Menzies Art Brands



Double Nude I, 1982-83 is the largest and most ambitious painting of the nude that John Brack ever attempted over the three decades that the nude was a recurrent subject in his art. For Brack, the nude, more than in any other theme in his art, presented the most immediate challenge from the grand tradition of art history. As he observed at one stage “in my paintings of the nude I attempt a comment on the art of the past as well as on the present”.1 John Brack painted his Double Nude I, 1982-1983, as a culmination of all of his earlier explorations of the image of the female nude. It is the major work in his final series of oil paintings to deal with the subject. 

For Brack, the nude was never an exercise in sensuousness or sexual titillation, but a struggle with the formal means of art making and the grand tradition of the nude in Western art. From the outset, when Brack executed his first major series of nudes in 1957, he observed: “When I paint a woman … I am not interested in how she looks sitting in the studio, but how she looks at all times, in all lights, what she looked like before and what she is going to look like, what she thinks, hopes, believes and dreams. The way the light falls and casts its shadows is merely boring and a hindrance unless it helps me to show these things.”2

In these early 1957 paintings of the nude, Brack engages with the iconic images by Boucher, Ingres, Manet, Seurat, Gauguin and Bonnard and through suppressing the sensuous aspect and the erotic motif and accentuating the acidity of the colours and the awkwardness of poses, he created a series of most memorable images. In subsequent paintings of the nude, leading up to Double Nude I, 1982-83, Brack explores more subtle pictorial devices and increasingly complex conceptual challenges.

In his paintings of the nude in the 1970s and 1980s, he abandons the rather literal quotations from earlier masters encountered in his paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, in favour of a much more sophisticated play with artistic prototypes. These are composite creations of poses and motifs drawn from the old masters and adapted to the challenge of the specific models involved and then conceptually contrasted with the actuality of the present as located in the artist’s studio. In Double Nude I, 1982-83, he positions his nudes against a diagonally placed Persian carpet, with its geometric ornament of eternal stability. On this carpet he places a couch and a chair which support the models and these objects intersect the diagonal of the carpet to compositionally form a giant ‘x’ shaped form in the foreground. The two artists whom he principally references in this painting are two of the greatest French masters of the 19th century, the classicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and the early modernist Edouard Manet. While he had employed before as a model Ingres’ Grande Odalisque 1814, in the Louvre in Paris, most notably in his Reclining Nude 1970, in the Art Gallery of South Australia, when painting Double Nude I 1982-83 he encountered a lighter built model and may also have slipped in a reference to Ingres’s Odalisque and Slave, 1842 in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Brack’s reclining figure employs many of Ingres’s formal inventions, but he adapts them to a radically different purpose. If Ingres in his art achieved complete order and stability, in this painting Brack subverts this sense of stability with all of his major compositional lines oblique, rather than vertical or horizontal as was the case with Ingres. Both the carpet and the couch 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 two nude models, and the whole painting becomes a profound study in human vulnerability. One critic noted at the time: ”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.”

The other model, seated on a chair and with her head propped up on her arm, references Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. In contrast to Ingres, Manet championed a modernist attitude to the nude with a bolder articulation, limited modelling and a reduction in spatial illusionism. Again Brack has radically reinterpreted the reference. As in the Manet painting she confronts the beholder with her gaze, but whereas for Manet her predicament was defined by the fact that she was shown naked in the company of two fully clad men in a public place, in Brack’s painting she is shown almost frontally, her chair apparently suspended over the carpet and she herself is somewhat precariously balanced in space. The figure is presented in the state of complete vulnerability. The burning acidic colours of the bed sheets and the model’s gown contrasts with the browns and ochres of the floorboards. The setting in general refers to the present - the real world. It is a corner of the artist’s studio which is bare and spartan with the eccentric vertically running floorboards, like a stream of life, tilting the picture space and visually projecting the two figures into the viewer’s space. 

The Persian carpet, the only other thing present in the studio apart from the models and their props, provides a contrasting note of opulence, as well as a link to a timeless past. As so often is the case in Brack’s art, the oriental rug may be read as a reference to a human collective subconscious with its tribal patterns and bright but natural colours pointing to a time before recorded history. In terms of the systems of perspective adopted, the structuring of the picture space, the poses and attitudes of the models, the historical references to the old European masters in art and the oriental antiquity of the rug and the contemporary space of the studio – the whole picture depends on a series of interlocking paradoxes which become a central preoccupation of the work. The study of the nude becomes a study in the human condition and the female nude is now a metaphor for a whole raft of conceptual and formal concerns. The painting can be read as an exploration of antinomical paradoxes, where the conjunction of opposites is interpreted as having equal validity. In this painting Ingres and Manet are juxtaposed as a meeting of harmony and disharmony in line, structure, balance and colour. It is as if in these nudes, as in the battle piece paintings on which Brack was working at the same time, great conflicts are being fought out through different, yet essentially identical, concepts of the nude, instead of the mighty armies of pens and pencil warriors. 

Brack also structurally and compositionally in his Double Nude I offers a startling solution to the problems posed in his Double Portrait of Sir Garfield Barwick and Professor A.G. Mitchell, 1977-78, at Macquarie University. In this, Double Nude I, his most complex and intricate of all his paintings of the nude, he sets up a network of antinomical paradoxes which are frozen in crystalline perfection. His figures appear locked in their private spatial compartments with no possible communication between them, precarious and vulnerable, yet frozen in eternity. Double Nude I is the key painting in the last series of nudes that Brack ever painted. He never returned to the theme of the female nude in oil paintings for the remaining sixteen years of his life. 


1. John Brack, letter to Ian North, 30 May 1972

2. ‘Brack on Brack’, CAE Discussion Group Art Notes 1957, Ref No A 401, p3

3. Gordon Thomson introduction, John Brack Nudes, Lyre Bird Press, Melbourne 1982, np.

Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
The Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History
Australian National University

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