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Baldessin, George Victor Joseph (1939–1978)

by Jenny Zimmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George Victor Joseph Baldessin (1939-1978), painter, sculptor and printmaker, was born on 19 May 1939 at San Biagio di Callalta, Italy, son of Venetian-born Luigi Baldessin and his wife Carmella, née Cervi, a naturalized Australian who returned to Victoria that year. The family, separated by war, was re-united on 17 February 1949 when father and son arrived in Melbourne. Living at Carlton, the parents worked in factories while George attended St Brigid's primary school, Fitzroy, and the Christian Brothers' school, St Thomas's, at Clifton Hill. Luigi and George were naturalized in 1954.

Before leaving school, Baldessin became a part-time waiter at the city's Menzies Hotel: what he witnessed there provided the 'Banquet for no Eating' theme which he later exploited in sculptures and etchings. In 1958-61 he studied painting at the Royal Melbourne Technical College, but turned with more enthusiasm to sculpture and printmaking. Fired by descriptions of the latest trends in Europe, Baldessin worked a passage to London in 1962. He attended printmaking classes at the Chelsea School of Art, then journeyed to Spain. Goya's etchings, films by Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel, and Fred Williams's 'Music Hall' prints inspired Baldessin's first etchings of performers and acrobats. Their taut outlines and areas of aquatint introduced the ironically interpreted human figure which remained his favourite subject.

Studying under the sculptor Marino Marini at Milan's Brera Academy of Fine Art, Italy, in 1963, Baldessin was warned against excessive elegance. He returned in July to teach printmaking at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and to prepare his first solo exhibition which was shown at Melbourne's Argus Gallery in 1964. Next year he had the first of many exhibitions at the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney. In 1966 he won the Alcorso-Sekers travelling scholarship award for sculpture and went to Japan. Slim, dark and blue eyed, on 26 January 1966 Baldessin had married Alison Patricia Walmsley at the office of the government statist, Melbourne; they were divorced in 1970. He married Shirley Anne ('Tess') Edwards on 10 April 1971 at the Presbyterian Church, Kangaroo Ground. On their St Andrews property, site of his gabled, bluestone studio, they hosted an artists' cricket match on Boxing Day 1972.

At his city studio, established by 1968, Baldessin attracted a following of younger artists. Having invented silver-aluminium foil prints in 1970, he won the 1971 Comalco invitation award for sculpture. Following his 1974 retrospective at the Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre, the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, acquired 279 of his prints and etching plates. In 1966-75 his works were shown in the United States of America, Yugoslavia, Poland, England, South East Asia, New Zealand, India, Japan and at the XIII Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he represented Australia with twenty-five silver laminate etchings entitled 'Occasional Images from a City Chamber' and a sculptural installation, 'Occasional Screens with Seating Arrangement'.

From 1975 Baldessin and Tess lived in Paris where George attended the Lacourière printworks, befriended Imants Tillers and became interested in medieval images of Mary Magdalene. Returning to Australia, he explored this interest in the 'Tympan' which he painted with four other artists at the Realities Gallery, Melbourne, in 1977. Baldessin died on 9 August 1978 at Heidelberg from injuries received in a motorcar collision. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he was cremated. A memorial exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1983.

The virtuosity, originality and style of Baldessin's images elicited some criticism. G. R. Lansell accused him of 'mannered artifice', but most agreed with Alan McCulloch who praised the tireless energy which in one decade earned the artist a major reputation as both sculptor and printmaker. Baldessin's work balanced sophisticated refinement with savage compositional distortions, nervous intensity and disturbing ambiguities to describe eternal aspects of the human condition. If enigmas have emerged, they can be attributed—at least in part—to an identity torn between postwar Europe and nascent, multicultural Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Merewether, Australia: XIII Bienal de Sao Paulo, 1975, exhibition catalogue (Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1975)
  • R. Lindsay and M. J. Holloway, George Baldessin, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1983)
  • Art and Australia, 7, no 2, Sept 1969, p 153
  • Imprint, 4, 1975
  • Aspect: Art and Literature, 4, nos 1-2, 1979, p 102
  • Art Bulletin of Victoria, 22, 1982
  • Herald (Melbourne), 16 June 1964
  • Australian, 13 Nov 1965, Weekend edn, 19-20 Aug 1978
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 July 1967, 23 Oct 1971
  • Nation, 31 Aug 1968
  • Bulletin, 31 May 1969
  • R. W. Lockwood, George Baldessin Etchings: 1963-1972 (typescript, 1973, held by its author).

Citation details

Jenny Zimmer, 'Baldessin, George Victor Joseph (1939–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baldessin-george-victor-joseph-9412/text16543, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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