Menzies Art Brands



John Brack is one of Australias most acclaimed and outstanding artists of the second half of the twentieth century.  Whereas many Australian painters sought to describe a local reality the landscapes of Fred Williams (1927-1982), the surreal red Australian desert interiors of Sidney Nolan (1920-1999) or the Shoalhaven paintings by Arthur Boyd (1917-1992) Brack adopted a much more international perspective, exploring patterns of human behaviour and commenting on the human condition.  Despite this, Brack was a very localised artist who was born in an inner Melbourne suburb in 1920 and in his seventy-eight years rarely strayed more than a few kilometres from his birth place.  The exceptions were six years he spent in the army during World War Two, two very short trips abroad, when he was already aged in his fifties, and a number of short and relatively infrequent trips interstate.

At the age of fifty-two, late in 1972, Brack travelled abroad for the first time in his life.  He spent roughly three months away from Australia five weeks in England, two weeks in Paris, with brief visits to Brussels and Amsterdam and to Mexico on the return journey.  Most of the time he spent visiting art galleries and seeing for the first time paintings which he had previously known only through reproductions.  Although the encounter with many of his favourite paintings in the flesh did help to clarify his thoughts and he examined in detail the techniques of the masters, the journey in many ways reconfirmed in his mind the orientation that he adopted in his art.  On his return to Melbourne on 22 February 1973, he immediately commenced work on a series of gymnast paintings and drawings to which belongs On the Rings 1975.  It was a series that he had started in 1972 and On the Rings, and its companion piece, Girl and Mat, 1975,1 were the final and culminating paintings in this series.  Brack was to describe On the rings as, the last painting in the gymnastic series.  You could call that a postscript.2

The oil painting, On the Rings, was proceeded by a superb cont drawing On the Rings 1975,3 which was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1976, and was followed by the colour lithograph On the Rings, 1976,4 which was printed by George Baldessin (1939-1978) and Neil Malone at the Crossley Print Workshop in Melbourne, and which was also acquired by the National Gallery of Australia.5 Brack regarded it as one of the most successful paintings in the Gymnast series and the work was included in both of his major retrospective exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria in 19876 and in 2009.7

Brack explained the main conceptual preoccupation of the Gymnast series in a lecture in 1977, describing them as a series of paintings where, the idea is related to balancing and falling, but not absolutely collapsing you know, the world is going on in a series of stumbling lurches, but not absolutely collapsing it is not the abyss, it is stumbling, but not the abyss. While in the formal structure of these paintings Brack is concerned with balance and imbalance, with movement and stability and with unity and discord, conceptually they continue with the theme already explored in the Ballroom Dancers series and in such paintings as Backs and Fronts 1969 and the Latin American Grand Final 1969 in the National Gallery of Australia.  It is the idea of the precariousness of being of superficial rituals and of competitive relationships.  These paintings can all be interpreted as making a broader allegorical comment on life, marriage and the individuals struggle to establish identity.

The gymnast depicted in On the Rings 1975, appears as a contorted, almost stick-like figure, gracefully, yet awkwardly suspended from the rings that in turn appear suspended from above without clear attachments.  It is an intensely focused composition, concentrating on the figure of a single boy whose limbs are strangely contorted so that the hands and feet fit into two flying rings leaving the body completely suspended in the air.  In a typical flying rings routine, the gymnast would jump into the rings and then would perform a series of pikes and flying dislocates before a spectacular dismount.

The gymnasts face is poised and reserved, disguising the strain that he inevitably is enduring.  The arena in which the gymnast performs is shown from a different perspective.  If the gymnast is shown in profile and slightly from below, the arena is shown from an aerial perspective, possibly as seen by the gymnast from above.  The floorboards race vertically up the picture plane to create a sense of disequilibrium, while the court markings ambiguously demarcate a field of operation.  There is no mat shown on which the gymnast would land.  What accentuates the sense of instability further is the fact that the whole arena in which the gymnast performs is not securely anchored in space and Brack has painted a frame within a frame so that it becomes like a tableau suspended in space and could at any moment plunge into movement and disrupt the precarious balance attained by the gymnast in his performance.

Brack has adopted a sombre and restricted palette where browns, ochres and greys prevail with occasional articulation with black lines.  It is a palette that is not dissimilar to a painting that he executed twenty years earlier, Collins Street, 5 p.m., 1955, in the National Gallery of Victoria.  If in the earlier painting the palette was employed to make a comment on the repetitive, melancholy boredom of working life in central Melbourne, On the Rings 1975, is a more profound meditation on the futile tasks that we set ourselves in life and the precarious path that the individual has to negotiate through life where all of the odds are stacked against them and yet they cling on with determination, while demonstrating the useless skills that they have acquired.

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.  On the Rings 1975, is a superb culmination of his Gymnast series and is a profound statement concerning the precarious path that the individual negotiates through life.



1. Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. II, cat. o229, p.31 (illus. p.158)

2. Transcript of interview between John Brack and James Gleeson, 5 October 1978, p.13

3. Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. II, cat .p212, p.65 (illus. p.226)

4. Grishin, S., The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. II, cat. pr20, p.77 (illus. p.259)

5. accessed 29 October 2017

6. Lindsay, R., John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p.70, plate 92

7. Grant K., et al., John Brack, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, plate.177, p.224

8. John Brack on John Brack (1977), Fine Art Programme, Australian National University, Canberra, lecture delivered 19 September 1977, transcript p.7

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
Australian National University


We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.