Menzies Art Brands



Adagio is one of John Brack's most important and challenging paintings of the 1960s. He was seeking for a metaphor through which to express human relationships, a stage on which a man and a woman could perform. The painting was executed in 1967 and was exhibited in Canberra, Sydney and South Australia, before the artist repainted most of the background in 1969 and the work was included in Brack's major retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1987.

The two dancers are shown performing as ice skaters and are caught suspended in the cold glow of a green spotlight. The extreme artificiality and theatricality of the situation is stressed as the skaters negotiate the slippery and uncertain surface of the ice below. The unnatural poses and the strain and tensions are disguised, concealed behind the pinned-on smiles, the pair are bonded, yet it is an artificial union in which each is completely isolated and spiritually alone. The painting is rich in sexual overtones as the dancers try to escape the fecund green womb which is surrounded by a dark, oppressive silence.

In May 1967, Noel Hawkins, writing a feature article on John Brack in The Herald (Melbourne), spoke of the paintings development while Brack was working on it. At the time Brack was the Head of the National Gallery School which was housed on the same site as the National Gallery of Victoria.

I found him in his studio-office at the gallery, where his latest picture, a canvas about 6ft. by 4ft., at a guess, stood on a great easel. On ice, a male skater lifts a girl high before parted curtains. The general tones are cool greens and blues and brown, but the girl is sharp yellow. Both wear fixed, theatrical grins. I wanted to make a statement about romantic love, he startled me by saying. You know Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald grinning away in a chocolate box world Only then did I catch the powerful, acid commentary on fake emotion portrayed in the painting. Im not satisfied with it, John Brack said, walking up and down gloomily. I wanted to have a great bunch of flowers in it, but it was beyond me, he added as he walked up and down again frowning. (It hadnt occurred to me that a painter couldnt put into his pictures what he darn well wanted. But there is a higher internal authority that gives its own orders to the hand and the eye).1

Beyond this, Adagio is a statement about uncertainties in human existence, where figures are poised and under stress as they perform in a preordained farce exposed to the harsh glare of the spotlight. Like the gymnasts a few years later, or the pens and pencils balancing on their tips, these ice skaters are precariously balanced in their passage through life.

When in August 1967, Dr Ursula Hoff wrote the catalogue introduction for a major joint exhibition of the work of John Brack and Fred Williams (1927-1982) presented by the Arts Council of Australia and the Department of the Interior at Albert Hall in Canberra, she singled out Adagio for comment. She noted that the tizzy artificiality of the skating rink stars stand revealed in the pitiless glare of the arc lights.2 She continued As if to suppress his concern, Brack has evolved a style which excels in meticulous craftsmanship; deliberately eschewing spontaneity of handling or sensuousness of paint surface, he uses line and flat areas of colour, restricts space in the Cubist manner, and simplifies his shapes, so that his work has a passive quality, letting the subject speak for itself while the painter remains shadowy, yet omnipresent in the background.3

The first major publication devoted to the art of John Brack was a monograph written by his friend and fellow artist, Ronald Millar (born 1927), who felt that Adagio was an important painting in Bracks oeuvre and dedicated to it a full colour plate reproduction, one of only thirty-two colour plates in the book. Millar perceptively wrote

Adagio came first in a small photograph that Brack cut out and stared at for days. One sees the attraction for him. Ice to be negotiated, an alien surface just to make the necessary pas de deux more testing. Blades again, [the reference here is to the blades in the knives and scissors in the earlier paintings] for the feet this time, with performers precariously balanced and in league with them, more inflexible instruments than all those adaptable earlier blades. Lion-tamered thruster and the receptacled girl are put on and in the spot, a glaring and merciless puddle of light turning them into a public spectacle. Brack fixes their grins for them and turns the tinselly girl into a fluffy, many pronged feathery creature who flaps joyfully on a long pin that goes straight through and out at the top Brack had terrible trouble with the green spotlight, doing it over many times, finally eliminating some striped rays going down through the figures and simplifying the light to focus more attention on silhouettes Mingling intimacy of gesture with impersonality of motive remains in Adagio an important part of the Brack motive as well, though it does not altogether explain the connection with climactic sexuality in this and in virtually every other twosome he investigates.4

Adagio was the critical breakthrough in Brack's oeuvre which led to his major series of professional ballroom dancers which he commenced the following year. He was obviously pleased with the composition so that when he was invited by the Print Council of Australia to produce the Members print for 1967, he revisited the composition in the lithograph Adagio which was printed by Grahame King.5 It is interesting how the lithograph preserves the original compositional arrangement, as described by Noel Hawkins and Dr Ursula Hoff, where the female skater appears to be as if parting the stage curtains with her hands, while in the reworked painting all is now consumed in the biting acidy green strangely shaped womb-like beam of light with its pronounced sexual symbolism. It was an artist strategy which Brack was to refine further in the Ballroom series, especially in the British Modern, 1969, Australian Latin American, 1969, and the Latin American Grand Final, 1969, which are now widely considered as some of John Bracks most iconic works.


1. The creators, The Herald (Melbourne), 13 May 1967, p.25
2. Hoff, U., John Brack/Fred Williams, [Exhib. Cat], Albert Hall, Canberra, 1 - 13 August 1967, np
3. ibid
4. Millar. R., John Brack, Lansdowne Australian Art Library, Melbourne 1981, pp.90-93
5. Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, volume 2, Melbourne 1990, catalogue pr17, plate p.258

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA



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