Images of Modern Evil

On the weekend we had our third viewing of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra. Gloria wasn’t impressed with anything the first time she saw it and her view hasn’t changed through repeat viewing. I have to confess that I haven’t enjoyed it either after that initial visit and the excitement of seeing some things for the first time (i.e. works of de Kooning and Frankenthaler).

I noticed that several paintings in the exhibition had been donated to the gallery by artists’ families and I’ve developed a theory that reflects upon the standard of a lot of work held by galleries such as the NGA in Canberra. I suspect that after the death of a well-known artist, their families sort through the paintings now in their possession. They keep the ones they like and sell those with clear merit that will realise big money at auction. The rest, the un-liked and those with less commercial appeal, are donated to public galleries that can’t afford to refuse the offer of free paintings by significant artists, no matter how poorly they represent an artist’s catalogue of work.

But maybe that’s my over cynical side coming through.

On this visit I had the unexpected opportunity to see an exhibition of work by Albert Tucker. I’m part way through reading a biography of Tucker written by Janine Burke, so it was interesting to see so many of his paintings in the one place. They were part of his Images of Modern Evil series, a very disturbing collection that he painted during the Second World War.

The thing that I found most interesting about these paintings was the way an apparent simplicity of technique created the impression of something much more complex. How a few simple brush strokes gave an illusion of detail and how so much was expressed through so little. That ability seems to be the signifying feature of a “real” artist. Is that skill learned technique or is it something more instinctive?

The paintings are very dark (literally as well as figuratively) works with symbolic, sordid and unpleasant portrayals of humanity as perceived through Tucker’s experience of wartime Melbourne. I read the following explanation of what was behind this series:

“He was disgusted, but inspired by scenes of Melbourne’s nightlife, of a city he felt demonstrated a collapse of simple morality. He was shocked and outraged by images of schoolgirls trotting home to reappear wearing skimpy miniskirts made from Union Jacks and American flags, ready for a wild night in St. Kilda with the drunken American and Australian soldiers.” (

In many of these paintings Tucker portrays people (mainly women) with a tooth filled, smiling crescent of vivid lipstick-red, topped with a triangular pig-like snout and long-lashed eyes or sometimes a single eyeball. A few of the paintings were grotesquely explicit in their depiction of the “female” body. They are definitely not paintings that anyone could “like” or find aesthetically appealing – but they effectively live up to the title of the series, being images of the some of the worst aspects of human nature and activity. While those aspects are often recognised and (as with Tucker’s example) vividly depicted in art, rarely is the cause of the darkerside of humanity explored. And even more rarely are possible solutions addressed.