Menzies Art Brands



James Gleeson was a powerful presence in the Australia art scene for more than sixty years, yet always sat apart from the mainstream, content to forge his own highly distinctive and individual path. Gleesons personal form of surrealism often seemed at odds with his quiet demeanour and understated style. His paintings from the very beginning are immediately recognisable, built on a knowledge of classical painting and the surrealists of the early twentieth century.

He was particularly taken by artists such as Breughel, El Greco (1541-1614), Poussin (1594-1665) and William Blake (1757-1827). From Poussin, he took elements of the classical landscape, while Blake and El Greco were inspirations for the stylised figures of souls in torment. Classical figures, nude or draped, become trapped in caves and chasms, surrounded by grotesque forms. The land takes human form, tortured, stretched and grotesque. At times Gleeson uses colonnades and bridges that are a nod to De Chirico, but with the eloquence of a Renaissance master.

Gleeson was not alone as surrealist in the Australian context. By the 1940s, Albert Tucker (1914-1999) and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) both expressed their despair at the war through surrealist explorations of urban life in Melbourne. Tucker particularly, adopted an aggressive, elemental form of mark making in contrast to the refined style and unreality of his Gleesons imagined landscapes.

           Captives in a Threatening Landscape is a relatively small work, but more remarkable for the complexity and intensity of its subject matter. James Gleeson has obviously absorbed the lessons of surrealist painting, but he has brought his own vision and finish to his captive subjects. Their disposition suggests the pair have been expelled from the Garden of Eden to become captive in a grotesque landscape, where rocks have teeth and strange life forms lurk in dark caves.

The captive figure is a theme Gleeson would return to throughout his lengthy career. It provided a metaphor for humanity trapped in the terrors of a world war that was taking the lives of millions of people. James Gleesons Captives in a Threatening Landscape appears at auction for the first time in almost twenty five years. It is an important painting, and a personal response to the suffering and psyche of the combatants and innocent victims of terror.

Gavin Fry
Gavin Fry is a writer, artist and museum professional with fifty years experience working in curatorial and management positions in Australian museums, galleries and educational institutions.

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