born Egypt 1921
arrived Australia 1946, died 1973

Man’s head no.1, about 1949
oil on canvas
51.0 x 40.5 cm

Exhibited:Tony Tuckson…Heads, Watters Gallery, Sydney, 6-23 September 1995, catalogue no.1

While we are familiar with Tony Tuckson’s gestural abstract expressionist paintings and drawings produced from the late 1950s until his death in 1973, we often forget that they were preceded by a decade of work. Beginning in the late 1940s Tuckson wrestled with aspects of modernism with which he was familiar. A large output, as many as 3,000 paintings, mostly works on paper, show Tuckson working through degrees of semi-abstraction. Geoffrey Legge very aptly describes the figurative paintings as, ‘… an earnest attempt to gain the right to paint abstracts’.

There is evidence of numerous varied influences in Tuckson’s figurative work. The most obvious are Picasso and Matisse, but also Cezanne and Braque, all known from reproductions in art books and magazines. Nudes, standing, sitting lying down; couples, lovers, and mothers with children; figure groups, some domestic, some showing people sitting around a table drinking, or a jazz group in full swing; still life paintings, and heads, some portraits, are favoured subjects. Colour is also explored. Sometimes brilliant colours are combined in daring combinations, but often they are sombre and a restricted palette gives these works an affinity with the first of the fully abstract paintings.

Man’s head no.1, about 1949, is an outstanding example of Tuckson’s early work. There is evidence of his use of lines to define shape and areas of dull colour, mostly browns, and dull blue/greens, except for a touch of red around the eyes which are painted black and remain unseeing. The planar approach to the painting of the head, the distinct outlines of forehead and cheek, jaw and chin, nose and eyebrow, and the almond-shaped eyes, are clear references to Picasso’s figurative work both in the early twentieth century, as well as the later cubism. In this painting the well-documented influence of African art on Picasso, but perhaps Tuckson’s more direct involvement with ‘primitive’ art, accounts for some of its ‘primitive’ qualities.

Tuckson first worked as an attendant at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1950, later that year becoming Assistant to the Director. He had a strong interest, both personal and professional, in Aboriginal and Pacific Islander art and was largely responsible for the development of the Gallery’s collection. A ground-breaking travelling exhibition Australian Aboriginal art curated by Tuckson was shown in six State galleries in 1960-61. Although Man’s head no.1, about 1949, predates Tuckson’s time at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, his personal interest in ‘primitive’ art, probably accounts for the evidence of its influence.

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