East Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1999

Study for 'Men's wear' 1953 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, colour pencil; graphite; paper drawing in black pencil overlaid with red pencil Support: thin smooth off-white wove TH Saunders paper
Manufacturer's Mark: watermark upper left, '[TH SAUN]DERS ENGLAND 1950'.

Primary Insc: Inscribed lower left below image in black pen and ink, '132 [enclosed within circle]'. Inscribed upper left beside image in black pencil, '8 [stricken through] 1 / 9'.
Secondary Insc: no inscriptions.
Tertiary Insc: no inscriptions.
Dimensions: image 27.0 h x 38.2 w sheet (deckle-edged) 39.2 h x 49.2 w
Acknowledgement: Gift of Helen Brack 2013. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program. 100 Works for 100 Years.
Accession No: NGA 2013.4396
Image rights: © Helen Brack
  • Gift to the National Gallery of Australia, from Helen Maudsley, the artist's widow, Melbourne, 2013.
  • This preparatory study for John Brack’s major painting Men’s wear 1953 forms part of a generous gift of drawings donated by his wife, Helen. Offering rare insight into his artistic practice, it underscores his comment to art critic Elwyn Lynn, in her book Contemporary drawing, that ‘drawing controls the idea, guides the subsequent composition and heightens the intensity’.

    Eschewing the prevailing modernist style, Brack meticulously transformed his experiences of social routines into stylised vignettes that reveal the tensions underlying contemporary life in Australia. His dour tailor and relentlessly smiling mannequins symbolise customers’ aspirations for authority and respectability, with the placement of these figures based on the geometry of Georges Seurat’s allegorical painting La parade 1887. After transferring his composition to canvas, Brack continued to make adjustments before blocking in colours using a homemade batch of fast-drying Maroger medium. He then meticulously outlined the simplified contours with a fine sable brush—a technique he developed to balance painting with drawing.

    The oil painting, acquired by the Gallery in 1982, was included in Brack’s first solo exhibition in 1953. It reflects his disciplined and intellectual approach to art and contains many of his key motifs, including a focus on commonplace objects, a pared-back linear technique and the use of the mirror as a device to emphasise contrasts and contradictions.

    Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings

    in artonview, issue 77, Autumn 2014