In terms of the Western world, Australia is still a young country compared to places like Europe and have only begun to make their impression on art history. However, John Brack is an Australian painter who found incredible success in the art world.
He first achieved prominence in the 1950s and here, we’re bringing the prolific Melbourne-born artist to light and exploring five interesting facts about Brack.
Brack enlisted in the Australian Army in 1940 and was appointed to heavy artillery.
From 1938 to 1940, Brack went to evening classes at the National Gallery School studying with Charles Wheeler.
During World War II, Brack was stationed in Western Australia before being commissioned to a heavy artillery unit. He became an instructor and was eventually assigned to a field artillery unit in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea although he was never deployed as the war ended in 1945.
He was discharged in 1946 returning to the National Gallery School and this time studied under William Dargie as a full-time student. A year later, in 1947, Brack shared a studio with fellow Gallery School student Fred Williams in Melbourne and married another fellow student Helen Maudsley.
He completed his studies in 1949 but destroyed most of his student work. Upon entering the workforce, Brack was a frame-maker at the National Gallery of Victoria until 1951 and in 1952 his first piece was purchased into a public collection, The barber’s shop.
Then, Brack served as Art Master of Melbourne Grammar School until 1962 before he returned to his alma mater as Head of the National Gallery School until 1968.
Brack’s famous painting The Bar was modeled after Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere.
Painted in 1882, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere is considered the artist’s last major work. As you can see, Brack’s The Bar was modeled after Manet’s masterpiece but with a modern twist.
The Bar is a satirized take on the “six o’clock swill,” which described the Australian social ritual. It’s the Aussie equivalent of “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” and it came out of the early closing times of Aussie pubs in post-war suburbia.
The painting is bleak using browns and greys, undoubtedly to express the conformity he saw in Australian life at the time. This piece sold for $3.2 million in April 2006.
Most of Brack’s work was satirical and meant to challenge the “Australian Dream” of the 20th century.
The Bar isn’t the only piece of Brack’s that evokes a sense of bleakness and rejection of the status quo. Notably, one of his most iconic paintings, Collins St., 5 pm from 1955 depicts rush hour in the heart of Melbourne.
Figures in the image all look almost identical, further exemplifying his dissatisfaction with everyday life in 50s Australia. As opposed to the larger than life expressionism that was happening in America or Europe at the time, Brack went in the other direction and instead of embracing consumerism (like Andy Warhol for example), he saw the whole thing as uninspiring and drab.
Brack was known to work on the same themes for years at a time which helps separate his career into distinct artistic periods.
Although Brack has a recognizable style, he dealt with various themes throughout his career and usually moved on from one to the next, creating distinct periods.
From 1943 to 1945, he completed many wartime drawings, which makes sense considering his experience in the Army. He painted racecourses from 1953 to 1956, as horseracing is a big deal in Melbourne, and school playgrounds from 1959 and 1960.
In the 60s, he shifted to themes like weddings from 1960 to 1961, shop windows from 1963 to 1977, and ballroom dancers in 1969. From 1971 to 1973, he completed his famous gymnastics series and in the late 80s, he painted mannequins from 1989 to 1990.
However, Brack most commonly painted scenes of urban life including scenes in shops, bars, and on the street which began in 1952 and continued throughout his career. He also seemed to be entertained by painting postcards and implements starting in 1976 as well as pencils and pens starting in 1981 — all themes that would continue throughout his life.
Brack’s painting The Old Time broke auction records in Sydney in 2007.
Again, as Australia is a newcomer to the world stage in terms of Western art, few Australian artists have had their work sell for more than a million dollars.
The Old Time is part of his ballroom dancer period from 1969 and it sold for $3.36 million at an auction in Sydney in May 2007.
Brack passed away at age 78 on February 11, 1999, and never got to see his paintings break Australian art records. Still, his legacy lives on and various galleries throughout Australia have shown retrospectives in his honor as a true master and one of the best the continent down under has ever seen.