Greetings for 2017! Emily here. I’m in Darwin at present and spent yesterday afternoon at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The painting that grabbed my attention for Effaced was Albert Tucker’s Card Players (1962), which features three men seated playing a game of cards–a play on Australia as ‘the Lucky Country’ driven by good and bad fortunes. Tucker (1914-1999) is considered one of the most significant Australian artists of the twentieth century, and engaged with facial differences across his career.
The most arresting feature from my viewing of Card Players (a 1976 version of which is included below) is the dramatic texturing of the men’s faces and arms, which Tucker created by mixing paint, PVA and dirt. As the NT Gallery catalogue label explains, “Interested in the mythologies of settlement and the toughness and fortitude required to survive in the outback, Tucker created raw depictions of hardened pioneers; the craggy texture of the landscape conjured in their roughly hewn features.”
The effect of the harsh Australian environment on the face is a recurring subject, and one that still pops up in modern pop culture; I recall a female character in the British sitcom Coupling (2000-2004) condemning her ex-boyfriend’s new lover to having “crinkly squinty eyes like an Australian or an unmarried aunt”.
Further research into Tucker’s ouevre shows this technique and idea being repeated (he was fond of repetition until “a fissure will appear and I can pounce on that”: ref 1, p. 69). Eventually this repeated male figure became the distinctive ‘antipodean head’, which he described as “A figure of fortitude and sorrow, built up from the textures of the landscape itself” (ref. 1, p. 60). Even Tucker’s self-portraits reveal an interesting facial difference: he broke his nose at school, and reflected that “This made it more interesting as a painting form”, but while painting from different angles for different looks,”there’s one side I’ve always tended to avoid as it seems to express a less savoury side of my nature” (ref. 1, pp. 49, 68).
Tucker was born in Melbourne in 1914 and worked menial jobs through the depression, receiving no formal artistic training. He was conscripted in 1942 (“for a few harrowing months before until the army decided I was no good to them, and threw me out”; ref. 1, p. 32), and worked as an artist at the 115th Heidelberg Military Hospital in Melbourne. This included work in the Facio Maxilllary and Plastic Unit, commanded by Sir Benjamin Rank (ref. 2).
One of the most striking drawings he produced in this period was Man at Table (1940), now in the collection of the Australian National Gallery (unfortunately I could not find it in their digital images; the pen and ink drawing appears in Mollison and Bonham’s book on page 35). It shows a man sitting at a table, at a 45-degree angle from the viewer. His hands, placed on the table edge, seem disproportionately large in front of his thin body. A bald head, prominent collarbones, bared teeth, and a nose sheered off to reveal his nostrils, give him a skeletal appearance. Tucker recalled the sitting in a later interview:
“I applied for a job while I was down there with a plastic surgery unit. So they set me to work drawing some of these characters with dreadful mutilations. I did a detailed drawing of one fellow who had his nose neatly sliced off by a shell fragment. This poor chap was sitting for me and I was drawing away and, of course, he didn’t have a nose to blow, and the cavities in his face just kept dribbling; and he was apologizing and mopping his face all the time I was drawing.” (ref. 1, p. 35)
Tucker also reflects how “this memory surfaced later in a lot of those cratered heads”, referring to a significantly later series that drew on his wartime experience with the ruptured face, and a fortuitous introduction from Italian painter Alberto Burr to the textures available via PVA, to tie the body and Australian landscape together:
“When this dried out it had this arid, coruscated sort of look to it. And this fitted in with my nostalgia for Australia. The thing I remembered of Australia was its texture, it was that sense of rotting wood, cracked dry earth and all those things—this dinosaur kind of surface to everything. And since I was working on these antipodean heads they became the coruscated landscapes, and of course all the plastic surgery gashes came into play too—they became earthquakes, gashes and wounds, all this material straight from the war background.” (ref. 3, p. 49)
- Interview with Albert Tucker, in James Mollison and Nicholas Bonham, Albert Tucker (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1982).
- On Rank’s career see D. Tam, ‘The Pioneers of Plastic Surgery in Australia’, ANZ Journal of Surgery 79.1 (May 2009)
- Graeme Sullivan, Seeing Australia: Views of Artists and Artwriters (Annandale: Piper Press, 1994).