Art and Revolution in Australia


I read Louis' posts on Art & Revolution with a great deal of interest. A fascinating story which I was only aware of in a very vague way. Nice to have all the pieces placed in a context. Ah the power of Marxist thought! It still seduces after all these years.

My first response was that Trotskyism (New York variety) does not come out of Louis' narrative at all well. My second reaction was yet another recognition that the concepts of nationalism and internationalism have always to be judged in context.

Louis' post also set me thinking about the similarities and differences between what happened in the USA and what went down in OZ around the same time. There are intriguing similarities. The era has been covered in Richard Haese's Rebel & Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Allen Lane: Melbourne, 1981. This is an interesting book but lacks I think grounding in political and philosophical thought that a good training in Marxism could supply.


Here in Australia the Popular Front nationalism of the Communist Party (CPA) was expressed in a turn to the 1890s - the time of the rural workers' strikes. The Party exaggerated the militancy of these strikes and also lionised Henry Lawson the poet and short story writer conveniently ignoring that he ended up a conservative.

At the time of the Popular Front there was no Trotskyism in Australia able to challenge the hegemony of The CPA in the name of an artistic avant-. So when the challenge did come it came from left liberals and anarchists based around a journal named the _Angry Penguins_ edited by John Reed and Max Harris. The latter was a flamboyant opinionated dilettante. I have no idea if he was gay but he ought to have been. Certainly he was that rare thing among Australians - someone with a style that extended beyond throwing another "shrimp on the barbie".

Harris gathered around him a group of artists including Sydney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Arthur Boyd. These are still the great names of Australian art. Ranged against them were Noel Counihan, Yosl Bergner, and Vic O'Connor. The latter three were members of the CPA. However only Counihan was to last the course. His communism was more a reaction to the Great Depression than to the heroic deeds of the Red Army.

Differences between the two camps were expressed more in political than artistic terms. The Angry Penguins group was influenced by the anarchists Herbert Read (later Sir Herbert!) and George Woodcock and the emphasis, as one would expect was on the necessity and sufficiency of artistic freedom. The communists and the anarchists fought for control of the Contemporary Art Society. But the anarchists and their liberal allies won.

What then were the artistic differences between the two camps? I am no expert here but I would hazard a guess that the Angry Penguins group were on the surrealist side of a spectrum which was at heart figurative for both sides. Thus