Sam ATYEO, Organised line to yellow Enlarge 1 /1


Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1910 – Vence, France 1990

  • France from 1936
  • Australia 1945-46, 1948-49

Organised line to yellow c1933 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: signed l.l,red oil, ' ATYEO '
Dimensions: Frame 75.3 h x 61.8 w x 4.2 d cm work 68.0 h x 54.2 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1970
Accession No: NGA 70.99
Image rights: © Courtesy of Mrs Sam Atyeo

Organised line to yellow is credited as the first abstract painting to be exhibited in Melbourne, where it was shown at the first Contemporary Art Group exhibition in 1934. According to the artist, the work was inspired by Bach’s Double concerto in D minor. Like many artists at the time, Sam Atyeo was intrigued by the relationship between music and art, and the potential for painting to become a totally abstract art like music.

Volatile, intense and intellectually restless, Atyeo was the leader of the Melbourne avant-garde of the 1930s. After studying at the National Gallery School between 1927 and 1932, Atyeo experimented with a wide range of modernist styles and lectured on modern art.

Atyeo’s artistic career in Australia was brief, the artist leaving the country permanently in 1936. However, Organised line to yellow was owned and displayed in the home of Atyeo’s patrons and friends, John and Sunday Reed, where it was seen and admired by the young Sidney Nolan.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

Imitating nature on a canvas is to put painting on a very low level. Interpreting nature is only slightly higher. It is extraordinary that up till now there have never been anything but paintings of the image of nature (with some possible rare exceptions). There must be a profound reason, but it escapes me, why man finds it necessary to embellish everything with his own image, or all that which surrounds him visually. It is all the more curious that his music is very rarely anything but abstract and, when it isn’t, it is rightly judged bad. How deeply this sentiment runs can be seen by the following story: recently an old lady asked me to paint a picture of the mountains outside her home. I suggested she cut a window in the wall so as she could see these mountains and of course it would be much cheaper. She said I was being flippant ... .

If one is to reject nature painting, what then is to take its place? I will try and explain what painting should first become, if it is to become a creative art. All pictures must have a start somewhere, so we’ll start with a square or rectangular canvas. Now within the outside dimensions of the canvas we design and paint coloured shapes, surrounded by other coloured shapes. The various combinations are limitless. These shapes could be loose freehand ones or tight geometric ones (geometry is human). All shapes should have some relationship with the outside edge of the canvas.

Finally, I should like to restate what I think is the single biggest obstacle in the way of painting becoming an art today and that is the conviction of everybody that painting is an imitation of nature and a handmaiden of literature, with warts or without warts, according to the school one follows.

Sam Atyeo 19831

1 Edited excerpts of lectures given by Sam Atyeo in Jennifer Phipps, Atyeo, Melbourne: Heide Park and Art Gallery, 1983, 32, 34–5, [32, 34].

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