26. JAMES GLEESON
The Sydney artist James Gleeson is justifiably regarded as Australia’s foremost and most consistent exponent of Surrealist art.
Surrealism is an intriguingly complex artistic school of thought that began in Paris in the mid-Twenties and spread throughout the world, even as far afield as Australia. It is now correctly considered not as a “weird” offshoot of Modernism, but as a late-Romanticist urge to recuperate the role of the imagination and restate the importance of the creative primacy of human subjectivity. Deep down, hidden away in its mental recesses, Surrealism always rested upon a poetico-literary basis. So it was with Gleeson.
Gleeson got it right very early on and his imagination was always spurred by the heady sweep of fine literature. He read poetry every morning and his music-filled rooms were dotted with open books; his downstairs library would shame any bibliophile and his cultural knowledge and good-natured subtlety of thought were remarkable. Consequently, in the best sense, he possessed a bookmarked imaginative intelligence.
One of Gleeson’s favourite books is the Ancient Greek epic The Odyssey, attributed to the blind Homer, the second oldest book in Western literature (its earlier companion book The Iliad, also by Homer, is the oldest – 1188BC).
The word “odyssey” means “trouble” in Greek. Its figurative meaning since 1889 refers to a long and adventurous journey. Gleeson had a contemplative temperament and it was entirely appropriate for him to plunge, like James Joyce (1882-1941) before him, into the adventures of Ulysses to search out imaginative images and scenarios. His suite of eight paintings Odysseus of 1964 arises from a meditational focus upon eight of the tribulations of the legendary Ulysses (also know as Odysseus), as described in Homer’s epic of the same name.
In his Odysseus, what Gleeson has done is use a technique known as “decalcomania” to form a type of optical background upon which to place naked male figures as compositional stand-ins for eight selected adventures of Ulysses.
Decalcomania was developed by the Spaniard Oscar Domínguez (1906-1957) and the German Max Ernst (1891-1976) in 1930 and stressed the imaginative use of associations of forms suggested by the technique, essentially an ink-blot test, which was most probably culled from the earlier experimental work of the Swiss psychiatrist Herman Rorschach (1884-1922).1 The automatist technique of decalcomania invited the unpremeditated choice of mentally projective images without the need for drawing skill, technique and logical formulation – it was used to “jump-start” the flat battery of the imagination. The decalcomania technique, bolstered by the oft-cited appeals to the historical authority of the famous Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who recommended very similar approaches, gave the Surrealists and Gleeson a firm grasp of the graphic and visual potential of a type of visual automatism.2 Of course, Leonardo was not a Surrealist but the historical link strengthened the Surrealists’ constant claims that this sort of visual automatism was a fundamental principle of true creativity – one “born” of the imaginative mind.
In Gleeson’s Odysseus of 1964 the artist has used a decalcomania “bed” of swirling forms to suggest the “cosmic” and “universal” tone of Homer’s majestic epic. The meticulously painted naked male figures give the eight paintings a curiously ancient yet futuristic ambience. Gleeson would have enjoyed this odd juxtaposition – similar ones flow through many of his other paintings – and its swirling “glassy” otherworldliness. The paintings arise from a meditational focus upon its forms, somewhat like peering at Rorschach blots or the veins of Chinese polished jade discs, both of which suggest realms beyond any that could rationally exist in external reality.
Considered in these ways, Gleeson’s Odysseus of 1964 suggests and conveys more than it depicts. As such, the suite of eight paintings is perfectly in harmony with the Surrealist concept of “pure psychic automatism” and is an accomplished example of Australia’s most highly regarded Surrealist artist.
1. Rorschach, Hermann (1884-1922). In 1918 Rorschach was the inventor of the so-called “inkblot test”, which he used for diagnosing psychopathological disorders. Rorschach was educated at the University of Zürich in 1912 and worked for a time in Russia before returning to Switzerland where he was elected Vice President of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society in 1919. His theories were first published in 1921 in his text Psychodiagnostik (Psychodiagnostics)
2. Da Vinci, Leonardo. “A Way of Developing and Arousing the Mind to Various Inventions”, in Holt, Elizabeth, G., (Ed.), A Documentary History of Art, Vol.1, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, New York, Doubleday Anchor Book, 1957, p.283
Chapman, C.; Gleeson, James, “Inhabiting the Littoral”, in Lloyd, M.; Gott, T.; Chapman, C., Surrealism: Revolution by Night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993
Free, R., Gleeson, J., “Interview: James Gleeson with Renee Free, The Rose and the Virus”, in Free, R., James Gleeson Images from the Shadows, Craftsman House, East Rowville, 1993
Gleeson, J., “What is Surrealism?”, Art in Australia, no. 8 , November 1940
Gleeson, J., “The Necessity for Surrealism”, A Comment, no. 5, May 1941
Kolenberg, H.; Ryan, A., James Gleeson Drawings for Paintings, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2003
Lloyd, M.; Gott, T.; Chapman, C., Surrealism: Revolution by Night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993
Wach, K., “Surrealism in Australia: The Transposed Response”, Art Monthly Australia, Canberra, March, no. 57, 1993
Wach, K., “The Pearl Divers of the Unconscious: Freud, Surrealism and Psychology” in Chapman, C.; Gott, T.; Lloyd, M., Surrealism: Revolution by Night, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993
Wach, K., “Australian Surrealism, The Agapitos/Wilson Collection”, The Australian Art Review, no. 3, Text Media, Sydney, 2003, p.81-82
Wach, K., “James Gleeson and Surrealism: The Inexhaustible Murmur”, James Gleeson: Beyond the Screen of Sight, The Beagle Press and the National Gallery of Victoria, Sydney, 2004
Associate Professor Ken Wach Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.;
Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD. Former Principal Research Fellow
and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne