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