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Australia's modernist painters – Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester – Melbourne 1940s–

Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, Hurstbridge, c. 1968, photographer Barbara Tucker, gelatin silver. © Barbara Tucker. Image courtesy of Barbara Tucker and the National Library Australia.

Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester are considered to be the major figures of a modernist movement in Australian art, based in Melbourne, which has determined and shaped Australian contemporary art.  They were known as the Angry Penguins painters, and were part of the broader Angry Penguins movement that also included Max Harris and John Perceval, among others.  The aim of the group was to modernise Australian creative arts and poetry, and challenge traditions they saw as restrictive in Australia in the 1940s.

Contemporary movements in Europe, such as surrealism and French symbolism influenced the Angry Penguins.  These movements were seen as vital by the Angry Penguin painters to modernise the contemporary Australian art scene and also to inspire Australian artists in finding different and more relevant modes of expression.

Consequently, the Angry Penguins adopted a spontaneous and visionary approach to their creative process.  Nolan, for example, was a fast and prolific painter, working without preliminary sketches, often painting from memory.  The symbolic surrealism in the works by Nolan, Boyd, Hester and Tucker added a new and exciting dimension to a somewhat stagnant Australian art scene.  They shared a meeting place with other artists and writers at the home of the wealthy art patrons, John and Sunday Reed, Heide, just outside Melbourne, now Heide Museum of Modern Art.

Arthur Boyd

Nude with beast III, 1962, Arthur Boyd, oil on composition board. Felton Bequest, 1966. Reproduced with the permission of Bundanon Trust.

Arthur Boyd (1920–1999) is recognised as a master painter, potter and graphic artist, nationally and internationally.  Born in Melbourne, Arthur Boyd was a member of one of the most remarkable artistic dynasties of Australian art history – son of the potter, sculptor and painter, Merric Boyd and painter Doris Gough, and brother of David and Guy.

Boyd was conscripted into the Australian Army during World War II where he met John Perceval. Perceval later married Boyd’s sister Mary.  In 1944 Arthur Boyd, Guy Boyd and Peter Herbst established a pottery workshop at Murrumbeena and turned their energy to ceramic work, creating a series of angel figures, before returning to painting from 1955.  Boyd lived in England from 1959 to 1968 and then returned to Australia. In 1972, he bought the property, Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales.

His spirited imagination infused both the physical and spiritual landscape of Australia with beautiful and haunting insight. With the purchase ...[of Bundanon] ...came one of the most sustained forms of inspiration to Arthur Boyd's work. It was here that Arthur Boyd painted some of his most enduring studies of the Shoalhaven River and the Australian bush.
Eva Breuer

He gave Bundanon to the Australian people in March 1993 as a refuge for artists and musicians.  Arthur Boyd was Australian of the Year in 1995.  An education centre was opened at Bundanon in 1999 and it is still run by the Bundanon Trust for artists and arts education.

Sidney Nolan

Kelly and horse, 1946, Sidney Nolan, enamel on composition board. Image courtesy of the Nolan Gallery.

As an artist, Sidney Nolan (1917–1992) is best known for his depictions of the Australian outback, and for his historical paintings 'well known for dramatic shifts between dark, moody themes and bright uplifting creations' (Eva Breuer).  In 1946 he began a series of paintings on the theme of the bushranger Ned Kelly and other historical figures such as Eliza Fraser and Burke and Wills.  Nolan is attributed with giving the Australian stories of exploration and other 'legends of failure', including Gallipoli, a timeless and definitive quality.

Nolan was born in Melbourne and studied intermittently at art school.  During the Second World War he was conscripted and served at Dimboola in the Wimmera District of Victoria from 1942–45.  Sidney Nolan rejected the academic traditions of his short art training.  Instead, his main influence was the radical poetry by the poets Rimbaud and Rilke.  This love of literature is seen as visually evident in Nolan's work. Other key influences were modernist artists such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau.  Locally the arrival of the Russian artist Danila Vassilieff in Melbourne, with his simple and direct art, was significant for Nolan.

His long immersion in radical modernism ..., has paid dividends in the development of an individual perception of a very high order and in the steady growth of a rare lyrical talent, maturing in his Nhill and Dimboola landscapes. Here... we glimpse for the first time since Roberts, McCubbin and the early Streeton, the return of an authentic national vision on a higher and more independent level.
Albert Tucker, Angry Penguins, no. 5, 1943.

Nolan spent his final years in London where, in addition to painting, he illustrated books and designed sets for the ballet and opera.  Sidney Nolan is held by many to be Australia's most internationally famous artist and is referred to as one of the major Western artists of the twentieth century.  Much of his work is on display in the National Gallery of Victoria.  In 1974, Nolan donated 24 of his works to the Australian public, held as the Nolan Gallery's Foundation Collection at the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Albert Tucker

Victory Girls, 1943, Albert Tucker, oil on cardboard. Image courtesy of Barbara Tucker and the Australian National Gallery.

Albert Tucker (1914–1999) is considered to be a key figure in modern Australian art although many people find his works unsettling.  Tucker depicted the darker side of life – showing fear, trauma, anxiety and struggle in his paintings. He often worked with paints he had made himself, always experimenting with paints and ideas – including those of the surrealist artists.

Unable to afford to attend art school, Tucker was largely self-taught as well as learning from other artists including the Angry Penguins.  In the late 1930s, his works were seen by Sunday and John Reed and he began his involvement with the painters Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd at the Reed's Heide homestead.  This group included fellow artist Joy Hester, who became his wife. Tucker came to the notice of Melbourne art critics in the 1940s.  During the Second World War, Tucker worked sketching wounds for a medical team.  On his return to Melbourne, he painted a series of works depicting a city without any moral conscience.

After separating from Hester, Tucker spent time in England and Europe, from 1947 till 1958.  This stay gave rise to a fresh new series of 'monstrous prostitutes and troubled religious paintings'.  After arriving in New York in 1958 the subject of his works changed from city to outback. In contrast to the works of Sidney Nolan and Russel Drysdale, which Tucker rejected as nationalistic landscape paintings, Tucker depicted the outback as completely inhospitable.  The work Burke and Wills from this series was the second of his works to be included in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.  In 1960, Tucker received the Kurt Geiger Award from the Museum of Modern Art, Australia, that payed for him to return to Australia for a retrospective of his work.

Joy Hester

Woman with Harmonica, c 1941, Joy Hester, brush, ink and pencil on paper. Joy Hester. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia, 2007.

Joy Hester (1920–1960) was part of the group of painters who joined the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne during the late 1930s.  There she met and married the artist Albert Tucker and soon left art school.  Mixing with artists such as Albert Tucker, Danilla Vasillieff and Noel Counihan, Joy learned to paint in a way she would never learn at school.  Sunday Reed, the art patron, became Joy's closest friend.  At the age of 27 she was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease and subsequently left Tucker, and embarked on a relationship with the artist Gray Smith.  During her lifetime, Hester had only three exhibitions and sold very little.

Joy Hester's work is celebrated today for its freedom of expression and its ability to translate emotions into pictures....Hester's practice is vigorous in style, often exploring her subconscious mind.... These depictions of inner conflict are raw and often filled with a quiet sorrow.
Michael Reid, August 2005.

Joy Hester's work is displayed in galleries throughout Australia. In her book Leave no Space for Yearning, Kelly Gellatly describes Hester as a modernist, one of the few who defined the arts scene in the 1940s.

Useful links

Angry Penguin painters and 'Antipodean' contemporaries

Exhibitions - Sidney Nolan

Exhibitions – Arthur Boyd

Exhibitions – Albert Tucker

Exhibitions – Joy Hester

Education Resources

Last updated: 20 April 2016
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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