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Halpern, Stanislaw (Stacha) (1919–1969)

by Peter Timms

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Stanislaw (Stacha) Halpern (1919-1969), painter, potter, printmaker and sculptor, was born on 20 October 1919 at Zolochev, Poland (now Ukraine), son of Eisig Halpern, engineer, and his wife Berta, née Gutt. In 1938 Stacha enrolled at the School of Commercial and Fine Art, L'vov. When his studies were cut short by the German invasion of Poland, he emigrated via England to Perth in 1939 and later that year travelled to Melbourne where he was employed as a fitter and turner. At the office of the government statist, Melbourne, on 28 August 1943 he married Sylvia Pauline Black, a stenographer; they were to have a daughter before being divorced.

While working at a Melbourne commercial pottery as a mould-maker in 1944-45, Halpern developed an interest in the craft. At this time, too, he befriended Arthur Boyd who, with John Perceval, had established the Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery at Murrumbeena. In 1946-47 Halpern set up a home studio, with the aim of becoming a full-time potter. Despite financial difficulties, he was reasonably successful at selling his work through the Primrose Pottery Shop, Melbourne. On 17 June 1947 he was naturalized. He studied part time at the George Bell school in 1948-49 and for one term at Melbourne Technical College.

Halpern's first solo exhibition of paintings and pottery, at the Stanley Coe Gallery in 1950, was well received. In 1951 he journeyed to England and Europe where, for the next fifteen years, he led a semi-nomadic existence. Although he produced some pottery, particularly during a stay in the south of France in 1952, this period was occupied primarily with painting. Unlike most Australian artists who travelled to Europe at this time, Halpern was to make a significant contribution to the Paris art scene, and he exhibited frequently in solo and group exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, and at Basle and Milan. His paintings of the mid- to late 1950s were vigorously expressionistic landscapes and streetscapes, painted quickly and confidently, with thick paint and calligraphic linework. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he completed a series of paintings of beef carcasses, powerful meditations on violence and death, and possibly his most abstract works. At the Brondesbury Synagogue, Middlesex, England, on 24 July 1961 he married 25-year-old Betty Ann Hamilton.

In 1966 Halpern returned to Melbourne. Increasingly, he turned his attention to images of human faces, generally dark, brooding and fragmented. His ceramics, derived largely from European peasant pottery, were wheel-thrown or hand-built from rough terracotta clay with bold, semi-abstract painted decorations. A 'gay-hearted, witty, sensitive man' who was unfailingly generous to friends and young artists, Halpern found Australia 'just as isolated, smug, chauvinistic' as before. The local art world's preoccupation with American colourfield abstraction made his bold European expressionism seem old-fashioned. Nor did his exuberant pottery match a prevailing interest in the refinement and control of Japanese folkcraft and Chinese porcelains. After three productive but unhappy years, he died suddenly of heart disease on 28 January 1969 at Hampton and was buried in the new Cheltenham cemetery. His wife and their two daughters survived him; the daughter of his first marriage predeceased him.

A retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1970 failed to generate much public or critical interest. Although two touring exhibitions of his work have been held since his death (Nolan Gallery, Canberra, 1989-90, and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne, 1993), Halpern remains one of Australia's most unjustly neglected artists.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Restany, Espaces Imaginaires (Paris, 1957)
  • R. Queneau, Halpern Peintures (Paris, 1958)
  • P. Restany, Stanislav Halpern (Paris, 1961)
  • R. Gindertael, Halpern—oeuvres recentes (Paris, 1962)
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Stanislav Halpern Retrospective Exhibition, catalogue (Melb, 1970)
  • P. Timms, Australian Studio Pottery and China Painting (Melb, 1986)
  • J. MacFarlane, Stacha Halpern, exhibition catalogue (Canb, 1989)
  • C. Nodrum, Stacha Halpern Survey, 1952-1969, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1993).

Citation details

Peter Timms, 'Halpern, Stanislaw (Stacha) (1919–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/halpern-stanislaw-stacha-10400/text18429, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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