The National Gallery of Victoria is exhibiting the work of one of Australia’s great contemporary artists. She is a woman who has retained her artistic integrity, producing some of the most interesting and challenging works on paper over the past sixty years. Her name is Bea Maddock.
One enters the exhibition to the sight of one long narrow strip of white paper over two walls, and another equally long narrow strip of red ochre paper over the other two. What is going on here? On display are two monumental works of printing. The first is Forty Pages from Antarctica (1988) and describes a visit Maddock made to Antarctica. Injured on the trip, she was unable to walk with ease and so, from a chair, she sketched the ice. She transferred these sketches photographically to produce forty etched plates on twenty-one sheets of paper. These were printed on brilliant white paper – that dazzles in the way the Antarctic light might – and she used a light tan-coloured ink to take the place of her crayon. The result is magical. Her drawings capture the ice floes in ways that suggest volume, solidity and shape; they are a definitive riposte to any one who thinks drawing does not matter. It is a work of great beauty. Since her earliest work Maddock has incorporated text in her prints. So too here. Running below the images of ice is a poem she wrote. With one word to an image, it begins: “Are we here for saying ice iceberg icefloe icecap…”
The second work in this room, the red one, is “TERRA SPIRITUS…with a darker shade of pale” (1993-98) a detail of which is illustrated above. This was a five-year project in which Maddock describes the coastline of Tasmania – the place of her birth – and in so doing identifies all the prominent coastal features and restores to them their original Aboriginal names. English names are also supplied. The beauty of the work recalls the subtle mezzotints of J M W Turner’s Liber Studiorum, but these are hand coloured drawings. Maddock dug up the red ochre for this work herself and ground the colour into a usable ink which she applied in delicate washes that yield ten tones of ochre. As Alisa Bunbury, the author of the excellent guide that accompanies the exhibition, observes: “[It] is a conceptual, artistic, and technical tour de force and the culmination of an extraordinary career. Comprising fifty-one sheets and an imprint page, which when installed run for a mesmeric forty metres…” Mesmeric indeed. It is an act of memory and restitution to Tasmania’s first inhabitants; perhaps for us an act of reconciliation too. It is also a series of great beauty.
It was a canny decision by the curator of the exhibition to begin with Maddock’s ultima maniera (though one hopes that at 79-years old there is still more to come). The exhibition that unfolds on the walls of the gallery is of an artist who made a decision from the outset to dedicate herself to expression though printing – resorting in her early years to making images on the planks of discarded packing cases. She furthered her studies in England at the end of the 1950s with a two year course at the Slade School of Fine Art.
Her early work from the 1950s shows her growing mastery of technique and of her pre-occupations with solitary, furtive figures in cityscapes and feelings of aloneness, alienation, and anomie. Technique is inseparable from her work, though one is not overpowered or diverted by it. In signal works, such as Square I (left) and Square II both elements come together; her mastery of photo-etching, photography, and her ability to work a plate of metal come together in a subject about the loneliness of crowds.
She also developed a passion for philosophy, especially existentialism and phenomenology. I take slight issue with the otherwise excellent Ms Bunbury when she says “existentialism refutes the idea of an external deity”. Surely it denies it. Maddock’s love of philosophy finds concrete expression in Philosophy I (1972). Seven vertical rows are bisected at the median point by the headshot of a man seen alternatively in photo positive and negative. In the fourteen vertical columns that are thus created Maddock has neatly transcribed some of Edmund Husserl‘s writings on phenomenology. The neatness of Maddock’s hand underlines the bravura technique – she had to write backwards so that we could read the text. Apparently she found it therapeutic.
The mid-1970s saw Maddock in Canberra for a year, based at the Australian National University. There her art took a new direction with the embrace of colour. Working with Graham Fransella, a gifted artist in his own right, she produced the monumental Mail (1976) – a photo-etching in five colours and composed with eight separately etched plates. I particularly like the use of an actual postage stamp. Less colourful is the haunting Going Back (1976) – a large three panel piece featuring, in the central print, an image of her old studio in Tasmania. Text is here too. On the left panel she writes: “Our own thresholds a little as a matter of course”, on the right panel “21 quiet at 14 perhaps not so quiet at 28 C.G.”.
She didn’t remain quiet. She did, however, suffer a particularly cruel event. In 1983, Ash Wednesday, bush fires engulfed Victoria. Maddock, who, a year earlier, had moved to the cool climate of Mt Macedon, was lucky to escape with her life. While she escaped the fires, her studio perished and with it her collected works, diaries and archives. That day in Melbourne the skies darkened and whether the populous wanted them or not ashes were imposed. But there is something indomitable about Maddock. She picked herself up, and relocated to Tasmania, where she has remained. Soon after, she was on a boat to Antarctica.