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Helge John (Jon) Molvig (1923–1970)

by Glenn R. Cooke

This article was published:

Helge Jon Molvig (1923-1970), artist, was born on 27 May 1923 at Merewether, Newcastle, New South Wales, and registered as Helge John, only child of Helge Molvig, a Norwegian-born sailor who became a steelworker, and his Australian-born wife Bernardine Ivy, née Ward (d.1924). Young Helge was cared for by his maternal grandmother Isabella Ward (d.1932), then by an aunt Eleanor Malley. Educated at Newcastle and briefly at Quirindi, he showed some artistic ability but left school in 1936. He worked in a garage and later in the Newcastle steelworks.

On 12 February 1942 Molvig was called up for full-time service in the Militia. In July he arrived in Port Moresby with the 14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. Next month he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. He contracted malaria and in February 1944 was sent to Australia where he twice went absent without leave. After working (1945) in prisoner-of-war reception camps on Morotai and in Manila, he was discharged in Australia on 26 June 1946. His early interest in art had been rekindled during his army service when he saw sketches by a fellow soldier, Stanislaw Payne. Changing the spelling of his name to Jon, Molvig enrolled in 1947 under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme at the Strathfield annexe of East Sydney Technical College. He exhibited with the Strath Art Group during the years 1949-54, but, being an intensely private man and a committed individualist, never participated in another organized group.

With some college friends, Molvig spent 1949-52 in Europe and encountered the modernist paintings he had known only in reproductions. The German and Norwegian expressionists, whose work he viewed at the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, were to influence him markedly. Back in Australia, he visited Brisbane in 1953 where the underlying looseness of the art of W. G. Grant and his followers reinforced Molvig's own expressionist leanings. He established an individual style in paintings such as 'Crucifixion' (1953, private collection).

Settling permanently in Brisbane two years later, Molvig produced (1956-57) a series of expressive, figurative works—for example, 'Bride and Groom' (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and 'A Twilight of Women' (Queensland Art Gallery)—remarkable for their aggressiveness and intensity. His output from 1955 to 1961 dazzled James Gleeson, who wrote:

No one in Australian art has painted so nakedly as Molvig did at that time. There was no covering to his emotions. He had torn away the last skin of reserve and painted the world he knew in his blood, his nerves and his heart. In a sense it was orgiastic—a great dionysian acceptance of those ecstatic storms that sometimes blow up from the subconscious with such violence that the government of reason is overwhelmed. Even the paint looks as if it has been blown on the canvas by tremendous gusts of passion.

In November 1955 Molvig had taken over his friend John Rigby's classes, held in a studio beneath St Mary's Anglican Church hall, Kangaroo Point. The studio became a focus for a closely knit group of students and fellow artists, and a centre of innovatory painting practice. Molvig was seen as the exemplar of the committed artist. He did not impose his style on his pupils, but created an atmosphere in which they could establish their own. Some were profoundly influenced, among them John Aland, Maryke Degeus, Gil Jamieson, Mervyn Moriarty, Joy Roggenkamp, Andrew Sibley and Gordon Shepherdson. The school lasted for two years, after which Molvig conducted life-drawing classes on and off at a number of premises from 1956 to 1967. He was appreciated as a consummate draftsman; according to Andrew Sibley, he promoted 'the malleability of line and mass to create the pulse of the line'.

Among Molvig's associates were his first dealers Brian and Marjorie Johnstone, with whom he exhibited in 1956-59. The critic Gertrude Langer was a staunch supporter throughout his career, though she acknowledged the unevenness of his production. Another patron was Laurie Thomas, director of the Queensland Art Gallery: as sole judge, he awarded Molvig the 1963 Perth prize for contemporary painting (for 'The Family'), the 1964 (Thomas) Finney art prize (for 'Underarm Still Life No.2'), the 1966 Corio Five Star Whisky prize (for 'Portrait of a Publican'), and the 1969 Gold Coast City art prize (for 'Tree of Man X'). Molvig also won the Lismore art prize (1955 and 1956), and the Rowney drawing exhibition (1960).

His work was characterized by radical shifts of style. In 1958 he toured Central Australia with Degeus. The trip inspired his 'Centralian' series at the Johnstone Gallery in 1959. Although some of these paintings depicted the dispossession and alienation of the Aboriginal people, the series was more colourful than the preceding work—Langer even described it as lyrical. Shortly afterwards the Sydney dealer Rudy Komon contracted Molvig to his gallery with a monthly retainer which provided a stable income. Komon held exhibitions of his work in 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1978 and 1984, and organized showings at other venues: in Melbourne at the Argus Gallery (1962), and in Brisbane at the Grand Central Gallery (1966), the Kennigo Street Gallery (1966), the Johnstone Gallery (1972) and the New Central Gallery (1977).

The 'Eden Industrial' series (1961-62) marked a further shift, into images of Molvig's childhood at Newcastle. To employ a means of expression appropriate to his subject, he used a blowtorch on the oil paint to create eroded surfaces on some paintings. This technique was sensationalized in the press. In 1961 he won the inaugural Transfield art prize—at that time the nation's richest award—for his painting 'City Industrial'. Another important work was 'Eden Industrial: The Garden' (Queensland Art Gallery).

Molvig's emphasis on figuration continued in his 'Pale Nude' series (to 1964), although the rendering was attenuated. His work veered towards abstraction in 'Tree of Man' (1967-68), the last major series he produced. These paintings, comprising target shapes and skeletal forms (described by Langer as 'expressive symbolism'), may have a connection with Patrick White's book, The Tree of Man (1955).

The variation in Molvig's technique is even more obvious in his justly famous portraits. Among these works are the hewn massiveness of 'Self Portrait' (1956, Queensland Art Gallery), the spidery elegance of 'Portrait of Janet Mathews' (1957, private collection), the grim monumentality of 'Russell Cuppaidge Esq.' (1959, Queensland Art Gallery), and the voluptuousness of 'Portrait of Joy Roggenkamp' (1963, private collection). He entered portraits for the Archibald prize from 1952, but it was not until 1955 that one was hung. Reviewers thought that he deserved the award on several occasions; after he finally succeeded in 1966 with 'Portrait of Charles Blackman' (Art Gallery of South Australia), he ceased submitting entries.

On 26 August 1963 at the general registry office, Brisbane, Molvig had married Cornelia Agatha Johanna ('Otte') van Gilst, a 22-year-old secretary and former art student; they were to remain childless. The Transfield prize enabled him to purchase land at Carbrook, about 20 miles (32 km) south-east of Brisbane, where he devoted much of his time to building the house into which he and Otte moved in 1967. Molvig's output decreased as he became seriously ill. He had suffered from nephritis in childhood. Heavy drinking, and the malaria which he had contracted in World War II, probably exacerbated his chronic renal disease. Following the rejection of a transplanted kidney, he died on 15 May 1970 in Princess Alexandra Hospital, South Brisbane, and was cremated. His wife survived him.

The generating impulses behind Molvig's art can only be conjectured, for he was notoriously reticent, and frequently confrontational, in discussing his work. Although his oeuvre is highly regarded, especially by artists, it has still to achieve the prominence it merits, despite the retrospective exhibition (curated by Bronwyn Thomas for the Newcastle Region Art Gallery) which toured nationally in 1978.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Churcher, Molvig (Melb, 1984), and for bibliography
  • G. R. Cooke, A Time Remembered (Brisb, 1995).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Glenn R. Cooke, 'Molvig, Helge John (Jon) (1923–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Molvig, Helge John

27 May, 1923
Merewether, New South Wales, Australia


15 May, 1970 (aged 46)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Military Service