Australian Biography

Albert Tucker - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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Houses, and the places in which you've lived, have always been really important to you, haven't they?

Oh I think, well again it ... again, it's the way one conceives of the individual. Again I'm always off beam according to the conventional wisdom on these things. I regard the context of an individual as just as important as the individual. And you can't understand ... there's no such thing as an individual in a vacuum or floating in space without an environment. No such thing. If you want to conceive of an individual and what he's about there, it's got to be always in the context of what immediate environment he's in because it's a two way relationship between both of them. And this is the thing that creates the reality you're trying to deal with.

So in your early life, Victorian houses were important to you.

Well I grew up in Victorian houses and so they're imprinted on me.

And during the years that you were travelling around the world, securing accommodation was always an issue and in Paris it was a particular issue, wasn't it?

Well it was a particular issue but I managed to do it. But then you could get the hotels on the Left Bank, that were very cheap and I was able to use them. Even though you got bedbugs and everything else with it, and Turkish johns, floors down [laughs] and so on, but at least ... at least ... when you're on basics there, your first concern is shelter. That's the very first and basic thing.

Did you stay in hotels the whole time you were in Paris?

A lot of the time, not all the time. But you see the cheapest were the ... these hotel rooms. They were very cheap at the time. But later on there I managed, as I said, to get this apartment, which turned out to be Münch's old studio, behind the opera in Chaussée d'Antin and I was there for a while, must have been a good eighteen months or more, something of that nature.

And did you create something of a place for yourself to live?

Oh yes, I always do whenever I get in a place. I immediately modify the environment as well as I can to suit my ... see I can't live in a place that I haven't created myself.

When you were in Paris, where did you live?

Well, as I say, in all these little scungy Left Bank hotel rooms, but they were marvellously picturesque in marvellously picturesque areas. So I didn't mind, even though the living was, shall I say, very, very minimal and fundamental. But when I'd ... at one stage I went to Germany and I was there near Frankfurt for about, oh, less than a year, about ten months or something like that. And both Mary and I were there. And Mary had a job there and I was painting away and I was actually ... occasionally was able to sell occasional things there too. And we were able to buy a small Morris Minor car. So when we got back to Paris, drove back to Paris, we went and installed ourselves in a hotel in ... in the Rue de Verneuil, the Hotel de Verneuil, just near the Beaux Arts, which was again ... was just a block or two away was the Seine and the Louvre. You see, we were very close. And this was quite a cheap ... cheap little hotel. They had this tradition of cheapness - happily. But even so the French economy was in such a mess and jumping around and daily you'd turn around and the price of something would double and I realised that the little amount of money that we had left wouldn't last very long if we were paying ... paying the hotel, paying for our accommodation and we were out in the Morris one day, and we passed one of those trailers, you know, a little trailer there, a box like trailer and all of a sudden it hit me there: if we could get that trailer, take it back to the hotel there, I could build some sort of a camping arrangement on top of it. See? Because I had the Australian bent wire mentality. You could do anything with a bit of bent wire. And so we were able to hook up ... I went in and I swapped an American radio and 1,000 French Francs for it. And we managed to hook it up to the car and we took it back to the hotel and parked in the street outside. All of which was pretty ... pretty well illegal, but I had this notion now and then. I developed this obsession about creating my own shelter you see. It was this nesting urge there that the male gets from time to time. And, also the saves money urge, which is just as strong. And I set to work. I bought masonite, all the equipment, I got down to the local garage, I lengthened the steel beard of it and it was on and then I built a full floor in it ...

Where did you do this?

In the street. In the street. But then I had to build the caravan itself. Once I built the bed and the floor and had the thing just sitting there, and the wheels, I then got sheets of maisonette and all sorts of old material and got the proprietor of the hotel to help me to bring it all up stairs to the second floor, which he did. He was a marvellous bloke. He'd been in an interment camp through the war and he was one of those Frenchmen who knew the hard stuff and had been humanised by it, as we all are if we have very unpleasant experiences. And so he helped with that and I set to work and built the sides of it. I made the sides and the parts of it in the room. And then I'd go downstairs and put up a framework on the ... on the bed, on the floor that I'd made. Then I got Monsieur Dumont, if he'd come up and help me to lower the sides, the bits and pieces out the window. So these great sides of the caravan and roof of it and so on. He helped me with that and we lowered them out the window into the street. And I got them in the street, leant them against the wall, then set to work to screw them all together. And I was at it for days and I had the gendarme coming up to me there. He'd just stand there looking at me, swinging the baton there and [laughs] with intense curiosity, see, because no Frenchmen had ever done this in his entire life, it'd never occur to them. And so forth. He said, 'Ah', - I'll have to use my appalling monkey talk French here, but it was the term he used I remember - 'French words'- 'You're making gold there, monsieur', and so on, swinging his baton there, looking very, very interested in it. It was only later I found out I was breaking every street regulation under the sun. But he was too intrigued by what was taking place and he wouldn't say anything and he was waiting to see what happened. So sure enough I got the whole thing built and he was there. He was quite, quite, absolutely delighted. It was as though it was his place. He'd looked in the window, he'd looked in the door. 'Merveilleux, merveilleux', he'd say, 'L'oro, monsieur', 'You make the gold there', and so on [laughs]. And so this is when ... after a while it was finished and then I said goodbye to him and to Monsieur Dumont and we hooked it up to the Morris and we went off down to the Seine. And I'd already prospected earlier where it was vacant. In those days you could park along the banks of the Seine. Just odd cars parked down there. And there were ramps going down. And then always the fisherman ... You see, it was still the old Paris. That sort of thing. They've built a freeway along there for God's sake, now, there, which filled me with horror. But, anyhow, we took the caravan down there and took it down the ramp and found a spot near a bridge and just under two elm trees that were parked there and there were all the old clochardes down there, who were the people who lived under the bridges and, you know, wrapped themselves in newspapers every night. Go out begging for wine through the day, and food and so then come back and sleep under the bridge, and so on, and so we'd ... we'd talk to them. Mary - her French was quite good - and I'd use my monkey talk and we got along very, very well with them. They were very, very nice people. And, you know, the people who'd just failed and missed the bus or tripped over in life somehow and were unable to put it together again. It's amazing the number of times a woman lay behind the disaster for them. Or they'd probably been thrown out too, [laughs] and so their morale collapses and there they are: the power of the female. And ... but nevertheless they ... but curiously also we had some old lady clochardes down there too, and often, where they had a boyfriend amongst them there, they'd go round in pairs. It's the only place I've ever seen this. Two tramps. The clochard is the word for tramp. And we parked the van and while we were parking there, setting it there so we could stay with the intention of sleeping in there, and make it last a good time ... see the trouble is I go into a whole string of anecdotes now which will take an enormous length of time, which ... but they are very vital I think to the whole atmosphere and feeling of the whole story.

We've certainly got a very strong sense now of your life in Paris with that, and so I did want to ask you about back here, in Australia, picking up this theme of your houses and the sorts of places you like to live, again back here, you had decided to set yourself up properly on a piece of land. But then subsequently you decided to move back into the city. I wondered what your ... how you feel now about this phase of your life in St. Kilda?

Well I was twenty years in Hurstbridge you know. A big body of my work was done there. I was able to put up an agricultural implement shed which gave me a 20 x 50 foot studio and made it a two storey one. And quite cheap too.

And you worked at the studio at Hurstbridge ...

Oh yes.

... for a very productive period of your life.

Oh it was a productive period, yes.

What were the paintings that you worked on in Hurstbridge?

Well, a great deal of the first phase of them certainly, were my impact again of the Australian landscape and bush and bird life and so on, animal life. They're still surviving, a few of those. And they fortunately, they were ones, that also sold well. It hit a popular nerve. About the only aspect of my work that ever has. And so while it lasted, of course, it was quite well worthwhile. That was a very good phase in that sense. And ... but then ... this moved into others say, where I just starting moving into the folk lore area, because I was even already ... when I was in Italy I'd already done that. ... Was painting the landscape you know, which is memory stuff. And then I was dealing with the real thing and then I was getting closer to the whole story, explorer stories and so forth, which contained marvellous situations which we ... unfortunately we haven't lasted long enough to exploit and develop them. Because the Australia up to the forties, you could say up to Nolan's Kelly's there, we had all the basis for creating an Australian mythology full bore, with it filled out with all the necessary imagery, which could have summed up the history of the country but unfortunately the war broke, [and] brought that to a short end and then subsequent invasions are at such a point now, what is it ? I think about two thirds of the country are post war migrants or darn near it. And so there you have a mixture of cultures that came over and the fragmentation of the indigenous thing, which was beginning to come together beautifully in ... in Australia, which was based on our earlier seven million odd population. And so that ... the integration of that thrust was broken and so that was gone. I'm trying to continue it in another form now as a matter of fact. Not in a deliberate sense but I find this does emerge in my work. But one ... one never gives one's self programmes or directions in these things. You have to wait, fell that most potent thing there which leans and presses on you and demands attention and that's the potency line that one has to follow all along.

You've also been interested in mythology and in Jungian views about the collective unconscious and symbols and so on. Could you tell us a little bit about how that's affected your work?

Well the Jungian thing has because both Nolan and I, oddly enough, we were reading Jung rather extensively in middle forties. Because we'd gone through the Freudian stage and found it was rather barren for our needs, although it wasn't for the psychoanalytical procedures and so on because it became a foundation of current practice to psychoanalysis. But we ... I became rather ... felt we ... you know, felt we'd got out of that what we wanted. But it would fascinate and intrigue because Jung seemed his mind worked more like an artist. And he was dealing more with these deepest subliminal formation of imageries of ideas, and his whole business of archetypes was a fascinating concept, which has stayed with me and still has because this is something I recognise because you recognise that ... that in the ... in the mind, there are things we know that we don't know we know. And this is what Jung based himself on, was this one in trying to bring to the surface of the ... to the knowing mind, the unknown forces that were still affecting us beneath it, which they were. This is where all our neuroses and other things come from. Plus very bright ideas and plus works of art. They come from this ... this zone because we're always leaning on the ... on the margins of that ... that ... shall I say, the dark area that we can't see past. Because the ... because we're all points of awareness, shall I say, in an unknown space in infinity, and we're surrounded by infinity and eternity. And what we do is create a vast abstraction that encompasses the reality we feel we understand and know, and we set that up and try to deal with it as the total or final reality there, because we still want to put ourselves in a god-like position within it, for our own feeling of security. But there's a point where this becomes, you could say, sacrilegious to do that. To do that ... because you have to always acknowledge an unknown god, a god who's out of reach but who you feel the presence, and the presence is there. You always know it's there. One has to have that sense to think that we can know any ... everything is a most grotesque impertinence and presumption and part of a tiny little microscopic mind in a limitless universe. And so one has to always preserve this distance and this sense of humility and awareness of these unknown, vast, incredible and marvellous forces that still exist just out of our reach. And we're trying to reach them. This is what artists are trying to do: the endless attempt to reach out and touch ... touch the marvels, as it were.

These are very religious thoughts ...

Completely, yes.

... And religious ideas but not in the conventional mould.

Oh well, to hell with convention. [Laughs] They're resting places for people that haven't got the courage to go on.

So have you ever been involved with formal religion?

No, never. That's one of the things I'm grateful to my parents for. I never went to church. Never went to Sunday School. The only religion I got was by the Reverend Tyrrell, who came down and gave us half an hour's religious instruction, once a week at the Spring Road State School. And that I remember in my mind was teeming with Biblical stories that he used to tell us at that time. And then he'd allow us to the rectory up near the church next to the Malvern Town Hall, and I was able to go up there and he'd let us go in and look at his library and his books and I remember looking through all his great tomes and all his engravings of religious subjects. And so they probably had a very powerful effect on me, all those things. I was young enough. I was only about what? Thirteen, fourteen at the time and so it would have, you know ... it would have made that imprint the way when a photographer puts his ... exposes a paper to the negative image and then puts it in a chemical bath and fixes the image. Well I think this happens with us at different stages of our life. At key moments there, an experience happens which suddenly is fixed and sealed into our nervous system from then on. We've got that for the rest of our life. And we've got whatever we do with that. We've got to elaborate on it, go horizontally, in any direction you like, but it is an elaboration of something put and fixed there, at some earlier point in life. That's why I put such a point, earlier, on traumas, the enormous value of the information that lies in traumatic episodes.

So what do you think stimulated you to develop these earlier religious impressions into the sort of whole system of thought that you've developed now?

Yes, but surely all people, all human beings ask this question from time to time: Who are we? What are we doing here? What does it all mean? What's it about? What happens when we die? Is there an afterlife? See these are all questions that occur to everyone and then people will find they're different range, shall I say of their ... that they can penetrate it and stop short and most people will try to be satisfied with an existing homogenised, ready made, pre-digested solution, which we all inherit anyhow in the society we come into. And so stupid people will just simply use one of those as a resting point and as a cop out and as a cover and a protection and so on. But the truly creative person, they never do that. They keep leaning on, pressing on, in search of the marvellous and so on. The Jung's, the Einstein's, the Picasso's, the Shakespeare's, all these people. And so if you haven't got that kind of person, history will come to a standstill.

You've had very direct and painful experiences of death, people very close to you ...

Yes, but a lot of people have far, far, far worse than mine. I mean look what has happened through the war. I mean the kind of experiences that people have gone through there, I still can't bear trying to empathise or think about them because the mind boggles and they're just simply too horrific to ... to contemplate. So one has to retreat in that sense. I mean as far as my courage and strength will take me and that is it. But I know it's not far enough. That there's always other realities way past that which have to be fronted up with ... to, sooner or later.

In your own experience, you've had experience directly of death, at a young age ...

Yes.

... and very much with people that you loved. Are you afraid of death?

Well again that's one of those ... those ... those trick small questions, shall I put it that way, because on the face of it innocently, everyone's afraid of death. We're afraid of the unknown. And also our animal self is afraid of death because it knows it's going to be ... die and rot, and finish and be done with. Be thrown away like garbage. And see we ... we know that, and this is a subterranean fear that follows us all in everything we do. But people ... it's just not a nice thing to admit this, or to even point at it or even mention it, and so people tend to avoid it and say if works or art or literature point to it there, they ... they ... they tend to evade it. They'll try and avoid it there also and they want it sugar coated and in a palatable form. And so we've got people all frozen at a particular point that is as far as their courage and strength will take them, and then from then on they cop out. Well I do it myself, of course, to an extent but I think I keep more open to experience than most people. Or I try to confront up to my experience, as far as I can see, more than most. And I maybe wrong. I mean there might be others who will do that far better than I do. Undoubtedly there are.

So what do you yourself feel will happen to you when you die?

Well, now we're getting into the ... the ... shall I say, you're opening up a can of, of shall I say, death adders there, [laughs] which can lead us anywhere, all over the place. But I believe, shall I be as simple as possible, that there are an infinite number of realities and we merely inhabit one of them. One small, limited reality. And I don't doubt there are thousands of other realities on this planet in animal life, insect life, bird life, vegetable life, all kinds of life, of which, of course, we don't regard with enough respect. One has to be careful because this is a sacrosanct attitude. And this is one of the great crimes the human race is committing, you know, all the time, every day, because unhappily, we're a carnivorous species. All life feeds on life. And so we are, in what I would call, a pretty ... pretty limited and poor form of existence. Although as much as we admire ourselves, unjustly, and so on. But I think there are other realities not only below this one, but also far beyond it. And they, as far as we know, go on to infinity. There's no end to it. Perhaps this is our eternal life, living from one life to another.

So you don't really feel that you have to be afraid of death ...

That I have to be?

Afraid of death?

No, well I'm afraid of it and I'm not afraid of it. That's the only way I can answer the question you know, with a cancelling out.

I suppose some people say that all fear in the end is a kind of fear of death.

See I often look forward to death, out of ... simple curiosity will sometimes get me to the point where I want to be dead so I can know. I'll get some answers. So that will happen with me. Then of course, then I'll get back to my more normal state of mind and then resume being afraid of the whole idea and, you know, clinging to life and my fear. Well I've resolved it by: I'll cling to as much life as I can, do it as well as I can, and get as much work done as I can while I'm here, and while I can function and so on. When I can't then, you know, bye-bye. Off I go.

I guess that one of the things that's striking is that you've described your life in which ... a life in which fear has played quite a big part.

Oh yes. Well with me it came through as anxiety. I was very cocksure when I was younger, as most people are because you've got this biological energy thought pushing you at the back and pushing you on and forward and it seems endless. That's the delusion we have when we're young. And you solve a lot of problems then that are ... more or less do things there almost effortlessly. But when we get to a more advanced stage, shall I say there, and you've got to ... find you work hard to do something you did without even thinking by reflex action once, and you have to make hard work out of it, then you start finding out what it is, what old age is about. But I do think, though, with old age, that very elderly people who go mentally, and physically, they only seem to be that, because I think a lot of them are inhabiting already ... partly inhabiting another reality later on, and a lot of them are actually having quite a ball. [Laughs]

Is that happening to you?

Oh, give me a chance. I haven't got there yet. [Laughs] I'm still functioning in this world and dealing with your questions.

You're only in your eightieth year.

Yes, I'm eighty years young. Or not quite. I'm beginning my eightieth year.

One thing that it is possible to do as you get older though is to look back on your life ...

Oh lovely age. I enjoy this no end.

... and assess it. And now looking at you as an artist, for the moment, just looking at your work, other people have written a lot about your work and about what it means, and described the various phases of your development. Now I'm offering you your chance. If you look back over the work that you've done do you see a pattern of development or particular phases that mean a lot?

Oh yes, I think I can see it and on the whole I think I could say that I've conquered adversities enough to be able to get enough work done there to have made a statement about my whole life, of a kind. What its value will be for other people I don't know. That's, as I say, that's a bonus. You might be kicked up the pants or patted on the shoulder. I just don't know. And I'm not interested really. I'm not interested. The thing is I've made it work sufficiently so I can survive and work as an artist, and to hell with everything else. Why bother any more? As long as I can keep going and my job is to just keep on producing and now I'm having quite a good time, in a way, going back over my whole life and trying to resolve past things that I left unfinished. You see, and try and complete things that I left unfinished. And this is what I am really trying, trying to get done now is do this and also in the course of doing that, I find that I activate other things and then new things will come into play that I couldn't have possibly thought about happening or predicting ... predicted before.

I see here in this studio that you've been reversioning some of the paintings that you did earlier.

Oh yes. There's a lot of other work of a kind and I use this often as a starting point. I'll have a phase of work which didn't quite finish itself. Or I'm dissatisfied with. So I tend to pick it up and play with it and I'll either wreck it and destroy it and throw it out, or else I will take it to another stage further and then I might work on another series on the same theme. And that will only have a short run but often it will produce things there which are quite interesting and then new elements are already, on their own volition, entering into it. And then I can often get a starting point with something completely new from that. And so I keep on that along with repairing scratches on frames and scratches on the painting or dents or all the things that happen in the course of keeping them in storage.

Of the various phases of your art and the various periods that you've had where you've had particular themes or particular preoccupations, which would be the ones that you would most like to see survive? The ones that you feel have been your most significant contribution?

Oh probably the ones that people would hate most I think. The ones that refer to the whole story, including all the ... all the grim stuff that we're always trying to evade all the time.

Specifically?

Pardon?

Specifically which ones?

Well, well let me see. One ... one there which was possibly as a ... I'm just hanging the whole question on one painting there. I don't paint in a very large size, but before I put up that retrospective I did paint a large religious painting and this started from an earlier one that I painted in Rome where I had the Betrayal, Christ in the garden and so on. Well I did that and that ... that worked up to a certain point. But I was still left with that feeling that there was much more to do with that ... with that idea so I painted another one there which was much larger and treated the whole thing quite differently and so on, which just had a couple of very bare bone images in it, with a, you know ... with the David figuring out who these characters are: one of the disciples when Christ was in the garden and Judas came and kissed Christ, to finger him, as it were, for the gendarmes. [Laughs] In the first one I made them gendarmes as a matter of fact, [laughs] which was rather amusing, and in this one I carried the same thing through to an extent. But in it I also used a couple of ... of traffic cops, you know, motorcycle boys with their helmets, which shows I received a bit too many parking tickets I suppose. And so out of that I made a ... made a robot form using the motorcycle helmet. And then I had to do something out of the mouth, and out of the mouth I had streaming a whole flood of death adders because there was Judas, you see, in the act of kissing Christ and fingering him. Then on the other side was the ... another one of the gendarmes who ... that was having his ear hacked off by one of the disciples, who saw what had happened there and he is ... you may remember the Biblical episode. I don't go into it detail by detail. I'm concerned with the overall thing. But he was ... he had ... was getting his ear chopped off because this was the ear that heard the ... the dreadful news that this man was Christ and would be crucified, you see. So Judas and the gendarme were the ones who really were the ... shall I say, the ones who created - physically created - that circumstance. Just as later on there they ... they crucified Christ. And so this occurred. And there was another I did, a crucifixion of Pontius Pilate - one that's in the Adelaide Gallery. But this doesn't happen often with me but, you know .... but anyhow, to get back to the original question which I ... as usual wandering off it. Now I had this ... I got this painting done and I thought: well that should sit well in the exhibition as some kind of centre piece and I wonder what reaction it will have. Well practically no one's taken any notice of it. See? Which is rather interesting.

And yet this is one that really means a great deal to you?

Oh yes, it meant a great deal. It's a culmination of one whole train of thought, the theme of betrayal. I've got the other Judas betrayal - I have in the gallery - which was a quite a good image that came out of the Italian period, of you know, Judas squatting there with ... with a rope round his neck and let's see now ... I have to just remember how the figure looked. I made it all by making an abstraction. I made an abstraction of his robes and the finger, the figure and the way he was squatting there with his head down and the rope round his neck, when he later ... later suicided, when he realised what he'd done. Well it did emerge as a pretty powerful image that did draw a lot of attention, that one. But the other one ... Then I had another one called Ascension with Christ ascending ... going from the cross, of the mutilated figure rising diagonally out of the canvas. But that ... that took people, you know ... since I used a more Grünewaldian approach for that, it showed the elements of wounds and decomposition. I played on them as a major part of the image, which they would have been in fact. People tend to evade that one too. So there is a body of work I've produced which people either don't just ... simply plain don't like, or won't bother looking at. Or they look at it and it frightens them so they look away. Or they look at it and say, 'Oh that's a nasty one there. I don't want anything to do with that', and walk away. [Laughs] You see, I don't know. Could be any of those reactions.

But that tends to be the ones that matter most to you?

Oh they're the ones that matter. They're the ones there that, shall I say, are centrepieces to personal conflicts and struggles within myself. I'd say people could either like them or lump them.

James Mollison at the National Gallery was particularly drawn to the images of Modern Evils ...

Oh yes.

What do you think of that series?

Well I'm ... I'm quite happy with it because I was picked up by some kind of energy tide and swept along. It started off as moral outrage when I came out of the army and saw what had happened to the civilian life which I'd regarded as an area of security and predicability. Then I realised things were happening there which were tearing it all apart. And again, it was all these little girl prostitutes all over the place and the homicidal diggers getting drunk all over the streets. Well again, this is not a popular theme to draw attention to. And it still isn't. You see. For the authorities, they don't like that idea and the whole tendency was to sweep it all under the mat, carpet, and pretend it wasn't there. And this was Mollison's I think supreme act of courage and perception, and showed what a tough and capable administrator he was, or is, that he ... that he recognised this and made an instant decision about them. Decided the gallery had to have this body of work and there it was. He saw its basic significance in a flash. And so this is something that I always have a ... hold Mollison in very high regard for that. Because practically, if he hadn't come along, I'd probably still be waiting in the wings. [Laughs]

You've also made some extraordinary portraits of the people that you've known.

Oh yes, yes.

Has that got you into any trouble?

No really. Oddly enough no. It's ... they've worked very beneficially. Because when I started them I realised I was behind the eight ball in a sense because I was trying to put a human face on my period of the thing that had shocked me was that people started dying all over the place. There's this ... it makes you feel apprehensive. And I thought my God, and I do feel it now because, good heavens, there are only a small handful of us left from that period. You know who worked in that period ... But the thing that brought it to a head was when John and Sunday Reed died within a week or so of each other. When they died I realised that this marked the end of a whole cycle of ... an energy cycle that had buoyed, carried us along and had been a very formative thing in our early life. And so I was very disturbed at this. And also when Fred Williams died, although he came after it, but nevertheless he was too young to die, I think. But there were other people too now, and curiously I ... I've forgotten a lot of them. A lot of the other, you know ... other people associated with it. Joy of course - she died. That was it. And Mary died. And then you find you're surrounded with all the world that you grew up in ... that you ... that meant ... was highly significant to you, that you drew energy from, which was of such enormous value to you, that they were just dropping off one by one, like leaves off a tree and so on. And then you find there: my God I'm going to be ...

[end of tape]

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