Menzies Art Brands



John Brack is one of Australias most acclaimed and outstanding artists of the second half of the twentieth century. His Reclining Nude 1980, is the standout painting in the series of five major nude oil paintings that the artist completed in 1980 and that was exhibited in Sydney in September of that year.1 The painting was acquired from the exhibition by Frank and Joan Croll, two Sydney-based doctors who were friends of the artist and his family. In 1976, Brack had painted the portrait of Joan Croll AO2 that is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

In the late 1970s, Brack was working on some of his most challenging pens and pencils paintings of his career and was commencing preparatory work on The Battle 1981-3, now in the National Gallery of Australia, his largest work and a painting that is widely seen as the culmination of his lifes endeavour. For Brack, the nude remained a touchstone on one of the great traditions in western art, a tradition to which he could constantly return and against which he could test himself. It was in the midst of some of his most conceptually challenging art that Brack felt the need to return to the nude and examine the traditions of artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Velzquez (1599-1660).

Late in 1979, Brack executed a series of five quite large cont drawings of the nude from models in his studio, which included Study for Reclining Nude3 that compositionally is a close study for the painting under discussion. The space that the nude inhabits is the rather spartan setting of the artists studio with the naked floorboards racing at an eccentric angle to meet the skirting boards and the plain surrounding walls. The setting is in a pale palette favouring ochres, browns and creams. The nude herself is shown reclining on a bed that has been somewhat incongruously placed diagonally across the picture space. She is shown in a Matissian pose, propping herself up with a single arm on crumpled sheets and a couple of pillows. Within this subdued setting, a brilliant and luxuriant note of colour is introduced by a magnificently painted elaborate Persian carpet that mysteriously emerges from underneath the bed on a diagonal setting off a whole series of confronting angles with the floorboards and the corners of the room.

Although the cont drawing relates closely to the painting, a point emphasised in the title and that would have been apparent when the drawing and the painting shared the same space when first exhibited in Sydney,4 Brack introduced a number of significant changes to the oil painting executed a few months later, early in 1980. The pose of the model, with one arm propping up her head while the other is draped across her belly and its angle reflected in the somewhat awkwardly recessed leg, has not been altered in the painting. The nude was his representation of the here and now, the reality of the model as observed in the artists studio. The camp bed itself, in the painting, has become slightly less elongated and more substantial, but the most important changes are threefold. Firstly, Brack had completely rethought and chose a different model for his Persian carpet; secondly, he altered the angle of the receding floorboards, making them steeper and in this way heightening the dramatic impact, and finally he introduced a completely new and unexpected element of a pair of shoes or slippers in the foreground in front of the rest of the composition.

If in Bracks thinking the figure of the model had a temporal aspect and existed in the reality of the studio, the Persian carpet belonged to the eternal realm with its roots in a tribal culture. In the drawing, Brack employed a checkerboard field pattern with separate geometric designs within small lozenge shapes somewhat reminiscent of Bakhtiari Persian rugs. In the painting, he opted for a more organic enclosed garden design incorporating elements of the Tree of Life. The strong reds, crimsons and blacks of the carpet, with the running white geometric motifs, chromatically dominate the whole painting. The slight asymmetry in the design of the carpet breaks some of the severity of its pattern, adding a human touch of imperfection. The curious location of the carpet, seemingly running into and under the bed, but not emerging on the other side, creates a disquieting and slightly unsettling note in the composition.

In front of this slightly unstable camp bed, in line with the head of the model, somewhat inexplicably appear a pair of brown shoes. The shoes do not automatically seem to belong to the model and one could even argue that they appear to be too large for her feet. Their origins, almost definitely, lie in Jan van Eycks (1390-1441) Arnolfini double portrait of 1434, the so-called Arnolfini Wedding painting in the National Gallery in London5 that so intrigued Brack and to which he would return on numerous occasions. Here, in the same location as in Bracks Reclining Nude, in the foreground in the bottom left-hand corner, Jan van Eyck introduces the motif of a pair of empty shoes or clogs. In the case of the Renaissance master, it has been argued that they symbolically relate to some marital fertility ritual, but what is their purpose in the Brack painting?

The main theme in Bracks Reclining Nude, is that of instability. If in his very early work he sought out stability and in some of his work adopted the recessional structure and the grid of Georges Seurats art, his art of the late seventies and early eighties conversely was preoccupied with instability. The nude reclines awkwardly on a camp bed, the floorboards beneath her run steeply up the composition and seem to tilt the space upwards, projecting the figure into space and off her perch to create a sense of disequilibrium. If horizontals and verticals anchor a composition and promote a sense of stability, their absence speaks of the exact opposite. In this complex painting, there is not a single horizontal or vertical line all is built on diagonals, every line is oblique, so that everything seems to be in a state of flux and could easily collapse and implode. The shoes in the foreground heighten this sense of instability it is like an enigmatic and visually irrational element that disrupts any harmonious reading of the painting.

In Reclining Nude, the nude on the bed, the Persian carpet and the curious shoes appear suspended against steeply receding naked floorboards of the studio and the whole picture plane in turn is shown floating within a tilted internal frame within a frame. This concentration of orthogonals creates a framework of enormous implied instability within which the artist has posed his reclining model, and the whole painting becomes a profound study in human vulnerability. A critic writing on Bracks nudes of the time observed, Brack overlooks neither the delights nor the anxieties. There are always things of elating beauty, but they are always surrounded by restraints. The room is isolation. The space is ample, but not limitless. There are confining walls at strange angles, and wiry restricting lines, rendezvous promised, but evaded.6

John Brack is an artist who produced relatively few paintings in his life, scarcely more than 350, and the majority of these are in public collections. Reclining Nude, painted in 1980, is one of his superb paintings of the nude and is also a profound statement concerning the precarious path and the vulnerabilities that the individual negotiates through life.



1. The five paintings are: Standing Nude, Recumbent Nude, Reclining Nude, Nude with Frame and Nude with Pink Gown
2. John Brack, Joan Croll, 1976, oil on canvas, 152.5 x 106.5cm, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

3. John Brack, Study for Reclining Nude, 1979, cont, 55.0 x 75.0 cm, see Grishin, S. The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. I, p.156, pl.47 (illus.); vol. II, p.35, cat. p.258
4. Study for Reclining Nude was exhibited as number 16 in the Rudy Komon exhibition in Sydney in 1980
5. Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak, 82.0 x 60.0 cm, The National Gallery, London
6. Gordon Thomson introduction, John Brack Nudes, Lyre Bird Press, Melbourne 1982, np.


Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
Australian National University


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