Jon Molvig (1923-70) was an acclaimed Australian artist and charismatic teacher, whose uncompromising commitment to painting inspired a group of young artists in Brisbane. Simon Elliott spoke with some of the artist’s former students about their mentor.
An intensely complicated artist, and a fiercely independent individual, Jon Molvig (1923–70) was a relentless innovator, and his visual experiments are both iconoclastic and provocative. In a move that proved to be a major catalyst in his career, the Newcastle-born artist settled in Brisbane in 1955, dominating the city’s art scene in the late 1950s and throughout the following decade. Formidable, passionate and rebellious, Molvig purposely turned his back on the art centres of Sydney and Melbourne, choosing Brisbane but also agitating against the timid nature of its art scene at the time. With great energy, he worked through figure studies, portraits and landscapes, making radical stylistic shifts to suit his subject matter. The city inspired his greatest work, and it was from here that his influence spread across Australia.
Molvig had an unsettled childhood: his mother, who was from a farming family that had lived in Australia for generations, died when he was just two years old. His father was a Norwegian sailor employed by the BHP steel works in working-class Newcastle. As a young man, Molvig served in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War Two, and on his return, he studied art at the East Sydney Technical College (1947–49) under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He then travelled through Europe until 1952. Influenced by German and Norwegian expressionists, his raw and expressive painting soon rose to national prominence.
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At the heart of Molvig’s work is a superb sense of draftsmanship. It was through his fine draftsmanship — and his all-encompassing commitment to his work — that he inspired countless students in the late 1950s at the studio at St Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point, in classes originally run by John Rigby (who had inherited the role from Margaret Cilento). Many artists who spent their formative years in Molvig’s classes still speak highly of his vision and determination, some five decades later.
Pamela Wilson — a former student, and a practising painter and ceramist in Brisbane at the time — remembers the artist being ‘very keen to let us draw the way we saw, but he did look for a different vision . . . He had a different way of looking at the world’.1 She recalls his approach as supportive, but not prescriptive. ‘He never, as I remember, picked up charcoal or redrew anybody’s work; he was strictly hands off’. His classes were also very organised:
They were run pretty strictly and very sensibly for life classes — we’d have quick poses first, for 30 seconds or a minute, and then five minutes, and the last ones would be 15 or 20 minutes. He moved around the circle and helped people to see differently.
Sydney-based painter and sculptor Ann Thomson praised Molvig for his innate ability to bring out ‘what was distinct — what was best — about your work’:
I remember going and peeping into John Rigby’s art classes . . . It was Rigby who encouraged Molvig to come to Brisbane. And Rigby was a good teacher and a lovely man, but his students’ works all looked a bit like his. Not so with Jon Molvig!
Thomson also recounts that it was her bridesmaid’s dress, which she had collected from the dressmaker prior to a class, that sparked Molvig’s famous Bridesmaids series of paintings.
Only in his late teens, Peter Kennedy had preconceptions about Molvig before he attended his first class in 1964, having read ‘various things about him in the Courier Mail or Daily Telegraph’. However, a conversation with Brian Johnstone, of the renowned Johnstone Gallery in Bowen Hills, convinced Kennedy of Molvig’s considerable talents as an artist:
Brian picked up a small framed drawing by Molvig and said, ‘Look at the foreshortening on that arm’. It was a beautiful little pencil drawing, a wonderful representation of a body in some pose, and the lines were kind of fluid — intensely dark at certain points and then trailing off into something lighter and more lyrical. So I was very impressed, and the thing that immediately occurred to me was that I had never heard the term ‘foreshortening’ before. I looked at the arm and I immediately grasped what foreshortening was, and I thought, ‘I’d like to be able to foreshorten arms like that’.
According to Kennedy, Molvig emanated ‘a certain latent power — a strength and solidity’.
For others, Molvig was more than a teacher; he was a mentor and advocate, particularly for artist and teacher Mervyn Moriarty.
Jon was absolutely critical in my life . . . Molvig was an artist who cared about art and cared about people who were interested in art — and I was aware of him caring for me as a student. He was a fair bit older and extremely generous — he even went to Sydney with me, where he took me to meet lots of important people, including [art dealer] Rudy Komon, and he introduced me to art and galleries. I think perhaps that Molvig saw me as a younger brother, almost family.
Moriarty also credits Molvig with encouraging his critical eye as a young artist: ‘I became aware of toughening up in the way I looked at what I was doing, and being brutal about the choices I made’. While his life-drawing classes, for which Moriarty recalls paying just six shillings (the dollar superseded the pound in 1966), were not conventionally taught, he notes that Molvig ‘always made extremely good comments’, and left him feeling that he had learnt a lot.
Around 1960, Jon Molvig lived and worked at Corroboree House in Spring Hill, where his reputation as an artist grew among his peers. His wife, Cornelia (Otte) Bartzis, has described studio scenes akin to peak hour at Central Station: a procession of artists — Nevil Matthews, John Rigby, Joy Roggenkamp, Bronwyn Thomas, Gordon Shepherdson, John Aland, Milton Moon, John Perceval, Albert Tucker, Russell Drysdale and Charles Blackman, among others2 — would visit the studio to see the latest from a man known for his restless vision. However, according to Ann Thomson, even with this intense interest in his work, Molvig questioned his role as an Australian painter:
When Molvig talked about his art, he said he didn’t feel like an Australian painter. Yes, he painted Australian subjects, but his art came from another place. His wild style was very distinctive. There was such energy in the way he painted directly onto the hard Masonite, especially his expressionistic figures.
Striving to find a personal artistic language, Molvig created several significant series of works that were inspired by three trips to Central Australia, commencing in 1958. The ‘Centralian’ landscapes evoke the passion, lyrical emotion and painterly expressionism of the outback, while the ‘dead stockman’ works convey the age, and passing, of Aboriginal cultures. His ‘Eden industrial’ series records his recollections of Newcastle, the industrial city of his unhappy early years: blackened and degraded, his ‘garden’ is a barren place inhabited by an Adam and Eve exiled from the natural world. Finally, the ten ‘Tree of man’ paintings, which he completed in March 1968 while increasingly suffering ill health, represent Molvig’s final attempt to symbolise the major preoccupations of his work.
In addition to his unique and disquieting landscapes, the human figure was a recurring theme in Molvig’s practice — the portrait, in particular. Some of his most memorable paintings, tender and unnerving, depict women, madams and mad men, lovers and nudes. He painted two portraits of his artist friend Charles Blackman: the first, made in 1957, is held in the QAGOMA Collection. The second, painted in 1966, finally won him the coveted Archibald Prize, which he had entered numerous times. However, many critics affirmed that he deserved the accolade on many occasions prior to his last attempt.3 As critic James Gleeson wrote of Molvig’s work from 1955 to 1961:
No one in Australian art has painted so nakedly as Molvig did at that time. There was no covering to his emotions. He had torn away the last skin of reserve and painted the world he knew in his blood, his nerves and his heart. In a sense, it was orgiastic — a great Dionysian acceptance of those ecstatic storms that sometimes blow up from the subconscious with such violence that the government of reason is overwhelmed. Even the paint looks as if it has been blown on the canvas by tremendous gusts
Winner: Archibald Prize 1966
Sadly, just four years on from his Archibald win, Molvig’s career was cut short at the age of 46. His health had been an issue for years, as he suffered from nephritis as a child. Soon after his death, his friend, the poet and art critic Pamela Bell, paid tribute to Molvig’s quality of perception and power of expression:
With every new theme it seemed he began right at the beginning, almost to invent a fresh alphabet and a new language of forms, so acutely was he aware of the uniqueness of things and of the uniqueness of his response to each painterly challenge. What could appear as a diversity of styles to some of his critics was an awareness of this essence, the humility not to impose his own signature, but his willingness to abdicate to the organic expression and essential form of each experience.5
But perhaps the last word should be given over to long-time friend and biographer Betty Churcher from the last section of her book:
Because he has been so difficult to categorise, Molvig has often been overlooked by historians and curators . . . Yet, at the full stretch of his talent, he has produced images so powerful and urgent that they have that quality of all good art: they remain in the mind in all their original clarity.6
Esteemed by his peers, and with his works acquired by public galleries and private collectors around the country, Jon Molvig’s contribution to the Brisbane art community is immeasurable. ‘Maverick’ celebrates his unique contribution to the city’s cultural landscape.
Simon Elliott is Deputy Director, Collection and Exhibitions, QAGOMA.
The author thanks Michael Hawker (Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA) and Rebecca Mutch (Editor, QAGOMA).
1 The quotes in this article from Pamela Wilson, Ann Thomson, Peter Kennedy and Mervyn Moriarty are from interviews conducted with the artists by Simon Elliott in Brisbane in April and May 2019.
2 Bruce Heiser, ‘Making a life with Jon Molvig: An interview with Otte Bartzis’, in Jon Molvig: Maverick [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2019, p.44.
3 Daniel Thomas was one such critic; see Betty Churcher, Molvig: The Lost Antipodean, Allen Lane, Ringwood, Vic., 1984, p.117.
4 James Gleeson, ‘What is the essential Molvig?’, Sun Herald [Sydney], 14 August 1966.
5 Pamela Bell, ‘Jon Molvig — an appreciation’, Art and Australia, September 1970, p.122.
6 Betty Churcher, Molvig: The Lost Antipodean, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1984, p.124.
Buy the publication
Jon Molvig: Maverick explores Molvig’s contribution to the Brisbane art community, highlights his stylistic eclecticism, and revalues his unique contribution to art history. This richly illustrated, hardcover publication features essays by Michael Hawker (exhibition curator), Samantha Littley, Michele Helmrich and Glenn R Cooke, as well as an interview by Bruce Heiser with Cornelia Bartzis about her late husband’s work and their life together. Available from the QAGOMA Store and online.
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The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art extends its gratitude to the Gordon Darling Foundation for its generous support of Jon Molvig: Maverick.
Featured image detail: Jon Molvig with James Finney 1960