Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

McCulloch, Alan McLeod (1907–1992)

by Rodney James

This article was published online in 2016

Alan McLeod McCulloch (1907–1992), artist, art historian, critic, and gallery director, was born on 5 August 1907 at St Kilda, Melbourne, second of four sons of Alexander McCulloch, mining and marine engineer, and his wife Annie, née McLeod, both born in Victoria. Raised at Mosman, Sydney, Alan received art lessons from his father, an amateur painter. After Alexander’s death in 1917, the family returned to Melbourne where Alan attended Balwyn State School then Scotch College, Hawthorn (1920–22). Following a disastrous family property investment he left school at fifteen and found employment as a junior clerk.

From 1925 to 1944 McCulloch worked as a teller for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, while also pursuing his chosen vocation as an artist. He attended night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and the Working Men’s College. Encouraged by Will Dyson, he became an illustrator and writer, contributing stories, cartoons, and caricatures to newspapers and magazines, including the Sydney Sun, Smith’s Weekly, and Table Talk. He self-published humorous booklets on the foundation of Melbourne, the Ballets Russes, and other topics. In the mid-1930s he established an artists’ camp at Gunnamatta Beach, near Cape Schanck, with his brother Wilfred (d. 1942) and Arthur Boyd.

After resigning from the Commonwealth Bank, in 1944 McCulloch was employed as an art critic and cartoonist for the Argus, and as art editor for its weekly, the Australasian Post. In late 1946, however, he was sacked for being too artistically radical, having included contributions by left-wing artists including Albert Tucker and Noel Counihan. He left Australia in 1947, and for three years travelled, studied, and worked in the United States of America, Europe, and England. While overseas he immersed himself in recent and contemporary American and European art. On 14 September 1947 at the New York City Hall he married a Victorian-born actress, Ellen Marion Moscovitz, née Bromley. He contributed to Holiday magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, and co-wrote Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria (1949) with Ursula Hoff and Joan Lindsay. After arriving in Paris he was Australia’s sole representative at the inaugural congress of the International Association of Art Critics in June 1948. With Ellen he pedalled from Paris to Positano, Italy, on a tandem bicycle, the journey recorded in an illustrated travel memoir, Trial by Tandem (1950). He followed this with Highway Forty (1951) about his American travels.

In December 1949 McCulloch had returned to Australia with his wife and daughter and settled at Shoreham, Victoria. Employed by the Melbourne Herald from 1951 to 1981, he became one of Australia’s foremost art critics, also serving as art editor (1954–61) of Meanjin. He wrote passionately and intelligently about emerging modern artists, including (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, John Brack, and Godfrey Miller. With (Sir) Joseph Burke, the Herald professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne, he initiated the Herald Outdoor Art Show, which was an important forum for modernist artists in the 1950s. In the 1960s he was critical of some international trends including colour-field abstraction and conceptual art, but he remained supportive of many contemporary artists.

McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art was first published in 1968 and updated in 1984. Posthumous editions in 1994 and 2006 were co-authored by his daughter, Susan McCulloch, and his granddaughter, Emily McCulloch Childs. Other key works by McCulloch include The Golden Age of Australian Painting: Impressionism and the Heidelberg School (1969) and Artists of the Australian Gold Rush (1977). A strong advocate of regional art galleries, he was the inaugural director (1970–91) of the Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre (later the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery), where he developed a specialist collection of works on paper. In 1976 he curated a regional touring exhibition, The Heroic Years of Australian Painting, 194065.

McCulloch also promoted Australian art on the world stage. He was the foundation president (1963–66) of the Australian division of the International Association of Art Critics, and the Australian correspondent (1969–71) for the journal Art International. In 1966 he curated an exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings from the National Museum of Victoria’s collection, which was displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States.

Witty, determined, and an engaging storyteller, McCulloch valued creativity and originality in art above all else. He held three major exhibitions of his own paintings and drawings, one in London (1949) and two in Melbourne (1951, 1968). Appointed AO in 1976, he received an honorary doctorate (LLD, 1988) from the University of Melbourne and a laureate medal (1992) from the Australia Council for the Arts. A keen tennis player and swimmer in his prime, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease in his final years. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1991) and survived by his daughter, he died on 21 December 1992 at Kew, Melbourne, and was cremated. A fellow art critic, Christopher Heathcote, described him as a ‘quiet and gentle man [who] was arguably the most influential art critic to have practised in this country’ (1992, 14). The National Library of Australia holds a portrait of him by Noel Counihan.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Heathcote, Christopher. ‘An Art Critic Who Fostered a Generation.’ Age (Melbourne), 22 December 1992, 14
  • Heathcote, Christopher. ‘Conservations with Alan McCulloch.’ Art Monthly Australia, April 1993, 13–17
  • James, Rodney. ‘The Battle for the Spencer Barks: From Australia to the US 1963–68.’ La Trobe Journal, Nos. 93–94, 2014
  • Klepac, Lou. ‘Salute to Alan McCulloch.’ Art and Australia 29, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 179
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 13506, Alan McCulloch, Papers, 1875–1992.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rodney James, 'McCulloch, Alan McLeod (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcculloch-alan-mcleod-16351/text28310, published online 2016, accessed online 15 December 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018