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Lynn, Elwyn Augustus (Jack) (1917–1997)

by Joanna Mendelssohn

This article was published online in 2021

Elwyn Augustus (Jack) Lynn (1917–1997) artist, art critic, and curator, was born on 6 November 1917 at Canowindra, New South Wales, son of New South Wales-born parents Leonora, née Johns, and her husband William James Lynn, labourer. Soon after his birth the family moved to Junee, where his father worked in the railway depot as an assistant fitter. His given names suited neither his personality nor the culture of a country town and he was known as ‘Jack.’ Educated at Junee Intermediate High and Wagga Wagga High schools, he completed the Leaving certificate in 1936 and was awarded a Teachers’ College scholarship to the University of Sydney (BA, 1940; DipEd, 1941).

While majoring in English and history, Lynn also enrolled in philosophy, where he came under the influence of the charismatic John Anderson, the Challis professor in that subject. Lynn was introduced to ideas of aesthetics, and learned to question the nature of what might objectively be regarded as beautiful. In 1942 he was appointed to teach English and history at Liverpool Public and Junior Technical School. As he continued to try to understand the warring ideologies that were reshaping the world, he subscribed to the United States magazine Partisan Review, which was then a left-wing anti-Stalinist publication.

Shortly after he started teaching, Lynn began ‘fooling around and doing a little bit of painting’ (Lynn 1979). He visited art exhibitions, especially of the Archibald, Wynne, and Sir John Sulman prize finalists at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and imitated the style of artists he admired, including Sali Herman and (Sir) Russell Drysdale. On 3 March 1944 at the District Registrar’s Office, Annandale, he married Isabel Sheila Hill, a schoolteacher. He was first successful in being among the finalists for the Wynne prize in 1947 with The Orange House and in the Sulman prize in 1948 with The Circus. In 1953 the exhibition French Painting Today toured Australian capital cities. For the first time he saw original paintings by Picasso, Braque, Manessier, Marchand, and Soulages. He saw affinities between the rhythms of poetry and visual abstracted forms and started to move towards abstraction, but always retaining an element of wit. In 1957, when he was teaching English and history at Macquarie Boys’ High School, Parramatta, he won the Blake prize for religious art for Betrayal, as well as the Bathurst Festival and Mosman art prizes.

Always curious to learn what was new, Lynn subscribed to international art journals from the mid-1950s, and bought the Melbourne Herald to read Alan McCulloch’s art criticism. After he became secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) and editor (until 1970) of its Broadsheet in 1955, he turned that newsletter into essential reading for anyone interested in art and ideas. As well as producing digests of the best of (mainly) American writing on new art, he began to produce what Robert Hughes called ‘Elwyn Lynn's curare-tipped comments’ (Hughes 1963, 19) on art and institutions in Australia. His work for the Broadsheet evolved into other critical writing, including substantial articles for Meanjin and Quadrant.

Having divorced his wife in 1952, on 9 February 1956 at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney, Lynn married Lily Luise Walter, a radiographer born in China who had come to Australia in 1951. During World War II she had lived in Germany while her German father successfully concealed her Jewish heritage, from herself as well as from the authorities. Elwyn’s subsequent closeness to Sydney’s central European émigré arts community reinforced his suspicion of all totalitarian regimes. In 1958 at the Macquarie Galleries he held his first solo exhibition. The same year he took long-service leave from teaching and travelled with Lily to Europe to see the paintings he knew only from magazines. He was especially impressed by the survey exhibition of Dada that he saw in Frankfurt, and by the Venice Biennale, where, in the Spanish pavilion, he viewed works by Antoni Tàpies. He also admired the tough, textured abstract works of Alberto Burri, and the way both Burri and Tàpies used mixed media, including burning the surface of works that could only loosely be described as paintings. In Germany, where the couple visited Lily’s relatives, he saw burnt-out buildings, still standing years after the bombing had ceased. He later linked their blackened and scarred texture to ‘the archaeology of war’ (Lynn 1979), and came to understand that the absurdity of Dada was a logical response to human folly.

Lynn was a vigorous polemicist for the ideas and art he held dear. In this period the passionate debate was between the mainly Melbourne-based figurative painters and the Sydney-based abstractionists. Bernard Smith, who had befriended Lynn when they were both teachers at Liverpool, was the principal author of ‘The Antipodean Manifesto,’ the polemic supporting an exhibition of figurative art held in 1959 at the Victorian Artists’ Society galleries, Melbourne. ‘Dada is as dead as the dodo’ (Blackman et al. 1959, 696), it proclaimed. Lynn led the light-hearted rejoinder exhibition Muffled Drums at Sydney’s Terry Clune Galleries. The Antipodeans took the spoof in good spirit and sent Lynn a congratulatory telegram, claiming ‘We will bury you’ (AGNSW MS 997.5).

In 1960 Lynn held a solo exhibition of texture paintings at the Macquarie Galleries. Throughout the decade he built his reputation both as an experimental abstract artist working with collage and texture and as a critic. His work was included in Recent Australian Painting, the 1961 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. From 1963 until 1968 he was president of CAS. In 1964 he was appointed art critic of the Australian; he moved to the Bulletin in 1966, remaining there until 1973. He published the study Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery in 1967; the two men became good friends. In 1964 he had travelled to the United States of America on a Department of State Leader grant study tour, an arrangement that consolidated his links to the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, an organisation that was later to be linked to funding by the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1966 this connection led to his being appointed associate editor of Quadrant, the journal published by the association; he would later become its editor (1978—81).

A third strand of Lynn’s career began in 1969, when he was able to resign from teaching at Cleveland Street Boys’ High after being appointed curator of the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Sydney. Bernard Smith, now director of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, had facilitated the appointment. However, the respect they had for each other’s opposing views soon evaporated, exacerbated by Lynn’s support for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which placed him at odds with many of his immediate academic colleagues. Until his retirement in 1983 he was an isolated figure in an unhappy workplace. Despite his poor relationships with his colleagues and the constraints of a small budget, he shaped the Power collection towards the forefront of avant-garde art.

From 1976 to 1980 Lynn was chairman of the visual arts board of the Australia Council for the Arts, steering it towards supporting contemporary rather than historic art. He was an advocate for the international vision of the Biennale of Sydney. In 1983, after the death of its founding editor, Mervyn Horton, Lynn was appointed editor of Art and Australia, but it was a short-lived engagement that ended in acrimony in 1986. Awarded the Trustees’ Watercolour prize in 1980 and 1983, he won the Wynne prize in 1988.

Retrospective exhibitions were held at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery (1977) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1991). Appointed AM in 1975, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1982 and received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Sydney in 1989 and an Australia Council emeritus award in 1994. Having become the art critic for the Weekend Australian in 1983, he continued to write until 1995. He concentrated on his painting, building up the surface of his works with plaster, and incorporating objects into them as collage mixed with the paint. Those last works, gestural and tactile, displayed his frustration at his approaching death as he battled with an increasingly frail body, and were among his most powerful. He completed the work for his final exhibition as he was told that an encroaching facial cancer threatened a complete loss of vision. Survived by his wife and their daughter, Victoria, who had also become an art curator, he died on 22 January 1997 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. Although his work is found in most Australian public art collections, he is remembered as much for his contribution as a writer, especially for his robust contributions to public debate. The Elwyn Lynn conference centre at the University of New South Wales commemorates him. A portrait of him by Bryan Westwood won the Archibald prize in 1989.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Patricia. Elwyn Lynn’s Art World. Sydney: Pandora Press, 2001
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives. MS 997.5, Elwyn Lynn papers
  • Blackman, Charles, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, Bob Dickerson, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh, and Bernard Smith. ‘The Antipodean Manifesto.’ 1959. In Modernism & Australia: Documents on Art, Design and Architecture 1917—1967, edited by Ann Stephen, Andrew McNamara, and Philip Goad, 694–97. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2006
  • Elwyn Lynn: A Selection of Works from the Lynn Family collection 1969–1996. Introductory notes by Peter Haynes. Canberra: Nolan Gallery, 2003. Exhibition catalogue
  • Hughes, Robert. ‘Dog Eats Dog.’ Nation, no. 111 (26 January 1963): 19
  • Lynn, Elwyn. Interview by James Gleeson, 24 July and 27 September 1979. Transcript. James Gleeson oral history collection. National Gallery of Australia
  • Lynn, Victoria. Direction Now. Port Macquarie, NSW: Glasshouse Regional Gallery, 2014. Exhibition catalogue
  • Palmer, Sheridan. Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith. [Sydney]: Power Publications, 2016
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pinson, Peter. Elwyn Lynn: Metaphor and Texture. Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Joanna Mendelssohn, 'Lynn, Elwyn Augustus (Jack) (1917–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lynn-elwyn-augustus-jack-27122/text34667, published online 2021, accessed online 29 May 2022.

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