“Well, well! What an unenviable job judging must be!” — dissenting reports from the 1947 Travelling Scholarship and Art School Prizes

Mihai Bacaran   

The Judges’ Report in the 1948 issue of DAUB —  consists of two conflicting assessments of the work submitted by students for the Travelling Scholarship and the National Gallery Art School Prizes for 1947.[1] Three of the judges: Douglas Dundas, Eric Thake and the then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Daryl Lindsay, sign a report that praises the welcomed diversification of techniques, a trend that encourages “a freer expression of thought in all mediums.” The fourth judge, Alice M. E. Bale, the only woman in the judging panel, concludes in a dissenting report that: “the experimentalizing commended by the other judges is premature,” and recommends that the students should first gain “a sound knowledge of natural appearances and the ability to render them.” This dispute is representative of a larger antagonism between the modern and traditional ways of painting, and their respective supporters which extends beyond the doors of the Art School, to the status of modern art in mid-century Melbourne in collecting institutions, the university and the wider public sphere. Such is the controversy, that the results of the competition generate articles in Melbourne newspapers, for example “Modernist” Picture Wins £900  (The Argus, Melbourne, Vic.: Fri 19 Dec 1947, Page 3) and Problem in Art Awards (The Argus, Melbourne, Vic.: Sat 20 Dec 1947, Page 43).

Page 30 from DAUB 1948
Page 30 from DAUB 1948. Lucy Kerley/National Gallery School Collection, 2007.0060.00151

The Judges who sign the first report appear particularly attentive to problems of composition and design, hallmarks of modernist interests in form. They value positively those students who have “a new desire to design architecturally, rather than to accept subject matter at its face value.” They also praise the technical ability, originality, and “feeling of spontaneity” in certain works. Alice Bale, on the other hand, deplores that too much of the work is derivative, and contends that students, being impressed by modern styles, fail to discriminate between “the vitality and movement of good recent work” and those “annoying mannerisms,” that should be discarded. Works that for Dundas, Thake and Lindsay contain “evidence that certain students were thinking deeply,” are, for Bale, “a sign of mental sloth and a weaknesses to be guarded against.”

Page 31 from DAUB 1948
Page 31 from DAUB 1948. Lucy Kerley/National Gallery School Collection, 2007.0060.00151

At the heart of the controversy, as The Argus observes, are works by students Douglas Green[2] and Judith Perrey for the Travelling Scholarship competition (oddly, their names are not mentioned in the Judges’ Report). Each of the 21 students competing for the scholarship submitted three works: a large group painting, a nude or semi-nude, and a figure drawing; it is the large composition that had the heaviest weight in the final decision. Green’s Second Class, seen as an expression of modernism wins the votes of Dundas, Thake and Lindsay, while the realist work of Judith Perrey, The Toy Makers, was favored by Bale. Second Class depicts a group figures on a train, average people (all white and predominantly male—we should mention—) in the Australian postwar social climate, including portraits of Green’s friends and fellow students John Brack, Grahame King, Helen Maudsley and Fred Williams.[3] [4] The interest is placed on the interplay of colours and forms, the overall composition and the social meaning of the work, rather than on creating the illusion of reality. The Toy Makers, on the other hand, portrays with great attention to realistic detail two carpenters, both white men, working in their atelier. The one in the foreground is sitting in profile, the other one, in the middle-ground, is seen from the front, standing; both seem absorbed in their work. Perrey pays special attention to the effects of the light in creating volumes and depths.

Clip from The Argus, Melbourne, Vic.: Fri 19 Dec 1947, Page 3
Clip from The Argus, Melbourne, Vic.: Fri 19 Dec 1947, Page 3

While fiercely dividing the opinions of the judging panel and indeed adding to public debate about the merits of modernist methods on the one hand or realist painting on the other, the two works are now companions in regional Victoria. Second Class and The Toymakers are both housed in the collection of Warrnambool Art Gallery (WAG), and visible in Art Remix, a selection of 20 paintings from WAG made available by ABC Open. At the bottom of Bale’s report there is a one line unsigned note entitled Comment on Judges’ Report, that concludes the two texts: “Well, well! What an unenviable job judging must be!”

Whether intended or not, the two reports are inserted mid-sentence in another article by Lesley Barnes, Teaching Art in a Country High School: “As far as the designs were concerned, I found these country children could produce unusual and, above all, original designs which,” (end of page 29) then continues on the fourth sheet (beyond the Judges’ Report on page 30 and 31): “compared very favourably with city children’s work. [T]here was no evidence of backwardness or of disinterest in art.”[5]

Mihai Bacaran is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne. His thesis looks at forms of embodiment produced in internet art and alternative ways of understanding the human body. He holds an MA in Art Theory from Beijing Normal University and a BA in Art History from The University of Bucharest.

References

[1] Page 30 and 31(no page number printed on the later)

[2] Douglas Green is the father of visual artist and art historian Charles Green, Professor of Contemporary Art in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

[3] http://aumuseums.com/vic/western-district/warrnambool-art-gallery

[4] https://trove.nla.gov.au/people/1485700?c=people

[5] Page 32, no page number printed


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