Roger Kemp: Universal Cycles - Art Collector

Issue 22, October - December

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An artist, an iconoclast and a mystic, Roger Kemp was one of the key figures in the evolution of Australian abstract painting writes Andrew Frost.

Roger Kemp was a defiantly individualistic artist. He developed his own visual language of abstraction, drawing in part from European Old Masters, early 20th century Modernists such as Rupert Bunny and the mystical philosophy of Theosophy, while remaining a devout iconoclastic. Kemp contributed to the creation of an Australian abstract painting while remaining only tangentially related to other artists.

Born in 1908 in Bendigo, Kemp studied at the National Gallery of Victoria School (NGVS) and at the Melbourne Technical School (MTS) from 1933 to 1935. In the mid-1930s, studying art at the MTS was centred on vocational-style classes such as lettering, perspective and poster design. Kemp was more interested in pursuing painting for its own sake and studied at the NGVS. Although the NGVS was a more sympathetic environment for Kemp, finding influences and inspiration proved difficult. “It was around that time (at art school) that I got down to the fundamentals of painting,” Kemp recalled in 1987.1 Searching for inspiration, Kemp gravitated to the NGVS’s library. “The library was very rich and about the only source of information anywhere. I started to look at Old Masters but I couldn’t make it work for me somehow. I switched from the visual to the unseen aspects of the works. I came to the conclusion that there were three areas: El Greco for the spiritual; Daumier for the physical, satire and mastery of the human form; and Raphael in that he held the key between subjective and objective.”

Kemp’s other key influence was Theosophy, a movement founded c. 1888 by H.P. Blavatsky that combines elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism and scientific doctrine into a philosophy that states the paradoxes of the universe flow from one point: God. Among Theosophy’s tenets are two basic assumptions. One states, “a law of cycles provides fundamental structure at all levels”and the other that “analogy and correspondence provide fundamental structure for the universe.”

Kemp’s abstract painting can easily be seen in the context of this thinking. He created a series of symbolic shapes that would recur throughout his work. These symbols and ideas grew from his early pictures and although these early paintings were figurative and seem unconnected to his later abstract work, Kemp was drawing influences from European Theosophist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky.

Early paintings like Figures In Rhythm 1 and 2 (1935-40), Figures on A Bridge (1940-45) and Doves of War (1945-50) combine elements of figuration, abstraction and echoes of cubism, an influence still being felt in Australia. The flowing shapes in these paintings, Kemp stated, “were thought of as being fundamental shapes.” Another key development for Kemp was the notion that foreground and background were of equal importance and, in the cubist fashion, disrupting classical three-point perspective. The interchangeable nature of foreground figure and background landscape set the parameters for Kemp’s shift from figuration into the symbolic-abstraction that would dominate his output from the 1950s onwards.

Although Kemp had his first exhibition at Melbourne’s Velasquez Gallery in 1945, he struggled as an artist throughout the 1940s and 1950s, working in factories to support himself and his wife Merle Kemp. In 1961, however, things started to change when Kemp won the McCaughey Prize. In 1964 he won the Darcy Morris Prize and in 1965 both the Transfield Prize and the Georges Invitation Prize. Later, Kemp would also win the Blake Prize for Religious Art (in 1968 and 1970) and receive a Visual Arts and Crafts Board grant for distinguished artists. Flush from increasing sales and prize money, Kemp made the first of two overseas trips in 1966 aged 58.

During the mid 1950s and into the 1960s, Kemp’s work started to incorporate compositional devices that would return repeatedly over the next 20 years. “Kemp introduced a number of formal strategies, such as the surface grid, through which to rhythmically organise the pictorial structures,” notes critic Sasha Grishin. “His palette also gained in luminosity with a preference for a combination of signing blues, reds and white set within a black armature which brings to mind the great rose window of Chartres Cathedral as well as the paintings of Rouault.”

Kemp’s painting, as it progressed over the years, appeared to drift further and further away from his early figurative work, but the artist always insisted that the paintings had a direct connection to the forms of the real world, synthesised by his imagination and his system of symbols that included the direct interpretation of music. “I was working subjectively,” admitted Kemp. “This attitude goes against the objective appearance of things. I didn’t deviate from that … What I was trying to do was get control of the creative energy (of symbols).”

From the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Kemp began to experiment with painting on a larger scale and working on paper, producing a series of etchings. From 1970 to 1972 he lived and worked in London. Key works from this time include paintings such as Revolving Forms (1960-65) and Balance (1969) and a suite of etchings exhibited at Rudy Komon Gallery in Sydney in 1972. His work would reach its apotheosis in large-scale works such as Archetype (1981).

In 1978, a major exhibition of Kemp’s works was held to coincide with his 70th birthday, occupying four galleries and accompanied by the publication of the book Roger Kemp: Cycles and Directions9, the title referring to the Theosophist principles that lay at the heart of his work. Kemp was respected as an artist, teacher and influence on other artists (most notably Leonard French). By the time of his death in 1987, Kemp was a major figure in post-war Australian abstraction. A deft summary of Kemp’s work was provided by Professor Bernard Smith: “Roger Kemp works within a world of recurring symbols addressing himself to the cosmic predicament of man … He paints within a limited range of colour, primaries mainly, muted and greyed with occasional flashes of light, as befits his perennial subject matter … Kemp is not concerned with symbolizing the pressures of the city and society. For him force is a transcendental metaphor and he offers his theme – the great mystery of man transfixed by his loneliness among the stellar spaces – over and over again like a sacrament or a solemn monody upon the clanging wheel of time.”


Roger Kemp was a prodigious artist who produced many dozens of works throughout his lifetime, working in painting, drawing and etching. Over the last ten years, Kemp’s works at auction have ridden rises in interest and dips in the market as available works ebbed and flowed through the secondary market. For an artist of Kemp’s stature, his paintings are still highly affordable. Paintings in acrylic are, on average, more highly sought after than works in oils. The top price paid for a Kemp was $43,300* in 2001 for Geometric Progression (acrylic on board). Other works of note were the sale of Sequence Fifteen (synthetic polymer on paper) for $23,000 in 2000 and Movement 10 (synthetic polymer on canvas) for $20,700 in 1996.

Works in oil are more affordable and have a lower average price. St Francis and the Birds, 182x121cm oil on board, sold in 2000 for $36,800. However, the next highest amount was just $9,987 (Untitled sold in 2001 for a 78x117cm work).

Works on paper – prints and etchings – have long been the place for collectors who wish to start collecting an artist’s work. Interest in Kemp’s etchings has been steady and his works on paper are still highly affordable. Sequence No 6, an etching in an edition of 35, sold in 1995 for $1,150 and Sequence II sold in 2001 for $1,057.

Major works by Kemp can be found in the collections of every State gallery as well as the National Gallery of Australia and the Parliament House Collection in Canberra. Regional galleries such as those in Ballarat, Bendigo and Newcastle have notable holdings. Corporate collections such as the Commonwealth, National and ANZ banks have significant Kemp works as does Art Bank, Monash University Library and the Australian National University.

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