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Albert TUCKER (b.1914; d.1999)

Phot of Artist

Albert Tucker was born in Melbourne on 29 December 1914. * His grandfather and namesake, Albert Lee Tucker, MLA, was mayor of Fitzroy. ** Tucker was the son of a railway maintenance worker and a middle-class mother, who encouraged his talent. He loved to draw and was largely self-taught, as a result of impoverished circumstances. Leaving school at 15 during the Great Depression, he won a scholarship to a commercial art school. ***

Tucker worked as a commercial illustrator in Melbourne in the early 1930s, including working at John Vickery’s commercial art studio in Collins Street and drawing freelance for women’s magazines. This brought him into contact with Melbourne’s creative artistic community, including the young modernist Sam Atyeo, and the conservative Sir John Longstaff. ** After work, he would spend hours studying reproductions at the library. He began attending evening classes at the Victorian Artists Society in 1933 and enrolled for a term at George Bell’s art school. Tucker studied the work of German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann and was inspired by his association with the artists Yosl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff, immigrants who provided fresh contact with international trends such as surrealism, social realism and expressionism. Surrealism, in particular, had a significant impact on Tucker after he saw the 1939 Herald exhibition of French and British contemporary art, which included works by Picasso, Dali, Ernst and de Chirico. His commitment to socially critical art was also influenced by the writings of TS Eliot and George Orwell and the hardships of the Depression. *

Along with George Bell, Sidney Nolan and John Reed, Tucker was instrumental in founding the Contemporary Art Society, participating in the inaugural exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1938. Tucker bought his first camera in 1939 to document his paintings and turned his lens on fellow artists in Melbourne in the 1940s, later acquiring the title of ‘accidental historian’. He married fellow artist Joy Hester on 1 January 1941 and the two were financially supported by the encouraging art patrons John and Sunday Reed, living for a period with the Reeds at their home at Heide along with Nolan. *

Like Nolan, Arthur Boyd and John Percival, Tucker entered the Army in 1942, during World War II. At Wangaratta training camp, while waiting to be posted to New Guinea, he proved invaluable in preparing medical drawings and, ultimately, he was posted as an official war artist to Heidelberg Military Hospital, drawing patients suffering dreadful wounds and mental illness. * It was here, seeing things he later described as “absolutely hair-raising” that he saw the full horror of war. After a bout of pneumonia, he was medically discharged in October 1943.

This experience and the American military presence in Melbourne from 1942 culminated in a powerful series of works known as Images of modern evil, which featured striking visions of fear, violence and debauchery. The series established him as a maker of highly expressive, often excoriating images of modern life. * Tucker become the Contemporary Art Society’s outspoken president from 1943 to 1947. *

After the war, he abhorred what he saw as the decay of society and briefly toyed with joining the Australian Communist Party. However, he found its attitude to art at odds with his own. Tucker became part of the creative group centred around Heide that contributed to Angry Penguins, a modernist magazine with an avant-garde artistic and literary bent. *

In early 1947, Tucker worked as a correspondent for the Australian Army in Japan, where he saw the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – images that would continue to haunt him. On his return to Australia, Hester told him that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease and, also, that she had met another artist, Gray Smith, and that the marriage was over. **

Following the break-up of his marriage, the Reeds persuaded Tucker that they should adopt his son, Sweeney, and Tucker left Australia for England in September 1947. ** Tucker spent the next 13 years in Europe and the USA. In Paris, he discovered the work of Jean Dubuffet, and in Rome he met Alberto Burri, whose collagist technique led him towards a more experimental approach. Intrigued by the textural quality inherent in polyvinyl acetate (used by Burri to create his evocative built-up surfaces), Tucker adopted the flexible and leathery toughness of this new material into his work. *

While in Rome, Tucker reconnected with Nolan, who brought him photographs of the 1952 Queensland drought. The sight of desiccated animal carcasses strewn across a parched terrain left an enduring impression on Tucker. Apocalyptic horse 1956 was painted in reaction to these photographs, with Tucker’s appropriation of acrylic paint used to profound effect to conjure up the cratered landscapes, harsh shapes and craggy texture of the Australian outback. *

In 1960, Tucker returned to Melbourne to “critical and financial success” *, painting the trauma produced by the Depression and war. He met Barbara Bilcock in 1962, they bought land at Hurstbridge and built a house and studio. Tucker became a passionate conservationist producing beautiful works of local Australian flora and fauna. **

Tucker worked right up to his death in 1999. In the final years of his career, he worked to ensure the posthumous artistic reputation of Joy Hester. * Tucker left a legacy of more than 200 works that he and Barbara donated to State galleries and the Museum of Modern Art at Heide.

Tucker’s first exhibition was at the Victorian Artists Society in 1933. ** He then exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society at the inaugural exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1938. He also exhibited in the Anti-fascist exhibition in 1942 at the Contemporary Art Society’s Athenaeum Art Gallery in Melbourne and then in Sydney and Adelaide. During his period abroad, Tucker exhibited successfully in London and New York and had works acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958 and the Guggenheim in 1960. ** On returning to Melbourne in 1960, he held a successful national touring exhibition and the Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired his dark and ravaged Antipodean head II 1959, the first purchase of his work by a public gallery in Australia. * From then, he held numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout Australia including retrospectives at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1989 and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2007. *

Tucker represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1956. ** In 1959, Tucker won the Australian Women’s Weekly Prize, which enabled him to spend two years in New York producing the Manhattan Series and Antipodean Heads. * In 1960, he was awarded the Kurt Geiger Award by the Museum of Modern Art Australia which he used to return to Australia and mount his first Australian solo exhibition.

Albert Tucker is one of the most important Australian artists from the decades following the Second World War, responsible for reinvigorating and re-mythologising the Australian landscape through an uncompromising modernist approach “with a shift from realism to a raw, emotive energy.” ***

An Expressionism pioneer, Albert Tucker spent his life exploring the darker side of the soul. At the heart of his approach was a radical conscience, railing against what he saw as the decadence of society. The war never left Tucker. He once said: “I suppose a painting is my own private battlefield where I am still in the process of exorcising my own demons.”

On the other hand, the Australian landscape increasingly provided him with powerful themes, driven by his determination, as he recounted in 1965, to reveal to Australians the forms and shapes of their own country: “I remember my Australian theme started properly only after I’d been away in Europe five years. The Australian images started forcing themselves on me, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I began my first series of Australiana – the land images. Later the human factor became involved, and that’s when I started my explorer figure. Now the land and the figure merge easily into one genuine Australian image.”

In addition to painting antipodean heads, explorers, the bush, and local flora and fauna, Tucker also completed many self-portraits and portraits of friends and contemporaries – Nolan, John Perceval, Michael Keon and Barrett Reid among them. * Tucker’s works are represented in Collections across 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 Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia and at both the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. *

Biography: Albert Tucker, Featured Artists, Art Gallery of NSW ** Biography: Albert Tucker, Design & Art Australia Online, Joan Kerr & Joanna Mendelssohn, 1996 updated 2012 *** Albert Tucker: ‘Angry Penguin’ whose raw canvases captured Australia's underside, The Guardian, Christopher Zinn, 27 October 1999


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