History is full of moralists who went around in their day insulting people for their lack of virtue. A millennium, a century, a decade later, we read their invectives and cringe. The main cause of their distemper now seems little more than misanthropic jealousy, where the reasons for moral disapproval boil down to a hatred of other people having fun.
Australian art has its own representatives of this caustic tradition of moan and intone. During the war, various young Melbourne artists associated with Sunday and John Reed at Heide set up their easels in judgement, berating society in a combination of expressionistic surrealism, biblical bombast and social realism.
It was an age of neo-prophets, and foremost among them was Albert Tucker (1914–1999). A large exhibition at Heide has brought this acerbic painter back to Bulleen, where his famous pictures with the title of *Images of modern evil* have been scrupulously gathered by the curator Lesley Harding.
The lurid series depicting the seedy side of Melbourne in the 1940s is Tucker’s best work. Many of the figures are impressively painted, with graphic schemata derived from Picasso but filled in with lush modelling in warm and cool colour.
A great example is *#32*, where a naked woman lies on a green couch: her body is a set of articulated lumps, each resplendent in rich modulations of pink and blue. The caricature of bulbous female flesh is clinched with a serrated arc at the groin, which indicates the “vagina dentata”, an old image of male anxiety for women’s sexuality.
Women for Tucker are disembodied monsters. Their limbs are abbreviated so as to focus attention on their fleshy core. In works like *#21* the females are reduced to bulky starfish floating in space. Their tubby trunks terminate in equally dense stumps, spread out to afford maximum access to the nether parts.
The implication of these aesthetic amputees is grim: through their moral destitution, the women have transformed themselves into pure carnality, promoting their organs to men as mere flesh and with nothing in the head but an imbecilic smile. Tucker’s formula of the “antipodean head” turns the face into a brainless stalk with eyes, lippy and teeth.
Critics at the time were disgusted, recognizing that the images are hateful and rancorous. But because Australia was determined to have modernism, it felt for 50 years that it had to swallow Tucker’s bile and consider it exquisite--like poison in Baudelaire--and make up political justifications for an odious sentiment.
Strip Tucker of his metaphoric filibustering, and you’re left with less weight than the shriveled skulls of his strumpets. If Tucker’s women are happy lasses seeking fun with men, as one account suggests, then why is their alacrity demeaned and condemned as sinister and vile? And if they’re prostitutes, why pick on the most vulnerable in society and stigmatize them for functional signs of joy?
Though accepted as heroically avant-garde, Tucker’s genre is pictorial slander. Just as an unproven allegation is destined to bounce back upon the plaintif, so the man who accuses women of rotten morals--when no substance backs it up--stands accused of depraved motives.
There were serious problems in Tucker’s age. The one problem of no special consequence was the one that he perversely targets. There have always been footloose girls and boys in the streets. Some of them live dangerously and, if you’re close to them, you worry. But this anxiety is no basis to derogate the weaker party--potentially the victims--and cast anathemas of hideous evil upon them.
None of the wartime circumstances that writers adduce can explain Tucker’s misogyny. His ferocity comes from a declamatory soul, impatient to score points and assert superiority. The current exhibition reveals talent for painting but none of the humility to apply it to people.
The comprehensive exhibition has an excellent catalogue. Special attention goes to Juliet Peers’ brave and penetrating analysis, which comes close to confronting the distasteful content of the artworks. It’s a bracing show; and feminists are likely to find the pictures as repulsive today as male critics did in 1943.
**"We imagine that there was just an oversight at *The Age* and artinfo feels that it's fair to post the controversial text, at least until it appears online officially. It was published as 'Portrait of an artist as a hateful man', 13 April 2011."
By Robert Nelson
Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age. Robert’s most recent book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, was published by Craft Victoria, 2014, available freely online.