Tucker's art dealer and friend said of one series of his works, that he dealt not in prettiness, but unsettling truths . The same could be applied to most of his life's work. Throughout his lifetime, Albert Tucker's work represents a reactive response to the issues and the environment surrounding him. Often difficult and abrasive, the work reflects the artists struggle to come to terms with a society he was at odds with, with whom he did not share a moral ground.
Born 1914, during the depression, Tucker was the youngest of three children. His family background appears to have very little relevance to his career as an artist except for an uncle on his mother's side who allowed the children to experiment with his paints. Tucker left school in 1929 at 14 years of age, wining a scholarship to a commercial art school, which provided his income through the depression. Unable to afford art school he was determined to train himself and from 1933 -1939 attended the Victorian Art Society's life drawing classes where his first works were exhibited. Even at this point of his career, Tucker looked upon his passion as a hobby. It wasn't until meeting of Russian born artist Danila Vassilieff who arrived in Melbourne in 1937, and Jewish refugee painter, Yosl Bergner in 1938 that inspired Tucker to believe that despite his background, his poverty and he could also make a career out of his work.
He set about making his own paints, always experimenting. Though influenced by surrealism and expressionism movement prevalent in the 40s, he was not bound by rules. Outstanding amongst his peers, noticed by teachers at the Art Society, he soon gained the attention of Herald Art Critic - Basil Burdett and other powerbrokers of the Melbourne art world.
It was at this point that his talent was spotted by Sunday and John Reed, and his involvement with the Heide homestead and his association Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and other major figures of a generation of Melbourne artists began. Part of this esteemed group was fellow artist Joy Hester, who became his wife. Under the patronage of the Reeds, Tucker was encouraged and supported.
Feeling for the first time, despite the differences of ideologies and beliefs, very much a part of a like-minded group. Tucker also wrote for the publication, Angry Penguins, 1941-1946, edited by Max Harris and John Reed. It existed in Melbourne as the principal outlet for the expression of avant-garde ideas. In 1942, Tucker enlisted in the Army and was sent to Wangaratta training camp, where he was asked to sketch medical diagrams. He was then drafted to Heidelberg Military Hospital, where he was required to draw the wounds of the of patients. These 'scenes of horror' surface in his works, Explorers and Antipodean Heads. In 1942, Tucker was discharged from the army, returning to a Melbourne he did not recognise and did not like.
The scenes he took in of Melbourne, and especially of Melbourne night life gave rise to the Images of Modern Evil series, 1943-1947. A city, which he felt, demonstrated a total collapse of simple morality. He described his feelings of shock and outrage, particularly to see schoolgirls trotting home from school only to reappear donned in miniskirts made out of Union Jacks and American flags heading off for a wild night in St Kilda. His works depicting scenes of drunken Australian and American soldiers and the 'victory skirts' of the women.
In 1947, Tucker left Australia for Japan as an art correspondent attached to Australian Army, required to draw the devastation he saw there. It was on his return to Australia, that he separated from Joy Hester. Hester, who had a son, Sweeney in 1945, was shortly married. It was with a certain amount of bitterness that Tucker left for Europe in September of 1947. He was to spend the next thirteen years away from Australia.
Tucker spent 1947 till 1958 in England and Europe; the stay giving rise to a fresh new series of monstrous prostitutes and troubled religious paintings. His arrival in New York in 1958 saw a switch in his work from city to outback. Just over a decade away from Australia at this time, Tucker was homesick but still disgusted by the society he had left behind. At this time works of Sidney Nolan and Russel Drysdale had drawn international critical attention with various scenes of the Australian bush. Tucker rejected what he saw as nationalistic landscape painting. He depicted the outback as a harsh and sterile wasteland, overturning stereotypes of heroic convict and exploration tales. His Kelly Gang works and his Explorers series with their harsh colours and distorted features, depict an outback that is completely inhospitable. The work Burke and Wills from this series was the second of his works to be included in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art, the first being Luna Landscape that gained him international recognition. The purchase of Antipodean Head that same year was the first Australian work to be acquired by Guggenheim Museum.
In 1960, Tucker received the Kurt Geiger Award from the Museum of Modern Art, Australia, that payed for him to return to Australia for a retrospective of his work at Melbourne's Museum of Modern Art.He had finally started to see financial reward for his success. On return to Melbourne, he had reconciled with the country of his birth and endeavoured to use his success and knowledge to encourage the Australian Art scene both culturally and in regard to the way business of promoting and selling artwork was conducted. He took over presidency of the Contemporary Art Society, and was instrumental in getting public galleries to exhibit the more radical work of the 1940's. In 1964 he married Barbara Bilcock whom he had met in 1962.
During the next decade he was to face many personal traumas and hardships. His had on his return to Australia, formed a strong relationship with Sweeney, who had been adopted by the Reeds. Sweeney committed suicide in 1979 with the Reeds passing away within a week of each other a couple of years later. At this point he realised that many of the people who had influenced and changed his life had passed on, (his first wife Joy Hester had died in 1960). He was motivated to capture them on a medium that would immortalise them. The result was the series Faces I have met that became a publication of that title in 1986. This series, featuring many of the Heide circle, represent Tucker's shift away from the focus on Australian myth fauna and landscape and variations on themes of the Antipodean head, that dominated his work on his return from New York.
A prolific reader, an intellect interested in all areas of art and culture, Albert Tucker played a major role in igniting international interest in the Australian Art Scene and fostering art culture within Australia. For a man who simply wanted to catch people in the act of life, he surely succeeded.
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Note: This article, while covering Albert Tucker's life and work, also makes reference
to an exhibition