|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 15, 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.
Albert, during the years that you were developing your own artistic style, those early years in Melbourne, what kinds of influences were brought to bear on your art?
Oh dear, that's a very wide question. Because first, one isn't consciously developing an art style. This thing just happens. You work and things add up in their own way and in their own time and people look at it later on and say, 'That's recognisable, that's typical of you', or 'Yes, that fits in with your general style'. So this is something again that's elusive. You can't pin it down. But as for influences of course, like everyone else, you're born in a particular cultural context, in which there are certain images which are potent at that time, you're influenced by them as everyone else is, and you meet your own particular personal situations, images, painters and people who have an influence. And quite probably if I simplified the whole thing, that probably a major figure for me is Danila Vassilieff, the Russian painter who came over, because he was a much older man than I and a completely unique one, and I was in the position of being the ... I was the suburban provincial out in the antipodes and in a curious way, in my early years, I never heard a foreign language spoken. As you remember, I came from an Australia in which the population was six to seven million. That covered my formative years. And so to encounter someone like Vassilieff and also later on, Yosl Bergner, these ... these had a curious effect, in that they made what was a kind of European fantasy about the art world, they gave it flesh and blood, it became real. And there I was talking to them, and I realised that they were people I could talk to, unlike most Australians. That they ... that I was much closer and I developed a faster rapport and understanding with them, than I could with my own people, which was a little problem to add up in one's mind. And then on top of that, Gino Nibbi, an Italian, had a bookshop called the Leonardo Bookshop in Little Collins Street and he was one who brought in some reproductions of material that I'd never seen before. For example, one of the major image that emerged from that, that I encountered was one of Münch. Münch, his Sick Child. You remember that one? It was one of those things there that really affected me. It's only later on I realised this related back to my own experience obviously with my little niece who'd died earlier. And these things are all ... in a sense, they are also recognitions of experiences which were powerful and formative in one's own development. And so Münch's Sick Child had this effect on me and this in turn then led me to go to the public library a lot and then I discovered they had a fine art room there, which I knew nothing about at the time. The librarian was a man named Ian Mair [?], who oddly enough, only died a couple of weeks ago I believe. But he was well into his eighties. But I'd go to him and he would give me a lot of information about books and so on and then one day he told me about the fine art room, which I hadn't heard of. And he said, 'Well you have to get a pass for it, but you can get all the art books you want in there'. So I got a pass straight away and then I ... for quite a long time I used to go into this room, because I had access to a whole range of books, and particularly - as I had through Nibbi and Edvard Münch - the Expressionists, the whole expressionist movement, which I hadn't heard of before then. But I'd already been painting my own little, timid little provincial versions of expressionism without knowing it, in suburban street scenes beforehand, and so that I instantly recognised the fellow spirits and these ... these had a very strong formative effect ... effect on me.
Were you at all attracted to the more abstract forms that were being developed at that time?
I've never really been attracted to abstract forms. That whole ... I can realise that it did perform a certain function of value, for a period. But now, I think in our time now, it's become a bit ridiculous and also it's become a marvellous cop out for so many painters because you cannot produce an image without producing an image. Very simply. And even if they produce something they think is abstract, say curves, lines, squares or something, they all exist in nature. That's where they're taken from originally anyhow. And so ... so no matter how you look at it there, the image's there. And also we tend to, in the Jungian way, we ... we ... if we see something that gives us some kind of clue to something that's significant to us, we'll project an image into it. So we work with images anyhow. But what we are really doing is: whether we're deliberately using them. And the abstract painters tried to deliberately get rid of the image, which of course is an impossible task as I said, anyhow. And ... but they made this attempt. They're still making the attempt. There's two paintings in the gallery now by some young painter in which, that's - I forget exactly what he said there - but it was more or less 'I have nothing to say' in text and next to it was just a plain black canvas. Well this had all happened before with Malevitch and it also happened with William Green in London. It's also happened [coughs] with, what's his name? The American I forget his name, an American painter there. He painted a whole exhibition of black paintings. Another one named Cohn who painted a whole exhibition full of just blue panels that size. I mean you know, we were in cloud cuckoo land with all that kind of thing.
With that view of it then, what value do you think that it had? You said it made some ...
Well the value it had for people, is first that they liked to join in evading the real problems of life. And this became a kind of a comfortable escape hatch in a way, where you just looked at a lot of pretty colours and shapes and so forth and that's all there was to it. And if you could enjoy them you enjoyed them and that was it. But this attempt to project into it there some vast mystical significance, you know, even now, we ... I saw this in New York as well as here only last week. I remember there a painter exhibited just a plain white canvas and when he was asked to explain what he was doing he said, 'I looked at it and thought hard, thought a lot there and I realised there was nothing to do. I went through every possibility that I could carry out with it'. There was nothing ... nothing there for him to do, so that was the painting. [Laughs] So you see cloud cuckoo land again. [Laughs] And ... but to me I've always had a firm grip on the image. Certainly I've played in a studio sense, experimentally, with ... with certain abstract approaches, or forms, or what have you. And in fact, what an image painter does, he's also making another kind of abstraction, because anything that is a variant on the ... on the ... on the perceptual image there can be called an abstraction on another level, which it is. And so I've always had that abstract element of functioning full bore.
You've also always been interested in the understanding of the audience of what it is that you're wanting to communicate.
No, no, no. You're attributing something to me that's totally wrong. Totally. To hell with the audience. There's only one audience I'm interested in. If he's satisfied that's the beginning and end of it as far as I'm concerned. And if other people then like it, well that's just a bonus.
The reason I say that is that you've assisted people with titles and ...
Oh well, you put titles on work. This is a clue ... clue to direct into the painting. And other times I'll do it badly. I'll just give the paintings numbers there, just simply so I can identify them and so on. And even that fails because I'm a lousy ledger keeper and so I still get lost with it all. But every now and then I'll get a title there which is very appropriate to my intention in the painting and I'll use that. But that's okay. That's another thing. But it's not an explanation of the painting. As I say, it gives a clue and a direction.
So you're only interested, when you sit down to do a painting, in exploring the idea for yourself?
Very simply I totally retreat into myself and to hell with everyone else. I don't give a damn whether they're right or wrong or who they are.
Now in your early years that attitude must have been useful to you because you weren't getting a lot of recognition, were you?
Oh yes, that's how I developed the attitude, in one sense, [laughingly] in that everything I did everyone thought I was out of my mind, or took no notice of it.
At the time there were other young painters around you that you were spending time with, who were coming on, who were beginning to get more recognition, like Sidney Nolan. What did you think of ... of ... of Nolan's work?
Oh Nolan had pretty solid rejection most of the way too, in the early days. Quite a lot of it. But his advantage was, well it was mine also in a sense, but more so with Nolan, was that he did have the very solid backing of the Reeds, who picked him out because of this and so they gave him more support than anyone else. But I also got a certain amount of that, and so did John Perceival and so did later on, Joy Hester, and so on. These things happened because Sunday had a very good eye, shall I say. And this underlay the whole thing. The fact she had a good eye and also had a fair amount ... was a rich woman. This made a very big difference. So that she became in a sense ... The Reeds wouldn't like this because they rejected the idea, but in fact they did become patrons in a way of a small group of painters and it turned out that they put their money on the right horse.
So at the time that Nolan was painting then, did you exchange ideas a lot?
We ... It was rather curious. People have brought this up before, because since, with hindsight we appeared as a group, in fact at the time we weren't. We were a willy nilly, coincidental arrangement of people that encountered one another once in a while, and then of course relationships developed and sustained themselves over a time. And then you were seen together. You were mixed up and then finally you were designated by other people as some kind of group. And then later on we became the Angry Penguin painters, which of course we knew nothing about at the time. Which is in a way a silly title, which was one that produced by Max Harris. I forget now. He got it from some poem I believe. And they used the word angry because the English had also had the angry painters at the time too. The Kitchen Sink School for example. They were also angry. In fact it's a characteristic and probably a very good one of young painters to feel rejected by life and to be angry about it because they know they're telling their own personal truth and people should put some value on it. And they feel rejected. And so this makes them angry. So that's probably where the angry came from.
Angry was a word that was particularly applied to you. You were seen as someone who was very interested in conflict.
Well as you've just noticed, I was more vocal than most. [Laughs] And also more confronting and aggressive I think, and this is what I think John Reed liked about me, because I was, in a sense, became an idea man for them, particularly with the Contemporary Art Society and Angry Penguins. And so I had, you know, my extra curricular activities, apart from painting there, also other forms of activity which reinforced the whole painting position or made it hopefully more ... a bit more explicit for some people.
Being confronting and pursuing conflict is something that's very much associated with you. Do you recognise that?
Well I don't pursue conflict. I don't do that. See, again, this is where one puts a conclusion before the event. See, I'm not interested in conflict. I avoid it. I like a peaceful life but what seems true to me if I put it out into the world, everyone jumps up and down with rage. You see, [laughs] as they may be doing with this programme, I don't know. And so one has to ... one just has to put up with that. There's certainly ... I have no desire for conflict at all. But I also realise as a fact of life that if you want to do things in life, you have to enter into all sorts of levels of conflict with situations: people, institutions and so on. There is no escape from that and so you just grit your teeth, put your head down and charge in. Or at least that was my temperament to do that. In fact I'd like to do it far more now on all sorts of issues, which absolutely infuriate me. But I'm so tiny and so minute and so helpless in the front of it, and I realise I'll ... I'll consume energy, consume time and destroy myself if I get involved in that kind of conflict. For example the ... to mention one there that gets me really berserk is the ancient Eucalypt forests in eastern Gippsland, which are being turned into ship loads of chips now. Now this infuriates me. To me it's an act of total blasphemy. And the fact that it was said on a programme the other night that this, they need this because it give another 500 million to the economy, to hell with the economy! If it costs 500 million, okay, let them take it off our standard of living. We can afford it. We can afford that. And have respect and a sense of the sacrosanct and the history of this marvellous thing, of these beautiful forests there that are thousands of years of old, thousands of years of age, which have ... which are full of incredible and unique forms of wildlife which have grown up with the forest over these many thousands of years. We move in and turn it into floor boards and let all the wildlife starve to death. I mean, this is one of our great crimes of our time. See, I've already got going you see, while I'm speaking my mind, this would, published of course, create conflict and I've had this: I've tried to say things at times publicly about this, but I've had half of the thing chopped out, see, by some papers there, who were babbling all the time about freedom of speech and free press. And my God, they can be the most rigorous censors in the world, and we've got a hidden censorship, which keeps all this information hidden. But I'm too old now, and too long in the tooth to be able to put my head down and charge in, as I would have when I was younger: charge in and take them head on.
This passionate commitment to saying and speaking out what you really believe and feel ...
Life comes to a standstill without people of passionate commitment there. All historical change you can trace back to the initiating idea in one embryonic situation, on individual mind. That was the beginning of it. And this is where an Einstein came from, a Jung came from, a Picasso came from, Shakespeare came from. They're all people there who ... who were that single, solitary, minute, embryonic beginning of a new form, a new aspect or mutation of life. And so the freedom of that individualist to me is what democracy means. Not for most people, in the sense, that most people use freedom in a trivial and superficial way and so on. And also they convert the notion of freedom into self indulgence. Do your own thing, that favourite phrase, you see, which I think is absolutely a disgraceful interpretation of it, because you can't have an act of real freedom without it having a commensurate fact of self discipline with it, to give that act of freedom its true value and meaning.
Has this passionate commitment to speaking your mind brought you into conflict, or made difficulty for you in your more personal relationships?
Oh yes, on all levels. All levels. All levels.
In what way?
Well, there are certain people who just can't tolerate the confrontation of any issue, for example. And also, let alone any public organs of any kind there, they're always very terrified and concerned and they fear the unknown powers that will move in, or they'll lose their market or something or other of this nature. And so we're ruled, in a sense, by fear and inhibition and outside forces, as well as inside forces producing it. And to find ... this is to me what a means to be, a Van Gogh, for example. Like with Jesus Christ, who's probably one of the most honest men who ever lived. [laughs] Look at the life he lived. Tormented suicide. And so these things have a very, very heavy price indeed. And someone who can tell their own truth and succeed in living a long life, and then be able to survive in it there, is extremely fortunate. Extremely. And I consider myself very, very fortunate to that extent, in that I did succeed late in life in making some of these things come together. But I'm well aware that anything can happen anytime. A lot of the things I'm saying now can earn me a lot of enmity straight away. [Laughs]
Returning to your long life, when you returned from your trip to Japan, you were confronted at a personal level, with a major turning point for you. You'd been to Japan and you'd looked at the aftermath of war there, and very soon after you returned, there was a major event in your personal life. Could you tell us about that?
Oh that one was an unhappy one for me. I was married to Joy Hester, as you know, and she was a lovely girl, lovely girl, and a highly talented one, a very important one, and my relationship with her was very good, as far as I knew. But males are suckers in this department, as you know. We've got a blind spot which the ladies are very well aware of, and know very well how to use ... to make use of. Excuse the cynicism. But nevertheless, to me, everything in the garden was lovely and everything was all right. We had a young son and ... just two years old, young Sweeney. And when I returned I was confronted almost immediately with a ... with one of those ludicrous, when I look back on it, utterly ludicrous, stranger than fiction situations. And if you wrote about it in a novel, no one would believe it. They'd think, 'Oh you know, this is ludicrous. This is out of this world'. I can't remember exact times or sequences as one often can't when you're caught up in these things, but within a day or two of coming back I received a call from John Reed, who was still in his office in Temple Court and he said he wanted me to come in as he wanted to have a talk with me about something, which I assumed was catching up on things, because I'd been away for over three months and I assumed he wanted to catch up on certain things. And so I went in and saw John and I remember sitting across the desk and he looked at me very gravely and he said, 'I have ... unfortunately, I have some very bad news for you'. and I said, 'Yes?' and he said, 'You remember that Joy had this lump on her neck just before you went away and you suggested to her that she see a doctor', before I went, which I did. We put it down to a virus or throat infection of some sort. And I told her this before I went: 'See John and ask him if you can see his doctor and get him to look at it'. And he said anyhow that Joy went and saw this doctor of John's and the doctor told her she had Hodgkin's Disease. And also in the way ... rather brutal way in which, unfortunately, many of our medical colleagues have, he then said ... he said it was estimated she had about two years to live. Which was a disgraceful thing to say, even if true, because diagnostic methods were not that good, and no one can play God with anyone else and tell them when they're going to die, no matter what their condition is. And this is shocking. But of course this shocked, as you can imagine. You know, it sort of stopped me in my tracks. I was utterly shocked out of my wits by this. Let's see. I'd come into the city with Joy and Sweeney in his stroller and she'd gone off to do some window shopping while I went up to see John and when I came down there, I had this terrifying thing of composing myself and trying to talk to her and continue with her as though nothing had happened.
Because she didn't know?
She didn't know a thing about it. Didn't know a thing. And so this is one of the most, you know, appalling and, you know, relationship situations one could suddenly be projected into in a matter of minutes. I can understand people who's someone there that they love there is just ... someone comes and tell them they've been run over and killed, you know. Gets into that kind of area. You know, one of these real true disasters that can happen to the human mind. And your big problem then is to survive it almost. But anyhow I did the best I could and saw Joy and put on as good a front as I can, when inside I was all churned up in horror and despair and everything else. And we went home and we got home there and Joy had been very ... a bit cranky and a bit difficult and I paid much attention to this, because normally she was fairly stable. And we got ... we got home, went up the stairs and all of a sudden she burst out. She'd be saving it up apparently there. She said that she couldn't stay, that she had to go away on her own for a while to think things over, that she was involved with so-and-so.
Another man. Yes. So there I was you see, a double whammy. Double whammy. You know, all within the same couple of hours as it were. Double whammy. And this is when one's life, you can feel it just suddenly fall apart. And this is when ... this is when Sweeney was upstairs being put in his cot. And so, anyhow, then of course I ... I was totally ... if I hadn't had that earlier news earlier, I don't know how I would have reacted, but it would have been very differently. I would have had far more control. But getting the double thing there, that was it for me. I was almost falling apart, with this thing. Gibbering you could almost say and not knowing what to say or do, and so on. And so finally there, Joy then said, 'I've got to go away and think things over', and so fled downstairs. And then she stopped short. This is again, a marvellous little insight I think into some people, or the ladies or whatever you like, this firm grip on reality. She suddenly stopped short and said, 'I haven't any money!' [Laughs] And of course what is it I do? The sucker does there, pulled out his wallet, which I had ... well I had money in it that I'd got when I was in Japan there and threw it down to her. She fielded the wallet, took the money out, dropped the wallet and then resumed hysterical crying and raced out of the house, and that was it. So I was left there flat-footed. I didn't know who I was, what had happened and there was the youngster asleep in his cot. And I was, as I say, more or less gibbering. And finally when I calmed myself down there I rang Heidelberg. I rang Nolan and told him I was in a very bad state there. And he said - oh just one thing there that I hold for Nolan very good there - he said, 'Oh I'll come out straight away', which he did. And this helped a lot. And so anyhow from then on it was a very scrambled and mixed thing. I spent the next days trying to track Joy down to find out what it was, because obviously, even accepting the fact of it, there was still all sorts of things to fix up. Sweeney for example. The youngster. And there I was left flat-footed. Later on though I found out what, or at least I can only assume or worked out what would have really happened, is that Sunday would have given her an assurance that she would look after Sweeney if she decided to go off. So this literally freed Joy to take off. And at this point, as I said, she had a secretly quite ... I'd say, quite a strong, quiet ego and a terrific ambition of a level which I ... which I simply hadn't realised. I hadn't observed.
Did she feel you hadn't given her space to develop?
Oh no, no. She had all the space she wanted. I was cleaning up after her when she worked, for God's sake. I took her up the Victorian Artists' Society, and she ... we worked together. All her early work was done like that. I gave her ... introduced her to everyone, gave her every encouragement. The only battle I had with her once was when I'd worked for weeks - this is some time earlier - in making paint, in grinding it and going around and getting the powder colour, getting all the media, spending weeks there grind, grind, grind, and putting it in tubes, which I did. But anyhow one day when I was out I came back and Joy had decided - this impulse thing - to do a painting. She grabbed my paints and did a couple of large paintings, about so big there, [GESTURES WITH HIS ARMS] and put on the paint about half an inch thick. I nearly went cuckoo because here I was there carefully doling it out, working my innards out, and I had a terrific row with her and I said to her ... read the riot act to her and I said, 'If you want any bloody paint, girl, do what I did. Go out and make it yourself. If not, you're not entitled to paint the picture with it', you see. So there we were. So I gave her the hard male thing there. She said nothing. Didn't argue. She knew she was in the wrong. And so that ... that passed. But I really ... that's the first ... that's really the worst real row that I had with her, ever, was that one over getting into my painting material.
Why do you think Sunday had given her this backing?
Well, Sunday ... Sunday couldn't have children. She was enormously frustrated at not having them. And she regarded Sweeney as a ... he was a beautiful little baby, a beautiful boy. And she doted on him. We took him out to Heidelberg when he was born and she had seen a lot of him and she sort of played mother with him right through that period, all the times we went out there. But with again, with my male stupidity, I wasn't aware of what was going on. That she developed a bond. Joy developed a bond and a level of contact with Sunday that I never had. See? And this is what I think happened is that she got involved with this fellow. What order this would have happened in, I don't know. But she got involved and made the decision in her mind now that she could go it on her own, that she didn't really need my help any more. And she wanted to stand on her own two feet, which has got its degree of legitimacy. And so ... so in that sense, good luck to her. But not if you destroy all the people around you. That's where one stops short. Well she didn't.
Who ... who ...
And Sunday, I think, more or less gave her the assurance there that if, 'Look Joy if you ever want to go off or do anything ...', because Sunday was one of these people who interfered in people's married lives. She was an interferer. Again I was in innocent in that area. I only realised this later on and really observed it later on. And she was a marvellously skilled manipulator. And I think what really had happened is that Sunday said, 'Oh they're young and strong. They can have more children. I can't and so I'm entitled to get Sweeney if I can'. And I think she arranged things so this is what happened. So she won hands down with Joy's co-operation, because, you see, this instantly freed Joy to test herself on the world, which she did.
So did ...
And I was unaware that she had this desire and ego and ambition that was so strong that she would want to do this.
So did she go and stay on her own for a while?
Oh no, she did not. She did the classic ... classical thing. That's again ... of course again like that usual male idiot I believed her when she said she wanted to be on her own and think things over. I thought: Well okay, she's entitled to do that. I even rationalised it to myself and justified it. I thought if she's in a bind of some kind and so on, well okay, she needs a bit of time on her own to work things out. And I left it at that. But of course what she did, she fled straight to this other fellow and that was it.
Who was he?
And this eighty pounds that she whipped out of my wallet, down the stairs, they took that and a few days later, took off for Sydney and had a binge on that. I financed their escape as it were. Unwittingly, needless to say. [Laughs] My life is full of these lovely little ironic twists you know. I don't doubt upstairs and many of the gods who handle these things there, that they're laughing. They laugh their heads off at what they're doing with us down here.
Who was he?
Oh I better leave his name out of it. It's probably well known anyhow.
And was she ... what did you think, did you feel resentment? Did you think what's he got that I haven't?
No, oh no. That didn't occur to me. Oh no. I'm not the one there that goes and kills the lover. No. no, I'm not that type at all. The woman is always responsible in that. She's the one who says yes or no, who responds or doesn't respond. She's totally responsible, the female. And if anyone's going to ... going to be dealt with, it's the woman, if one wants to do any dealing with it. But fortunately I'm not the homicidal type.
Did you ever see her again?
Joy? Ah, yes. Well this gets into one little final episode which ... which, well, I suppose, to complete the story it's necessary to put it down, although in a sense I'm putting my neck out as you know, in the way we talked about earlier. But since this is an archival thing and so it's necessary to tell in there, if people in the future have any interest in it at all. But I went to a lot of trouble to try and track her down, to find out where she was. And I'll cut it. These things are always confused and mixed in so I'll just tell the main line of it. There were ... [coughs] Excuse me. I'll keep their names out of it but there were two girls, one of them a Belgian girl and the other a German girl and their husbands had been popped into internment camps because when the war broke out here, [coughs] excuse me ...
[end of tape]