Greatly driven by the creative process, the natural bohemian, Norman Lindsay became the most celebrated Australian black and white illustrator of his time. With a genius for adapting and developing the styles to which he was attracted, Lindsay made a significant contribution to the art world not only with his skilful illustrations but also for his etchings, paintings and pieces of literary work. Leaving a lasting impact on art circles worldwide the artist’s famous sumptuous nudes became highly controversial, instigating a lifelong backlash against hypocrisy and ‘wowserism’.
Norman Lindsay was born in Victoria in 1879. With a childhood illness forcing immobility, he used this time to teach himself how to draw. Apart from initially being self taught, Lindsay received his only art training from the guidance of his artistic siblings; Percy, Lionel, Daryl and Ruby Lindsay and attended lessons at the Withers’ open air studio at Creswisk under the tuition of Walter Withers.
Spending his early years living the bohemian lifestyle in Chartersville, Melbourne from 1895, Lindsay worked as an illustrator for a local magazine. Frequently in the company of his brothers, the caricaturist, Will Dyson , Ernest Moffatt and other members of the Cannibal Club, Lindsay was inspired to later produce one of Australia’s first illustrated novels, A Curate of Bohemia. Based on the experiences and activities of the eclectic group, it was an immediate success.
Greatly influenced by the work of such prominent artists as; Menzel, Vierge, Bocklin, Beardsley ,May, Keene and Rubens Lindsay’s work developed during a time when the line block was newly invented, new methods of photographic reproduction were coming into play, and the publication of large numbers of illustrated books were attracting the interests of artists to the advantages of careers in the fields of black and white illustration.
One of the artist’s first artistic ventures, however, was a set of illustrations for Boccacio’s Decameron. With his detailed sketches attracting the attention of famed artist and illustrator, Julian Ashton, Lindsay, along with his brother, Lionel, was given a position on the staff of the Sydney Bulletin magazine in 1901. Creating caricatures, cartoons and illustrations on demand, Lindsay soon established a reputable name for himself. Sharing the racist and right wing ideals that characterised The Bulletin at the time, the themes, the “Red Menace” and “Yellow Peril” were popularly adopted by Lindsay when creating his editorial cartoons.
Lindsay went on to produce illustrations for a literary magazine called The Lone Hand and his work made frequent appearances in Art in Australia once it was launched in 1916. He also made illustrated contributions to many leading international publications while he travelled extensively across Europe and America from 1909-1912.
With an interest in erotica, Lindsay became the man responsible for using his art to introduce the Australian art world to an uninhibited ‘hyperborean’ world of voluptuous nude nymphs that were based on the paintings of Rubens and the pagan idylls of the Swiss artist, Arnold Bocklin. Sparking outrage in religious and moralist groups worldwide Lindsay had several of his works of eroticism burned by irate wowsers in the United States after they were found on a train that caught on fire. In official quarters, however, the uninhabited nature of his work was overlooked due to its technical accuracy.
As a man whose work was often the subject of controversy, Lindsay’s first novel, Redheap was banned not on moral grounds, but for the resemblance his characters had to real people. His pen drawing, The Crucified Venus, also created a stir for the way it portrayed a different slant on the crucifixion of Jesus. It was removed from a Melbourne art show until the President of the Society of Artists threatened to remove all the paintings from the exhibit unless Lindsay’s work was reinstated.
Not only experimenting within the medium of illustration, Lindsay expanded his artistic horizons to include painting in oils and watercolors, etching, building models of ships and writing in his repertoire. Among his most notable works were his illustrations for Greek and Roman classics and for the works of Rabelais and Casanova. His 1918 children’s book, The Magic Pudding became an instant Australian classic and his Etchings of Norman Lindsay, created in 1927 became legendary. The painstaking detail put into his illustrations, etchings and watercolours, made Lindsay’s work extremely popular in exhibitions and galleries and influenced such notable artists as Frank Krenkel.
In 1925 Lindsay’s son, Jack started The Fanfrolico Press and in the space of six years published 40 books, with many of which illustrated by Norman Lindsay. Among the titles were: Lysistrata (both the Australian and British edition), Hyperborea and Madam Life’s Lovers and The Antichrist of Nietzsche.
Lindsay moved to Faulconbridge, in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales in 1912. The artist lived and worked here until he died in 1969. With his home now the site for the official Norman Lindsay gallery, it was also used as the set for John Duigan’s 1994 fictionalised version of Lindsay’s life, Sirens in which Sam Neill played the role of Norman Lindsay.
Today the wide range of works by Norman Lindsay are represented in all Australian State Galleries and many regional galleries. Lindsay’s works are highly collectable by devoted fans.