Another troubled moment in history


In this time of disruption and distress I am reminded of three Australian artists who worked through their complex feelings and articulated their anguish in these memorable works of art. James Gleeson (1915-2008), Peter Purves Smith (1912-49) and Albert Tucker (1914-99) completed the following paintings between 1938 and 1946 using surrealist methods and approaches to express their own responses to the trauma of the times.

Completed during the Second World War, Gleeson’s self-portrait actually references the death of his father in the Spanish-flu pandemic after the First World War — a traumatic memory likely stirred by the terrible reappearance of conflict in Europe. Purves Smith’s painting is an expression of his frustration and anger with the public and press for failing to see the rising threat of Nazism in Europe earlier. Similarly, Tucker’s painting deals with the personal cost of depression and isolation he experienced in Melbourne where he spent time as an Army artist at the Heidelberg Military Hospital, drawing in graphic detail the wounds of disfigured veterans.

These three works demonstrate the power of art to condense a troubling experience and put our minds back together when our thoughts and feelings are fragmented.

Structural emblems of a friend (self-portrait)

James Gleeson, Australia 1915-2008 / Structural emblems of a friend (self portrait) 1941 / Oil on canvas board / 46 x 35.6cm / Purchased 1984 with the assistance of the John Darnell Bequest / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Among Australia’s most prominent surrealists James Gleeson was deeply inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot and the paintings of Salvador Dali which were first shown in Australia in 1939. Gleeson wrote about this self-portrait Structural emblems of a friend (self portrait) 1941, explaining;

Above the head a hand holds a ‘blood line’ which links all the elements in the painting. Someone has suggested it represents the hand of God. My own feeling is that it is a symbol of my father who died in the Spanish-Flu pandemic early in 1919, when I was barely three years old. I have no recollection of him at all, though from a surviving drawing he did in his teens (dated 1897) without art training of any kind, I seem to detect a talent that was never allowed to develop. The figure in the bridal gown was adapted from a photograph of my mother, and at the end of the ‘blood line’ the little boy looking at the sky and holding a balloon / moon / sun / world is of course an early me, wondering what lies ahead.

The Nazis, Nuremberg

Peter Purves Smith, Australia 1912-49 / The Nazis, Nuremberg 1938 / Oil on canvas / 71.4 x 91.4cm / Purchased 1961 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The paintings of Peter Purves Smith are recognised for their surrealist undertones and idiosyncratic wit. Purves Smith aimed for his works to be ambiguous, disturbing or even shocking — and approached his subjects with an originality and playfulness that is often echoed in the formal aspects of his paintings.

The Nazis, Nuremberg 1938 was inspired by photographs from ‘The Times’ newspaper, and events Purves Smith had witnessed on his own travels in Europe. The exaggerated goose step of the troops and conflicting lines of the disproportionately elongated arms, rifles and tank cannons mock the spectacular regimentation and narcissism of the Nazi army. The windows of the buildings that surround the square appear derelict, with the demolished buildings to the back possibly referring to a Jewish Synagogue and administration building that had been destroyed in Old Nuremberg in August 1938.


Albert Tucker, Australia 1914-99 / Tramstop 1946 / Oil on canvas on board / 35 x 47cm / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 1995. Celebrating the Queensland Art Gallery’s Centenary 1895-1995 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Albert & Barbara Tucker Foundation. Courtesy of Smith & Singer Fine Art

Albert Tucker’s paintings are often concerned with ideas of social dislocation and human loss. In his series ‘Images of modern evil’ he described certain social changes in Australia that accompanied World War II which he saw as evidence of a moral decline. Influenced by German expressionists such as Max Beckmann and George Grosz, as well as the surrealist movement more broadly, Tucker’s painting Tramstop 1946 depicts the nocturnal world of public spaces within the inner city that play host to evermore-private acts that certainly would defy the social-distancing protocols asked of us all at present.

Viewing this change as threatening and alienating, Tucker has said of the series:

All I can remember is blankness and anxiety and fear and desperation. This dominated the entire period… this is where these rather terrifying and miserable ‘Images of Modern Evil’ came from. It was this overwhelming oppression and sense of evil, of rejection… My emotional problem arose from the whole social and historical pressure and my isolation as a person—my inability to fit in with what was going on.

These three paintings are an important artistic record from another troubled moment in history. Amidst the frightful challenges at present, it is encouraging to see how previous generations of artists have dealt with their own darker times to produce powerful artworks that process terrible experiences and provide a site for future reflection.

Michael Hawker is Curator, Australian Art (to 1980), QAGOMA

Featured image detail: James Gleeson Structural emblems of a friend (self portrait) 1941