James Gleeson (22 November 1915 – 20 October 2008) was Australia’s foremost surrealist painter, being widely known as the “father of Australian surrealism”. Best known for his series of monumental and apocalyptic organic surrealist paintings, he was also a renowned poet, critic, writer and curator. He played a significant role in the Australian art scene, including serving on the board of the National Gallery of Australia and helped assemble the collections of the new National Gallery of Australia, which opened in Canberra in 1982.
At 11, Gleeson was taught to use oil paint by his aunt, Doris McPherson, an accomplished amateur artist. He attended East Sydney Technical College, an art college, and became a teacher.
His first exhibit was part of a student exhibition at the Sydney Teachers College where he displayed his ‘City on a tongue’ in 1938, and had exhibited regularly since. Gleeson continued to create works of art well into old age, incorporating notions of the heroic painting and classical mythology while remaining true to his surrealist roots.
Gleeson’s fascination with the burgeoning surrealist movement began in the ’30s and continued growing through the ’40s when the artist’s travels took him around Europe, offering opportunities to see first hand the work of Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico. At this time Gleeson became interested in the writings of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These would become major intellectual influences for his art.
Returning to Australia, Gleeson joined the experimental Contemporary Art Society and began on his own work. Characteristically, his pieces featured naked figures – quite often males – standing out amidst a turbulent background of psychedelic imagery, which often took on the appearance of swirling seas battling even more turbulent skies. Gleeson’s themes generally delved into the subconscious using literary, mythological or religious subject matter. He was particularly interested in Jung’s archetypes of the collective unconscious.
“I had always been drawn to the darker, less logical, more mysterious ethos of Northern European artists like Bosch, Bruegel, Guenewald and Altdorfer. Theirs was a world in which man was by no means the measure of all things, but only a part of the turbulent, violent,and usually inexplicable forces of Nature. In Italy I encountered a very different view. Man was centre stage – the measure of all things, as Plato wrote in quoting Protagoras. In this Classical or Neo-platonic world view, man was created in the image of God, or the gods were conceived in the image of man and the notion of human perfectibility, in the sense that a human being can become god-like, is implicit.”
During the 1950s and ’60s he moved to a more symbolic perspective, exploring notions of human perfectibility. At this time he increasingly fashioned small psychedelic compositions made using the surrealist technique of decalcomania in the background, to suggest a landscape, and finished by adding a fastidiously painted male nude in the foreground. Many of his paintings had homoerotic undertones, something which reflected on Gleeson’s own sexuality. The ideas for these compositions also saw Gleeson move into collage with his Locus Solus series, where he produced a substantial body of work by placing dismembered photographs, magazine illustrations, diagrams and lines of visionary poetry against abstract pools of ink.
Since the 1970s Gleeson generally made large scale paintings in keeping with the surrealist Inscape genre. The works outwardly resemble rocky seascapes, although in detail the coastline’s geological features are found to be made of giant molluscs and threatening crustacae. In keeping with the Freudian principles of surrealism these grotesque, nightmarish compositions symbolise the inner workings of the human mind. Called ‘Psychoscapes’ by the artist, they show liquid, solid and air coming together and directly allude to the interface between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious mind.
Gleeson’s later works incorporate the human form less and less in its entirety. The human form was then represented in his landscapes by suggestions, an arm, a hand or merely an eye.
“Transformations… are everywhere in the paintings; they are part of the morphic vocabulary which also includes the amalgamation of biomorphic and mechanical parts, each with their specialised kind of energy compacted into a common drive. ” Gleeson goes on to say, “…they are attempts to show that the world apprehended through our senses is not the whole truth about reality.”
In 2003 the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibited Gleeson’s drawings for paintings. His retrospective in 2004-2005 Beyond the Screen of Sight included 120 paintings and was exhibited in Melbourne and Canberra.
In September 2007, the largest collection of Australian surrealism ever collected was donated to the National Gallery of Australia by Ray Wilson. The collection included various works by James Gleeson. His work is represented in all major public collections in Australia, numerous regional and university collections as well as corporate and private collections.
Gleeson was a member of the first board of the National Gallery and worked hard to develop their surrealist collection. Throughout his life he also worked as an art critic, culminating in definitive histories of fellow Australian artists William Dobell and Robert Klippel.
Awarded the Order of Australia medal for his services to art in 1975, Gleeson’s talent was undeniable and his effect on the art world ongoing. His work has been exhibited over a span of 70 years and has been featured at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, and National Gallery of Australia. He was awarded honorary degrees from Macquarie University, Sydney (1989) and the University of New South Wales (2001). In 1990 James Gleeson was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).
“I wanted others to enjoy the marvellous pleasure that art can provide.” James Gleeson
In 2006 Gleeson and his life partner, Frank O’keefe, established the O’Keefe Foundation, which gifted the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) $6 million to acquire works for the Gallery’s collection. It is expected that the fund will grow in time to $16 million. Edmund Capon, AGNSW Director said, “this is by far the largest fund ever established for the benefit of the Gallery and this generosity is unparalleled in the history of the institution.”
In October 2008, James Gleeson died age 92, leaving a large legacy of artwork. Following Gleeson’s death, his personal property was auctioned but the major collection of the larger, later works became the property of the Gleeson OKeefe Foundation. The plan is for these works to be sold steadily, and, as envisaged and desired by the artist, proceeds will go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the purpose of acquiring significant works of art for the collection.
“I’ve never accepted the external appearance of things as the whole truth. The world is much more elaborate than the nerves of our eye can tell us.” James Gleeson.