Printmaking and photography have been associated since the invention of the latter, which itself happened because of Nicéphore Niépce’s interest in the former, desiring to transcribe and print multiple copies of the lensed image of the camera obscura
Eric Thake is a much overlooked artist but his 1972 An Opera House in Every Home will be as familiar to most Australians as is the controversy around Jørn Utzon‘s World Heritage-listed building that it parodies. It was Thake’s tradition at this time of year to send carefully conceived and crafted Christmas cards, often comic, like this one, to friends, who eagerly awaited them, having come to expect their visual light-hearted take on Australian life.
Eric Thake (1972) An Opera House in Every Home, Linocut, 14.9 x 42.6 cm. Inscribed reverse sheet u.r., ink “Dear Kay / Even the Great Diva / could never have known / one like this / Best Wishes for Xmas & 1973 / from / Eric & Grace”. Kathleen Binny Hay Bequest, 1977, Castlemaine Art Museum.
That Thake’s printmaking, and his imagery in general, inspires and is inspired by his photography is less generally known. The two media suit this keen observer of the everyday, his exactitude and sharpness of rendering, his compositional economy and his devotion to the contrast and counterchange of black and white. Furthermore, I propose that it is such wit that makes him a pioneer in Australia of a particular variety of street photography distinguished by its visual humour.
Born in Auburn, Victoria, in 1904 Eric Prentice Anchor Thake was apprenticed to the art department of a process engraving firm at age 14 and drilled in precise rendering techniques that trained his spartan economy and exactness of line and silhouette. By eighteen he was attending evening classes in the Drawing School of the National Gallery of Victoria headed by traditionalist painter W. B. McInnes. Dissatisfied, after a couple of years went on to study painting and drawing part-time with the Melbourne modernist George Bell 1925–28. Working as a commercial artist from 1926 he made space for personal work—making engravings on used stereotype plates from 1925, and wood- and lino-cuts from 1929, receiving an honourable mention for one of his many bookplates at a professional designers’ exhibition in Los Angeles in 1931, and exhibiting painting for the first time.
Thake’s work form his early years shows an influence of the conservative artist, and member of the Australian Academy of Art, Lionel Lindsay whose fastidious works, however virtuoso in the medium of wood engraving, never advanced beyond traditional realism.
Elizabeth Summons later also studied with Bell, and she considers that the less formulaic teaching and collegial atmosphere there suited Thake; “George encouraged individualism and believed in allowing a free rein to the imagination, at the same time refusing to put up with shoddy draughtsmanship. As a teacher he must have been exactly the right man for Eric.” Teacher and student had a common interest in formal design and abstraction through pictorial simplification and dynamic symmetry. As Bell described it in an article he devoted to Thake in Art in Australia of August 1933:
“After some years of routine work as a commercial artist he became conscious of a higher aim and deciding to test his possibilities as an artist he joined my class for that purpose. His drawings from the outset contained a quality which distinguished them from the ordinary students’ productions. They showed a definite interest in form in its best sense. The precision which he learned during his commercial training he was able to use to advantage as his mind had acquired the habit of formulating his thought and his drawing showed intention He was so interested in drawing that he did not seem anxious to try the more emotional expression of oil paint. He was engrossed in the pursuit of formal qualities.”
Australia’s first linocut exhibition was held in 1930 at Everyman’s Lending Library in Collins Street, Melbourne. So unfamiliar was the new affordable and democratic medium that reviewer Blamire Young remarked; “The name they insist on using for their products is that unhappy word ‘Linocuts,’ and this is the only regret one can have in the matter.” Alongside samples of European peasant craft, Thake showed older work amongst more recent imagery of Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme, who had studied in the UK with Claude Flight, a pioneer of the linocut who was inspired by Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism.
Thake and his friend Nutter Buzacott, shared radical political views and an association with Communist artist Noel Counihan, who in 1933 was arrested when protesting in support of free speech, and it was Thake who introduced him to linocuts
Indeed. Thake’s strong Australian accent that we hear in the brief and laconic interview that Hazel de Berg managed to record from him in 1961, is further evidence of his proletarian background and sympathies. Those are redolent in his bookplate for Jean Daley, opponent of Billy Hughes’ conscription in WW1, a public speaker on the Yarra Bank who joined the Militant Propaganda League, executive member of the Victorian Socialist Party and first woman to stand as a Labor Party candidate. Thake’s design is pared back to a spare but expressive geometry in which negative forms equally assert their voice but which still reads as a sunlight-modelled figure on a soap-box which doubles as “HER BOOK;” her proud history and personal stamp.
As Christine Bell notes from R. H. Croll’s quotation the artist in the 1942 A Checklist of the Bookplates of Eric Thake;
“I always go for a strong abstract design, absolutely personal to the owner, and cut with the utmost economy of line, together with a strong use of blacks”
He served in New Guinea during World War Two and it was there, as Peter Pinson points out in his 2014 Art Monthly Australia essay “Eric Thake: A surrealist at war” that Thake, as a war artist with an open brief to “record in the field the activities of the R.A.A.F.,” had the freedom to develop his artistic ideas, especially in expressing is fascination with flight.
In 1940, Thake painted the airborne forms of his Salvation from the evils of earthly existence, inspired by English Surrealists Edward Wadsworth and by Paul Nash, whose work he first saw in imported art magazines at Gino Nibbi’s ‘The Leonardo Art Shop’ in Little Collins Street which also stocked reproductions and postcards of new and historical European art, and whose Italian owner Gino Nibbi had not only seen such art in Europe, but he was personally acquainted with artists like Giorgio de Chirico. Thake’s picture shared the Contemporary Art Society prize with James Gleeson’s We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit and, against opposition from the trustees, their works were accepted as gifts by National Gallery of Victoria as its first representation of the style, condemned by reviewer John Harcourt in The Australasian of 12 July 1941 as a symptom of the world gone awry since the deaths of 10 million in the 1918 influenza epidemic.
When he was fifty-seven, in 1953, Thake revisited central Australia through which he had passed in the war. His photographs of it show that he was already accomplished in using the camera and Walkabout magazine accepted them for publication on the strength of his growing reputation. In a short text he describes the impact the landscape had on him, and while the images are careful rather than overtly surreal, their flavour is slightly uncanny, especially the ants nest, the desert oaks and palms.
Another observation he made is represented in his photograph of multitudes of flies settling on his companion’s back, an experience that finds its way into a linocut in which the full range of sensory experiences is represented; not only the swarming insects and brittle grasses that afflict the human figure, but also the hollows and steepness of the Rock around which Thake walked, likening it to a continuous vertical wall and remembering his surprise at having arrived back at his camp. A dot for the sun, as vivid as anything can be in black and white, imposes the glare of the outback on the surrounding the whiteness of the un-inked areas of paper in which it hangs.
On return to city life, and never the owner of a car, Thake continued his acute social and cultural observations on the street, usually during casual excursions at lunchtimes and breaks, especially after he left advertising in 1956 for a position as a medical draughtsman in the visual aids department at the inner city campus of the University of Melbourne, retiring in 1970. Thake often carried his medium-format camera, as well as his pocket sketchbook, bringing a printmaker’s vision, and incorporating his surrealist perspective; this pair of chairs on a crumbling Carlton or Fitzroy terrace house verandah, exposed to set them in inky blackness, evoke Max Ernst‘s ornate metaphysics.
That is quite different in both sensitivity and in political sensibility from the work Bill Brandt was producing around this time in the UK (not likely then seen by Thake) which is a more particularly photographic dream imagery, achieved with the super-wide police camera that Brandt had obtained in 1944.
While some of his 1950s imagery is macabre, like this forbidding spectacle of a cormorant (long mistakenly regarded as pests) strung on a Mallee fence as a biblical deterrent to its kind; or sombre as is his lonely Tasmanian gravesite…
Increasingly, Thake’s laconic sense of humour prevails. His ready awareness of visual similes is uncontrived; this 1957 image of a masked and dangerous bushranger armed with two pistols, typical of his finds on his urban wanderings, is revealed on closer inspection to be a petrol bowser shielded with tar paper from asphalting works.
A chance encounter in the Heidelberg countryside, and canny exposure for the sunlit background, produced in this photograph a reverse case of Dr Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu; with no heads, but with tails at each end. Edward W. Cole’s grimly amusing Cole’s Funny Picture Book was a favourite entertainment of Thake’s childhood—hence the title here—and he was fascinated by both the phenomenon and the word ‘silhouette;’ always of prime consideration in relief printing. A novice printmaker’s error is to misread the sequence of objects in depth and to cut an outline through a shape when it should remain hidden. Thake, in working from his photograph deliberately creates that effect in his linocut version of the “Wrong” horse, but addresses also his race-going public; clydesdales are hardly champions of the turf!
In other cases it is the print that primes the photograph. During his sojourn in Central Australia he was struck by the organic forms of The Olgas, as Kata Tjuta was then known, and titled his photograph of them Five Kneeling Pink Elephants of Ernest Giles (the supposed animals’ tails are facing the camera).
The idea is revisited in this double self-portrait Figure in a rocky landscape, (which, as Julia Ritson reminds us, long precedes Brett Whiteley‘s The Olgas For Ernest Giles) and then recognised in a headland photographed in 1969.
Thake’s habit of recognition; seeing living forms in the inanimate and accidental, inspires much of his art. In his photography it generates Surrealism through Breton‘s ‘automatism,’ in which the conscious mind is suppressed and the subconscious takes over. The surreal or uncanny is visceral and convulsive; its extremes are the terrible or the absurd, one provoking the shriek, and the other, laughter. A decade after Elliott Erwitt‘s fascination with the human qualities of the canine was first sparked, Thake began his “Accidental animal” series of 1967-68, preceded by his 1957 Bunyip at Mystic Park, made while Brassaï was completing his Paris Graffiti imagery.
Australian photography lagged behind that of the UK, exemplified in Tony Ray-Jones‘ pithy and caustic impressions of English habits and traditions, and France, where René Maltête was gathering visual non-sequiturs. It was a printmaker, Eric Thake, working contemporaneously to Ray-Jones and Maltête, and responding to the “low-brow” liberalism of Pop Art, who led the way into what in the 1970s was to became a common idiom of street photography.
8 thoughts on “December 22: Wit”
Another fabulous piece, really enjoyed that, thank you.
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Thank you Brian, that’s kind of you…wishing you a happy new year!
I enjoyed this piece James. Thake was particularly strong with his linocuts.
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Thank you Sharon, yes, photography was definitely a secondary practice, but interesting to see how both media interact in developing his style. There also must be earlier photographs that Thake took that no longer survive or are not in an archive that we can access, because the work for Walkabout is quite advanced. Enjoy some end-of-year celebrations…you deserve lots of joy!
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Excellent piece James. I’ve just shared the link to the page with the 43 members of the APS Street Photography Facebook group as I expect they would appreciate it.
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Thank you Brian – yes, another artist who was also an ingenious and very capable photographer.
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What a marvelous read and discovery. The prints and the photographs are truly interesting, as is the biography. I had not known of Thake although I recall having seen a couple of his photographs elsewhere. I am happy to add Thake to my list of artists worth remembering-shall it be the last of 2022 or the first of 2023? Very best wishes for a happy new year and more great writing. Will
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