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 the work of Albert Tucker is I think best regarded as figurative expressionist with surrealist elements while Noel Counihan's is more in the classic humanist socialist realist figurative mode.

There was no Clement Greenberg in Australia who would prepare the way for Abstract Expressionism. That combined with the deadening effect of Australia's isolation meant that Australian artists did not see the work of the New York artists.

What interested me however about Louis' post is not only the structural similarity and but also the difference between the USA and the Australian experience. Thus we had in both instances an avant- opposed to the cultural populism of the Communist Parties. The difference though is very instructive. As Louis has told us the avant-garde abstract expressionists in New York were to become the lionised spearhead of a cultural offensive in the Cold War. No such fate was in store for Australia's avant-.

Before considering the lot of the Angry Penguins I would like to consider one extremely suggestive moment in art theorising. In his brilliant book the _Black Swans of Trespass_ the Marxist theorist Humphrey McQueen draws attention to the general fear of Modernism that was shared by the cultural dominant. There was though one interesting exception.


Ethel Anderson, who was married into the political establishment, dabbled in short story writing and painting. More interestingly however she championed modernism as an antidote to 'Bolshevism'. She wrote in 1932

'in Modern Art, where a free technique allows the artist a perfect self-expression...we may share the spiritual adventures of minds greater than our exercises and reassures our souls. And this is the reason why Modern Art is a cure for Bolshevism.' (In McQueen, 1979: 66)

So the theoretical possibility existed of the kind of alliance between the modernist avant- and the establishment against Bolshevism that Greenberg and others were to champion. But Anderson's program was not taken up. The establishment took the path not of anti-Bolshevik modernism but rather that of a truly anaesthetising conservatism. The Angry Penguins were the victims of one of the most significant literary hoaxes ever performed. Something which puts the Sokal affair truly in the shade. This was the much written about and much discussed Ern O'Malley affair.


McQueen tells the story thus

'What happened was that two young anti-Modernist poets, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, made up some verses which they attributed to the recently deceased 'Ern O'Malley" whose sister 'Ethel' sent the poem 'Durer: Innsbruck, 1495' to Max Harris...Harris, who adored Durer, took the bait and brought out an 'Ern O'Malley' Special, complete with a surrealist cover painting by Sidney Nolan, and an editorial announcing the discovery on "one of the most outstanding poems that we have produced:. The hoax was exposed in June 1944." (McQueen, 1979: 88)

As a matter of interest I thought I would include the first "O'Malley" poem.

Durer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters -
Not knowing then that Durer perceived
it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men's dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters. (In McQueen, 1979: vii)

It mattered not that this poem was a very good one. The reputation of the editors of Angry Penguins was effectively ruined. The establishment had chosen. The rebellious vanguard based around Angry Penguins was taken out. The CPA artists would share a similar fate later. Australia would enter the 50s and the Cold War not as a bastion of artistic freedom and innovation as in the case of New York but rather as a provincial backwater dominated by official censorship and cultural atavism. (This state of affairs is well captured in Geoffrey Dutton's & Max Harris' _Australia's Censorship Crisis_, Sun Books: Melbourne, 1970)

McAuley was to convert to Catholicism in 1952. He would also found in 1956 a journal _Quadrant_ with the help of Richard Krygier who laundered the CIA money involved. Quadrant's task as McAuley made clear was to counter the cultural influence of the CPA. (Coleman, 1980:70) He was to succeed all too brilliantly and the rest as they say is history.

It is worth contemplating the reasons for the victory of the Right over the Left - both Anarchist and Communist. Such an outcome was of course always probable in a white colonial outpost like Australia. But nevertheless it was not inevitable. Part of the blame surely goes towards the CPA with its ambiguous attitude towards cultural modernity and the Surrealist form that it took in Australia.


Thus the CPA rejoiced in the downfall of the Angry Penguins.

They also promoted through the Popular Front what Greenberg would have termed 'kitsch'- the standard output of Zhdanov's socialist realist aesthetics. The point about Socialist realism was of course that it was neither Realist nor Socialist. This can be clearly understood if we look at the row between Jack Blake and Josl Bergner. Blake, the secretary of the Victorian Branch, was the leading cultural commissar of the Communist Party.

Bergner was a Polish Jew who stayed in Australia until 1947. He did join the party during the war but his commitment to Communism became less important than his growing commitment to Zionism. Still, although most of his work in Australia appears to have been destroyed, he played a vital role in bringing a socialist realist consciousness to Australian Artists. His work seems to have been influenced by the Picasso of the Blue and Rose period and the early Van Gogh.

As to why it took a Polish Jew to bring some social conscience to Australian art it is a case of the 'same old same old'. In Australia the dominant Colonial Anglo culture asserts an iron grip on cultural and political life and it needs to be challenged and loosened by the intervention of migrants.

Bergner undoubtedly identified with the poor and the disadvantaged in Australia. But Jack Blake took him to task for painting Aborigines and the lumpen proletariat. For Blake the artist was faced with the choice between 'pessimism, mysticism and escapism' and attaching themselves to 'progressive class forces'. Blake it seemed wanted Bergner to stop painting aborigines and to concentrate on the 'noble figure which communism would make of the worker.' (Haese, 1981: 179)

Behind Blake's attitude there is of course the distinction that Engels made between realism and naturalism in his celebrated letter to Margaret Harkness. There Engels compared Balzac a political reactionary unfavourably to Emile Zola a political progressive. For Engels Balzac captured the realism of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the decline of his beloved aristocracy. By contrast Zola could only depict the suffering of the proletariat and could not prefigure their historic rise. This incidentally is the guiding motif of Trotsky's praise of Celine, which Louis mentioned.

But perhaps we will leave a discussion of socialist realist aesthetics for another day and we will leave this story with the initial triumph of the Artistic Right over the anarchists and liberals to be followed by the marginalisation and crushing of Australian artistic communism. The first victory was accomplished in the name of taste and integrity, the latter in the name of truth and freedom - what's new?


Coleman, P., The Heart Of James McAuley: Life and Work of the Australian Poet, Wildcat Press: Sydney, 1980
Dutton, G. & Harris, M. Australia's Censorship Crisis, Sun Books: Sydney, 1970
Haese, R. Rebels & Precursors: The Revolutionary Years of Australian art, Allen Lane: Melbourne, 1981
McQueen, H., The Black Swan of Trespass, Alternative Publishing Cooperative: Sydney, 1979

Gary McLennan