Australian Biography

Albert Tucker - full interview transcript

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You seem to be particularly sensitive to it. Was there anything else apart from the debt collectors that you recall particularly terrifying you?

Ah yes, yes, there are couple of very hairy final type experiences, which occurred at different times. One of these was when my brother contracted meningitis and he could no longer work at this point. He became very ill. We didn't know what the illness was. They hardly knew what ... how to diagnose these things then. Anyhow, to cut this story short, is that he had meningitis. The doctor diagnosed it and one morning I was awakened. I was seventeen at the time. And I was wakened at three o'clock in the morning, my mother coming in crying out, 'He's going, he's going', and I raced into the bedroom, into the other bedroom where my brother was, and put my hand on his chest. I just felt his heart go [CLAPS A FEW TIMES, THEN STOPS]. Still. That was the end of it. My parents of course were shattered. Needless to say, so was I. But this is where the man of the family situation arose, where I was called on to play this role, because my father was pretty well helpless and probably [in] shock, shattered and couldn't cope. My mother, there, was hysterical, couldn't cope. Beside themselves. And we were left there at three o'clock in the morning with a ... with my dead brother lying in bed. And I had to be the one to try and hold the thing together. Which I did my best. And then as the time went on there, I finally got my mother to get a cup of tea, to do something like that, to keep busy. And the moment it was daylight or when I was able to do it, I then started ... I'd never used a telephone before in my life. You know, very few people had telephones then. But I remember I went down to the people next door, who had a telephone, and asked them if I could use it and I started ringing round. First we got the doctor and the doctor came in and that was it: pronounced him gone. And then I rang the undertakers, Pine & Garson. What a lovely name! No. I've got that wrong. Drakeman & Garson. Extraordinary, you know, the names some people have - you know the way they fit. Drakeman & Garson. It's still functioning I believe as a ... as funeral parlour. And the undertaker came out with a couple of young assistants. And I had to conduct everything there. My parents were pretty helpless. And I showed them in and they ... and they put me out of the room. They had their own, again, fairly primitive way of checking things, making sure. I heard them striking matches. I wondered at first what that was for and then I realised they were lifting his eyelids to check there was no action from the pupil. And so this of course, I ... it was full of horror. And, but anyhow, I kept this kind of grip on myself because I had this sort of ... the situation was depending on me, that we were in. And so I remember when the undertakers came out they brought up a trestle and a coffin, put it in the room, and all this was going on, I heard from outside. And then they came out ... came out of the room and said, 'All was well'. They'd checked everything. And it's a curious thing, again, these frozen images that stick in one's mind. One of the assistants, I forget what the other two were like, but one of the assistants was a young fellow in his early twenties, with curly fair hair. And as they turned ... we were upstairs in this old Victorian place. We were renting a flat at this point and I remember there was some light coming through a Victorian window onto the stairway and this coloured light. And they turned and went downstairs and I remember this: looking down on this image, that's stayed in my mind: it was this young, young undertaker, all in their black clothes of course and the thing I remember very acutely is all the dandruff on the shoulders of his coat. The dandruff. And then the slant of light through the coloured windows there, cutting across him, and so on, as he went downstairs and looked round and smiled, smiled at me and went his way out. So this sort of image sort of has stayed with me for life. I can call it up without any trouble at all. In fact sometimes these images you can call up and almost make them real again. You're on the brink of translating them back into reality and I do a back spring out of that one. But I ... I ... my empathic imagination goes to work on it and that's it. But anyhow the next one, there's another one. My sister had a little girl, Claire, a beautiful little girl and I was very, very fond of her and I was about eighteen, nineteen at the time. And so on. And she developed a sterno-mastoid. You see, this is the days before antibiotics. They could have both been saved if it was in these days. But anyhow Claire had this sterno-mastoid and I used to go to the eye and ear hospital. No air conditioning in the hospitals in those days. This again was an enormous ... everything seems to happen in a terrible heat wave. There was a terrible heat wave and I remember I'd go off to the hospital and I'd sit there by her, and fan her for hours on end, fanning her. This thing I still remember are the nurses coming into a little kitchenette, chatting and laughing and rattling crockery as they made themselves tea. And that sound blended in with this fanning. And then when that was over there, and while ... while she was there she had her head all bound, tubes in her neck and the thing turned into meningitis. So then she died. And so I had a little extraordinary experience of that later on. This is why I can handle these things better now, because I have encountered glimpses of a realities that aren't here. And these glimpses there have given me a lot of strength that I otherwise wouldn't have. But those were the two very traumatic episodes in my late adolescence, while I was still in my formative years, that really made a very strong mark on me. Well of course, worse experiences have happened to a lot of other people, like road accidents, what is happening in the families and all these people. So these shocking things are happening all the time and people are going through these quite horrendous situations. So, anyhow, we have to accept all that as part of life, with hopefully some ultimate purpose to it, but it doesn't stop it having its mark on you and enlarging your insights and enlarging your perceptions of certain things in life.

At the stage that you were there, and you actually felt your brother's heart ...

Yes I felt it stop. It was the first thing because I went in because my mother had said, 'He's gone'. So my first instinct was to put my hand on his chest and he wasn't quite gone. He was going obviously. And so on and just the heart just gave a couple of kicks and that was it. But I had that warning before, a little earlier. I had this curious thing I remember the day before, a curious thing which I believe is a known thing there: the hands outside the quilt or blanket and plucking away at them like this ... [PLUCKING GESTURE] Plucking constantly at them. And also then he was looking up into the corner of the room there, looking at something very intently and then he'd start whistling some tune or something. But then he'd stop and then he'd be looking as though he ... obviously he was seeing something that I couldn't see. And so on. And then that would die down and he'd lapse back into a coma. And so these were the little bits of, shall I say, the down side of life that afflict us all, I think, sooner or later in one form or another.

Had you been very close to your brother?

Oh yes. Well that's not quite true in the sense that I was close to him but he was about eighteen months or more older than I am and that's a big difference between seventeen and nineteen and so he developed a different set of friends to me and I'd developed a different set to him. So we had in that sense, drifted apart to an extent. And one of the little ... again a little anguishing episode that took place, is that after my brother had been taken off and that, I think it might have been the same evening or the next evening, there, a friend of his came round there and came to the bottom of the stairs and, as they often did there and called out, 'Are you there Jack?' and so on because he was shy about coming up. I came out and there he was. He said, you know, 'Is Jack in there? We were going out this evening'. I remember looking at him and I said, 'I'm sorry, Jack's dead'. I remember the face, you know, [laughs] the face looking up and the shock ... the shock and then he just turned around and went and I've never seen him since. You've got these little things there, that go along with it.

So you still feel the pain of that?

[STRANGLED SOUND, UPSET FACE]

So later, when you encountered images of suffering, these experiences that were personal to you ...

Oh they come into it. They spread out and they, I think ... I think they're enormously valuable experiences because they enable one's empathic imaginative faculties, they give it full rein.

So you think that pain can be something that is valuable?

Oh yes. That's the only way you understand other people's pain. Absolutely necessary, but of course, like Gaugin has said, 'A little poverty's good for everyone, but too much of it kills you'. [Laughs] The same thing goes. Yeah. So a little ... a little pain at least. And we all get it anyhow, you can't live without it. And so the thing is really to use the experiences that we get in a full and an imaginative way. Not hide it or conceal it or avoid it, but grief has to be lived through, I think, and activated from time to time. That's part of the whole business of life.

There's a convention and it was very strong when you were a young man to try to conceal suffering ... [Albert Tucker: Oh Yes] ... and put it aside and not explore it.

Yes. I conceal it less, now, I find, as I get older. I remember old Lloyd Rees was like that. He cried a lot. I could see that even in interviews and I could see he was going through the same thing.

The men, who came back from the war, also had a strong convention of ...

Well their general technique was one there of ram it away into the back of your mind and forget it. They just simply wouldn't contemplate it or look at it, which is a great pity because - excuse me while I blow my nose - which is a great pity because that's ... it's by contemplation of pain and feeling every moment of it there that you get the message. See that's the thing that's important. [blows nose] And so, once ... once we get that we're more or less better equipped to face life and to know what to do when things happen or when they come up.

Some of the men that you met at Heidelberg Hospital, who had really horrendous injuries, how did they deal with it?

Well you had this ... this curious feeling that, again it might have been my obtuseness at the time, because again, I was very young and inexperienced and perhaps I wasn't registering things that I'd register now, but, see, I didn't know how to talk to someone who'd had his jaw blown away. See how do you talk? He couldn't talk to start with. The fellow ... one of the first things they got me to do was to do a drawing of a man who had his nose nipped right off, flush with his face from a shell splinter. It was just very clean and neat. [SWIPES HIS HAND QUICKLY] Like that. And so there he was, with all the nasal passages exposed. So they gave me the job of drawing that. So the thing that stayed in mind was, not only the event itself, but of course he couldn't control the secretions that were pouring down his face and he was constantly pulling his handkerchief out and wiping ... wiping his face there and apologising profusely for it. So this was ... he was there apparently to get some kind of artificial nose. How a lot of those poor fellows who were ... copped it at that time there, how they got on, God knows. And this was one of the terrible things of people not living these things through. Because if people could feel imaginatively, if not actually, imaginatively, feel what happened and that kind of human suffering there, it would be a guide for us. Where the past is so necessary, it guides you in current situations and future situations. It gives you there the way to handle them, or a more ... a better way to approach them. So it's rather tragic that people's ... most people's way of handling these things is try and turn their back on them and forget them.

During your late adolescence you were experiencing this encounter with death pain, and suffering. Were you also doing the more traditional things of discovering love and sex?

Well let's see. That was happening, of course, with Joy. That started in 1937.

How did that happen?

Well it happened in the fairly normal way of course. I was a frisky young fellow apart from all these other things, which you go and you succeed in forgetting at the time. And I even forget, oddly enough, how I directly met Joy. It was through some of the gallery students. She was going to the gallery and I ... I never went there. I never went to any art school like that. And ...

You didn't ever go to any kind of art school at all?

No, the only thing I went to, briefly, was to a commercial art school that my mother took me to, thinking she was doing the right thing by me. But of course it was the worst thing for me to do. But it did give me ... helped me. I wasn't there long, but enough to get ... to do a bit of lettering and things of that nature, which was useful for making money later on. So that aspect of it was quite good. But otherwise, like all young people now, you desensitise yourself, in a way, where you just ignore things you don't want to see and so that leaves the rest of your growth processes and your exploration processes free to continue. You've got to do this. You see, you've got to ... you've got to have a controlled forgetting, in a way. This is one ... One develops it as a control system, I think, later on in life.

So how did you meet Joy?

I met her I'd say through some of these gallery students and I was in this loft in Collins Street I remember at the time and of course being the first thing thing is I said I wanted to paint her portrait, you see. The old, old ... the old, old ploy. The old con game. And so she agreed of course. Again, that's the con game from the female end of it. And I remember the first appointment I made with her, she was to come to this studio and - that I had in this loft. I was only borrowing it temporarily but that's where I painted the portrait. And she came there. So there it was. All things started from that point. See, after a while of painting the portrait there, I was chasing her around the chair and a bit of the game went on for quite a while. And so then I finished up living with her in Little Collins Street, in a little studio we had there. But again, all the adventures and stories around that are up and down, in and out, and just how much detail one would want to go into there, it could go on forever, so that's ... a story.

How old were you?

I was about six years older than Joy. She was seventeen. I was about twenty-three.

When you met her or when you married?

Oh no, no, when I ... when I met her. Let's see. Now when we married, she was, let me see, we married in about 1942, early ... very early '42 - no late '41, or early '42. I've even got photographs of that actually with my mother coming down with us to Greensborough where we got married and [we] told a fib on our marriage certificate in order to be able to marry. [Laughs]

Had you had much to do with other girls before you met Joy?

Well I suppose in a relative ... I wouldn't say ... no not in normal sense. In one sense, in a normal sense, because I met quite a number of people through the art world generally. With Joy for example when I met her there I started taking her up to the Victorian Artists' Society where we do life drawing and this went on for about, oh, several years. I was already going when I met her. But ... so I took her up there with me and she just started. It was when after she did a few phases and sessions and that I realised that something exceptional was taking place with her. But initially she was just like any run of the mill gallery student because they succeed in killing anything you've got, you know. And as they did with Joy. There was nothing of consequence, just simply school exercises in her book. But when she was living ... once she was living with me and she had a few months of that, she suddenly had an enormous liberation with her [work] and she started producing some quite ... quite extraordinary work. I still have a lot of it. I had an exhibition, not so long ago, that had a lot of those drawings from that period in it.

And do you think they were very good?

Oh she was ... she was one out of the box. Purely because she never wasted brain power on things. She did everything through feeling and direct instant impulse. She'd just get on the floor with all her bits of papers and just splash away and then just get up and walk away. And I ... when I realised something was going on in her work ... Initially, they'd all be stuck in the rubbish bin afterwards. But then I started seeing rather interesting qualities beginning to emerge in them and then I started putting them all in a big cardboard box. So when Joy'd go and leave all this junk all over the floor, I'd clean up and put them ... put then all away. And the result is I have a whole stack of them. When she decided to seek pastures new, [laughs] she just sort of walked out and left the lot of them.

Going back to when you were actually married and happy together, what was it, do you think, that you saw in each other? How would you characterise the relationship and what you each got out of it?

Well I think Joy, like all women, they ... you creatures are loaded with cunning and insight, where your own survival is concerned, and also you know that the male is quite a sucker in many ways and can be manipulated in all directions, via the old sex and his devotion and the worship of the female goddess principle, which happens automatically, and which you stupid women are industriously destroying at present. Or virtually have destroyed. Now where was I? You see, I shouldn't wander off the core track like that.

You were talking about what you had with Joy.

The kind of relationship. Oh well, the thing ... the thing is ... Oh yes, the thing with Joy, I think, very, very quickly and she saw that I was ... I had something of a ... Beneath her apparent ordinary exterior, Joy, as I subsequently found, was a terribly ambitious girl, which I would never have picked at that time. And I didn't really pick it until later on. I realise that it was a very quiet but powerful ego and a fantastic, terrific ambition at work, which I miscalculated all the way. And which is one thing there that put me in the wrong position as it were. But anyhow, she, I think, immediately recognised in me that I was a direction to go on, which would be of value to her, which it was. I introduced her to people like Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, John Percival, John and Sunday Reed, all these people. And it was ... It opened up a totally new world for her that she never knew existed. See, as a Elwood suburban girl there, a beach girl, she had no idea that this sort of world existed and I just happened unwittingly to be the key to it, as it were: the door opener to that kind of world. And so she went into that world with the greatest of enthusiasm, and of course, I thought it was my good looks, it was something else. [Laughs] No, I'm not being fair to Joy there [laughs] because obviously she had an emotional involvement with me but there's no question, also, though, that my way of life was a ... and the kind of contacts and my way of handling it, was a very big part of it. She recognised straight away that this is what she needed to release her and so there it was.

And what did you see in her? You didn't see her ambition?

She was a lovely girl, a very pretty girl and then, after the relationship went on for a time, I realised a highly talented one. And there it was. And also we had a child. We had Sweeney and so as far as I was concerned it was ... everything was all right in that sense. And I was taking the conventional view, but the thing I didn't realise was that the last thing Joy wanted was motherhood. She got trapped by it because she was obviously ... out of her ambition and so on and then what she'd learnt then about the art world there, this is where she wanted to go. She was one of the early ... early free ladies shall I say, in that sense.

So how did the relationship end?

How did it end? Well very simply. I went to Japan because an American journalist, Harry Roskolenko, who was also mixed up with the whole Angry Penguin episode and came back later on, also, and he was here in '42 and also here in '47. And ...

I'll ask you about Japan later.

I'll tell you about Japan when it comes to the '47 period.

So how did the relationship end?

Well the thing was ... well it happened in the Japan period because this went to 1947 and I ... Harry, who was quite a wheeler dealer, knew how to manipulate, [and] work all these things. He'd been on a search party with the air force in New Guinea - searching for crashed aircrafts and removing the remains and identification things and so on and taking them back. And he went as a journalist reporter on it all and he came down here [and] immediately set to work to organise a trip to Japan to do a series of articles and so on there. And while we were talking one day, he suddenly said ... he said, 'You know I think I'll be able to organise a trip for you too'. He said, 'I'll give it a go, I'll see what I can do about it'. Next thing there, you know, he'd organised it and I was on a plane going to New Guinea and so I didn't have to do a thing. See I wouldn't have been able, known how to ... I was too much of a simple boy from the sticks to be able to do all that manoeuvring.

So what did you ... what did you see when you got to Japan?

Oh dear, I went straight to Kure and saw all the vast wreckage in Kure, which was an enormous naval depot, and they had a situation there five times larger than the biggest they had in the States, which shocked the wits out of the Americans, when they saw it. And from Kure we went all around that to ... to ... checked all the wreckage of the whole ... this enormous factory that was there that was smashed into pieces. The naval bombers would come and just pick out [avoid hitting] the kilns, right along. They did precision bombing. The Americans did a fantastic thing in that sense. And so, then, when I later saw it, they had all ... They did this because they wanted to preserve machinery in it. They had the biggest steam press in the world there. And so when I went through the factory with Harry, they had all the machinery that was still there, because the Americans had very carefully bombed it so as not to harm it. It was all wrapped up in plastic and I sort of looked at all the machinery, made in Manchester, made in Germany. [Laughs] This is the sort of thing that goes on today. And so, anyhow, I saw that and I saw the docks there with the vast destruction the Americans did there. It was incredible to see one enormous dry dock full of submarines, small battleships and so on, all tossed around like that, as though a giant had thrown in a hand full of toys. But the Americans had carried [on] a terrific destruction in that sense. So the next step was Hiroshima, which was not far away. It was a jeep drive away. So Harry and I got ... organised our jeep. We were able to get a jeep to be driven anywhere that we wanted to because we were correspondents and we went out to Hiroshima and had a good look at that. I've got some photographs there and there's a water colour I did in the War Museum of that and also some drawings, I think. I forget what is in there now. I've already ... I've still got some there ...

What effect did Hiroshima have on you?

Well, curiously, again I was too ... too young and inexperienced in my empathic and my empathic abilities weren't developed as fully as I would have liked them to be. You see, I'd love to go back to these parts of my life and relive them with my current knowledge because I would have really ... boy, what I could have done with that experience if it had happened in that sequence. But it didn't. I was still ... I got a work done certainly. Some of it there was worthwhile but it was very limited in scope and number. I did the same thing later on in Frankfurt. I did the same thing there, where I had experiences there, which later I look back with tremendous regret, that I just simply didn't know more at the time. But nevertheless I did get a certain amount out of it, which I've been able to ... to ... well I've got them into the main galleries, into the War Memorial Museum, so they're adequate for that. But once out at Hiroshima, the way I felt, I looked at it in a sense, but it was superficially, the superficial aura. I'd heard all the stories about it. I saw the man printed on the concrete bridge. I saw ... I took a photograph. I've got a good one of the aiming tower, which was a tower, and contrary to popular belief, it wasn't totally destroyed. What happened is they exploded the bomb. This is what I was told mind you. I'm going by hearsay and what I was told at the time. It was exploded 500 feet above the aiming tower and when it exploded it went round like that. [GESTURE OF HAND GOING DOWN IN CONICAL SWEEP] And so everything there was levelled right out but in the middle, it just ... it had a suction, a reverse suction effect and sucked everything, because it was the modern part. They were all concrete buildings there and it just sucked the entire insides out of the buildings and so on but the buildings stayed standing. But on that other side, it was all flat and it left all the roads and bridges intact. Railway lines. This was all left intact. It didn't destroy in that sense. And of course when I saw it, that was about eighteen months after the bomb. I was there very early '47 and the bomb went off in what? I think it was July, I think. It was '45. So it was roughly eighteen months since ... since it happened. Whether it was radioactive or whether ... I mean you wouldn't know at the time. I wouldn't have gone near it if I knew about radioactivity, or knew enough about it. But apparently, hopefully, [I am] unaffected by it. Because a lot of others were there and of course a lot of people were in there, a lot were there shortly after the explosion, so what their fate has been I don't know. Perhaps the eighteen months is long enough for it to ... not to be effective. Hopefully. And ... [Bird in background]

You felt that you weren't mature enough to engage fully emotionally with the experience, but what sort of images and feelings did you carry away from it?

The ones that I got I think into the drawings, into the notes. I'd still put them in the fairly superficial category in that I did sketches of the thing, a couple of water colours of the shanty towns that were beginning to be developed and put on top of the ruins. What happened to the people who built their shelters on top of the ruins immediately after it, God knows. I don't know if any follow up things have been done with them. But ...

And after this experience, you returned to Australia.

Well I was three months in Japan, so I had a lot of other experiences there as you can imagine. I I was about to say, with the atomic bomb just simply levelling the whole place, we went on there to places like Osaka and Yokohama and Tokyo. Tokyo there, they just used incendiaries on Tokyo because it was a timber and paper city, largely with a cement core, you know, of all modern things. And that, of course, burnt like one thing, like a bonfire. And I remember a Japanese politician. I didn't understand hysteria then, either, at the time. Roskolenko was interviewing a Japanese politician and he was saying, 'What was it like after the incendiary bombs and so on. What happened?' And this chap - he was a politician there - his face in a sense [?] and he said, 'Oh well', he said, 'there were bodies everywhere'. He said, 'They were all collected. They were all piled at the end of every street'. He said, 'They were ten feet high', and there he was laughing hysterically, laughing like mad. 'The bodies are ten feet high at the end of every street'. So, you see, then I realised ... I thought, What gives? You know, laughing his head off at this horror. See I had enough of it for that. And then I realised later that it was hysteria with him. So there we are. Because probably his whole family went in it. God knows who went. You see. So, these are the little side personal horror insights and bits and pieces that one ... one gets. But the thing I was going to contrast it with is going to Osaka. Because Osaka was destroyed with high explosive and what that does is not only destroys everything but it hollows out buildings and brings them down and so on, but also digs up the ground. It digs up everything you see. Just churns everything up. Repeated bombings just churns. I've got some photographs of that inside too. And so you see I remember looking at it from a Buddhist temple, of which I have a photograph where you see Osaka from that and all the wreckage and all the ruin that took place there.

So the ground was scarred and mutilated.

Oh the whole ... the whole place was and the thing that got me too, another insight I got while I was in Japan ... Roskolenko got a jeep and we were travelling around a bit and I wanted to go and see the Japanese artist Fujita. I still have one of his inside. And we were on our way to Fujita and I remember we were going past a lot of these bombed out ruins and so forth, these bombed out cities, bombed to smithereens. And there were all these little shanty towns. They'd been put up there. Hasty shelters had been put up: galvanised iron, bits of timber, packing cases, anything they could construct a shelter from. And there were all these places. And as you went by, the Japanese would come out, and this is the extraordinary thing there. Mind you, then, they were mainly all still in feudal costume, not like the modern Japanese now in western business suits. They're not that any more, although some of them might be, in the country they might be, but in ... right through the whole area, then, you were back in the Twelfth Century, which is rather, you know, a most extraordinary thing. And they'd come out there, in their Twelfth Century clothing - children, everyone there - and they'd just stand there with big bright smiles on their faces, beautifully dressed, beautiful toilet - everything ... everything in order and so on there - and bow and smile as we went by. And I looked at those people there and I remember turning to Harry and I said, 'For God's sake, nothing will ever destroy these people. Nothing', which was quite different to when I got to England, and got to Europe, to see what ... the moral reaction then at the time was quite different. The Japanese: I had that sense of indestructibility with them, at that time.

[end of tape]

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