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James GLEESON A.O. (b.1915; d.2008) - GO!

James GLEESON A.O. (b.1915; d.2008)

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James Timothy Gleeson was born in Hornsby, Sydney in November 1915. He lost his father in the influenza epidemic of 1919 and was raised by his mother.* He studied at East Sydney Technical College from 1934 to 1936 and then went on to undertake a Diploma in Education, training as a primary school teacher on a scholarship at Sydney Teachers’ College from 1937 to 1940, where he began to experiment with surrealism. After graduating, Gleeson spent his time painting as well as writing extensively, seeking to make surrealism better understood in Australia. Gleeson also worked as a lecturer in art at Sydney Teachers’ College from 1945 to 1946.

From 1947 to 1949, Gleeson spent two years travelling and studying in England, France and Italy. In London, he shared a studio with Australian sculptor Robert Klippel, who became a lifelong friend. Together, they collaborated on No 35 Madame Sophie Sesostoris (a pre-Raphaelite satire), based on the figure of the ‘famous clairvoyant’ in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, whose enigmatic predictions of her tarot cards are alluded to on the four miniature panels at the base of the sculpture.**

Returning to Sydney, Gleeson lived with his partner, Frank O'Keefe. For nearly three decades from the 1950s to 1980s, he painted smaller works at weekends while working as a prominent art critic and writer, making a serious contribution to art history, scholarship, criticism and administration. He was an art critic for the Sydney Sun and the Sydney Morning Herald from 1949 to 1972. He was also the author of definitive monographs on William Dobell (1964) and Robert Klippel (1983), and of general texts, including Colonial, Impressionist and Modern Painters (1971). He served on the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and as a Director of the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, was a Foundation Member of the Australian Division of International Art Critics in 1972 and a Commissioner for the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1973. He was on the Council of the National Gallery of Australia from 1976 to 1982, being closely involved with the formation of collections in the lead up to its opening in 1982. **

In the early 1980s, at the age of 68, Gleeson retired from his various official positions and returned to painting, moving to a larger studio that gave him the physical and mental space to put down his collected feelings and ideas on canvas. He began working on larger pieces, the hallmark being that they were big in scale and meticulous in execution. From this time, he produced the monumental, high key, biomorphic, surreal and abstract paintings for which he is best known. He continued to live in Sydney with O’Keefe, and to paint monumental artworks, until the age of 90. He died in 2008 at age 92.

Gleeson first exhibited as part of May Marsden’s students at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1938. In 1948, he held a joint exhibition with Robert Klippel at the London Gallery. From that time, Gleeson held numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Australia, including a major retrospective of his work held at the National Gallery of Victoria & National Gallery of Australia in 2004.

In 1975, Gleeson was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia and, in 1990, he was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Macquarie University in 1989. In 2008, the significance of Gleeson’s recordings of interviews with 98 Australian artists represented in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), known as the James Gleeson Oral History Collection, was recognised by being inscribed into the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register. ***

Prior to his death in 2008, Gleeson and O’Keefe established the Gleeson-O’Keefe Bequest Fund which continues to facilitate the acquisition of major works of Australian modernism for the Australian Gallery of NSW collection, and honour the memory of Gleeson’s great contribution to Australian art.**

Gleeson is Australia’s most notable Surrealist painter. Inspired by Freudian and other psychological theories, he created visionary landscapes edging along the boundaries between reason and subconscious, beauty and ugliness, sea and land. Gleeson said: “I think of Surrealism as a kind of Expressionism, not just emotions, but the subconscious part of experience and expressing it.”

His early works show his concern for humanity that was deeply impacted by the Depression as well as the political turmoil of the 1930s, including the rise of fascism and then the reality of WWII. He produced apocalyptic evocations of the destructive powers of human nature generated from this atmosphere of uncertainty and tension. Inspired by writers and artists including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, André Masson, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, he utilised poetry, dream, mythology and chance elements as material for his paintings, collages and drawings. Commenting on his 1944 work, ‘The Sower’, Gleeson said: “I think that there was always the hope that it could influence the way people thought about war. That it could alert people to its horrors and prevent it occurring again. You see, I was born during the First World War in 1915, and my earliest experiences were with people who were in that war or remembered the war very vividly, and then, just when I was beginning to paint, the Second World War began. So, war became a kind of lurking terror in my mind from infancy through to late adolescence, when it was all building up again for another one.”

** In 1983, Gleeson entered the most prodigious period of his painting career and embraced a radically different pictorial format that included a dramatic increase in scale and shift in technique. Initially based on small drawings made of rock-pools situated on the Queensland coastline, these panoramic paintings transported the viewer into an alternative reality “hovering on the edge of identity yet still unnameable – a constituency freed from the cage of fact, a thought sprung from the compost of forgotten memories, fed from darkness yet held in stasis as something that had not been before”.****

With Gleeson’s art, much depends on the viewer, who brings his/her own sensitivity and experiences with him/her so there is an interaction between the artist’s input and the viewer’s input. No matter how gruesome the subject matter, Gleeson believes that what is ugly is an authentic part of reality, and there is no barrier between the two.

His body of work covers 60 years exploring the realms and possibilities of the surrealist creed, assessing and commenting on the human condition and adding his own insights and thoughts. Gleeson’s motifs are surrealistic themes, technical brilliance and delicate finishes.

Gleeson’s works are widely held in Collections throughout Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, the Schubert Art Galleries, Brisbane and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia.

* Obituary: Surrealist artist James Gleeson, Christopher Allen, The Australian, 31 March 2010 ** James Gleeson; Artist Profile, the Art Gallery of NSW *** James Gleeson Oral History Collection, #23 2008, National Committee of Australia, Memory of the World **** James Gleeson: beyond the screen of sight, Essay by exhibition curators, Lou Klepac & Geoffrey Smith, National Gallery of Victoria, 2005


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