State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 64 Spring 1999


Reflections on Life and Art by John Yule

[John Yule (1923-1998) lived a life devoted to art: as painter, as teacher of painting; and as occasional art critic. He wrote passionately about art in his contributions to magazines, ranging from Angry Penguins Broadsheet in 1946 to Art Monthly Australia in 1990, and in his much-admired book, The Living Canvas, Right and Wrong Roads into Art, published by Melbourne University Press in 1986. At the time of his death he was working towards a second book, in which the circumstances of his own life would be the frame for sustained reflection on artistic creativity. He described the work-in-progress as ‘part history, part autobiography, and part ethics’. Draft manuscripts intended to form the basis of sections of the book are among his papers which are at present lodged in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of Victoria. It is hoped that an edited selection of the manuscripts will be published eventually. The La Trobe Journal is privileged to publish the following passages from the manuscripts. We gratefully acknowledge the permission of the copyright holder, Pauline Carroll, and the assistance of Lawrie Groom, a pupil and friend of John Yule, who helped to prepare the catalogue of the Memorial Retrospective Exhibition held at the Victorian Artists Society Galleries in July-August this year.- Editor]

We, Then

Like Ghosts out of niches we emerged each weekday afternoon, floated invisibly through the city crowds to converge on Ristie's Coffee Lounge, our coven.
Secretly we'd huddle round our table — what were the 3 Maxes reading (Harris, Dunn, Nicholson)? What obscure and incredible films had anyone seen? What communiqué from ‘Open Country’ or ‘Montsalvat’? Who was the dark, smashing brunette seen with Tom (or was it with Erik Schwimmer)? Who'd seen the latest copy of L'Oeil? Danila's new show in Sydney had just opened. Peter had seen it. Terrific paintings — no sales though. Would it be coming to Melbourne? Had anyone heard from Neil? And in a corner Bert [Tucker]would be arguing fiercely with Horst Weiss about Sartre or Stalin.
It was essentially male-orientated — girls were prey to be stalked, conquests to be boasted about. Girls had to be pretty, had to be willing and ‘liberated’, were assumed to adore not so much art as artists, not so much original ideas as intense feelings — especially feelings of unbridled enthusiasm for us marvellous males and our creative products.
There was a telepathy in those Ristie's days. With me it had to do with one Jean Langley. I had a close affinity with Jean, the sort of linkage identical twins are said to exhibit. Her tastes ran parallel to mine, her assessment of people was usually identical to my own. We could talk for hours & hours, all through a day, and be in
harmony at all stages. So, on several quite separate occasions I would find myself in the heart of the city and suddenly I would say to myself ‘Jean’ and I would experience a powerful feeling she was near, that she was also in the city somewhere and that in a moment I would see her. And, 20 minutes or an hour later there she was, standing and waving. Did it mean I'd caught a millionth of a second glimpse of her earlier and that had triggered my thought stream? It's impossible to say, but it was only with her it ever happened and it happened at least a half dozen times, so it seemed to have a genuine reality.
I had a rather similar, but different, experience which ran this way. One night I had a vivid dream of myself and a lynx (a caracul). The next day I opened the afternoon newspaper and there on the front page was the photo of a lynx and the accompanying story: it had just been installed in our Zoo. How did my dreaming self know this in advance? I went to the Zoo and sat for a long time looking at the lynx, who seemed to find my presence somewhat boring. Like the pig he eventually got up and slowly walked away.
In those coffee lounges I was being force-fed an ultra-rich diet of ideas. Day after day, month after month, I was drowning in new ideas, new thinkers: Kierkegaard's hypnotic, hermetic, fantastic argumentativeness on religeo-moral issues, Sartre's simplification of all this (simplification to the point of tepidness), Rimbaud, Valéry, Eliot, Pound — all powerful individualized poetic personalities, Rilke, Hölderlin, Thomas, Spengler's catastrophic vision of History. Ducasse's nightmarish hallucinations and against them the tuxedoed franticness of Scott Fitzgerald.
It seared the soul. It was more powerful than heroin, but equally addictive. We were drunk and intoxicated 24 hours a day on ideas, ideas, ideas. We talked and talked incessantly because we were refashioning our thought-channels, rebuilding our minds. We were substituting one universe for another. We were reconstituting the very shape and fabric of our being. These were parallel worlds we were at work on: the data remained much the same, the items of the external world. But we used items our tutors had ignored (the stones rejected by the mason), welded them to familiar items so as to produce unprecedented visions of how life was, how it could, should, must be lived — how it must be lived if we were to ever harmonize the assembly of things we insisted were the necessary bases of truth. Or more accurately, our separate truths. This was the Protestant ethic pushed to a frantic extreme — each man or woman had to forge his or her own personal coordinates in a totally free-choice market of fundamental concepts. No one could prove their choice of ideas was correct — only that they were correct for them. Your universe was from that point on no longer ever quite the same universe as mine. Lonely, frightening, fearfully dangerous stuff.
To avoid going mad none of us thought too long or too hard on all this, no one tried to codify or analyze it at length. We drank down the overproof spirit and bathed in the euphoria — and painted our pictures or wrote our poems as the spirit moved us. And it moved us continually in those days, and we were busy as can be and this saved us, saved our sanity — we processed all the input, randomly, impassionedly, ceaselessly.

John Yule at the rear of Notre Dame, Paris, in 1975. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Carroll.

Was I?

Was I a member of the Antipodean Movement? Certainly not. I was an adoptee of the Boyd Group.
I was ‘adopted’ by Doris Boyd. She set her imprimatur on me. And, implicitly, her family agreed. Arthur agreed, David agreed — and each concretized that agreement by buying several of my paintings over the years.
Whatever I was when first I met this group, in 1945, it was something fundamentally compatible to their outlook. And as the years rolled on nothing I did seriously interfered with that compatibility. I breathed the same air, I held a very similar ethos. They and I, we understood each other.
I was never a central figure to their group. I had close affinity but there were essential differences. I exhibited alongside them at Contemporary Art Society group exhibitions but so did Ossie Hall, so did Peter Burns, so did a dozen other names that cannot be called central. It is exactly the same situation if you look at the original French Impressionists: looking down the list of contributors to their shows you come upon all manner of names you know nothing of at all. Degas was notorious for
insisting friends of his be included, whose pictures have not stood the test of time. And all the others, similarly. Our one Australian collaborator, John Peter Russell, produced some splendid Impressionist canvases but they never appear in any book on the Impressionists.
So I was not an Antipodean. I was not an Angry Penguin. But if you look at my paintings it is apparent that they arise from the same ambience — then veer off on a track of their own: as, for example, Cezanne, Gauguin & Van Gogh each veered off on a track of his own after firstly painting orthodox Impressionist works. So you could if you like call me a post-Antipodean or a post-Angry Penguin.
But it won't do. The central thing which the Antipodeans and Angry Penguins did (more or less the same people comprise each group) was never what I centrally did. When John Perceval painted his Williamstown seascapes the inner feel he conveys is not at all dissimilar to paintings I have done. I even possess still a small oil I did at Williamstown which, absolutely unintentionally, ended up looking exactly like a Perceval. It could readily be passed off as one, did it not bear my signature, not his. But when he conceived such works as the Angels, or the group of Expressionist Night paintings, or his reminiscences of early childhood & its terrors, I have nothing similar to bring forwards by comparison. Above all the Penguins and Antipodeans concentrated on man and woman as the central motif for their pictorial representation — the inner struggle of the human psyche in its tormented determination to establish a 20th century equilibrium, given the vast ‘new’ destructive & undermining forces which beset life's way. Bunyan's Pilgrim had a dead-easy track to pursue compared to any present-day seeker after ultimate truth — or so the Antipodeans would have us believe.
All of which never concerned me over much. The deeply fundamental thing which increasingly beset my mind was the bond between earth, rock, plants and ourselves. I understood that bond. I felt it intensely in my bones, at my nerve ends. Nature (mineral & vegetable nature) spoke to me, just as distinctly as it did to Moses.
I saw the answer to modern man's problem in nature. Modern man's problem is that he (and she) is out of step with nature and so the answer can never come by studying man — the thing which is out of step. What we need to study and pay heed to is the huge ecological cycles and balances of nature: much abused nature which most civilized men think of as merely to be used, consumed, thrown away. On the contrary!

The 1940s Movement

Talking About Jung, Meier says of the Burghölzi Clinic, ‘we try to create the atmosphere within which the unconscious can speak’.
This is a key phrase.
The 1940s movement was a movement, a coherent event, in this sense. In it the conditions were established within which the unconscious could speak and did
speak. One good source of this was the Boyd household at ‘Open Country’ in Murrumbeena. Both mother and father of this family were strong-minded individuals who had their own private vision of what a work of art is and should be, a vision arrived at intuitively and promulgated without fuss, with no secrecy, with no awkwardness. They simply painted their own variety of unconscious image, the image which welled up out of them. How, we will perhaps never know. What was the atmosphere in which they found their unconscious selves speaking? We do not know, but we do know that by openly evidencing their respective visions they induced an atmosphere inspiring first their children, particularly Arthur, to let flow a series of unfettered, unconventionalized imagery. And with their work ongoing, with Arthur's works starting to flow, with the affiliation of John Perceval's work and the occasional flashes from Guy, David and from the small but highly significant stream of outsiders — Nolan, Tucker and so on — a real and cohesive movement did emerge. It was reinforced and extended by the influence and atmosphere created by the Reeds at Bulleen, and by Neil Douglas at Bayswater.
I experienced it personally. I'd already produced images in poems which were purely out of my unconscious. My enforced isolation as a child had done this for me. When I found Martin Smith and Neil responding to my verses, naturally I produced more — or more of them manufactured themselves, given this recognition.
And I had further proof of the absolute reality of the process, on two particular occasions. After a period in which I lost my way, lost touch with my unconscious, no images coming through at all, I went to a completely solitary job in the country — lodged in an isolated tower in forest land, scrutinizing the horizon all day looking for fires -I was, in other words, a fire watcher. My telephone was the only connection to the world. I slept in a bed at the foot of the tower. All day I was alone with the elements, and to fill in time I read Jung. Is it in any way surprising that each night was filled with powerful dreams?
On a second occasion, some time later, I agreed to let myself be (for a very short period, but nevertheless seriously) psychoanalyzed. Immediately I gave my consent to this analysis being undertaken I produced dream after dream after dream of a clearly fundamental nature, dreams such as I have never had before or since. The analyst needed them and the unconscious me knew the analyst needed them — and produced them. Many a time since then I have longed for such dreams to appear again, I have tried to induce my unconscious to speak like that again, but no, one can't achieve the goal by persistent asking.
And so too it is with painted images. The generating atmosphere of those several, linked households (between 1940 & 1950 roughly) vanished when the households vanished: the Boyd parents died and the house was sold and demolished. The Reeds, after their break with Nolan, never exerted the same pure power again and Neil's idyllic retreat at Bayswater was burnt to the ground and the property sold. All the key foxholes in the city were closed down one by one and no replacements were ever forthcoming.


Nolan's Images seem to be primal but they don't have the primal power of Grünewald, the complex elegance of Giorgione or the sophisticated aesthetic control of Braque.
So the use of the word ‘primal’ is not very helpful.
‘You've got to scribble, Neil’, he said to painter Douglas. ‘Scribble’ means chaos of the internal volcanic kind, meaningful, potential-charged chaos. This erupts on to the canvas and imagery is bent to fit into that chaos. Protonatural forms.
(Sunday Reed's greatest triumph is in recognizing immediately this strange child-man's value as a visionary.)
‘Inspired trivia’ is Tucker's assessment of the early works.
When one comes to think of it, it is extraordinary how he can chaosize the mundane. He looks at houses and sheds, all manner of commonplace drab artefacts and runs them through some high power furnace in his brain and they melt and transmogrify into primitive degenerative versions of their former selves, soft objects which bend plastically into the primordial glue he has set up as his ‘field’ for that particular picture. Actually it is the same glue for every picture, the Nolan glue Mark I. I don't think there ever was a Mark II.
The shapes he makes, the plasticine buildings and plasticine people, are haptic projections. In haptic imagery the sense of touch fabricates the contour. You feel the contour in the sense that your pencil or brush puts down only what your finger knows about that shape — you put down the same shape as you would form in plasticine with your eyes closed. Now your finger-memory is nowhere near as detailed as your retina-memory. Your finger impatiently disregards toes and fingers, eyelashes and shoelaces.
Nolan's ‘First Class Marksman’ exemplifies what I am talking about. The hand holding the rifle is astonishingly deformed. It is a puppet-glove stuffed with wadding, boneless, just several tubes or short thick spaghetti-coloured tentacles awkwardly attempting to clamp on to the rifle barrel. When he said the words ‘man holding rifle’ this was the best his image-formation centres in the brain could come up with.
[Texts transcribed by Sandra Burt and edited by John Barnes, assisted by Pauline Carroll, from the originals in the John Yule Papers, La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.]