Albert Tucker’s 1941 Self-portrait is a highly personalised image, which, but for the title, is barely recognisable as a portrait.
International styles of art such as Cubism, Surrealism and German Expressionism appear as points of inspiration for Tucker’s response to the prevailing ‘blue and gold’ landscape tradition and the horrors of the Second World War. As an artist he aligned himself with Modernism and was one of a radical group of young men who contributed to the journal Angry Penguins. For a short period in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Tucker defined himself as a Social Realist, finding much in common with German Expressionists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. Looking back, he explained:
The whole world, and all the people I knew, seemed to be seething with ideas and energies and experiences; and my own mind was a seething mess … the highly emotional, overwrought expressionist paintings suited my state at the time.
The structure of the artist’s face in this self-portrait is made from a series of close-up, interlocking planes. The manifestly uncomfortable presence is accentuated by strident colour and coarse, irregular brushstrokes. Three eyes like targets stare wide-eyed in fear or anger at some unseen terror on either side of a huge nose, its one cavernous nostril placed at the centre of the composition. The breakdown of a fixed viewpoint, the palette of blood reds, acid greens and yellows—and the stark contrast between light and shadow—create the synergy of Tucker’s heightened sensibility at the time.
A pen and ink drawing from 1941, also bearing the title of self-portrait, shows something of Tucker’s preparation for this painting. In the drawing the edge of the face is distinct from the background while the planes of the nose, cheek and chin are cross-hatched in keeping with cubist explorations of form and space. Some of Tucker’s physical characteristics, such as his prominent chin, strong nose and brow furrowed in concentration are evident in the drawing but its delicacy and finesse are abandoned in the painting.
The expressive intensity of Tucker’s 1941 Self-portrait suggests a psychological rather than a physical state. In its brutality Albert Tucker conveys the ‘seething mess’ he recalled so vividly forty years later—a unique reminder of individual turmoil when Europe was once again being ravaged by war.
 J Mollison and N Bonham, Albert Tucker, 1982, p 32.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010