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
James Gleeson is arguably Australia’s most significant Surrealist artist and the National Gallery of Australia has a formidable holding of his works in its celebrated collection of Australian Surrealism.
Spain was painted upon the artist’s return to Australia following his influential European sojourn between 1947 and 1949, and in many ways it can be described as a ‘journey painting’. Gleeson had been moved by his engagement with Italian art and the concept of Humanism. He wrote, ‘The 1948 summer in Italy did have a tremendous influence on me. The Michelangelo experience—the Platonic idea of man’s beauty reflecting goodness—dominated’.
Gleeson visited the Sistine Chapel and was overwhelmed by the presence of man as the perfect creation in the image of God. Indeed, the central eroticised male nude in Spain embodies this notion of the perfect male form based on classical antiquity as revived in Renaissance Florence. Before him lies a levitating woman, both maternal and goddess-like. In the middle ground a foreboding line of Spanish Catholic penitents usher him along a mountain path towards the lake beyond and ultimately, the light. Gleeson’s reverence for El Greco’s Spanish landscapes echoes in the curling, stormy sky. The sense of man’s holiness in perfection is reiterated in the mountains, shaped as a sleeping Adonis figure; while also suggesting Gleeson’s increasing interest in the unconscious and the underlying power of dreams on the psyche.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014