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John Brack The Wedding Breakfast-w.jpg

John Bracks large oil painting, The Wedding Breakfast 1960, is a very significant work in his oeuvre, the key painting of his Wedding series, and an important link between his iconic social commentary paintings including Collins St., 5pm 1955, and the fabulous Ballroom Dancers paintings of the 1960s.

In August 1959, Brack participated in the Antipodeans exhibition that was accompanied by its notorious manifesto. In March 1960, he was invited to participate in one of the richest and most prestigious exhibitions of his day, the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship Exhibition, together with fellow Antipodeans Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson as well as his friend Fred Williams.1 The Wedding Breakfast was painted for this competitive exhibition.

Brack was challenged for many years by the idea of creating a major wedding painting. On one occasion, he reflected, I do not know if I am wrong in assuming that relationships between two people or between more than two people are always fraught with ambivalence they are never a complete union, but there is one occasion in peoples lives when there does at least seem to be a fusion of two people together and that is the wedding day.2 Bracks desire was to create a painting that would celebrate the fusion of two people into one in an act of love on their wedding day.

A major obstacle that he faced was the tradition of wedding paintings that in European art went back to Jan van Eycks Arnolfini Portrait 1434, in the National Gallery in London.3 That tradition implied a certain frontal compositional arrangement where the figures were posed as if in front of a camera. Brack wanted to reinvent the wedding painting in a more contemporary and joyous manner and to give it a purely human dimension.

For Brack, the breakthrough came accidently when he was cleaning up after one of his daughters and came across an illustration of a three-tier wedding cake on the wrapper of a toy cake icing set. Instead of structuring a composition around the ceremonial moment of marital union, which inevitably involves an aspect of sacred formality, he chose the moment of the cutting of the cake. The central motif of the cake on the festive table enabled him to arrange the figures asymmetrically, to create imbalances and a spatially ambiguous setting.

The Wedding Breakfast was the breakthrough painting and was to become the first painting of the Wedding series. It presents a striking departure from the tradition of wedding paintings in European art as well as a quite an abrupt stylistic change within Bracks oeuvre. In the structure of his picture and the application of the paint, Brack stresses the two-dimensional quality of the surface and creates a very deliberate flat background plane that he sprinkles with patches of intense colour and dribbles like confetti. Superimposed over this in thick sensuous paint, almost a monochrome in low relief with painted shadows enhancing the illusion, are the wedding cake, the bride and groom and the bridesmaids, all articulated with a rhythmical flowing light brown line.

In the foreground is the bridal bouquet with its four glowing yellow roses. The Wedding Breakfast is an exceptionally ambitious painting that attempts to combine the sensuousness and immediacy of texture painting with the discipline of line and figurative form. The completed painting can only be described as overwhelming in its impact. Brack was pleased with the outcome and had the painting included in all the major survey exhibitions of his art in his lifetime including those at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Australian National University and the National Gallery of Victoria.

In The Wedding Breakfast, the couple, just married, literally melts into their wedding cake, their bodies merge into a single entity and their features are delineated with simplicity and directness. In the preparatory drawing, the dark background in the drawing heightens the contrast and clearly articulates the figures. In the finished painting, forms seem to melt into one another. The bridesmaids, one of whom is physically overshadowed by the brides veil, look on with fixed, stereotyped expressions of happiness tinged with anxiety. The moment of joyous union for one couple is the moment of doubt and envy for another, a theme that Brack would explore in greater detail in his Ballroom Dancers series.

The symbolism of union and that shared moment is simply stressed by the figures, physically joined together apparently holding the knife upright, about to plunge it into the soft belly of the cake. If this implied phallic symbolism is obvious and direct it is also extremely effective. All is subject to the overall logic of the design it is a joyous celebration that is related as much by the formal abstract devices as it is by the subject matter.

John Bracks wedding pictures grew into a series of nine oil paintings and five works on paper executed during 1960 and 1961. The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra acquired the painting, Bride and Groom 1960, from this series. In one sense, all of the paintings in this series may be considered as episodes stemming from The Wedding Breakfast painting and themes of the moment of unity, the sexual embrace, the couple and their bridesmaids and the celebration of the joy of human love.

The Wedding series and the key painting The Wedding Breakfast can be viewed as a radical departure in the art of John Brack, one where he accepted the challenge from matter painting and abstraction and heroically attempted to discipline it through line and a figurative content.


1. The artists in the 1960 Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship Exhibition were Charles Blackman, John Brack, Leonard Crawford, Robert Dickerson, Leonard French, Thomas Gleghorn, Leonard Hessing, Roger Kemp, Jon Molvig, Bill Rose and Fred Williams. That year the prize was awarded to Charles Blackman
2. John Brack, unpublished interview 1977, p.10
3. Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait 1434, oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60.0 cm, National Gallery collection, London

Sasha Grishin
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA, is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and works internationally as an art historian, art critic and curator.

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