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John Brack's art, ballroom dancing and market success

John Brack (1920-99) was born in Melbourne. Embracing art at 17, Brack had something special that made him an aspir­ing creat­or - a great mind. Brack was very in­terested in poetry then, reading widely to become a poet himself.

Brack attended evening classes at the National Gallery School from 1938-40. He enlisted in the army in 1940 and was assigned to the Artillery Corps in Western Australia. He was commissioned in 1943 and appointed to heavy artillery, later assigned to a field artillery unit bound for Papua New Guinea. Discharged from the army in 1946, Brack returned to the National Gallery School as a full-time stud­ent under the Commonwealth Retraining Scheme.

From 1947-48 he shared a Melbour­ne studio with Fred Williams, a fel­low Gallery School student. In 1948 he mar­ried fellow student and in 1949, he started dep­ic­ting the life he saw. In a stark setting portrayed in ordinary colours, the artist doc­umented the widely-known scenes of life in Australia, paint­ing with a sense of humour and a distinct personal comment on the matter. The paintings from this era were visual, satirical comments on the post-war years, striving towards the Australian Dream.

I wrote that Brack had a style that evolved into simple paintings filled with plain areas of ord­inary colours. After WW2 we Austral­ians were not a flashy people, so his style was appropriate to con­temporary Australian culture. Brack’s priority was to paint the human cond­ition i.e the effect on appearance of environment and behaviour. Note the chiselled planes on their faces and bodies.

More than any other Austral­ian art­ist of his generation, Brack was a painter of modern life - its realism, self-reflection and a strong sense of alienation, marked by typically Australian dry humour.

John Brack, Yellow Legs, 1969, 
74 x 99 cm, 
sold for $1.2 million.

John Brack, Back and Fronts, 1969, 
116 x 164 cm
sold for $1.8 million in 2014

Brack arose during the 1950s in Melbourne as an original artist. His clever, hard-edged painting style could be seen in a famous image, Collins St at 5PM 1955, a view of rush hour. Set in a dull pal­ette of browns and greys, and sim­ilar faces, it was a comment on the conformity of everyday life. No rural landscapes for him; he either exam­ined Australia’s newly expanding post-war suburbia or he looked at citizens going about their daily responsibilities.

In 1959 the Antipodeans Group consisted of 7 artists and art hist­or­ian Bernard Smith, who compiled The Antipodean Manifesto, a decl­aration fash­ioned from the artists' commitment to modern, fig­ur­at­ive art. The artists were John Brack, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh (all from Melbourne) and Robert Dickerson from Sydney. It may not have had an enormous impact at home, but works by group members were included in a 1961 exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Called Recent Aus­t­ralian Painting, the Antipodeans felt justified by this show which established a national identity for contemporary Aust­ralian art. 

Giving an insight to the modern life in Australia, Brack’s 1950s and 60s paintings were personal, humorously and Australian. Some of his works demon­strated his special qual­it­ies as a draughtsman and some showed his fasc­in­ation with the human body. But the generalised nat­ure of Brack’s nudes was heightened by stylisation of the figure, reducing ind­iv­idual features.

 John Brack, The Old Time, 1969, 
163 x 129 cm 
Tarra Warra Museum of Art collection. 
Sold in 2007 for $3.4 million, the highest price ever paid for a Brack painting.

John Brack, Latin American Grand Final, 
168 x 205cm, 1969 
National Gallery of Australia

Although the ballroom theme had long sparked Brack’s attention, it was not until late 1967 that he began to seriously gather material for the celebrated series, subscribing to The Aus­t­ralasian Dancing Times and going to World Ballroom Dancing Com­pet­itions held in Melbourne. He was attracted to the subject for its sheer absurd­ity; he was fascinated by the idea of people who turned pleasure into the hard labour seen in professional ballroom dancing.

In 1962 Brack became Head of the National Gallery Art School, a position he held until 1968. When he resigned from that job, he supp­orted his family solely by working a professional art­ist.

Note the works in the Ballroom Dancing series, namely Yellow Legs, The Old Time, Backs and Fronts and Latin Amer­ic­an Grand Final, all painted in 1969. While Brack drew upon wide ranging photographic mat­erial for most of his Ballroom Dancing series, it was only in these key works that he employ­ed two photographs spliced together. Backs and Fronts presented two couples whirling through space on the dance floor, with a judgmental crowd of onlookers waiting behind. It could well have been the same man or the same woman being presented from the back and front, thus possibly highlighting the faceless dancing ritual.

Beyond a purely literal analysis of Brack’s design existed an arg­uably more compelling commentary upon the dance as a visual metaph­or for life itself an allegory of the human condition in the vein of great European masters such as Goya and Munch. Depicting his dan­cers poised in difficult and exacting poses, balanced over high­ly polished floorboards with their reflections inviting imminent collapse, thus Brack exposes the extreme vulnerability and precar­iousness of the participants. Moreover, that they were tightly bond­ed together in relationships that were merely a well-rehearsed ritual, full of superficial glitter but no deeper meaning. Note Brack’s obsessions about people being alternately attracted and repelled, together intimately but separated in intention. About the rituals of art and life, in contesting circumstances.

Brack didn’t do ballroom dancing himself. But he watched and painted ballroom dancing because it enabled him to satirise a very insular and self-important art scene. Perfect!

Thank you to  Deutscher and Hackett and Menzies for their invaluable material on Brack's ballroom dancing paintings.


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