Cover image of the review
Colin Colahan, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, 1929, oil on canvas mounted on board, 46.4 x 38.5 cm, Art Gallery of Ballarat. Bequest of Maud Rowe 1937. Copyright the Estate of Colin Colahan

Light + Shade: Max Meldrum and his followers

1 Oct 2022
Art Gallery of Ballarat 21 May - 15 Oct 2022

The work of Max Meldrum—and the circle of artists who adopted his tonalist theory of painting in the decades after the First World War—tends to be both ever-present and also unknown. His theory was a provocative and appealing avenue for artists that became a major component of Australian arts culture in the inter-war period. The method rejected all drawing and design stages, painted directly from observation through squinted eyes and predominately executed on board (valued for its sturdy flatness). The resulting works, informal and realistic, at times inadvertently border on abstraction. Outlines were forbidden and large masses of unbroken colour often dominate, while clusters of dissolving tonal shades and single brushstrokes provide the few points of detail and definition.

Although consistently present in Australian art historiography and included in permanent collections as timepieces, they have been increasingly remote in mainstream understandings of Australian art since Meldrum’s death in 1955. Indeed, as far as I am aware, the last time Meldrum himself was the subject of an exhibition by one of the major institutions was at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1961. The retrospectives of the Meldrum circle that do inevitably come around tend to be hosted at regional or private galleries.

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