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The Angry Penguins

Portrait of Max Harris by Robert Hannaford

Portrait of Max Harris
Robert Hannaford, 1944-
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

'The Angry Penguins' was a modernist literary and artistic movement that sought to shake up the entrenched art establishment of Australia in the 1940s.  The movement was run by a group of passionate and 'angry' young men – the rebels of their day.  Centred around poet Max Harris, the movement took their name from an art and literary magazine first published by Harris in 1940.

The Angry Penguins, to quote Max Harris, expressed 'a noisy and aggressive revolutionary modernism' and represented the new language and the new painting of Australia.  They were forthright and unapologetic, 'demanding' to be heard and seen.


Based in the literary hotbed of Adelaide, the belief of Geoffrey Dutton and his founding fellow penguins, was that 'the nearer the 'manner' of poetry to the contemporary, the better'.

The penguins believed that language needed to speak more directly to its readers, both in its form and content. H.M. Green described it as the '... liberation of the subconscious, mainly in an emotional form.'  The influence of contemporary movements in Europe, such as surrealism and French symbolism, was seen as vital to modernising the contemporary scene and finding different and more relevant modes of expression.

At the time, these poets saw Australia as culturally insular and were determined to provide an 'outburst of internationalism'.  They were influenced by – and promoted – the likes of Mallarme, Proust, Kafka, Dylan Thomas, and Faulkner.

Their views met with an equally strong and passionate resistance. They were a target for those who despised the modernist trends in art and literature and the pervasive 'Europeanism' that accompanied the movement.  Chief among their critics were the 'Jindyworobaks', who sought to free Australian art from what they termed 'pseudo-Europeanism'.

There was to be an inevitable backlash culminating in the infamous 'Ern Malley affair' (see 'The hoax' below).

The Penguin writers

It is generally accepted that Charles Rischbieth Jury – poet, dramatist and English lecturer – was responsible for naming the Angry Penguins.

The movement comprised four poets and was led by D.B. Kerr and P.G. Pfeiffer, two of Australia's first and brightest young modernist poets, who both died tragically young during the Second World War.  Kerr was also the founder of the movement's magazine.

The other two original Angry Penguin poets were Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris.  Harris became the editor of the Angry Penguins magazine and the movement's central figure.

The Penguin painters

Portrait of Albert Tucker by Geoff Hawkshaw

Portrait of Albert Tucker by Geoff Hawkshaw. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Members of the Penguin painting group included Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester.

Like their literary comrades, these painters fought against the dominant conservative styles of the day and were strongly influenced by early European expressionism and surrealism.

The mouthpiece

In 1941 Max Harris – an original Angry Penguin – established, with other young poets in Adelaide, the literary and art magazine – Angry Penguins.

The magazine replaced Phoenix, which had caused anger among the conservatives at the Adelaide University.  The editor of Phoenix was D.B. Kerr, who became the founding editor of the new magazine.  He was obviously still angry at the demise of Phoenix when he penned the first Angry Penguins editorial:

The production of this magazine will appear then an act of defiance, and indeed it is, but defiance is a dish to be eaten cold.

After Kerr's death, Harris took over as editor.  The magazine was an effective mouthpiece for the new modernism and internationalism espoused by the Angry Penguin movement.  It prospered until the autumn 1944 edition when the controversial Ern Malley poems were published.

Fatally flawed

While a driving force behind the Angry Penguin movement was to find a more relevant and contemporary 'voice', their poetry was, according to Max Harris, very obscure and pretentious:

... there were excesses, absurdities, and intolerable posturings among the Angry Penguins; and they were manifested by people like myself and Nolan and Tucker, leaders of the movement.

It was this obscurity and seeming lack of meaning that provoked passionate criticism from their contemporaries and prompted James McAuley and Harold Stewart 's infamous 'literary experiment'.  As Harris observed: 'We were open-game for Professor McAuley's notable and complex jest.'

The hoax

Portrait of James McAuley by Louis Kahan

Portrait of James McAuley by Louis Kahan, 1905-2002. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Ern Malley was a fictional character created by James McAuley and Harold Stewart.  In this elaborately conceived deception, Ern Malley had just died and his equally fictional sister – Ethel Malley – had forwarded her brother's supposed poems to the Angry Penguins editor, Max Harris.

McAuley and Stewart wanted to know whether the Angry Penguins could distinguish between poetry that was 'a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure' and the real thing.

Of their 'concocted nonsense', McAuley said: 'we opened books at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly'.

Harris, supported by his colleagues, published 16 of the poems under the cover title The Darkening Ecliptic.  Sydney Nolan even created a special cover for that 1944 edition of the Angry Penguins.

Sydney tabloid – FACT– broke the story and revealed the deception on 5 June 1944, and McAuley and Stewart – whose intention was never to make the hoax public – came clean.

The repercussions

The Ern Malley affair was international news.  Harris and his supporters argued that the poems had literary merit and that the two poets, under the guise of Malley, had succeeded despite themselves.

The debate about the hoax was quickly overshadowed when Max Harris was bought to trial for publishing seven Ern Malley poems, labelled by police as 'indecent advertisements'.  The rest of the poems were labelled 'indecent, immoral, or obscene'.

Harris was convicted for publishing obscene material and was fined 5 in lieu of six weeks' imprisonment.  Modernism in Australia suffered an ignoble death and resulted in the triumph of conservatism in Australian poetry for the next twenty odd years.

With the passage of time, Max Harris's legacy has been put in its proper perspective.  Alan Brissenden, in his introduction to The Angry Penguin, 1996, said that Harris's 'place in Australia's cultural history is secured by his essential role in the development of modernism in art and literature in this country ...'.

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Last updated: 8th April 2008
Creators: ACME