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Kemp, Francis Roderick (Roger) (1908–1987)

by Christopher Heathcote

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Francis Roderick (Roger) Kemp (1908-1987), artist, was born on 3 July 1908 at Long Gully, Bendigo, Victoria, second of three children of locally born parents Francis Herbert Henry Kemp, mining-engine driver, and his wife Rebecca Jane, née Harvey. Roger’s infancy was spent in a close-knit Cornish community at St Just Point, Eaglehawk, which provided the elements of Methodist faith and Penwith superstition that shaped his visionary outlook. His family moved to South Yarra, Melbourne, on the eve of World War I, following Frank’s injury in a mine accident. Roger received basic schooling and entered the workforce at 14. He had musical ambitions, having joined a youth choir and received formal training as a singer. In 1929 he enrolled in night classes in drawing at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. After briefly studying commercial art at the Working Men’s College in 1932, he returned to the gallery school, where, financially supported by his sister Adelaide he undertook full-time studies in painting (1933-35).

While initially following the academic program, in his final year Kemp veered towards the flattened, angular forms of early cubism and was singled out for rebuke. He was torn between his loves for singing and painting in the mid-1930s; however, the arrival of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes in Melbourne in 1936 led Kemp to believe it might be possible to create a dynamic fusion of visual art and music.

Entranced by the stirring music, colourful costumes and whirling figures in the company’s Spectre de la Rose and the symphonic ballet, Les Présages, designed by the surrealist André Masson, Kemp experimented with vividly coloured semi-abstract and geometricised figures. Notes in an early sketchbook suggest that, influenced by Christian Science and theosophy, he sought to convey mystical ideas about the spiritual progress of humanity in his compositions.

At first Kemp made no effort to exhibit: his work was seen only by friends from the theatre scene, including Harry Tatlock Miller and Loudon Sainthill. This self-imposed isolation ended after he met Edna Merle McCrohan, an art teacher, whom he married with Anglican rites on 10 September 1943 at Christ Church, South Yarra. With her encouragement, he held his first solo exhibition at the Velasquez Gallery in June 1945. While he sold nothing, apart from an abstract bought by the designer Frances Burke, the show drew favourable reviews from the Sun, Argus and Herald. They were not appealing paintings. Wartime shortages had forced him to work in enamel on masonite; green and white were removed from his palette, and black, which he had rarely used before, predominated. Focused on stark schematic figures, these works were dark, troubled and brooding, and suggested that his faith in human destiny was being tested. Nevertheless, critics such as Alan McCulloch and Laurie Thomas praised their apocalyptic overtones, later claiming that they encapsulated the mood of a world traumatised by war.

Further solo exhibitions in 1947 and 1950 attracted positive notices and the interest of artists who saw Kemp as a leader in the push towards abstraction. He was employed in the printing industry but his paintings increasingly featured in most of Melbourne’s contemporary art shows and in nationally touring exhibitions of the Blake prize for religious art. Evolving through the 1950s, Kemp’s mature style was expressed in paintings set prevailingly in deep blues and reds, balancing rectangular bodies, soaring bird-forms and mandala motifs within a loose geometric scaffold of broad black lines. His works were charged with symbolism and a distinctly Gothic visual richness, often likened to stained-glass windows.

Strong exhibition sales and a series of awards, including the John McCaughey memorial prize (1961), the Georges Invitation art prize (1965), the Transfield prize (1965) and the Blake prize for religious art (1968, 1970), enabled Kemp by 1966 to devote himself fully to painting. An unstoppable, sometimes baffling talker on the subject of art and metaphysics, he was increasingly revered as a `modern master’. He became a charismatic figure who found many disciples among younger artists, Leonard French, Jan Senbergs and George Baldessin being the most prominent. Still, there was a homespun humility to the man, for he never put on airs, greeting acquaintances with a warm hug. Dark and of average build, he dressed simply in a tweedy jacket, corduroy trousers, desert boots and his signature woven tie.

In the early 1970s Kemp worked in London after touring Europe, and on return featured in the inaugural Sydney Biennale (1973), in Ten Australians—a landmark contemporary art exhibition sent overseas by the Federal government (1974-75)—and in a major touring retrospective in 1978-80. Appointed OBE (1978) and AO (1987), and awarded the Society of Painters and Sculptors medal (1986), he kept painting steadily through the 1980s despite declining health. Survived by his wife and four daughters, Roger Kemp died at Sandringham on 14 September 1987 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Roger Kemp: Cycles and Directions 1935-1975 (1978)
  • H. Kolenberg, Roger Kemp (1991)
  • C. Heathcote, A Quiet Revolution (1995)
  • Art and Australia, vol 8, no 2, 1970, p 143
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 May 1985, p 16, 8 Nov 1986, p 9.

Citation details

Christopher Heathcote, 'Kemp, Francis Roderick (Roger) (1908–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kemp-francis-roderick-roger-12725/text22947, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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