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Leonard FRENCH

Brunswick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1928 – Melbourne, Australia 2017 /0

  • England, Ireland, Europe 1949-51
  • Asia 1960-61
  • Europe, England 1962-63
  • Japan, USA 1965

In the beginning 1960 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, enamel, gold paint, synthetic polymer resin and oil on hessian on composition board

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Tertiary Insc: inscribed reverse support u.c., fibre tipped pen "[In the beginning]/Leonard French/22 Alfred St Beaumaris/Melb Victoria Aust"
Dimensions: 137.7 h x 122.3 w cm
Acknowledgement: From the collection of James Fairfax AO, gift of Bridgestar Pty Ltd 1995
Accession No: NGA 95.350
Image rights: © Leonard French. Licensed by Viscopy

Leonard French’s In the beginning is a painting which simultaneously appears as abstract and visually engaging, whilst at the same time relating to a traditional narrative and to medieval conventions of art.

The title alludes to the opening words of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, when God created heaven and earth. The artist himself refers to quite specific imagery in this work and notes: ‘The symbols grow on the earth — the fish move vigorously alive — the sun a cross — the sun bursts its grave-cloth, exposing its newborn self — a miracle of renewed life.’1

French’s actual technique of painting is unique in Australian art. He often starts with a phrase which may drift into his mind. He converts this into cut-out shapes and resolves them into a harmonious compositional arrangement. Then he builds up a relief ground in gesso, mixes dry pigments with clear enamel paint and superimposes layers of colours. Gilt may be applied to some areas, followed by several layers of glazes to create an immaculate, brilliant and luminous surface. While the mixing of colours, the gilding and the use of stencil shapes may relate to techniques associated with the signwriting trade in which French served as an apprentice from the age of 14, their combination and use in modern art have few parallels.

In an original manner, French creates an art charged with a spirituality which has a discernible narrative aspect and a spectacular decorative quality, but he has achieved all of this within an aesthetic framework which is recognisably of its time.

Sasha Grishin 2002

1Vincent Buckley Leonard French: The Campion Paintings Melbourne: Grayflower Publications 1962 p.86.

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