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Cecil John Brack (1920–1999)

by Sasha Grishin

This article was published online in 2023

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John Brack, by Geoff Hawkshaw, 1965

John Brack, by Geoff Hawkshaw, 1965

National Library of Australia, 23531314

Cecil John Brack (1920–1999), painter and graphic artist, was born on 10 May 1920 in South Melbourne, elder son of Cecil William Brack, printer, and his wife Edith May, née Nicholls, both Victorian born. He was a good pupil and was awarded a scholarship to Ivanhoe Grammar School, but the price of the uniform proved prohibitive so he went to Box Hill High School instead. Having obtained his Intermediate certificate, John left school in 1936 and found work as a clerk at the Victorian Insurance Co. Ltd, Collins Street. From 1938 he attended night classes at the National Gallery Art School under the painter Charles Wheeler and spent many evenings reading at the State Library of Victoria. The Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art (1939) had a profound impact on him as an introduction to contemporary art practice.

On 12 August 1940 Brack enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces for service in World War II, commencing full-time duties on 30 July 1941 in the 10th Field Regiment (1941–43) of the Royal Australian Artillery. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 14 July 1942, and commissioned as a lieutenant on 2 July 1943, he served in Australia in the Coast Artillery (1943–44), the 2nd Field Artillery Training Regiment (1944–45), and the 5th Artillery Signal Troop (1945), which was assigned for service in Bougainville, but the war ended before it was deployed. His experience of war was one of loneliness and isolation, but he was popular among fellow soldiers for his humorous portrait sketches. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 29 March 1946 in Melbourne.

Through the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Brack studied full time (1946–49) at the National Gallery Art School under the tutelage of the tonalist painter William Dargie. Amongst his fellow students were Fred Williams, with whom he shared a studio in 1948–49, and Helen Mary Maudsley, whom he married on 19 November 1948 at Christ Church, South Yarra. In 1949 he found employment at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as a frame-maker and, from 1950, as an assistant to Ursula Hoff, the keeper of prints. He was subsequently appointed a part-time art master (1952–62) at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.

Brack had produced relatively little art in the 1940s, mainly sketches of army life and then technical exercises while at art school. In 1953 he participated in his first group show, at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne, together with Roger Kemp, Arthur Boyd, and Charles Blackman. He exhibited two paintings which the perceptive painter-critic Arnold Shore described as ‘two of the most original pictures exhibited in Australia for some time’ (1953, 37). One of them, The Barber’s Shop (1952), was acquired by the NGV that year.

In the 1950s, guided by the art theories of Georges Seurat and the technique of draughtsmanship of Bernard Buffet, Brack created some of the most memorable, popular, and iconic urban images in twentieth-century Australian art. They included Men’s Wear (1953), purchased by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in 1982; The Bar (1954), acquired by the NGV in 2009 for $3.2 million; and Collins St, 5 p.m. (1955), bought by the NGV from Brack’s solo exhibition in March 1956.

Collins St, 5 p.m. is set in central Melbourne, with its mass of office blocks, banks, and insurance buildings, during the evening rush hour. In 1957 Brack recalled,

everyone is walking in the same direction—towards the station and the trams. No head turns. As a matter of fact it used to strike me as most eerie to be sketching within three feet of so many people, none of whom took the slightest notice. … There are so many of us whose lives are encompassed by offices in the day and suburbs in the night, that it seems almost urgent for the painter to say something about it, as clearly as he can. (quoted in Grishin 1990, 50)

On one level, the painting depicts a crowd of Melbourne office workers, but it is also a comment on how a certain type of work and a drab environment conditions people to become grey and featureless.

With Boyd, Blackman, and others, Brack joined the Antipodeans group of figurative artists in 1959 and participated in its exhibition in August, but he regretted its controversial manifesto that criticised American abstract expressionism. From 1962 he was head of the National Gallery Art School, until he resigned all teaching commitments in 1968 to devote himself to full-time studio practice. His oeuvre is punctuated by several major series of paintings: Racecourse (1956), Nudes (1957), Playground (1959), Wedding (1960–61), Still Life (1963–72), and Ballroom Dancing (1969). In 1972 he travelled to Europe where he sought out paintings he had known only through reproductions. He made a second, short trip to Europe in 1976, but otherwise worked exclusively from his studio in Melbourne.

In much of his later work, Brack was preoccupied with a search for a new visual metaphor through which he could comment on social patterns of human behaviour. Postcards, knives and forks, and increasingly pens and pencils began to feature in his paintings and graphics. The Battle (1981–83), held by the NGA, is the largest and most ambitious of these paintings and widely held to be a key painting in Australian art history. It depicts the final phase of the Battle of Waterloo as thousands of pens and pencils rallying around playing card banners. A comment on the futility of war, it subverts the conventions of heroic battle paintings and converts the whole event into a grand farce. Many of his subsequent paintings explored the concepts of social groupings from what could be termed a structuralist perspective: he examined binary opposites and conflicting polarities, with a subtle humour and irony.

A cerebral artist, Brack spoke quietly without passion or emotion, and through his art created a language which is timeless and universal. He was known as a significant portrait painter and one of the finest draughtsmen in twentieth-century art. Despite a continuous practice for half-a-century, he completed only about 350 oil paintings, a similar number of completed watercolours and drawings, and about forty-eight editioned prints. The great majority of his paintings are held in public collections in Australia, while his graphics are also in public collections abroad, including the British Museum. Survived by his wife and their four daughters, he died on 11 February 1999 at Camberwell after a long illness and was cremated. The NGV held retrospective exhibitions in 1987 and 2009, and other major exhibitions were held at the NGA (1999), the Heide Museum of Modern Art (2000), and the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra (2007).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Grishin, Sasha. The Art of John Brack. 2 vols. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990
  • John Brack. Curated by Kirsty Grant. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009. Exhibition catalogue
  • John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition. Curated by Robert Lindsay. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1987. Exhibition catalogue
  • Millar, Ronald. John Brack. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1971
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX107527
  • Portraits by John Brack. Edited by Andrew Sayers. Canberra: National Portrait Gallery, 2007. Exhibition catalogue
  • A Question of Balance: John Brack 1974–1994. Curated by Ted Gott. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2000. Exhibition catalogue
  • Shore, Arnold. ‘John Brack Strikes an Exciting New Chord in Art.’ Australasian Post, 5 March 1953, 37

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Citation details

Sasha Grishin, 'Brack, Cecil John (1920–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brack-cecil-john-32399/text40164, published online 2023, accessed online 4 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Brack, by Geoff Hawkshaw, 1965

John Brack, by Geoff Hawkshaw, 1965

National Library of Australia, 23531314

Life Summary [details]

Birth

10 May, 1920
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

11 February, 1999 (aged 78)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cerebral atherosclerosis

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Military Service
Workplaces