Melbourne, Victoria, Australia born 1939

The great democracy 1968 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil, enamel, synthetic polymer paint, collage and pencil on composition board

Dimensions: 180.0 h x 180.0 w cm Framed 1825 h x 1825 w x 25 d mm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Emmanuel Hirsh in memory of Etta Hirsh, 2007
Accession No: NGA 2007.375
Image rights: © Gareth Sansom
  • Gareth Sansom is one of Australia’s most highly regarded painters. His work engages with issues of personal identity, sexuality and mortality. A resolutely figurative artist, for over five decades the human body has remained the central motif for his musings on the human condition.

    Born in Melbourne in 1939, Sansom studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology from 1959 to 1964. His early paintings, with their raw imagery and suggestive titles, brought Sansom to prominence as one of Melbourne’s most provocative younger artists. The great democracy 1968 is a major work which encapsulates many of the artist’s concerns and aesthetic strategies of this decade. Samson’s juxtaposition of imagery and the incorporation of photographs reflect his interest in British pop artists such as RB Kitaj and David Hockney while the distortion of the figures recalls the work of Francis Bacon, an important early influence. Sansom’s paintings from this decade are marked by a sense of anxiety, a restless mix of eclectic images that refuse easy comprehension.

    A repeated motif in The great democracy is the human eye, which appears most disturbingly in a photograph of a patient with his eyes covered. Recently speaking about this work, the artist made reference to the terrifying scene of an eye being sliced open in Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou 1928. He also referred to Milton’s tragic poem Samson agonistes in which Samson asks:

    … why was the sight
    To such a tender ball as th’ eye confin’d?
    So obvious and so easie to be quench’t

    Loss of sight and the emasculation of Samson by Delilah are inextricably bound together in Milton’s verse. While The great democracy was not conceived as an illustration of such themes, the potency of these associations juxtaposed with images of a gravestone, a bomb blast and distorted bodies gives the work a disturbing edge, a sense of the vulnerability of human existence.

    Elena Taylor
    Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture
    in artonview, issue 53, autumn 2008

    in artonview, issue 53, autumn 2008