Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1914 – 1999

  • England, Europe, United States of America 1947-60

Self-portrait 1937 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on paperboard mounted on composition board

Primary Insc: signed and dated u.r., oil "Tucker/ '37"
Dimensions: 56.4 h x 42.8 w cm framed (overall) 673 h x 547 w x 50 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1983
Accession No: NGA 83.3707
Image rights: © Barbara Tucker courtesy Barbara Tucker
  • I didn’t fit into the middle class because I was too poor, and I couldn’t function with the working class because I was conditioned to different values and aspirations. [1]

    Born in Melbourne in 1914, Tucker’s formative years were shaped by the Great Depression as he was caught between his mother’s middle class pretensions and the reality of poverty. He had been keen to study at the National Gallery of  Victoria School but was unable to afford full-time study. Instead he had his beginnings in commercial art and life-drawing classes at the Victorian Artists’ Society.

    Self-portrait 1937, painted by Tucker when he was 23 years old, is a work of contrasts and contradictions. On first sight the intense young man seems confident as he is portrayed with strong colours and a wide stare. He is tidily though not expensively dressed. His green tie sits neatly and is set against the pink shirt and red scarf that is casually tossed over his shoulder. This conservative image is finished with the white highlight of a folded handkerchief in his breast pocket. All this, together with his carefully combed hair, indicates an urbane man of his time—and yet Tucker subverts the effect by painting himself unshaven.

    While not as obvious as in later portraits, the centre of this self-portrait is directed around the curve of the artist’s nose, broken while at school, and the lift of his mouth and left eyebrow. The features seem mobile. Tucker does not provide a background in which to place himself; instead he focuses more closely on his face, directing our gaze and making the painting all the more penetrating.

    On closer inspection though, the confidence that is first assumed is belied by the fact that Tucker looks up through exaggeratedly large eyes, while his head tilts slightly downwards. We realise that the artist is not quite as self-assured as he first appears.

    This early work stands apart from the direction that Tucker was soon to follow. He describes 1937 as his turning-point year. The portrait captures him on the brink of what was to become a long and successful career.

    Dominique Nagy

    [1] A Tucker quoted in J Mollison and N Bonham, Albert Tucker, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1982, pp 49–50.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010