Bruce Rock, Western Australia, Australia 1923 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 2000
Children drawing in a Carlton street
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on cotton gauze on cardboard adhered to hardboard
John Perceval created astonishing, powerful, psychological images in the 1940s. Alongside Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, he was at the vanguard of modernist painting in Melbourne in this era and exhibited regularly with the Contemporary Art Society. Concerned about the fate of humanity during the war years and often drawing on distressing memories of his difficult childhood, Perceval was able to express anxieties in personal and universal ways.
Children drawing in a Carlton street 1943 is an arresting example of Perceval’s wartime painting. The theme of childhood underpins some of his most potent works. As a young boy, he grew up on a remote wheat and sheep property in Western Australia. His parents separated and he was left on the farm for the first few years of his life in the care of his sometimes destructive, ill-tempered father. He later travelled with his mother to Melbourne, where, at boarding school, he discovered his passion for drawing and painting, providing an outlet and a means of entering into the realm of intense feelings.
In Children playing in a Carlton street, the dynamic energy of the three children drawing on the pavement and on the wall contrasts dramatically with the eerie de Chirico–like stillness of the street in the background. Two children appear totally immersed in drawing a chalk figure with oversized hands that moves forward into the viewer’s space. Their faces are obscured by mops of blonde hair; the third kneels and engages with the wall of a building as though trying to bring new life to it through the intensity of creative expression. This child possibly represents Perceval, although, taking an imaginative leap, all three figures may be versions of himself.
The distortions of scale and perspective and sense of drama in this city fringe street scene are characteristic of Perceval’s approach to painting at this time and reveal inspiration from German Expressionism and European Surrealism. There are also parallels with the work of Russian-born Danila Vassilieff, who painted children in Melbourne street scenes in the 1930s. Vassilieff’s paintings dealt with a level of anxiety connected with the Depression years. Compared with his rather gentle, lyrical approach, Perceval’s work appears more psychologically intense and closer to the haunting streetscapes of Arthur Boyd in the war years. In Australia between 1941 and 1945, the idea of Australia’s isolation and relative safety was challenged. With the escalation of war in the Pacific and the bombing of Darwin and other parts of northern Australia, the threat seemed close at hand and very directly informed the thinking of young artists like Boyd and Perceval.
Apart from a few stalwart supporters, there was no market for works of the kind that Perceval painted in the 1940s. It was art that came from the heart, from his innermost feelings. Over time and with retrospective and monographic studies of the work of Perceval and his friends of this period, their considerable contributions to Australian art have become widely recognised. They illuminated a challenging period in Australia’s history interwoven with their personal perspectives about art and life.
In Children drawing in a Carlton street, Perceval reminds us of the desolation of war and the life of the child trying to overcome difficulties of past and present through the powers of the creative mind. In a sense, throughout his life, he was able to re-imagine the world through the eyes of a child, reminding us of the psychological reverberations of these years across time. This very generous gift by John and Rosanna Hindmarsh is of considerable significance to the Gallery’s collection and is part of the 100 Works for 100 Years campaign that celebrates Canberra’s centenary.
Deborah Hart Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture post 1920
in artonview, issue 75, Spring 2013