James Gleeson, born in 1915, is Australia’s best known Surrealist, its longest practitioner and leading advocate. Indeed, he says, ‘I was born a Surrealist’. In the late 1930s, influenced by artists such as Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico, Gleeson began painting his first surrealist works. However, due to the Second World War, he was not able to travel to Europe until 1948 and see firsthand the great works of Western art.
In the summer of 1948, Gleeson travelled to Italy for the first time. He saw Michelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel and was overwhelmed by its presentation of the man as a perfect creation in the image of God. In a small group of subsequent works, including Spain 1951, the classically conceived male nude becomes the focus of the work. In this beautiful and mysterious painting, a male figure looks down towards a levitating female figure composed of precious metals and stones. In the middle distance, a group of eerily hooded penitents, robed in the manner of priests during the Spanish Inquisition, beckon. The distant mountains reveal a sleeping male figure – at once, part of the sky and the land. Gleeson’s superb draughtsmanship and mastery of paint is evident in his handling of the two main figures, soft living flesh contrasted with hard, lifeless stone.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010