John Brack: Master of Urban Irony - Art Collector

Issue 9, July - September 1999

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Collector’s dossier surveys the critical significance and market profile of Australia’s most important artists. This issue Judith White looks at the life and art of John Brack, who died earlier this year.


John Brack was one of the most cerebral of Australian artists. An avid reader and a cool, dispassionate observer of people and society, he has left behind several series of paintings of modern life which have achieved iconic status: images whose coolness, ambiguity and hidden complexity demand careful consideration from the viewer. With his exacting standards, rigorous technique and depth of scholarship, he has also left his mark as a teacher on a generation of younger artists.

Cecil John Brack was born in 1920 in East Hawthorn, Melbourne. His father was a labourer at the Abbotsford brewery; his mother a housewife, devoted to her two sons. Brack left school at the age of 15, in the depth of the Depression, to work as an insurance clerk. An autodidact, he devoured the prose of Henry James and Rainer Maria Rilke and the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, WB Yeats, TS Eliot and WH Auden. He aspired to being a poet until, at the age of 17, he saw a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Night Cafe in the window of a Melbourne bookshop.

With characteristic thoroughness, he turned to studying modern art, first at the public library, then by enrolling in classes at the National Gallery School. War interrupted this training; he enlisted in 1940 and served in the AIF until 1946, finally graduating from the school in 1949. He marked the occasion by burning most of his student paintings. He was from the outset a perfectionist; he considered his youthful efforts to be of the ‘cry-ofdespair’ genre he found inadequate: “I was determined I was going to be in (art) for a long time. Every example showed me that romanticism had to be disciplined by classical rules.”

Then came the revealingly ironic paintings of urban life in the 1950s which established his reputation – works like The Barber’s Shop (1952), Men’s Wear (1953), The Bar (1954), and his rather chilling image of clerical workers, Collins Street 5pm (1955). The Bathroom (1954) was the first of his ascetic nudes; over the years he would return many times to painting female figures with a cool, unerotic eye, depicting not so much the individual woman as the essence of womanhood. In between came other series: the schoolyard series of the later 1950s; the racetrack series; the still life shop window series of the early 1960s; the ballroom dancing series of 1968-73; and the marching pencils of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout his artistic career Brack followed his own course, often quite distinct from those of his contemporaries. At a time when almost every aspiring artist or intellectual (including his close friend and colleague Fred Williams) travelled to Europe, he stayed put in Melbourne. His first overseas trip was made only in 1972, when he was in his fifties. Yet he was thoroughly immersed in the European painterly tradition, his influences ranging from Bruegel and the Flemish school to the neo-classical Ingres, from Seurat and the post-impressionists to Grosz and German expressionism, and even the industrial primitivism of LS Lowry.

While many artists of his generation turned to the Australian landscape for inspiration, Brack’s work was replete with references to European urban paintings: The Bar, for instance, is a direct reference to Manet’s 1881 work, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere; yet like Collins Street 5pm it expresses the social sterility of urban life in the 1950s which no other Australian artist captured as well. Landscape makes only the briefest of appearances, as in The Car (1955), an ironic depiction of suburban family life.

In 1959 Brack participated in the Antipodean Exhibition at Eastern Hill, along with Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and others. Their manifesto, written by the art historian Bernard Smith, proclaimed an “involvement with life” in opposition to “the triumph of non-figurative art”. Never comfortable with dogma, soon after this Brack moved further towards abstraction, a tendency which would culminate some 20 years later in major works in the pencil series, such as The Battle (198083), based on the Battle of Waterloo.

Yet throughout this period he also continued his investigation of the nude, producing in the early 1980s a series in which his juxtaposition of forms and structures refers back, once again, to Ingres and Manet.

While he followed an independent course, Brack was generous towards his fellow artists and his students. For a decade from 1952 he was Art Master at Melbourne Grammar School; from 1962 to 1968 he was head of the National Gallery School in Melbourne. He is remembered by artists such as Jan Senbergs and Peter Booth as an exemplary teacher, exacting in technique but unstinting with his time and knowledge.

In 1948 Brack married the artist Helen Maudsley; their lifelong union produced four daughters. He remained an essentially private person. He never compromised his artistic vision by painting with an eye to the crowd or the market. For this reason Brack may not have gained as wide an audience as some of his contemporaries; but when he died in February this year, the artistic community was united in marking the passing of an artist of exceptional calibre and integrity.

The best works, and where to find them

Brack’s perfectionism, equal to that of the more prolific Fred Williams, means that only some 310 of his paintings remain extant. They are prized by collectors and galleries alike. The biggest collections are to be found in his own National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (NGA).

The recent retrospective drawn from the NGA’s collection featured, among others, Men’s Wear (1953), The Bathroom (1957), The Happy Boy (1964), Latin American Grand Final (1969) and The Battle (1980-83).

The extensive NGV collection includes The Barber’s Shop (1952), The Car (1955), Collins Street 5pm (1955) and Knives, Forks and Pencil (1974).

Tower (1978) is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, while the Art Gallery of New South Wales has Barry Humphries in the Character of Mrs Everage (1969) and The Battle of the Etruscans (1975).

Some works are held overseas, including the shaving Self Portrait (1955), which is at the University of Texas, Austin; but the great majority are in private collections. Corporate collections which hold Brack works include the Holmes à Court and Sussan collections.

A number of significant works remain with the artist’s estate, in the collection of Mrs Helen Brack. These include the fine collection of late nudes shown in the recent Tribute Exhibition at the Rex Irwin Gallery in Sydney, among them Standing Nude (1980) and Double Nudes I and II (1982-3).

Prices at auction

The record for a Brack at auction came in November last year, when $497,500 was paid for The Bathroom (1957) at Christie’s in Melbourne. The purchaser was the National Gallery of Australia, whose recent acquisitions policy has been the subject of some controversy. The previous highest price was $222,500, paid in April of the same year for The Boucher Nude (1957).

Brack’s watercolours have fetched as much as $40,000.

Frequently auction prices rise following the death of an artist. In Brack’s case they may have peaked early, and their scarcity value is part of the reason; the artist had stopped painting in the last four or five years of his life.

The round of major auctions in the autumn reinforced the view that Brack’s prices are likely to keep climbing, with Here and There (1986) fetching $233,500 on an estimate of $160-180,000 at Christie’s April auction in Melbourne, after The Scissors Shop (1963) had achieved $140,000 against an upper estimate of $120,000 at Sotheby’s a week earlier.

What’s available, how to start collecting

Collectors of Brack will be discerning people prepared to wait for a market opportunity and spend accordingly. For serious students of the artist there are, in addition to the collections mentioned above, some excellent published sources. The most complete is Sasha Grishin’s two-volume work The Art of John Brack (1990), but the earlier John Brack by Ronald Millar (1971) and John Brack: A Retrospective by Robert Lindsay (NGV 1987) offer valuable insights.

It is certainly worth enlisting the assistance of a reputable dealer with a specialised knowledge of Brack. Major works are likely to go to auction, but there are some excellent drawings available from time to time, for as little as $5,000.

One reassurance for potential collectors is that he did not overproduce and, given the artist’s rigorous standards, there are no bad Bracks to be had.

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