Joy HESTER, Lovers [II] Enlarge 1 /1

Joy HESTER

Elsternwick, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1960

Lovers [II] [Lovers] (1956) Place made: Upwey, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Creation Notes: Date estimated by curator
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, ink; paper; watercolour drawing in brush and ink and watercolour Support: paper

Primary Insc: Estate stamp lower centre overwritten in black pencil, 'Joy Hester'. Not dated or titled.
Dimensions: image 75.3 h x 55.5 w cm sheet 75.3 h x 55.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1973
Accession No: NGA 73.33
Image rights: © Joy Hester. Licensed by Viscopy
Provenance:
  • The artist, Gray Smith, Mrs Robert Dulieu, South Yarra Galleries

The theme of love is a persistent one in the work of Joy Hester, particularly from 1947 until her untimely death at the age of 40, in 1960. The most distinctive aspect of her output is evident in her focused concentration on the human head and face as the source of feeling and psychological insight. Compared with the work of a number of her peers in the 1940s, such as Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and her first husband, Albert Tucker, Hester’s work is elemental. It is neither narrative nor mythological but instead pares away extraneous details to reach the essence of states of mind and emotional resonance.

Lovers [II] is clearly one of Hester’s most accomplished works. As in many other of her images of the human face, the artist eliminated features such as the nose in order to focus on the eyes and expressive qualities of the whole. Her mastery of drawing with a brush is evident in the way she beautifully delineates the heads and torsos of the joined female and male figures, combining dramatic contrast with immensely subtle washes of grey. Aware of the potency of spatial qualities, she also deftly utilises the white space of the paper to considerable effect.

By the time she painted Lovers [II] Hester was living with her partner Gray Smith whom she met in 1947. In her works on the theme of love and lovers, including this evocative image, Hester goes beyond literal representation to enter into the manifold ambiguities of relationships and states of being from a deeply personal viewpoint.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014

The theme of love is a persistent one in the work of Joy Hester, particularly from 1947 until her untimely death in 1960. Her focused concentration on the human head and face as the source of feeling and psychological insight is the most distinctive aspect of her output. Compared with the work of a number of her peers in the 1940s such as Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and her first husband Albert Tucker, Hester’s work is elemental. It is neither narrative nor mythological, but instead pares away extraneous details to reach the essence of states of mind and emotional resonance. In her capacity to focus her vision – to encompass psychological complexity with a minimum of means – Hester recognised intuitively that the smallest details have the capacity to alter the mood of a work. She was able to compress a depth and intensity of emotion into specific features such as the eye, with a few precise strokes of brush or pen and ink.

In the 1940s, Hester was closely associated with the group of artists who have become known as the Angry Penguins, a phrase, coined by the poet Max Harris, which was the title of a well-known journal edited by Harris and John Reed. Hester received considerable support during these years from John and Sunday Reed, who drew a circle of artists and writers around them at their home at Heide on the outskirts of Melbourne. Hester’s intense drawings during the war years were admired by many of her peers, although during her lifetime she did not receive the same public or critical recognition as her male counterparts. While Hester has often been most closely identified with the period of the 1940s, she went on to mature as an artist and to create many memorable images during the ensuing decade, as the collection of her works in the National Gallery of Australia reveals.

Lovers [II] is clearly one of Hester’s most accomplished works. As in many of her other images of the human face, the artist eliminated features such as the nose in order to focus on the eyes and expressive qualities of the whole. Her mastery of drawing with a brush is evident in the way she delineates the heads and torsos of the joined female and male figures, combining dramatic contrast with immensely subtle washes of grey. Aware of the potency of spatial qualities, she also deftly utilises the white space of the paper to considerable effect.

The dramatic arc of the woman’s neck is erotic, the long, vulnerable neck suggesting her sexuality and sensuality. The neck is framed between the curve of the woman’s long, flowing black hair and the dark male torso. The luxuriant broad sweep of hair recalls Edvard Munch’s Madonna 1895/ 1902, in which long black hair cascades around the woman’s body. Munch’s Madonna is, however, very definitely naked and goddess-like, whereas Hester suggests more earthly, modest touches in the lacy edges of the garment around the neck and shoulders. A transcendent dimension is conveyed in the swift, delicate notations of the woman’s eyes which appear to be gazing into infinite space. While the figures are inextricably connected, the male is an ambiguous presence behind the female – a shadow between dark and light.

By the time she painted this evocative work, Hester was living with her partner, Gray Smith, whom she met in 1947. Around the time of their meeting, she had been diagnosed with terminal Hodgkins disease and, although she later went into remission for some years, by the mid-1950s symptoms of her illness began to recur. Smith and Hester experienced a passionate union of highs and lows. Smith, who suffered from epilepsy, was also an artist and shared Hester’s love of poetry, storytelling and sense of the dramatic. In a letter to Sunday Reed in 1947, Hester wrote that she felt an intense identification with Smith: ‘He is the “man” of me and I am the “woman” of him ... It’s like a puzzle, piecing oneself together.’1 In her works on the theme of love and lovers, including this masterful poetic image, Hester goes beyond literal representation to enter into the manifold ambiguities of relationships and states of being from a deeply personal viewpoint.

Deborah Hart

1Janine Burke (ed.), Dear Sun: The letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, Melbourne: Heinemann Australia, 1995, p.103.


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