Australia, 1915-2008

Dance to the music of time, 1994
oil on canvas
133.0 x 178.0 cm
inscribed lower left: GLEESON ‘94

James Gleeson - paintings, Watters Gallery, Sydney, 8 - 25 November 1995, catalogue no. 11

In 1982 James Gleeson’s first solo exhibition at Watters Gallery, James Gleeson: recent drawings, 7-24 April 1982, surprised many people, not just because of the venue, but most importantly because the drawings were so unexpected. The first paintings exhibited at Watters in 1984 were even more suprizing.

People were aware of  Gleeson’s significant contribution to Surrealism in Australia in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and his work as a poet, art critic, historian, and curator. His most important book was Robert Klippel a scholarly account of the work of a life-long friend, published in 1983 . He was also a long-serving Board Member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and a member of the First Council of the National Gallery of Australia. Until 1982 Gleeson was most familiar for a series of ‘psychoscapes’ in which beautifully painted naked men peopled fantastical landscapes in the guise of characters from Greek mythology. They are among the best openly Gay Australian art produced.

The drawings in the 1982 exhibition had no naked men in them. The fantastical imagery, each a masterful manipulation of the medium, were landscapes into which the viewer’s imagination could enter, - if they dared. They were surreal, fantastic, and visceral. Arrangements of shapes, often grim, even gory, that conjured up the darkest dreams of the viewer, exactly as they were meant to do. As Gleeson wrote in What is Surrealism?, published in Art in Australia in 1940,
Surrealism is the fantastic used as a method of elucidation. It aims at a reorientation of values through a broadening of the concept of reality. It records the final destruction of the primordial fear of darkness, for it is creating a synthesis between the daytime reality of our mind and the darkness of our subconscious world. And surely such a synthesis which reveals both the positive and the negative, the light and the dark, the logical and the illogical, is closer to the truth of our humanity than a so-called reality that is concerned only with the positive, the lighted and the logical.

The size and nature of Gleeson’s new paintings, exhibited in 1984, astounded viewers. A newly built studio had permitted the painting of canvases larger than ever before. While there is no recognizable imagery, they were obviously landscapes. There are horizon lines, mountain ranges, plains, rocky outcrops, rivers and seashores, depicted beneath threatening skies with roiling clouds, but not like anything seen on earth. They belonged to the surreal imagination and the darkest recesses of the subconscious. They depict the battle between the forces of dark and light, and good and bad.

Gleeson’s titles were usually determined during the course of working on the painting, and elude to rather than describe a subject. Favourite titles are drawn from his knowledge of Greek mythology, the history of western art, and literature.

The title of Dance to the music of time, 1994, was undoubtedly named with reference to Nicholas Poussin, the seventeenth century French artist’s painting of 1634-36 now in the Wallace Collection, London. In Poussin’s painting four figures, three women and a man dance accompanied by Time playing a lyre. In the clouds, above, Aurora, representing the dawn, precedes Apollo, the sun god who carries the wheel of time, and the Hours who follow. It is generally accepted that the painting represents the seasons, as well as the passing of time and the wheel of fortune where poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure form an inevitable cycle. Simultaneously Gleeson, a voracious and wide-ranging reader, would have been aware of Anthony Powell’s series of twelve novels named after Poussin’s painting which cast a critical eye over mid-twentieth century British cultural and political life.

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