Remembered as the pioneer of modern expressionism, surrealist and symbolist painting in Australia, Albert Tucker played a pivotal role in fostering the Australian art culture and igniting international interest in the local art scene.
As an artist who was described to have “not dealt in prettiness, but unsettling truths”, the often difficult and confronting work of Albert Tucker represented an overtly political nature, a frustration with the morality of society and a reactive response to his surrounding environment. Profoundly influenced by the horrors of war and the idea of catching people in the act of life, Tucker sought to use his art to capture the true essence and savagery of the human condition.
Born during the depression in Melbourne, 1914, Tucker was the youngest of three children with a father who was a simple railway worker. Coming from a poor family where he didn’t have access to any art materials, Tucker’s upbringing had very little to do with his eventual career as an artist with most of his skills largely being self-taught. However, it has been said that his uncle on his mother’s side allowed the children to experiment with his paints which supposedly served to instigate Tucker’s passion for art.
Forced to leave school in 1929 at the age of 14 and take on various jobs to support his family, Tucker earned a precarious living as a freelance illustrator, painter and writer moving from one dismal job to the next. Feeling extremely discouraged and overwhelmed by the misery and hopelessness around him, he felt compelled to respond to his sensitivity and intuition, and thus looked to art as a hobby and a means to vent his pains and frustrations.
Unable to afford art school, Tucker attended life drawing classes at the Victorian Art Society from 1933-39, and used his free time to study reproductions in the Arts Room at the Melbourne Public Library. Here he became inspired by the work of such post-impressionists as Modigliani, Van Gogh and Cezanne, the poetry of TS Eliot and the expressionist works of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann.
Throughout the 1930s, Tucker continued to develop and refine his skills, whilst experimenting with his homemade paints. As a self-taught artist, he had the benefits of remaining free from the conventions that would have been learned in art school. Consequently, Tucker’s talent stood out from his peers and received notable recognition by the teachers of the Art Society, the Herald art critic Basil Burdett and other highly influential members of the Melbourne art world.
Exploring the confronting truths of the depression through his art, Tucker became greatly inspired by the work of Jewish refugee painter Josl Bergner and Russian born artist, Danila Vassilieff. These two important social realists arrived in Melbourne in 1937 at which Tucker became exposed to their powerful realistic images which represented the harsh truths of the depression.
Although at this point of his career, Tucker looked upon art as a simple hobby, it wasn’t until he met Vassileff and Bergner in 1938 that he became inspired to believe that he could make a career as a successful artist despite his impoverished background.
Effectively, Tucker began to take his talent more seriously and his work began to take more shape in the following decade. In what came to be called the “Angry Decade” of the 1940s, this was a time in which artists responded to the horrors of war, fuelled by the abolishment of hope just after the supposed ending of the depression.
It was at this point that his talent was spotted by the art patrons Sunday and John Reed, two influential members of the Australian art world who encouraged and supported Tucker’s unique work. This began his involvement with the Heide homestead and his association with such prominent artists as Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. As a group of esteemed leading artists, Heide became a haven for the group, and is now a museum of modern Australian art.
As a prominent member of the “Heide Circle”, Tucker also wrote for the Angry Penguins publication (1941-1946) which was edited by Max Harris and John Reed. It existed in Melbourne as the principal outlet for the expression of avant-garde ideas.
Having enlisting in the Army in 1940, Tucker was sent to the Wangaratta training camp, where he was asked to sketch medical diagrams. He was then drafted to Heidelberg Military Hospital in 1942, where he worked as a draughtsman drawing the wounds of injured patients and signs mental illness produced by the war.
These so called ‘scenes of horror’ came to feature predominantly in his works as he laid a strong emphasis on the unrest and savagery of the times. For example, Tucker’s work Man at table (1940) is a pen and ink illustration showing a horrific image of a soldier whose nose had been sliced off by a shell fragment.
As a result of this often disturbing and confronting nature Tucker’s art demonstrated, he was frequently attacked by critics and reactionary academic groups who believed it greatly offended prevailing conservative tastes. With his art badly received by his contemporaries, it almost took another generation for the depth and beauty of his work to be fully recognised.
Tucker was discharged from the army in 1942 and returned to Melbourne with a strong distaste for what his home city had become. Feeling that it demonstrated a total collapse of simple morality, he was inspired to put together his Images of Modern Evil Series in 1943-1947. As images of scenes he took in of Melbourne, especially its rowdy night life, Tucker’s works depicted scenes of drunken Australian and American soldiers at St Kilda and the ‘victory skirts’ of the women. These were miniskirts made out of Union Jacks and American flags in which Tucker expressed his outrage to see schoolgirls wearing them around the streets.
In 1947, Tucker left Australia for Japan where he briefly worked as an official art correspondent attached to Australian Army. Working in the company of the American writer, Roskelenko, Tucker was required to draw the devastation he witnessed. His work produced at this time, Hiroshima is a pen drawing in black, grey and white which shows the city demolished by the atomic blast. An image reflecting a sombre landscape with no visible figures but only flimsy houses, tents and other shelters, it is a true reflection of the destruction of war.
Upon his return, Tucker’s first marriage to fellow artist Joy Hester fell apart, prompting his move to Europe in September 1947, where he would spend the next thirteen years of his life. Consequently, the artist’s time in England, France, Amsterdam, Germany and Italy gave rise to a fresh new series of works of monstrous prostitutes and troubled religious paintings. All of these works painted at this time sprung from a disgust from the society he had left behind.
After several successful one-man exhibitions in Europe during the 1950s, Tucker travelled to the USA where he lived and worked in New York for several years. His paintings came to be displayed in private exhibitions at which some were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum. These works included Burke and Wills, The Antipodean Head and the Luna Landscape, which consequently gained Tucker international recognition and success.
At this point, the works of fellow Australian artists, Sidney Nolan and Russel Drysdale had attracted international critical attention with their various vivid depictions of the Australian bush. However, despite their success, Tucker rejected their style as nationalistic landscape painting and in his own depictions, he showed the outback instead to be a harsh and sterile wasteland. Tucker’s Kelly gang works and his Explorers series, with their harsh colours and distorted features act as a strong example of this, showing a completely inhospitable environment. In these evocations of an ‘antipodean image’, Tucker became largely responsible for awakening interest abroad in the potentials of contemporary Australian art.
In 1960, Tucker received the Kurt Geiger Award from the Museum of Modern Art, Australia, that payed for him to return to Australia for a retrospective of his work at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art and funded his return to Australia. On his return to Melbourne, he had reconciled with the country of his birth and endeavoured to use his success and knowledge to campaign for the cause of the Australian art scene. Tucker took over presidency of the Contemporary Art Society, and was instrumental in getting public galleries to exhibit the more radical work.
During the 1960s, Tucker began to enjoy considerable popularity in his home country. All major Australian galleries acquired his work and in 1990 a retrospective of his paintings drew over 90,000 visitors.
In the following decade Tucker was to face many personal traumas and hardships which had a significant impact on his work. Many of the people who acted as a strong influence had passed on including his son Sweeney and close friends John and Sunday Reed. In response to this, Tucker was compelled to capture them on a medium that would immortalise them, which ultimately resulted in his renowned series, Faces. Featuring many members of the Heide circle, Tucker’s series represents his move away from the focus on Australian myth fauna and landscape and variations on themes of the Antipodean Head. This series of Tucker’s served to reflect how his work still retained his unique ability to develop semi-abstract icons that effectively captured the spirit of the location or the essence of the individuals portrayed. Highlighting bewilderment , tragedy and death, Tucker’s examination of shapes and forms and his use of disjointed animals or human heads with distorted faces was constant.
With a career spanning 70 years, Albert Tucker continued to paint up until his death in 1999 and constantly demanded that people look beyond the prevailing social conventions in his work to discover the moral and psychological foundations for a more humane society.
Pivotal in the development of 20th century Australian Expressionist painting, Tucker’s death marked the end of a significant chapter in Australian art history. Today he is represented by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Guggenheim Museum, New York and all Australian state galleries.