John PERCEVAL, Angel with cello Enlarge 1 /4
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Bruce Rock, Western Australia, Australia 1923 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 2000

  • England 1963-65

Angel with cello 1957 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: ceramics, figurines, earthenware with copper oxide glaze

Dimensions: height 30.3 h x 24.0 w x 27.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.529
Image rights: Courtesy John Perceval / Ken McGregor

There are some works of art that, given half the chance, would surely cast off the weight of words, the histories that preceded them. They would assert a presence that speaks for itself and, if we mere mortals demanded more, they might turn to music to make their point more clearly.

John Perceval’s angels with musical instruments feel like such works. They confront us with their innocence and a knowing that is beyond easy description. They mingle beauty with raw energy, the earthly with the unearthly. The glazes that embellish their lively forms add to a feeling that these beings are recently born, carrying the accretions that newborns do, while their hollow eyes staring out at us seem to transcend mortality – as is the way with angels.

If we were to stick to the facts, it might help to know that Perceval, with Arthur Boyd and Peter Herbst, experimented with the ceramic medium at Merric Boyd’s pottery at Murrumbeena in Victoria in the 1940s, extending traditions into new terrains of imaginative possibility. We might look for art historical angelic precedents and also find links with some of the figures in Perceval’s paintings and drawings inspired by Brueghel and Hogarth.

But then again, if we did not know or find these things, the presence of these angels would still be there. Ingeniously crafted, they appear as robust free spirits. In the 1950s, Perceval and his good friend Mirka Mora, who also created many angels in her art, often engaged in free-spirited, outrageous behaviour – expressions of their longing to recapture a sense of play, interlaced with an awareness of the pitfalls of human nature, which Mirka described as the ‘angels and devils in us all’.

If we suspend purely rational thought in relation to Perceval’s bold angels, we may be open to feeling their radiating energy, their unsettling, haunting presences – to imagine their timeless, vibrant music of sorrow and of joy.

Deborah Hart

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