East Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1999
The girls at school 1959 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on composition board oil on hardboard
They have arrived at school and stand waiting. Now there is no movement, but a moment of pause. Though they stand for this moment, close together, they are already separated…
It was 1959. The end of a decade. Parents contemplated their children’s future. John Brack, now the father of four daughters, was well aware of the vulnerability of children and their inevitable transition from childhood innocence to the harsh reality of adolescence. The girls at school is an expression of this disquiet; in it he captures the essence of his three oldest daughters in the first phase of their transition to conformity.
Three girls cluster to the left of the picture, absorbed in a moment of seeming abandonment. Behind them looms the red brick school wall and to the right, the ominous shadow through which they must pass in order to learn of life. In deference to their fate, the two younger girls clench delicate posies of daisies in their baby-like hands: offerings of hope in an uncertain world.
Cocooned between her siblings, a shy, golden-haired girl gazes desolately at us, the mother-viewer. Her white and flesh-toned checked uniform forewarns of loss of individuality and purity defiled. The girl in front stares determinedly outside the picture plane. Shielded by her brown cardigan she is an image of order and stubborn resentment. Her satchel, a burden under her arm, is a reminder of the load of learning she will endure. Two tiny flesh-pink bows in her plaits flutter like fragile butterflies in metamorphosis.
The girl at the back has turned from us. She is self-contained and nearing adolescence. She embodies self-realisation and knows already of ‘the transition from one state of being to another and… the pain of living’. In her hair she wears a white bow of purity. Like the posies and white collars of her siblings, it is luminous amidst darker tones and with them forms a diagonal leading swiftly downwards and back up to the harsh angles of the red brick school walls and the shadowy unknown. The walls, with ordered meat-like striations, add further tension to this visual essay on the violation of innocence.
Brack’s fourth daughter was too young and, perhaps, too carefree and effervescent to be included. But maybe she is there, in spirit, a fourth uniform button peeking out from behind the plait of her older sibling.
 John Brack, quoted in S Grishin, The art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol 1, p 73.
 Conversation and correspondence with Helen Brack and her daughter Freda, 26 and 30 March 2010. McDonald is grateful to them for sharing this and other insights into Brack’s work.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010