December 29: Albert Tucker, born on this date in 1914 was, with associate and rival Sidney Nolan, an Australian post-war Modernist painter. He was fortunately also a keen photographer.
It was Tucker who recorded in often candid and penetrating images, the detail of the lives of great post war artists associated with patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heidi, their small farm on the outskirts of Melbourne in Templestowe.
The Reeds’ artist friends, the Heide Circle, Sam Atyeo and his wife Moya Dyring, Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester (who married Tucker in 1941), John Perceval, and Laurence Hope among others, produced much of their work on the property in the 1940s, Nolan painting his famous Ned Kelly series there. Their relationships with each other were intimate and became entangled, unravelling painfully over the next 35 years.
You can read the intrigue, too complex to relate in a blog post, in Janine Burke’s various and excellent books on Heidi, the Reeds, Joy Hester and in her biography of Albert Tucker. One statement she makes about Tucker’s photography stands out for me, and it concerns the way he happens upon a moment that dramatises the love triangle between Sid, Sunday and John;
They are such extraordinary images. Tucker was so critical of her, and thought she was this princess and that she was very controlling and very manipulative. He takes photographs in which you can see Sunday exercising such amazing power. There is one in which they are sitting together on the couch. Sunday is reading the paper with absolute aplomb and on the other side is John looking very tense and anxious. In the middle is Nolan, literally squashed between the two of them. He is looking at Albert Tucker who is taking the photograph and Nolan is wearing this ironic smile, he’s almost saying: ‘Well mate, I’m really stuck, I don’t know how I am going to get out of this one.’
I cannot show that particular photograph here, but there is another that is just as revealing of this ménage a trois. It was taken about two years before Sydney Nolan (reclining in the foreground, in sunglasses) found the strain of the situation in which he had found himself too fraught and had bolted for Queensland, leaving Sunday devastated and John probably much relieved. Soon after, Nolan married John Reed’s sister, Cynthia, who was physically not unlike Sunday.
Tucker’s photograph shows Nolan apparently relaxing in the shade, but pressed (trapped?) against a breakwater post. Sunday closes her eyes to the sun, but her expression can be read as rather haughty as she basks in the affection of the two men, with a little puppy and Nolan at her feet. John sits in the full summer heat, where his squint might also be interpreted as long-sufferance, cradling their Burmese cat who curls and uncurls its tail around his arm as it regards the photographer, Tucker. Everyone else is too bound up in their thoughts and reveries to notice him, it would seem.
I remember seeing Tucker’s astonishing painted interpretations of his photo portraits of the Heidi Circle when they were exhibited at Georges Mora’s Tolarno Gallery as Albert Tucker: Faces I have met, in Melbourne, 16 April – May 1985. The sea behind John’s tousled hair, above, reminds me of one of these:
It is a painting of Joy Hester, Tucker’s wife, and it bears the trace of the original photograph, which I cannot find, in its burnt-out highlight, while the sea is likely a symbolic addition painted expressively in the heavy impasto that Tucker favoured, matching the motion of Hester’s locks in the sea wind; as tempestuous as she, he is saying. Her face in his memory is deeply furrowed with his own regrets so many years after their separation, and her death from long-suffered cancer in 1960.
This more serene portrait, taken the year after they were married, demonstrates how closely these images relate to the photographs he made, as quietly observed sketches, and how he translates them into paint. The photograph is taken in full sunlight, but we can sense from the blur on the right hand side of the image Tucker’s urgency in taking it, from a difficult position kneeling above his subject. Nevertheless the easy, sweet moment he has striven to record is affecting.
The painting is cropped more tightly, the flowers of her blouse are gone, replaced with more sombre dark brown brushstrokes over a near-black, but the grace of the hand remains. Hester in the painting is no longer regarding Tucker fondly through the slits of her eyes, but has them firmly closed under the shadow of her hand, a shade which has become a pall of blue so saturated that it is painful against the tan of her skin and the red of her hair and lips. The sumptuous lips of the painted Hester swell and twist, becoming, with the closed eye we see most clearly, almost slits in the card on which Tucker’s oil pastel is applied so thickly. These are the sweet lips and eyes of memory, but they are also deep scars.