up huge amounts of pay, which to us were enormous amounts of money. So this led to a lot of, as you can imagine, ill feeling and conflict. But I won't go into all that. But the thing that shocked me was the image that emerged, not only of the brutality, because in this I'm talking about the male, the street was full of drunks. Every lamp post had a drunk hanging on it. Every pub there was brawl or fight taking place. You couldn't go into one there without being offered a fight within two minutes. And it was wild west stuff. All the way. Full bore. So this aspect of it was brutal and savage and open. And then the ... on the female end of it the, of course, it was the prostitution, sexual end of it. And this all produced ... that all combined in producing an image, an emblem which emerged out of it, I don't know why, it became a compulsion with me. It became known as the crescent form, which could be interpreted on different ways. It could be interpreted as more archetypal for the sense. It's a symbol for water for example in Hindu mythology but also it does resemble a human mouth. And so this was quickly associated with the painted lips of the prostitute. And then I added to that a kind of, polypsit [?] sort of form. I remember seeing jellyfish on the beach. I was looking for something to put these forms together with, and walking along the beach I saw a jellyfish on the beach and I thought, Oh that's it. It looked like a primitive, primordial sort of form, and I suppose a primitive form, which is what I wanted. And so I turned that around and played around with that and fitted the crescent onto it and then a stem with a single eyeball on the end of that. And lo and behold I had a some little gremlin, you could say, a sexual gremlin, which was haunting us all. And so this lasted for ... a run of about a good thirty paintings and it's kept recurring since from time to time in other little bursts later on. So this was an image that was thoroughly implanted in me, and which I couldn't get away from, in fact, to such an extent that I found I couldn't paint without it, that if I tried to paint a picture ... And I became antagonistic to the image after a while because I was beginning to feel dependent on it and enslaved to it and so I was trying to get rid of it. And the harder I tried to get rid of it, the harder it would come back. And this I remember infuriated me. I'd be making a more intellectual battle to try and suppress the image and get rid of it. But I found I couldn't paint. I tried a painting without the image and the thing would be as dead as a doornail all the way. Nothing would happen. Then I'd ... in desperation I'd put in the crescent shape like that, the whole thing came to life, then the rest of the painting did itself: created its own background. It's a form of automatic writing really. So I triggered some deep archetypal source that pulled it out. And so the [series] came out. I gave it the rather brash title of The Images of Modern Evil, because that's what I associated it with: the fighting in the streets, with the prostitutes up and down the streets, and so on. So ... so that became my image for it, which of course is now installed in the ... James Mollison had the - to me - the wit and perception and courage to see this, and got ... acquired them all for the Australian National Gallery.
Has this same thing happened to you at other periods, that a particular sort of fundamental image has been the inspiration for a whole series?
Well later on, what came to be known as the Antipodean Head, which was a memory image of Australia, which did incorporate the plastic surgery experience, unwittingly, without my being aware of it, it still continued, and related, of course, itself to all the religious mutilations that one saw through ... in every church in Italy. And so, anyhow, these forms ... every painting you develop a kind of personal library, an iconography of the events in one's personal life, and these events would invariably come from traumatic experiences which one had had, but which, in going in the course of life there, these early traumas would be activated by, or triggered by, some element there which corresponded to it, and then the whole thing would come alive and feed the present experience. And so this was the thing I started using creatively as I became more and more aware of it. And so now I always listen to that ... that silence, that inner voice, wait for what image comes up. If I feel, with the eyes shut, if there's a sense of potency somewhere and it's ... even though it's in the dark, I'll feel that sense of potency and keep manipulating it or leaning on it or pushing it and something resembling a form with emerge. And then I'll try and grab that and keep on with it with repetitive drawings to try to bring it out, and so on. And this is where these things would come from.
So you have to wait for it to rise in you ...
... and you can't use your intellect to ...
Oh no, no. The intellect doesn't come into play at all. You only use that for mixing your paint and preparing your materials. That's all the intellect is good for in painting. The rest of it one has to [use] pure intuition, imagination, whatever you like. And impulse, direct, immediate impulse. This is what say people like Nolan and Joy Hester were brilliant at, was that immediate impulse.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be an artist?
Oh dear. You've really whipped me right back into kindergarten now because I have a very strong image. One image. It's curious how in our memory, if we go right back, that there are static single images that survive, that apparently incorporate the whole episode in some way. And this is of course, the first stage of forming symbols and allegories. I can remember, a lot of those work in that way. But with ...
The first image that you had.
Oh yes. The ... the first image I had when I went to, my mother took me, protesting to kindergarten. I was about five at the time. And I remember going into class in the morning. I forget what happened in the class. I've no memory at all. Blackboards and teacher and all the other kids. And I remember coming out at play time and standing in the school yard and looking around and thought, What have I got to do with this? I don't want to come here. I don't want to learn all this stuff. This has got no meaning for me. No sense at all. And I remember I was standing by the wall of the building, you know, a weather board one, painted white with the sun on it. That's a very strong part of the image. And the name of the teacher - see how I remember this things with terrific accuracy - Mrs. Dennehy. She was our teacher. Mrs Dennehy. [laughs] Floats up and there it all is. And I was looking at it, looking at the kids playing, looking at this wall and I thought, What am I doing here? I don't want to learn all this rubbish. It's nothing to do with me. I'm going to be an artist. Just like that. I had some fore thing from the future, forerunner from the future came down and told me a bit about myself, gave me a direction pointer.
Now how did the little boy from Malvern know what an artist was?
Exactly. Exactly. There's no way of knowing where that came from. I mean I've got some personal ideas which probably are not very popular.
What are they?
Well I think there is a reincarnational aspect that needs to be explored in all these things because there are so many things in life where you start off: just something you just know without thinking and you've never had experience of it but you know it. Then you realise this though - because someone else doesn't know it - and you realise that's peculiar, because I haven't had the experience. He hasn't had the experience. He doesn't know it. I know it. Where did it come from?" So one has to find some ... I mean this is being rational, mind you. That's how rationalists will attack these points of view all the time but they're the irrational forces.
But without going to the irrational, did you know any artists?
Well I have to tell the truth on this one. There would possibly have been a direction pointer there. I did have an uncle who was a failed artist or tried to be and he died when I was only so high [HOLD OUT HIS HAND TO THE HEIGHT OF HIS KNEES]. And I remember, again, one of my earlier experiences. I was a little bit older then I think, probably about two or something. I'd crawl and walk and toddle down the back yard where my father put up a tent for Uncle Arthur, who was busy drinking himself to death. Because Uncle Arthur won second prize at Tatt's, which was a good thing for him probably. The worst thing too. Because he immediately decided his life had been a failure. He was in his middle fifties and so he just simply took to the grog. And so my parents installed him in a tent in our backyard as there wasn't room in the house. And I would crawl down and they'd put a wooden floor in the tent and I remember one, again, a very powerful image with me, I'd look over the edge of the floor. There would be a stretcher bed. There would be Uncle Arthur lying in it looking exactly like all the later images of Henry Lawson. Exactly like Henry Lawson lying in bed. And underneath the stretcher there, a forest of bottles. So Uncle Arthur would [GESTURE WITH HIS FINGER TO COME IN], and I'd come in and we'd have a drinking session without my mother knowing about it. And I'd go back sideways and my mother would be very puzzled by all this, wouldn't know what was happening until she woke up to it of course and then I was banned from going down to see Uncle Arthur. [coughs] But I was, you could say I was an alcoholic at the age of round about two or eighteen months or two and a half, or somewhere in that area.
So you never saw him actually practising his art, but these drinking sessions made you decide to be an artist?
I was just he was an artist. There were a lot of his rather pathetic drawings and things around and then I inherited his paint box. And I remember a tube of Prussian blue that I got out there and got all over the place. I remember I was enormously impressed by the incredible power of the blue. That really, really affected me. So I would have been very young then. So then those experiences forgotten, Uncle Arthur died, went off and that was the end of him. And probably there'd be a connection there. Perhaps I liked something about Uncle Arthur and wanted to be like him. But there was nothing really to emulate, because my mother set up a continuous chant as she has ... the enormous power of women, when they've got a plastic infant under their control. They just recite, you know, the repetition thing and my God, that's there for life. I've never drank. I never need grog. I can't understand why there's a drinking mania in the country. Pubs I can't understand. Never went to them through the war. First because you'd be offered a fight. Mind you I would like an occasional ... I didn't mind an occasional glass or half glass of nice, icy cold beer, which was attractive on a very hot day. [clears throat] A little anecdote there, to leap ahead. I was walking down Flinders Street with Nolan one day, some time in the late stages of the war and it was one of those terribly hot days, about 106 or something like that, and we were walking down and I said I was ... I said, 'This is one time when I become interested in drink', I said, 'A glass of icy beer now would be marvellous, wouldn't it?' And Nolan said, 'Oh yes, yes'. He said, 'Look there's a pub over there. Let's go over and get one'. I said, 'Not on your life'. I said, 'We'd be offered a fight the moment we got in the ... got in the door'. And he said, 'Oh', he said. I said, 'Doesn't that worry you?' He said, 'Oh no, doesn't worry me'. This is a very Irish thing, you know. I admired it enormously at the time. 'No', he said, 'it doesn't worry me. If anyone hits me, I'll just hit them back'. [Laughs] He showed a level of self confidence and control then, which, I found, you know, I admired enormously because that was the last thing that I'd do, because I long ago learned that life, even at birth I think that I just saw that life was a hazard, a battlefield, and I remember Nolan saying that was his first observation of life: It was a battlefield. And I was well aware of that one and so I thought, My God, all the hazards I need ... more than I need, are surrounding me all the time. Why invent them? Why go looking for them? So I've lived my life on that principle ever since. [laughingly]
So from the beginning you feel that you were governed by fear and trying to avoid the conflict that was waiting there?
Fear, anxiety, the terror of life. Yes. But I had by nose rubbed in it with all those events in the army, the hospital, and then the post-war period when I went to Japan and to Europe.
But going back right to these early childhood memories, you said that you felt fear through your childhood and great anxiety. What was it do you think that produced that? You had these difficult ...
Debt collectors coming to the door and store man collectors and my mother saying, 'Quick hide, in case he looks through the window'. So all the kids would all have to hide under that table in case whoever it was - the policeman with the bluey or the store to collect or the baker or the gas man or the electric light man - and so on. I lived in absolute terror of these people. And today I still get ... have a pang of terror whenever I go to the letterbox and see it full of letters, which I really need deep hypnosis to get rid of that one. [Laughs]
Were there a lot of debt collectors?
A lot of?
A lot of debt collectors coming to the house?
Oh yes. Oh yes. It was the only way we could maintain the appearance of middle class life, by being permanently in debt all over the place. My poor mother she did her best, the only way she knew how, but that was the way life was. And mind you, not only that, but also the Depression, impending war, war itself, post-war period, all these things are also reinforced ... these reinforcement things all the way for it. So this is why I had this terrific admiration for Nolan. He seemed to be free of that. Although, mind you, he wasn't because he was a man who ... who camouflaged himself very very well. Because later in life I've found that there were certain things there which terrified him, if it got out of his control, but he was marvellous at concealing it. I think all people are like this surely. I mean no one can live this ... this life with everything that goes on with it. You switch on the television news, read a newspaper, one's hair stands up with horror at the things that are going on, all the time, day and night. And if one has imaginative empathy, with which I'm well endowed there, I mean, you get all that melding thing, which is good, that is you, for moments you become that other person, even though you don't know them or you've never seen them. But if some horror thing that's happened to them, in a flash, I'm that person undergoing that frightful treatment. So I suppose the anxiety thing perhaps sensitises one to all this sort of thing.
When you said you wanted to be an artist in your own mind as a small boy of five, were you thinking of this sensitivity in you, this awareness in you?
I never thought of myself as being different to anyone else because I assumed all the way along that everyone else felt and thought the same ... same way as I did. And of course now I know there's enormous differences between people.
Were you good at drawing from the beginning?
Oh yes. I always got top of the class in drawing at school. That was about the only thing. And then thank God, we had the Victorian teachers, who took no nonsense from the kids. So the result is I'd be given twenty words to spell in the afternoon. Next morning be tested in them. For each one I got wrong I'd be taken out in the hallway and given the strap, which was very painful then, very painful. And I very quickly - the survival thing again - I very quickly learned to spell. So thank heavens for that. Otherwise if I was given the 'do your own thing', you know 'do what you feel like' as all these modern idiots go on with here, you'd never learn a damn thing. You have to have to have terror and impending punishment. All these things are inescapable from life. And if we don't do it, nature does it for us.
So your teachers provided you with plenty of terror. What about at home? Were you beaten?
Oh no, no. Not at all. Not at all. My parents were very gentle people. I was struggling and fighting to survive in the terms that were set by my mother. My father just worked his fingers to the bone, doing his best to sustain it. And that was it. But of course, there was a lot of, shall I say, fighting over money. Every meal time there'd be this endless rowing about money. Because my mother didn't have enough money. My father didn't have enough money and he insisted on keeping a few shillings every week to have a bet each way, every Saturday. They gave meaning to his life. And gave hope. And so you had this awful thing. So this ... so there was all these anxieties, fears, terrors, horrors, on every level they afflict us all.
How do you feel about money now?
Money? Oh lovely because I don't have to think about it at this stage. Lovely, because having thought about it all my life. I remember a fortune teller told my mother she apparently had her read my palm when I was a child. I have no recollection of it. But she told me about this. And she said, 'He'll be all right. He'll make ... he'll have quite enough money later in life'.
But you had to wait till later?
I had to wait 'til later, yes. I got through most of it - wasted all my youth and strength without it.
Were you good at your other subjects at school?
I had an interest in history and geography. Not a mad interest, but you know, a preoccupation with it. And I still have, as I've discovered since, I've got a pretty strong historical sense, which I've only discovered in recent years. Because again, on the fact that I know something or I'm interested in something that no one else is. So that must mean something.
Do you feel that you were well educated?
I wasn't educated by an outside force, except for the basics of ... I was good at mental arithmetic oddly enough, but not arithmetic generally, because I'm still, when I left school and they had a Merit Certificate then which meant you'd gone through the thing, and I was a Merit Certificate Pending. And that thing that was pending was mathematics. [Laughs] And it still is. It's still pending. [Laughs]
How old were you when you left school?
About fourteen and a half. Around that period.
As soon as you were allowed?
Yeah, and then straight into the work force and ... which I might add - again giving an old-fashioned view of it - was the best education I could have got, because I encountered more horror, frustration, negative situations, struggle, battle for survival, and my God, that did me far more good than any university course could do anyone.
How could this be? What kind of struggle did you have?
Well I had another thing: the struggle simply to learn. For example I had a mania - it's a curious thing - at the school I couldn't get out of it fast enough. There were two occasions when I floated on air: leaving school and leaving the army. Two feet up at least. And, actually, what was I saying just before that?
I ... I asked you why was it difficult for you when you started to seek work? What kind of conflicts and difficulties did you encounter?
Oh the whole range of them, of all the frustrations and things in life which I magnified enormously too. In fact, I moved into the self torturing thing, which I'm still ... still prone to doing. I think finally we are, as Donne said, we are all our own executioners and our own tormentors. If you track something that's wrong with you, track it back, you finish up right in there. That's when we arrive when we've worked it right out.
So what specific difficulties did you have when you started out as a worker?
Well in learning what I wanted to find out, to get the skills necessary and - which I did. My first job was as a house painter for example. And that nearly killed me because I was given a job to scrape ... [INTERRUPTION]
What was your first job?
Well it was a house painter, painting houses, and this one really had a very bad effect on me in the sense that - not the work - but they gave me one of these old shower screens. It was ... it was a very hot day about - I think we had a hot heat period there, it went from 100 up to 114 over about ten days. The sort of heat wave we haven't since, by the way. I don't know of any heat waves since then like it. But I remember that because I was acutely aware of it because I was working outside all the time, painting front fences, sand papering garages and fences, and so on. And then I was given the job of sand papering down one of these fine corrugated metal shower screens. Curved shower screens. And I was working in the back yard, scrubbing away with sandpaper and so on, in a cloud of dust, which turned out to be lead dust. Very simply I got lead poisoning. And I didn't know what it was then but I know after that I lost all will to work, all will even to make a movement was terribly hard. And I simply became quite ill. And I had to stop the work because I was so ill. And as I regained later, years later, I realised that it was lead poisoning because it had all the symptoms. And so that was that. But anyhow from there I went on to various things in publicity departments, little commercial art firms and all this sort of thing, which I was able to take to and do with a relative, not ease, but I was able to handle all that sort of thing.
How did you get to first work in commercial art?
Well there was a chap named John Vickery, who lived in a place in a studio that was called Motherwell's Gateway off Collins Street, which was the back stables of an old inn in Collins Street in which our very intelligent city council allowed to be demolished. A beautiful old bluestone gateway ... gateway there. It was a beautiful little piece of early Melbourne history. All gone. All gone. People who, you know, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. You had that. And anyhow I worked in there. It was a marvellous place to work in and there were a couple of big lofts along side his, one of which I used, as I say, was able to get the use of later on. And Vickery, there, he wanted somebody, what they really wanted was someone to do the dirty work. He would have a job to do, doing drawings of motor cars ... [INTERRUPTION]
What made you go into commercial art?
Well not desire, but I had to get food, and I had to earn my keep, earn my way, and that was the real lesson probably, the responsibility, rather than the work. And I got a job with a chap named John Vickery, who was doing car ads in his studio at Motherwell's Gateway in the city. This beautiful old bluestone coach house, which our city fathers allowed to be destroyed, which was an absolute disgrace when these things happen. In fact I weep when I see these things happen and also what they do - oh I won't go on now on what they're doing now to the Gippsland forests. I weep every time these things are destroyed because they're past history, which always informs the present. It tells us what the present is about and what the future is going to be. If we lose our past we're nothing. We're gone. And to get back to Vickery though. He wanted someone there to do the chore work on the thing. And he wanted someone to do all the little lettering that went along with these job so I was there you know, screwing my eyes out there, doing all this lettering, and this lasted for quite a while. Three months. And later on I went to a place called Gill's, where they did ... doing ads for Fayrefield Hats. And I was out at Fayrefield's and, doing these Fayrefield Hats ads and these great enormous things and I - this is what turned me into a communist - because it was in the middle of the Depression all this stuff, it was still going on and I couldn't ... I'd have to work right through weekends. I got no extra pay of any kind, right through there. We were told we were lucky to have a job. Which we were. Which we were as I've since realised. And that ... one of the quaint things about that is when I left Fayrefield Hats, who should come along - and this is somewhere around 1937 or 36 or what have you - who should come along and get the job but Sidney Nolan. I'd never met him. I didn't meet him until long after that, until 1939. And then I found that out later. But it's curious these synchronicity things. Very strange. And I used to do ... I learned about what was commonly known then by the communists as this exploitation thing. And this is a thing that comes out of me, temporally, as having to work weekends and not get paid for it. Then I found that I was doing very big displays that were being used and the brother of the chap that ran the department there, would nail the wooden backs on them. And he earned five shillings a week more than I did. And then I later found that what the ... what the ... the head of the department was doing, he was going out playing golf while I was doing his work. He saw that I could do it and so let me go ahead and do it. And I didn't know any of this until a lot later on looking back. And so this is one of the things ...
At the time you didn't realise you were being exploited?
No, no, you're not. You're terribly innocent, you know, with all these things. You know, we are really without experience. There's very little there of this except concealed archetypal things that I think we're born with, which are deep inside, but then I don't know, it takes life to activate them and get them functioning and give them meaning, or a particular kind of meaning. And so that was all very good. It's all necessary suffering as I said you know, getting the strap in the corridor, [laughs] being terrified of going to pubs because I get offered a fight. All these things there, they're all the things you know, and having to go out and work and to help support the family at fourteen and a half, at fifteen and so forth. These were all things there that I as I look back I think, thank God for those experiences, as I'd never go into them voluntarily and I'd never go into any unpleasant experience now voluntarily. But one of the horrific things I've got to confront in my own belief system is that if I want to learn any more and get onto some of the higher level of perception, understanding, it's going to cost. I have to pay for it in blood. And I'm quite convinced of that. One thing I have tried to do though to offset it is to develop an imaginative, empathic thing where I can imaginatively create the situation and feel into it as fully as I can. And that I think does obviate the necessity to have the experience later on.
Sorry for these little aside philosophies but they're necessary.
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