We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit

James Gleeson1940

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne, Australia

This painting is a seminal early work by Gleeson. It was exhibited in 1940 in the 2nd Contemporary Art Society exhibition where it received the joint award for the most outstanding work. Stylistically and iconographically indebted to Salvador Dali, the disintegrating face presents an emotionally charged metaphor for the corrosion of the world and the human mind as a result of war. Gleeson’s subsequent wartime paintings were to become more confronting in their use of imagery.

James Gleeson, born in 1915, became Surrealism’s most prominent practitioner and advocate in Australia. In the late 1930s Gleeson studied at the East Sydney Technical College and the Sydney Teachers College where he had access to a large library of art books and journals, although he considered that ‘I was born a Surrealist.’ For Gleeson, the war and Surrealism were inextricably linked, and he later said: ‘For a while, especially during the war years, I did think of Surrealism as a revolutionary weapon. I accepted Breton’s contention that by utilising the subconscious one could arrive at a condition that held the rational mind in balance and perhaps prevent such disasters as war, indifference or fanaticism.’ (James Gleeson, interview with Lou Klepac, in James Gleeson: landscape out of nature, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 1987, p.14).

Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia


  • Title: We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit
  • Creator: James Gleeson
  • Creator Lifespan: 21 November 1915 - 20 October 2008
  • Creator Nationality: Australian
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Northbridge, Sydney, New South Wales
  • Creator Birth Place: Hornsby, Sydney, New South Wales
  • Date Created: 1940
  • Physical Dimensions: 40.7 x 51.3 cm (Unframed)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Anonymous gift, 1941, =A9 National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Provenance: Exhibited Contemporary Art Society, 1940, no. 68; joint winner, with Eric Thake, of Contemporary Art Society Acquisitive Prize, 1940; anonymous gift to the National Gallery of Victoria, 1941.
  • Additional information: Surrealism was officially born in Paris in 1924 with the publication of French poet and intellectual André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism. For the Surrealists, the exploration of the unconscious mind, as pioneered by Freud, was a way to liberate the imagination from the dominance of reason. While the 1920s are considered the high-point of Surrealism in France, the 1930s saw a resurgence of interest in Surrealism in the English speaking world. In Australia, Surrealism became a force in Australian art during the years of the Second World War.

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