Sunday, 31 January 2016

Vale Ronald Greenaway (1932-2016), the unspoken achiever of Melbourne surrealism

Ronald Greenaway -
Portrait of Charles Blackman in 1959

Every so often, you come across a person seemingly bypassed by history. But never more did I have that sense, and a sense of how history robs itself through its obsession with "great", iconic artists, of which each generation is allowed but a handful, than the night I met Ronald Greenaway.

Ronald was neighbour to my parents in Camberwell for many years, and they were privvy to and indeed part of some of tumults of his later years.

I'm grateful of having had the opportunity to meet Ronald in person in what transpired to be his final weeks. It was at the opening of a retrospective of his works at Town Hall Gallery in what used to be the grandiose Hawthorn Town Hall, another spectacular result of a kind  of 'competition' between councils at the time  the Eastern suburbs was being developed in the 1880s to have the swankiest Town Hall.

Ronald Greenaway
- Albert Tucker at 9 Collins Street, Melbourne, Grooming his Pet Flea, Hector (1963)

It was there I had the pleasure of shaking Ronald Greenaway's hand and muttering a few appreciative words that I can't be entirely sure he heard, much less comprehended, for he didn't seem happy in small talk, nor indeed in talk at all. Ronald was by this stage so pallid, so extracted in all his dealings with the world, and so seemingly apologetic for them, it struck me I'd never before seen a man seemingly so ready to embrace the beyond, but that it was a rather noble effect, rather than the sad one you might expect.

Ronald Greenaway -
Upstairs at Cafe Osmonia, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne

Was there a sense of final achievement, of some real and tangible life's testament and legacy behind all this? The exhibition curators claim to have catalogued over 300 of his own works from Ronald's home collection alone.

For it's almost as if this accumulation of his life's works was enough to bring to resolution something major within Ronald Greenaway, for him to have passed so soon after its celebration. I had wanted to meet with him again with half a mind to writing him a fitting biography, but that's now clearly not to be. But a blog at least you shall have, sir.

Ronald Greenaway -
Albert Tucker in New York

For, every so often, you come across a person seemingly bypassed by history. And it's that sense that had gripped me so immediately at the gallery that night, the enormity of history's loss. Here was an artist, the peer of Nolan, Tucker, Blackman, Vassilief, Mora, painted all their portraits, whose shows were glowingly reviewed in The Age by Patrick McCaughey, part of the John and Sunday Reed set at Heide, whose work sits in the NGV collection, but whose life's work was being retrospected at a suburban gallery, rather than the that more iconic institution.

And it seemed to me there was a real story here. There were no paintings in the retrospective between around 1971 and 1988. And I know enough of Mr Greenaway's personal history to plug those missing years with any manner of intriguing possible tales, but all of which point to a figure of some fascination and complexity letting their light dim, allowing themself to possibly revel in obscurity, a retreat from the public to the personal as a realm within which one derives ones very identity.

Ronald Greenaway -
(detail of) Lamp, Jug and skull (1959)

Almost none of the post-88 works had been exhibited before. Ronald had tried to get permission from the Council to operate a gallery out of his home and been refused. His house proudly displayed a brass plaque that read "Ronald Greenaway Gallery" regardless. His house was by all reports a veritable salon of artworks covering every surface. His own and his erstwhile peers' work.  

So many of those peers are celebrated for their often nebulous contributions to the lumpen body of Australian surrealist practice at the NGV's Lurid Beauty exhibition - reviewed in my next post, now closed of course - wombat timing strikes again...

Ronald Greenaway - clockwise from top left - 
Lunar Favourite
(1957), Boneyard Steeplechaser (1957), Rider (1956), Trophy for a Winner (1957)

But I have personally found it far more useful to read that exhibition in relation to someone who was never a leading exponent of the movement, but someone on whose own formative art, surrealism was an obvious and telling influence.

The story of Australian surrealism is the story of a formerly isolated and pre-modern nation being forced into modernity through the wave of globalisation ushered in by the end of the second world war. And for local artists seeking to ply their trades, this environment presented several certain and unique challenges.

The sense of isolation from Europe, or even America where things 'were really happening' was palpable. But the sense in which artistic practices still had a prominence within public discourse such that they were even capable of scandalising large sectors of society, which they certainly aren't accorded today, and in fact would not have been accorded in the same way in Europe or America at the time, was also an opportunity.

Ronald Greenaway -
Portrait of Ethel Malley,  Somewhere in St. Kilda 1943

It's difficult to imagine that the Ern Malley scandal could have been anything other than an obscure academic hullaballoo anywhere or any time other than Australia in the 1940s. It was important time in our cultural history, and the players were literal pioneers. To them we owe virtually all our significant artistic and cultural heritage.

Thirty years after Gallipoli, these diggers were needed to storm the trenches of the national mindset that could have consigned Australia to colonial backwater as the rest of the world modernised and globalised into the mid-twentieth century.

That Ronald Greenaway was flitting around the scenes of what was really the formative period for a genuine Australian and specifically Melburnian bohemia makes his story an important one. And his artwork, I would argue remains a neglected and important body from the period.

His style, particularly that of his portraiture was often highly naive (in the art terminology sense - primitivist). And he owed an obvious debt in his formative years to cubism and through that surrealism. Repressed and deferred sexuality is everywhere present in Greenaway's early work.

Ronald Greenaway -
Portrait of Maxwell Wilcox, date unknown

Greenaway appeared, as others have commented, somewhat in the thrall of fellow Melbourne painter Maxwell Wilcox, whose portrait he most numerously painted, and with whom he traveled around Papua New Guinea, the country which was famously and literally placed at the center of the surrealist 'map of the world', with Australia not far off. Exotic animals help, one suspects.

Surrealist 'map of the world'
Ronald Greenaway -
Cups and Cakes,

And his repeated invocation of anthropomorphising figures owed an obvious debt to surrealist practice, but his use of colour and form  did increasingly deviate over the course of his career ever more radically from any surrealist aesthetic, and it was this that really singled him out for contemporary critical praise from Patrick McCaughey.
"In his time, Greenaway has cultivated a bold, almost harsh manner to accomodate an obsession with violent sexual fantasies. Every painting confronts the viewer with a bright, hard surface where no quarters is asked or given. One of his most recent paintings typifies Greenaway's black humour with its strident, hectic, manner.
Frequently the basis of these fantasies lies in the elimination of the distance between human beings and physical objects; vases sprout breasts or a human being sits like a plaster cast upon a chair. All such goings on give Greenaway's work a coarse vitality which is impressive."
-Patrick McCaughey, The Age, 24 August 1968
In his later years, Ronald developed his own unique, cartoon-ish style, featuring lurid and often violently clashing colours set in extremely chaotic forms, wherein the work's formal elements manage to resolve all this inherent tension. Greenaway's later works seem poised almost to explode from their own formal chaos, with only the artist's skill in resolving it all standing between us and a formal mess. The Hoodlums of Ryan's Lane is typical of this later style.

Ronald Greenaway
- The Hoodlums of Ryan's Lane (2007)

Ronald was born in Melbourne in 1932, attended Swinburne Technical College - which grew to become today's Swinburne University, and Melbourne University, where he took an MA. Ronald became, as we have seen, a key figure on the Melbourne art scene of the 1950s, just as it was becoming invigorated by the new strands of modernism it had been exposed to during the second world war, and by waves of immigrants like the Mora clan translating their experience of European bohemia to an antipodean environ.

Ronald Greenaway
- Daffodils and Jug (1961)

The Contemporary Art Society CAS) was a formative institution in the development of modernist art practice and dissemination in Australia, and in Melbourne in particular. Founded by George Bell in 1938, all of the leading lights of Melbourne's modernist scene were members. Tucker, Boyd, Nolan, Mora. In 1954, John and Sunday Reed had reinviorated the flagging society, establishing a new headquarters at Heide.

Through these years, Greenaway served variously as President and Secretary of the CAS, as well as editing its magazine, and he was made an honorary life member in 1971. As well as the NGV, Ronald's works are represented at Swan Hill and Newcastle Galleries.

Ronald Greenaway's contribution to the emergent, and reinvigorated Melbourne art scene in the post-war years was both significant and enduring. This author looks forward to a day when this fact is more commonly known and remembered.

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