James GLEESON, Corroded head Enlarge 1 /1


Hornsby, New South Wales, Australia 1915 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 2008

  • England, Europe 1947-49
  • Europe, United States of America 1958-59

Corroded head [Study for the painting, 'We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit'] c.1939 Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, drawing in pen and ink, brush and ink and scratching back Support: cream paper (sketchbook sheet)

Edition Notes: Study for the painting, 'We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit', 1940, National Gallery of Victoria.
Primary Insc: signed lower centre in pen and black ink, 'GLEESON'. not dated. Titled verso upper centre in pen and black ink, 'Corroded head'.
Dimensions: image 36.2 h x 26.6 w cm sheet 36.6 h x 26.6 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1976
Accession No: NGA 76.112.134
Subject: Australia, Art style: Surrealism
  • Purchased by the Australian National gallery, from Frank O’Keefe, Sydney, March 1976.
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925

Surrealism has always been suspicious of the weight put upon us by habits of thinking. Established patterns can restrict our reactions to reality by predetermining our response to an event or condition. Tradition, and habit, often stand in the way of an instinctive and personal response. It is a corrosive factor that can eat away and hollow out the truth of the matter.

It was in this mode of thinking – sometime late in 1939 – that I imagined a seashore with a male head on the left and a female torso on the right, both hollowed out and corroded by a strong salt wind. The title We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit occurred to me almost at the same time as the image. In the final painting it is inscribed on the lower section of the man’s head.

The influence of Salvador Dali is obvious in the finished painting. It was in 1939 that a painting by the Spanish Surrealist first reached Australia, though another source of the initial image could probably have come from a reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men of 1925.

James Gleeson 2002

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002