Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia 1923 – Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1970

  • Europe, England 1950-52

Primordia 1956-57 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil and wax on composition board

Dimensions: 244.0 h x 183.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1969
Accession No: NGA 69.71
  • In 1955, Jon Molvig moved to Brisbane from Sydney where, as a returned serviceman, he had studied at the National School of Art. He arrived in Brisbane just ten years after the end of the war in the Pacific and the withdrawal of General Douglas McArthur’s American troops from the city. When the troops returned home, they left behind a plethora of brothels, sleazy dance halls, hotel bars and nightclubs that had sprung up overnight to service them. Now these places of entertainment remained without their clientele of soldiers; high and dry and gasping for life, like sea anemones in a rock pool after the tide has gone out.

    Molvig loved the seedy underground tide that washed through the bars and brothels of Brisbane – those that had survived – and it provided him with subject matter for many of his best pictures painted during those early years in that city. He painted Primordia towards the end of 1956. It was a demanding picture for Molvig because of its large scale and scope. He wanted to incorporate all the painterly concerns that had been occupying his mind since arriving in Brisbane; he wanted this to be his masterpiece, like Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. It was not, but it was an important milestone in his career.

    The magnitude of this undertaking undoubtedly provided an incentive for Molvig because he loved nothing better than a challenge, and was always testing himself – and others! The sustaining motivation was to manipulate paint and image in such a way that, together, they would clearly communicate the deep-seated emotions that he attempted to bring to the surface each time he painted.

    In Primordia, we see a giant demiurge (a supernatural creation-figure), legs splayed out and arms flailing, against a sun which throws tongues of yellow flame into the top left-hand corner of the picture. The long looping brushstrokes that cross and re-cross the composition activate the whole picture surface, making it somewhat claustrophobic and airless. A white line loops around the figure, helping us to disentangle it from the background, twining around the legs, up the torso and coiling in the abdomen, as tense as an over-wound spring.

    Molvig was fascinated by primal instincts, hence the title Primordia, the personification of that which is primitive in all of us. He was attracted to ‘primitive’ carvings, and I believe it is not accidental that the white line looks a little like engraved lines on wood carvings from New Guinea or Oceania. The tiny stick-like figures that surge forward from the left-hand framing edge towards the left knee, as if in worship, are a curious feature of this painting. They appear to strive to reach upwards, as if Primordia were some sort of a giant pagan goddess.

    The picture relies on the energy of Molvig’s muscular brushstrokes, which fuse the figure with its background. Yet it was not long after painting this picture that he made his first move towards isolating the figure from the background – a compositional change that became more pronounced in the 1960s.

    Betty Churcher, 2002

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002