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established Melbourne, Victoria, Australia commenced 1937 – 1994


Frances BURKE

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1907 – 1994


Phoenix, length of fabric c 1945 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: textiles, fabric, screenprint on cotton

Primary Insc: printed on selvedge ' "Phoenix" a Frances Burke Unit Color [Sic] Design'
Dimensions: 223.0 h cm 119.6 h cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Frances Burke 1986
Accession No: NGA 86.1024

From her earliest days as a young designer, Frances Burke was noted for her fearless use of simplified shapes and bright clear colour. These quickly became her signature and ensured her success. Designs with specifically Australian themes and colours proved popular with an increasingly confident and prosperous post-war society. Designers, such as Marion Hall Best in Sydney, advocated Frances Burke’s fabrics as epitomising the very best of contemporary design.

Phoenix, an unusual textile among the great variety of Frances Burke’s work, features a textured cloth. The design takes advantage of the texture to produce a mottled background for the brilliant and flat colour of the phoenix and flower motif. Unlike most of her other textiles, in PhoenixFrances Burke makes use of more than one colour. The overall effect is of a complexity and richness not usually associated with her work.

The rising phoenix motif seemed especially appropriate at the end of the Second World War. The mythical Arabian bird burnt itself on a funeral pyre and rose from the ashes with renewed youth. In this textile, the purple phoenix flies above a shocking pink floral motif, perhaps suggesting the flower bract of the Mussaenda or tropical rose. It may be seen as a symbol of hope and aspiration used by the young designer whose career was developing so quickly.

Undoubtedly Phoenix was especially commissioned, probably for a private interior. On the part of the owner it would have represented a considerable commitment to the most strikingly modern design possible in post-war Australia.

John McPhee, 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