Leonard French

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Leonard French by Sasha Grishin.

Book Review by Sue Smith

WHEN Australian artist Leonard French turned 40, in 1968, and capped a string of triumphs with a huge coloured glass ceiling for the Victorian state gallery, a newspaper ran the headline "The year of Leonard French".

French’s ascendancy as Australia’s most prominent artist actually lasted for more than a year: he dominated the art scene for most of the 1960s, a time when his career seemed to have the unstoppable momentum of a roller-coaster ride. He garnered all the glittering prizes: awards, travel, a major solo show in London, patronage from public galleries and from wealthy and powerful individuals (carefully orchestrated by Sydney art dealer Rudy Komon, the Harry M. Miller of the 60s art scene), an OBE in 1969, and a seat on the council of Canberra’s newly created Australian National Gallery.

By 1970, however, the joy-ride had ended with an unpleasant jolt. French was attacked by critics, and condemmed to obscurity over the next twenty years as a maverick and an outsider on the Australian art scene. How did it all go so wrong for him? Was he overrated? Or is he a talented artist of integrity and individuality, who was punished for not playing the contemporary art world’s pretentious games?

Author Sasha Grishin, a Canberra academic and critic, tackles the conundrum of Leonard French in a crisply written and absorbing study, which provides a valuable overview of the artist’s work in many mediums over the past half century, and is lavishly illustrated with 153 colour plates and 32 black and whites.

Leonard French grew up in Melbourne’s industrial heartland, and at 14 became a signwriter’s apprentice, a trade which gave him his later facility in creating well-crafted, glazed and gilded pictures, and taught him to think in terms of creating large scale monumental wall pieces.

Two of French’s earliest art works were in fact large church murals, inspired by the socialist Mexican artists, Orozco and Rivera. In these, French introduces two themes which have remained central to his art as a whole: the philosophy of art at the service of the common man, and the idea of the struggle and spiritual journey of a hero - a quest which could be applied to all individuals in search of a path through life.

The monumental glass, mural and tapestry commissions for churches, universities and libraries continued into the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but as Grishin’s book reveals, they are only part of an oeuvre that includes paintings with diverse allegorical humanist, religious and political themes.

The artist can be seen evolving throughout his career: drawing themes from literature (from the "Iliad" to James Joyce), absorbing the lessons of the Mexican muralists, Leger and early Celtic art, then later turning to the rawness of primitive art - but always remaining true to his own view of man and the universe. After the simple abstract works of the 1960s which celebrate life and creation, we see a dramatic shift in the work of the 70s and 80s - when French abandons his repertoire of optimistic emblematic symbols in favour of bleak, psychologically charged, figurative compositions, marked by the senseless violence that has torn through late 20th century societies.

Most would agree that French is a master of brilliant luminous surfaces and at his finest possessed of a a powerful and original mystic vision. Nevertheless, Grishin perhaps does not sufficiently acknowledge the sometimes clunky draftsmanship and windy rhetoric that at times makes the paintings seem mannered.

Yet the author is absolutely convincing when he points out the blinkered assessments of the artist by the 1960s critics (who revered French too much) and the post-modernist theory-bound 70s and 80s critics and curators, who equated glass with unintellectual craft work, and found French tedious and unschooled - the later judgements apparently reinforced by French’s withdrawal in the 70s to the country, away from the factions and ructions of the contemporary art scene.

Grishin has cut through both the early and late myths of the artist as working-class hero and simpleton, to reveal French as an interesting nonconformist whose work richly deserves renewed consideration.

Copyright ©1995 Sue Smith. Not to be used without permission of the author.

Hardcover - 168 pages (March 1996)
Craftsman House;
ISBN: 9768097914;
Dimensions (in inches): 0.81 x 11.49 x 10.31