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Komon, Rudolph John (Rudy) (1908–1982)

by Lenore Nicklin

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

Rudolph John (Rudy) Komon (1908-1982), art dealer, wine judge and bon vivant, was born on 21 June 1908 in Vienna, one of four children of Czech parents Rudolf Komon, tailor, and his wife Anna, née Soucek. His parents later lived in Berlin, where his mother was to be killed by Allied bombing during World War II. After he left high school Rudy worked for a Czech newspaper as a sports and political journalist.

Based in Vienna he travelled through Austria and Germany, observing the rise of Hitler. In 1938 Komon moved to Czechoslovakia and joined the underground movement. He also began dealing in art. Many of the Prague painters who worked as newspaper cartoonists were his friends and he sold their paintings on the black market. At the end of the war he became a correspondent for Associated Press; after the 1948 communist assumption of power he crossed borders again—into Switzerland. He rarely spoke about his European life.

When Komon migrated to Australia in 1950 his suitcase contained a number of European etchings; he sold one by Edvard Munch to the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia. Speaking a colourful brand of English—he never lost his thick Czech accent—he began selling rugs and Meissen porcelain from a small antique shop in the Sydney suburb of Waverley. At weekends he hawked (Sir) William Dobell’s paintings from the back of a truck. He was 42 years old when he arrived in a culturally unsophis­ticated, beer-drinking Australia and he never ceased to rail amiably against the `bloody barbarians’ he found everywhere in his new country. As cellarmaster (1956-76) of the Wine and Food Society of New South Wales he befriended many of the people who would later become his clients. Credited with one of the best palates in Australia, Komon judged wine at shows in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra from 1959 to 1979. Art and wine were his two great interests—a risky combination as his cellar was occasionally raided by his artists.

In 1959 Komon bought a wineshop at Woollahra that he converted into the Rudy Komon Art Gallery. While the consumption of wine dropped, the quality improved. The rubicund, ebullient, beetle-browed Komon nurtured a stable of artists including the Melburnians Fred Williams, Clifton Pugh, George Baldessin, John Brack, Leonard French and Jan Senbergs, as well as Jon Molvig, John Olsen and Robert Dickerson. He liked the company of men and rarely showed women painters—his fellow European migrant Judy Cassab was one exception. Those who gathered for Saturday brawn and sausage lunches in the upstairs backroom of his gallery included prime ministers, business leaders, restaurateurs, journalists and winegrowers.

Komon was the first art dealer in Sydney to introduce the European practice of paying artists a wage in return for the right to sell their work. He had a close relationship with his artists—he found them studios, lent them money, organised their travel and wined and dined them. On trips overseas he often chose them as travelling companions. He pitched their prices high. When Olsen joined the Komon stable—a rocky relationship that did not last—he sold one of his paintings for a then unheard-of 1000 guineas. To stimulate sales Komon would often sprinkle an exhibition with red stickers `as an encouragement’; often he was the buyer. He brought a new professionalism to art dealing and, exercising considerable roguish charm, made it fashionable to buy and collect paintings. Known for playing games with his buyers, he would, for example, refuse to sell a Fred Williams because the `barbarian’ would-be purchaser did not have enough appreciation of the artist’s work. Clients were sometimes expected to buy works by lesser artists before being allowed to graduate to the big names.

Naturalised in 1955 Komon married an English-born high-school teacher, Ruth Spenser Stevens, on 9 January 1959 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney; they had no children. A keen swimmer, he also enjoyed cooking. In 1973 he was appointed MBE. He died on 27 October 1982 at Camperdown, Sydney, and was cremated. Two years later Ray Hughes bought the contents of the Komon gallery. The same year the Rudy Komon memorial fund was established to buy works by younger artists for the Art Gallery of New South Wales; the gallery was a major beneficiary when Ruth Komon died in 2001. It holds Eric Smith’s portrait of Komon, which had won the 1981 Archibald prize.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Raymond (ed), 52 Views of Rudy Komon (1999)
  • series A446, item 1955/21868 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Rudy Komon Art Gallery records (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lenore Nicklin, 'Komon, Rudolph John (Rudy) (1908–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/komon-rudolph-john-rudy-12754/text23003, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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