Menzies Art Brands



Fred Cress was one of Australias most respected and successful artists, but in a practical sense he was an international artist who, like a migratory ocean bird, made his home on both sides of the world according to the seasons. Half the year he enjoyed the urban life of summertime in Sydney, the other half he worked in rural France. He maintained a studio-home in each place, making the change each April and September. Like so many Australians, Cress was not born here, but arrived as part of the great post-war migration program that did so much to shape the exciting multicultural character of the nation. Born in the British garrison town of Poona, India, the son of an English soldier, he moved to England with his family at the time of Indias independence. Neither Indian nor really English, Cress migrated to Australia as a young teacher, finding work in a country technical school before a career in a number of major art schools in Melbourne.

Cresss early works came directly from the British figurative and pop art of his teenage experience, while the bold abstractions on which his reputation was first built are international in style. Influenced by American abstract expressionism and colour field painting, Cress found both critical and commercial success in 1970s Melbourne, but a move to Sydney opened up new possibilities in the vibrant light and colour of the harbour city. Still a committed abstractionist, his palette lightened and hints at reality began to emerge. He introduced three-dimensional elements into his paintings, gradually returning to the figurative work that had been the basis of his training in Birmingham three decades before. By the late 1980s Cress had travelled full circle, a revolution clearly marked by his award of the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1988.

The large paintings of Fred Cress, mostly averaging some two by three metres, succeed because of the strength of his drawing and their enigmatic subject matter. They are not easy works, crammed with figures that are in turn vulgar, mysterious, lewd, vulnerable and self-indulgent. Often based around events of his own experience, or on stories told to him, they are disturbing and destabilising, but never to be ignored. The art of Fred Cress stemmed not from a view of the outside world, but from the inner world of imagination and experience. An only child who spent his early years in boarding school, Cress enjoyed the long hours working alone, drawing strength from the paintings on his studio wall in a space larger than many of the galleries in which they would later hang. A fine tennis player and amiable companion, Cress was a keen observer of the social circle in which he moved.

Technically Cress always followed his own path. An early devotee of acrylic colours, he drew with a brush, laying in the bold sweeps of his figures with the confidence of a well-trained and experienced draughtsman. He retained the dark outline, even after filling in areas with colour. Tony Bond, curator of Cress important Survey Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1995, described the paintings as a visual battlefield of competing interests and yet they contrive to form stable monumental structures.1 Not afraid to use black in large areas, Cress built powerful contrasts of tone and colour. The chemical base of many of his colours, the acid greens and yellows and harsh reds provided an unreal quality to what might be an ordinary scene. Accident and design combine, chance effect and discipline are in dramatic tension.

The subjects of his paintings have an inner life at which the viewer can only guess. Leering men whisper into the ears of companions, hysterical laughter mixes with an underlying dread. Large black hounds strain on the leash and food tumbles from upturned bowls in an excess of good living. At times the landscape carries hints of the dark and mysterious bush, while at others the black figures might have stepped straight from the walls of the Gothic churches near to Cress French studio. The Last Picnic, with its clear nod to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), has us wondering what is behind this mad, tumbling gang of men, stuffing their faces in the expectation of some unknowable prize, overseen by an enigmatic leader. Cress was happy to mine his deep knowledge of the art of the past to produce a work of great energy and mystery. His strong sense of narrative and an utterly unsentimental view of the world created a vision unique in Australian art.

Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil


1. Fred Cress - Paintings 1988-1995, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, September 1995, n.p

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