Eric Thake (1904–1982) had an eye for capturing the uncanny and the surreal in the everyday and was a significant figure in the story of Surrealism in Australia from the mid 1930s. Thake’s works are characterised by a strong sense of design and reveal an interest in the work of British Surrealists such as Eric Wadsworth.
Thake’s striking Brownout 1942 embodies aspects of both Social Realism and Surrealism in conveying an aspect of wartime Melbourne. A brownout is a partial blackout and was enforced at times during the Second World War in Australia in major population centres considered vulnerable to air attack. (Fittingly, this work was held in the collection of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria for a time after its completion.)
Thake exploited the eerie atmospheric effect of the low-level lighting on this unpopulated street in East Kew; and the sense of foreboding is enhanced by the sign pointing towards the Kew air raid shelter. Thake also explored the theatrical formal qualities of the scene, emphasising the spatial ambiguity created by a brownout and providing this otherwise bold image with a weightlessness. The strings of softly glowing ovals of light initially give the appearance of a dreamlike abstracted composition; but closer inspection reveals Thake’s hyper-real representation of a suburban street corner, with detail dissolving into seemingly unfathomable darkness.
A painter, printmaker and later photographer, Thake had achieved considerable success in Melbourne by the time he completed this work. A year later, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and was commissioned to document the affect of the war on the RAAF, producing a body of strong surreal images in response to the detritus of war in the Pacific.
Brownout is an exceptional and much-sought-after example of Thake’s work in oil from this period. It is a very welcome and important addition that will enhance the National Gallery’s already unsurpassed collection of mid‑twentieth-century Australian art.
Miriam Kelly Assistant Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012