Norman Lindsay, another of our painters who used photography, hails from another Australia, that of The Bulletin magazine whose editor James Edmond, in 1886, changed its banner from the nationalist “Australia for Australians” to the even more chauvinist “Australia for the White Man”.
Lindsay was among its cartoonists whose ostensibly satirical portrayals of the British, Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Indians, Jews, and Aborigines are racist stereotypes. He had, at 19, left his childhood home at Creswick (not far from here) and joined his brother Lionel, the printmaker, and sister Ruby in drawing crimes, accidents and social highlights of the preceding week for The Hawklet, and living a bohemian lifestyle on the 10/- a week he earned from them.
From that beginning his rise to notoriety, was rapid, and he still enjoys popularity, which was his motive in cartooning as in art. Significant monographs and catalogues raisonnés continue to be produced on his watercolours, drawings, etchings and illustrations and it was only 20 years ago that the National Gallery of Victoria, which holds 77 of his works, purchased his painting Spring’s Innocence, previously owned by contract cleaning tycoon John Schaeffer, for $333,900.
Like the oil in which it is painted, it is schmaltz—in the Yiddish sense borrowed from the German term for lard—both in its excessive sexy sentimentality, but also for its overgenerous helpings of beefcake and cheesecake. Despite such distractions, no connoisseur would regard its technique as a masterpiece; it is merely a tinted version of one of his fantasies; pirates abducting innocent maidens being one of his favourites.
Lindsay’s work is a yearning pastiche of the Rococo idea of classical Arcadia, but set in the Australian bush. Devotedly literary, reading Rabelais and Nietzsche, he was inspired by his teenage roving through Hyperborea, the mythical world of the Greek pastoral poets, Jean Antoine Watteau’s Cythera, and the dank gothic woods of Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys. Like the lusty pagans in his briefly condemned Pollice verso—painted when he was 25 and purchased by the NGV three years later—he postured blasphemously against the Christian faith and its ‘wowserism’.
Fellow Bulletin illustrator the Scot David H. Souter (1862-1935) penned this panegyric in the June 1909 edition of Art and architecture : the journal of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales asserting that Lindsay’s works;
“…are worthy of inclusion in any of the world’s art galleries [though] until last year, when Melbourne purchased one of his drawings from the Society of Artists’ Exhibition, he was unrepresented in any public Australian collection. For this to some extent he has himself to blame, but only in so far that he has not trimmed his sails to the winds that whistle in the nostrils of our national collectors. Nor has he learned that “the young person”—if “it” really exists—is not to be introduced to Greek mythology. Everything has its place in a well-ordered universe, and Venus should certainly not claim the apple in the pages of a family magazine, although she may with propriety display her charms on the walls of a National Gallery, or in a publication that is professedly devoted to Art.
Lindsay’s art at its best is wholly Pagan and in its frankness abhors the conventions of our modern civilisation. Being young, his world is yet peopled with bacchanalians. Gods and goddesses, nymphs and satyrs lounge in Elysium, or gambol in Arcadian landscape. These immortals are really immortal, neither disease nor death can ever slacken their majesty of pose, or dull the fine contour of their shapely limbs, the half gods are plump and vigorous, youthful, and therefore hilarious. Their eyes are of marvellous brilliancy, or else heavy-lidded and languorous; for either instance we might perhaps find explanation in the tapering amphorae or bulging wine skins which appear so frequently in Lindsay’s compositions.
These people of the Golden Age possess a phenomenal activity. When they do relax themselves in slumber it is only to be awakened by a caress; when they are stretched on the ground in tempolaiy vanquishment, it is only to rise with renewed vigour, and engage in fresh combats. Their faces never pale with last night’s carouse, their sport only adds sparkle to their eyes, loosens their tongues, supples their limbs, and —turns the “unco guid” [rigidly righteous] aside in horror.
It is the cartoonishly exaggerated facial expression and gesture that he persistently—though expertly—employed that detach Lindsay from the classicism for which he yearned; his melodrama just gives too much away. Aside from his political cartooning, he illustrated editions of the works of Theocritus, Giovanni Boccaccio, Giovanni Giacomo Casanova, Gaius Petronius Arbiter, and François Rabelais and his own novel The Cautious Amorist (1932) banned in Australia from May 1933 to October 1953 for indecency and blasphemy.
It is pertinent that his career trajectory parallels that of silent film in Australia; the first public screenings started in the year that Lindsay moved to Melbourne at Harry Rickards’ Melbourne Opera House (later named the Tivoli Theatre) and the Athenaeum Hall in Collins Street which screened Life in Our Navy and newsreels, before the feature-length narrative The Story of the Kelly Gang was first shown there in 1906, its success followed by Eureka Stockade (1907), Robbery Under Arms (1907) and For the Term of His Natural Life (1908) while Melbourne’s the Limelight Department, one of the world’s first film studios and operated by the Salvation Army, produced religious propaganda in Heroes of the Cross and The Scottish Covenanters in 1909. Was it such productions that helped provoke his anti-Christian stance?
One might like to regard Lindsay as a loveable larrikin like a character from his children’s book The Magic Pudding but, even into the 1960s, he spouted retrograde opinions; he was a Decadent reactionary, decrying the “disease” of Modernism while still practicing an erotic form of history painting like that of old Bouguereau, dead the year after Pollice verso was drawn, whose offerings in the French salons of female flesh thinly glazed with a compunctious allegorical narrative, seduced the eye of a male buying public…and the same audience is still here for Lindsay.
That Lindsay obsessively reproduced idealised caricatures of the human figure makes it a surprise to learn that they spring from his constant drawing and—which is relevant here— photographing from life models, the images repeated with slightly varied lascivious poses across a number of works done in a somewhat coarse version of Art Nouveau. Furthermore, he associated with some of Australia’s more celebrated photographers, Harold Cazneaux and Max Dupain.
There was a precedent for his interest in photography. It was Lionel Lindsay who in 1899 was behind the camera to capture the tableaux performed by the young of the Lindsay family, Ruby, Norman, Pearl, Percy, Reg Lindsay and Mary, often with friend Will Dyson (1880–1938) in the garden of Lisnacrieve their home in Creswick.
It is clear that Norman is the director of most of these melodramatic performances in which he makes the best of the clowning expressions he conjures from his raw-boned features (he was an asthmatic), and again there is a filmic quality in this sequence in which Norman is seduced by Ruby and pickpocketed by Will.
The inscription on another melodrama by Lionel from around 1900 explains that it shows Will Dyson (left) in the role of ‘the villain’, being foiled by hero Ted Dyson (second from left). Percy Lindsay (centre), the eldest of the nine Lindsay children, is the ‘Guardian angel hovering over a dying child’, played by Reg Lindsay; Mary Lindsay (second from right) plays the child’s ‘Grief stricken mother’ and Ruby Lindsay (right) is the ‘villainess’ of the piece.
Their Boccaccian antics could to descend into an apparent bacchanal, though whether real alcohol was consumed is unlikely given their mother’s standing as a daughter of Wesleyan missionary Rev. Thomas Williams. Eventually, in the heat of Central Victorian summer, even clothes were discarded, along with any Victorian decorum.
The most significant of Lindsay’s models was Rose, who at sixteen posed for him, at the suggestion, according to her memoir, of Julian Ashton for whom she posed, and for students in his art school, which it was her duty to sweep after class. One of several siblings raised in the bush near the Lane Cove River, in Sydney’s industrial suburb of Longueville, in her Model Wife : My Life With Norman Lindsay she is quite frank about her choice of this work;
When I was quite young I saw the break-up of our home through drink and a past secret in the lives of my mother and father [which] tore them apart whenever Mother threw it up at him – something that had hurt her,. and which then hurt him, when he was made conscious of the rift which his bursts of drinking could not stay […] I loved my mother and …[w]hen the break came […] Pa had sold the house and taken brother Frank with him to New Zealand, she had ten shillings, a young baby and a notice to hand over the house. She sat nursing the baby as she told me, ‘He never would have done it if it wasn’t for the drink. Thank God there isn’t another one on the way.’ […] “I’ll go to work and earn some money,” I said to my mother, thinking that I could be a tea-room waitress […] Fortunately for me, Mrs Emily Paul, an artist [and later a socialist activist] … asked me if I would like to pose for an artist. I said ‘Yes’. She took me to Syd Long, who, after sizing me up, said I’d do and could start the next day. And that is how I became a model and was saved from becoming a waitress at twelve and six a week.
Opposite Norman Lindsay’s camera, stands the figure of Rose Soady, who was to be Lindsay’s second wife, and model of the notorious Venus Crucified of 1912 , around which raged the furore of censorship and scandal peculiar to Australia’s response to the arts.
She modelled for Sydney Long, Dattilo Rubbo, Sydney Ure Smith, Harold Cazneaux and Julian Ashton before posing for Lindsay for twenty-five years. She became his secret lover and also his very capable business manger, and a talented printmaker who was responsible for the high quality of his etchings.
Here, in 1902, she poses in what may be Gore Creek or Lane Cove River in Northwood, near her childhood haunts. Three known prints come from this same modeling session. Hard sunlight projects her figure into the rippled surface, carrying between model and artist an unmistakable signal of mutual magnetic attraction which accumulates in her complicit grin and instinctual mobility of pose.
The couple first lived in Northwood, the then bushy North Shore suburb, with Lionel, subsisting on very little. Rose describes the arrangements for photography;
“The kitchen was used at night as a photography workroom, with a red lantern and the windows blacked out,
while Norman developed photos by the dozen. The smell of hypo, developer, cheese and kerosene was very pungent in that sealed room.”
Norman’s friend and fellow illustrator, Will Dyson, met her at the same time and is seen in these photographs with Rose the year after she met Norman; these may be photographs by Lindsay, and her memory a description of their making;
“It was a busy week-end. Photos were taken by day, and at night by magnesium wire light, which meant that I was posed – nude, of course — the camera focused, and a piece, of wire got ready for lighting. Up would go a blinding flare as the camera clicked. If I remember rightly, a hole was burnt in the carpet, which was fairly worn out.”
For Lindsay, photographing the figure in the landscape is preparation for other work, not an end in itself, and in fact it was a task he often set Rose;
“Taking photos of models was considered a very good thing for me to do, and I would be packed off with some girl, a camera and dozens of plates to some lonely spot at Berry’s Bay to take outdoor nudes from pencil notes of poses required. To the hills around Berry’s Bay from Lavender Bay was a long tramp, but it was the nearest secluded spot. At least, we thought it was — until one day a two-up school surrounded us; nasty leering louts who must have been just as astounded as we were when they came upon a nude girl standing on a rock. She slid behind her rock while I gathered up her clothes – we didn’t feel easy till we reached open space again.
“A new focal-plane camera was bought for this work, for twenty-six pounds; it bad been highly recommended by Lionel as the only camera worth buying. It was some weight to carry, in its case with all the plates, much work for the Lone Hand, and The Bulletin salary was fixed; he didn’t have a banking account, but drew from the Bulletin each week, and if there was a shortage he did extra joke blocks.
“I was costing one pound a week, and occasionally got a job posing for photos in costumes for catalogues. Norman didn’t like me doing this, but I did do it, and kept it dark.”
Given the ‘strong’ poses of this series made in 1914, it is more likely that it was Rose and not Lindsay who made them…
It was also Rose who made the prints Dancer and This Shrine both derived from the photograph above it, as is evident in parts of the cross-legged dark-haired model’s costume, the bend in her leg and the similarity in placement and shading of her arm.
Norman etched at least 372 plates and Rose pulled in excess of 11,000 prints from these plates, work requiring strength, organisation and accuracy. Lord Joseph Duveen, a respected art dealer congratulated Rose on her mastery of printing, and her expertise was also recognised by the Australian government when during the 1920s she was offered a job printing banknotes but declined because it would have meant leaving Springwood and working under guard.
Gauzy costume, paste brooches, headband and fake pearls sported on pointed toe and tilted head by an unidentified model in the Blue Mountains Nymph series above are the stuff of repertory wardrobe.
From this workaday relationship, into the etchings, this Lindsay model is transfigured in still other prints, bursting into a burlesque pageant around which a backdrop is constructed to serve the mythical narrative. The rocks, riverbanks and lissome mountain gums of these New South Wales location photographs may, for all his interest in them, be painted plaster and concrete, like the sculptural confections of his Springwood gardens.
Lindsay’s male gaze petrifies the figure into mythic symbol:
“Well, I love the beauty of women, and my faith in women is this, that they are the continuity of life. Man is only the instrument. Well, although the women of my early period didn’t realise it, I was fighting their battle by freeing the feminine image.”
Among these Lindsay photographs, the one which features Rose riding bareback within a small grassed gully is the most conscious of the location. It is an incongruous image intended obviously for particular reference for a print or painting. However it is much closer to being a portrait. The impression in this setting is of Rose’s confident physicality and ease inherited from a rural childhood, and it is her strength both of temperament and physique that is recognised here, the attributes which clearly attracted Lindsay and which literally sustained him.
An indication that he relied on photographs for reference is that few of them survived in his estate, which Rose survived to organise and cull to his instructions; he may have been one of a large proportion of artists who will not admit to working from photographs. She continued to pose for him into her forties, sculptor Rayner Hoff for whom she also modelled, remarking untactfully that “I had a most remarkable figure for my age,” and in this pair, the print very closely follows the camera image;
Apart from his images of Rose, the psyche of his photographed female subjects is disregarded. His looking imposes his chimerical fantasies through a projection that effectively dissolves the real subject. The series of photographs taken in his studio shortly after his exhibiting Venus Crucified bears that out.
They are mundane representations of the model and in each case she shows no acknowledgement of the presence of the photographer, whether it be Norman or Rose, but seems lost in that detached trance that she must usually adopt to endure the long poses required of the life studio.
This year Horsham Regional Art Gallery showed their own collection of the same Lindsay imagery in an exhibition Norman Lindsay:Photographs To Paintings, 22 April-10 July 2022, using it to “explore Lindsay’s use of techniques across media in developing his unique vision.” That seems to be the only study so far of his use of a medium which in his hands is so remote from his erotic universe.