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The sound of silence: Twentieth-century Australian tonalism
Tracey Lock-Weir

more: The sound of silence: Twentieth-century Australian tonalism

In 1940, when Basil Burdett was at the height of his aesthetic and intellectual awareness, the then Melbourne-based art critic regarded Max Meldrum's influence as more profound than that of Arthur Streeton. While today Streeton, along with Meldrum's contemporaries Hans Heysen and Margaret Preston, have become household names, any mention of Meldrum generates a polite bristled response, if any at all.

Like his contemporaries, Meldrum was a talented painter who avidly promoted his exhibition work, yet he stands apart for pioneering the tonalist painting movement and for promoting ideas about perception through teaching and publishing. The movement was potentially fraught because of its conceptual complexities and also Meldrum's abrasive personality. Over time it became unfairly maligned, developing into what could be regarded as the elephant in the room of twentieth-century Australian art. Even the formative explorations into Meldrum's tonalism by some of Australia's most important twentieth-century artists such as Lloyd Rees, Roy de Maistre, Roland Wakelin, Arnold Shore and Elioth Gruner are rarely given deserved recognition, and subsequently remain relatively little-known. As tonalism fell into obscurity, so Meldrum's reputation went with it.

Tonalism's radically modest and quiet qualities were overshadowed by more fashionable genres, such as narrative and landscape painting, however a significant factor in its marginalisation has been its confusion with the long western art tradition of tonal painting. Tonal painting was popular around the turn of the twentieth century, coinciding with a renewed appreciation of the dark-toned seventeenth-century subjects of Velasquez and Rembrandt. A low-toned descendent of this was the dominant form of painting subsequently taught in Melbourne, whereby the painted surface was progressively and slowly built up, working in part from dark to light - seen typically, for example, in the early work of Margaret Preston, Hugh Ramsay and George W. Lambert.

Australian tonalism is fundamentally different. Best understood as a painting system, it involves no under drawing and is based on the rapid and direct recording of tonal impressions (generalised massed areas of light and dark) onto the canvas in the order the impressions meet the eye. Its intention is to create spatial depth so as to appear as an exact illusion of nature. It is a spontaneous, perceptual and responsive form of painting, as opposed to traditional tonal painting, which is craft-based and measured.

Thus, rather than appearing highly detailed and photographic, tonalist paintings are more generalised and identified by a soft-focus, atmospheric aesthetic. The blocked-in tonal transitions in many of these paintings are also sometimes slow to unfold and demand time and physical distance from the viewer (six metres) as the fields of tone optically shift and lock into focus to create the desired three-dimensional illusionary effect within a unified tonal pitch.p&t;

This article appears in excerpted form. You can read the entire article in Art & Australia's Autumn 2009 issue.


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