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Barbara Nancy Brash (1925–1998)

by Megan R. Fizell

This article was published online in 2024

Barbara Brash, c1950

Barbara Brash, c1950

Brash family

Barbara Nancy Brash (1925–1998), printmaker and painter, was born on 3 November 1925 at Toorak, Victoria, elder child of Victorian-born Alfred Falk Brash, merchant, and his English-born wife Elsa, née Rosenfeld. In the 1890s Alfred and his brother inherited their father’s piano retail business, M. Brasch and Co. (anglicised to M. Brash and Co. during World War I), which later developed into one of Australia’s leading music and electronics retailers. Barbara’s brother, Geoffrey (1929–2019), would take over management of the business in the 1960s and became an important figure of the music industry. Together with her brother, she grew up in the inner Melbourne suburb of Toorak, and although her father had connections with the local Jewish community, she was educated at St Margaret’s School, Malvern, and St Catherine’s School, Toorak.

After school, Brash completed a year of commercial art training at the Melbourne Technical College. By 1947 she was studying painting at the National Gallery Art School, Melbourne, where she won the Sara Levi scholarship (1947) and later received an award for her final year painting, Half Nude (1949). She was taught by (Sir) William Dargie and the newly appointed modernist painter Alan Sumner, becoming part of a group known as ‘Sumner’s Kids’ and attending weekly painting classes with George Bell. In 1948 she returned to MTC; first to study etching with Ben Crosskell, and then to learn printmaking with Harold Freedman.

In February 1950 Brash made her debut as a professional artist at the opening exhibition of the Stanley Coe Gallery in Melbourne. Four months later, she left for Europe with Dorothy Braund, a friend and fellow artist, to spend a year travelling and visiting art galleries. On their return in 1951, she became an active member of Melbourne’s modernist art scene. Her medium was primarily lino-printing and lithography, and she exhibited with various art and printmaking collectives such as the Melbourne Contemporary Artists and George Bell Group. The commercial Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne, and the galleries of the Victorian Artists’ Society regularly hosted exhibitions featuring artists affiliated with these groups. She was also involved with the Melbourne Print Group (or Freedman Group), with a series of her colourful linocuts appearing in 40 Prints by 10 Artists (1954). One of her prints, Native Dancer (1953), was used for the exhibition’s advertising poster and purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Printmaking attracted great enthusiasm in Australia in the 1960s. During these years Brash became affiliated with the Studio One Printmakers Group, led by the Irish-Australian artist Tate Adams. In 1963 her prints were shown at Studio One’s first major exhibition, Prints ’63, which toured Australia and travelled to Tokyo. She exhibited in several other major Australian modernist print exhibitions, including the Australian Print Survey (1963–64), and her work was often shown at the Crossley Gallery, Melbourne, which Adams established in 1966 to showcase the city’s thriving printmaking scene. Her prints were also exhibited internationally.

Brash increasingly experimented with screenprinting in the 1960s. Turning to the natural world for inspiration, she produced prints that were distinctive for their complex use of layered colours, flowing and balanced composition, and experimental approach to the chromatic, textural, and technical possibilities of print. In 1965 she staged her first solo exhibition at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne. The modernist art critic Alan McCulloch considered her prints, made on a converted domestic mangle in her garage, a ‘notable contribution to the art of print-making in Melbourne’ (McCulloch 1965, 27). She subsequently held solo exhibitions in Brisbane and Melbourne, and in the late 1960s two of her fellow artists, Braund and Ian Armstrong, painted her portrait.

With the rise of a new activist generation of artists in the late 1960s, Brash withdrew from artist collectives to work more independently. Though she upheld the principles of conservative modernism, she continued to produce highly experimental work that was widely collected by Australian galleries. She also won several regional art prizes, and was a prominent member of the Print Council of Australia (treasurer 1975–76, 78–83; vice-president 1977–78). The council included her screen-print Sun Stroke (1988) in its 100 x 100 Portfolio (1988), a major collection of prints intended to represent the diversity of Australian printmaking. She was also involved with the Women’s Art Register and was a member of the Lyceum Club (1965–98).

In the 1990s, after a lapse in production in the 1980s, Brash reinvigorated her printmaking experimentation by turning to digital media and photocopying processes. Following a retrospective exhibition of her work at Eastgate Gallery, Melbourne, in 1989 she studied with the digital printmaker Bashir Baraki, and together they collaborated with Jean Knox to produce the print portfolio The Image Makers (1996). In 1996–97 she produced her last and largest series of digital prints, Sludge, which explored human-induced environmental destruction. On 20 February 1998 she died suddenly from a brain aneurism at Malvern, Victoria, and was cremated in the Springvale Botanical cemetery. She was predeceased by her long-time partner, Enno Vilas, but was survived by her brother and his three children.

A spirited and independent woman, who was nonetheless ‘kind of solitary’ (Mills 2019, 25) and enjoyed smoking Camel cigarettes, Brash was a relentless experimenter. Over her lifetime she produced an oeuvre of dynamic and aesthetically radical art. She maintained close relationships with her friends and had a lifelong love of animals, bequeathing part of her estate to animal welfare and environmental conservation groups. Posthumously, her work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria and has been the subject of important regional gallery exhibitions such as From Tuesday to Tuesday at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery in 2006, and the survey exhibition, Barbara Brash—Holding Form, at Geelong Gallery, Victoria, in 2022.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Barbara Brash—Holding Form. Geelong: Geelong Gallery, 2022. Exhibition catalogue
  • Brash, Lucinda. Interview by Emma Mills, 2019. Transcript. Private collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • Dick, Helen, and Ainsley Gowing. From Tuesday to Tuesday: Barbara Brash, Nancy Clifton, Mary Macqueen, Lesbia Thorpe. Mornington, Vic.: Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 2006
  • Eagle, Mary, and Jan Minchin. The George Bell School: Students Friends Influences. Melbourne: Deutscher Art Publications, 1981
  • McCulloch, Alan. Herald (Melbourne), 16 June 1965, 27
  • Mills, Emma. ‘A Woman Not Watched: The Life and Work of Barbara Brash.’ Hons diss., University of Melbourne, 2019

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Megan R. Fizell, 'Brash, Barbara Nancy (1925–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brash-barbara-nancy-33258/text41501, published online 2024, accessed online 25 June 2024.

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