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Ralph BALSON (b.1890; d.1964)

Ralph Balson was born in Dorset, England in 1890. After attending the local village school, Balson trained as a plumber and housepainter. He emigrated to Sydney in 1913, followed soon after by his wife-to-be, Emilie Austin, who he married in 1914 at All Saints Anglian Church, Woollahra. They had three children and initially lived in Bondi, later moving to Pagewood. Balson supported his family by continuing his work as a housepainter but started to paint for pleasure in his spare time. *

In the early 1920s, Balson began night classes at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney, where he was taught by Grace Crowley, Anne Dangar, Henry Gibbons and Ashton himself.** He attended the evening sketch club at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre with Crowley before joining a small band of Sydney-based artists, including Crowley, Rah Fizelle and Frank and Margel Hinder, at the Crowley-Fizelle art school.** Balson quickly absorbed their structural approach to painting, based largely on the geometric constructive approach advocated by French Cubists André Lhote and Albert Gleizes.* However, Balson continued to work as a house-painter and only became a full-time artist in 1955.

From 1949 to 1959 Balson taught abstract painting at East Sydney Technical College. In 1960, Balson travelled to Europe and the United States, visiting exhibitions of American minimalism and hard-edge abstraction. During this time, he developed an appreciation for, and was influenced by, the work of Jackson Pollock, Alberto Burri and Antoni Tapiès. **

Balson’s first solo exhibition was in 1932 at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre. In 1939, Balson exhibited with Crowley, Fizelle and Hinder at Exhibition 1 at David Jones Art Gallery. In 1941, he held the first solo exhibition in Australia of entirely non-figurative painting at the Anthony Hordern Gallery. *** From that time, he held 8 solo and many group exhibitions around Australia and in Britain and Italy. His work featured in the exhibition Balson, Crowley, Fizelle, Hinder, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1966, and in a retrospective organised by the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, in 1989. **

Alongside Grace Crowley and Frank Hinder, Balson was one of the first artists in Australia to devote himself solely to the pursuit of abstraction. From 1940, Balson’s works moved from semi-figurative cubist imagery to wholly abstract explorations of colour and form. *** Balson’s interest in abstraction was influenced by the works and writings of European artists such as Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy as well as by the theories of French Cubist Albert Gleizes, which he encountered primarily through books and reproductions. Balson’s approach to painting was also inspired by ideas gleaned from science and mathematics, including Einstein’s theory of relativity. ***

His paintings from the 1940s were flat geometric abstractions employing overlapping planes of colour, which the artist referred to as ‘Constructive Paintings’, and which were both lyrical and austere. ** The ‘Non-Objective Paintings’, his major series of the late 1950s, consisted of complex fields of dappled colour. In the 1960s, he produced a difficult and critically contentious series of ‘Matter Paintings’, fluid abstractions in which he literally poured the paint onto his work. These works were begun when Balson was still overseas, In Devon and Paris in 1960, and were reflective of the impact of his overseas experience.

In creating these Matter Paintings, Balson allowed the paint to slip and bleed across the board’s surface, at times coagulating in heavy layers, cracking or rippling as it dried, to create textural effects. The Matter paintings allude to sub-particle theory but evoke the chaos and flux inherent in everyday life through the inherent properties of paint. He elaborated on this dynamic, evolving approach to painting in 1960: “I can realise that the energy, the atoms that reach us from the sun is the source, the rhythm of existence, and the very narrow band, the spectrum, is all we can ever hope to have to try and reach a small amount of the rhythm and relativity of the universe with the substance of paint.” **

In an interview with Hazel de Berg in 1966, Crowley spoke of her surprise and envy at the ease with which Balson painted his first abstract works: “Balson I believe to have been born an abstract painter. He was born that way, while I had to be educated that way”. She went on to describe Balson's dynamic abstract works as a “painter’s effort to express his wonder of this changing ever-expanding universe not in words nor by mathematics but through the medium he knew so well and had become part of himself; paint”. ***

Balson’s works are held in Collections across Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of South Australia and many other state galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia.


* Biography of Ralph Balson, Bruce Adams, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, ANU, Volume 13, 1993 ** Ralph Balson: Artist Profile, Biography, The Art Gallery of New South Wales *** Ralph Balson: Painting 1941, Miriam Kelly, assistant curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011, National Gallery of Australia


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