Nigel Thomson's work routinely generated the kind of responses that many avant-garde artists have dreamed about. Take, for instance, a review by Ted Snell, of Thomson's 1982 exhibition at Quentin Galleries, in Perth, in which he found the subjects of Thomson's paintings to be: 'an unpleasant mixture of violence, callousness, insanity, terror and anxiety.'1 The adjective, 'unpleasant' is a redundancy, but it helps convey the depth of the critic's distaste. Where other artists set to shock and offend, only to be praised for their boldness and honesty, Thomson managed to shock and offend - usually to the detriment of his own acceptance and advancement.
Thomson's peripatetic career is one of the most paradoxical in Australian art. As an exacting realist, he painted in a style that has wide appeal, but specialised in disturbing and provocative subjects. He achieved great prominence and notoriety, but public galleries have been reluctant to acquire his work. It was possible to read his images as a form of social commentary, but there were too many suggestions of sadism and black humour to draw any comfortable political interpretations. Above all, his painstaking super-realism did not conform to the prevailing stereotypes that make simplistic equations between style and substance. In this schema, realism is seen as implicitly conservative - the work of an artist who values tradition over innovation, and has social and political attitudes to match. Yet the slightest attention to Nigel Thomson's work, shows that he was no more a conservative than he was a radical. He was a dogged individualist, who set out to identify and undermine the aesthetic, social and political clichés that dominate our everyday lives. Neither does he fit the description of a 'Photo-realist', a title that refers primarily to American artists such as Richard Estes and Chuck Close, who painted laborious, deadpan slices of life based on photographs. Although Thomson made frequent use of a camera, he was a dramatic, theatrical painter who insisted that without a strong sense of content a picture was nothing more than an exercise in empty, technical virtuosity.
There was a strong intellectual scaffolding behind Thomson's work, but it was very different to the framework of ideas upon which prevailing ideas of contemporary art have been built. This framework was fabricated during the heyday of modernism. It sees art as a process of continuous revolution, with one spectacular innovation succeeding another. It accepts that gestures which are revolutionary in terms of form and style have commensurate (usually non-specific) political implications- as though a monochrome painting might strike a telling blow against bourgeois society. Needless to say, this kind of thinking is empty and dated: an affectation of the middle-classes, rather than a riposte.
The idea of an avant-garde should have ended with the cold war, but it has persisted far longer. Nowadays, there are few people who look to Communism for a model for a better world, but an expanding subclass of arts professionals who queue up to welcome every new gimmick as though it had life-changing implications. However, when every form of institutional resistance has abated, when museums are actively seeking out the most avant-garde works, then the modernist mind-set becomes a caricature of itself. Like a crazy mirror, one must read every gesture in reverse: the blandest, most minimal works must possess the deepest significance; the most slapdash must denote the greatest quotient of genius; commercial success is attained by the most severe critics of capitalism. On the other hand, artists whose work demonstrates a high degree of technical skill and patient application, are seen as throwbacks to another age.
This is precisely where Nigel Thomson set himself against the Zeitgeist. Each of his paintings was meticulously planned, built up from small studies and photographs, in time-honoured fashion. Yet the content of Thomson's work was more challenging than that of any salon avant-gardist. Thomson was not content to merely strike attitudes or signpost his awareness of topical issues, he aimed to short circuit the comfortable relationship between art and life, to jolt the viewer out of his or her complacency by providing an image that was realistic enough to command instant recognition, but disturbing in its deeper implications. Thomson was a thinker, with broad, humanitarian sympathies, fired by a slow-burning anger at human hypocrisy. He was a fearless artist, willing to confront or offend his audience if it seemed necessary. His pictures display many shades of satire and tragedy, but he aimed to never let the viewer off the hook. In front of Thomson's paintings one often feels like a voyeur, fascinated by a scene of perverse sexuality or violence. His works can be simultaneously compelling and slightly repulsive, since he invites us to interrogate our own attitudes and perhaps, our self-deceptions.
This may be part of the standard rhetoric for many iconoclastic artists, but in Thomson's case such claims have stood the tests of experience. Compared to an artist such as Juan Davila, who goes out of his way to defile the supposedly sacred icons of Australian culture, Thomson took a more ambiguous approach. Many of his works are unashamedly beautiful, even seductive, with surfaces that lure the eye even when the mind resists. Where Davila uses a crude Pop art style, littered with abrasive slogans, Thomson provided a cool illusion of reality. One might extend the comparison to an artist such as Albert Tucker, who described himself as a moralist, and practised a self-conscious form of social criticism in his powerful series of the 1940s, Images of Modern Evil. Rarely, if ever, would Thomson, have made such direct statements. He was a critic without a reforming program, who looked at the gruesome and bizarre aspects of everyday life. Like the Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, who would draw the most extreme subject matter from the stories he read in the newspapers, Thomson was a Zeitungsfesser - a devourer of news who would dramatize his gleanings as works of art. When the viewer thinks: 'Such things should not be happening', then he or she has become the critic. Thomson's role was to provide the keenest illusion of reality, so as to heighten the impact of the work. The artist may have approved or disapproved, may have been motivated by compassion or sadistic pleasure, but it was important that his actual views were not allowed to disturb the perfect ambiguity of the image. In many instances, his imagery is so extreme that it goes over-the-top, inspiring an unease and tension that leads to the release-mechanism of laughter.
Thomson was critical of his own failures and shortcomings, perhaps too critical. He destroyed a large body of work and talked contemptuously of many earlier paintings, describing them as acts of undergraduate humour or potboilers. Alongside the more provocative works, one sees signs of an intelligent and sensitive artist with a sympathy for loneliness and disability. This is most evident in his portraits of Manoly Lascaris, Barbara Blackman and Chandler Coventry, the latter two winning the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Ironically, Thomson had begun to paint more mature, poetic and elegiac images in the years before he was diagnosed with cancer. As the disease took hold, he felt bitterly cheated, as though fate had robbed him of the best years of his career - those years when he would have moved more dramatically into the forefront of Australian art.
In a set of hand-written memoirs, Thomson lays great emphasis on the hardships endured during his career as a painter, but this is not recounted in a maudlin or self-dramatizing tone. As his own worst critic, Thomson was prepared to blame his problems on personal stupidity, and his successes on luck. He views his life as a black comedy, a rake's progress in which the rake resembles Voltaire's naive hero, Candide, rather than Hogarth's ambitious young chancer.
Thomson was born on 30 November, 1945, into middle-class life in Mosman. He had no relationship with his father, who separated from the family while the artist was still very young, but the artist lays no emphasis on this fact. 'My father.' he says, '- I don't know too much about him . . .'2 He remained on good terms with his elder sister, Rosanna, and with his mother, who would often lend him money as he lurched from one financial crisis to the next.
Thomson was a shiftless adolescent who hated school - 'that loathsome and fearful place'. He drew nudes in the margins of his textbooks and for six months, took evening drawing classes at the Julian Ashton Art School at the Rocks. He left school immediately after the intermediate certificate, at the age of fifteen, and within a year had found a part-time job in the advertising department of David Jones. That was in 1962, when pubs like the Royal George were frequented by members of the Sydney Push and other would-be Bohemians. Thomson and his friends sat nervously on the sidelines, listening to the flamboyant talk, watching the theatrics, the bar room brawls and arrests.
After six months Thomson left David Jones and found work with an advertising agency. Six months later, he left that job and went travelling, with no specific purpose other than the search for adventure. Upon returning home from far North Queensland, he was still clueless as to what he would do with his life. It was his mother who suggested that he return to art school, specifically to Ashton's, and sent him to see Paul Delprat, a nephew of Richard Ashton, who taught at the school. At first meeting, Thomson thought he was standing in front of a madman. 'Delprat was an unsettling sight, his eyes were large and bulged somewhat wildly, his forehead leonine and framed by dark, uncombed hair which stuck out at different angles . . . Inside his studio there were, floor-to-ceiling - everywhere - nudes and nudes and nudes.'3
This was the time when Paul Delprat's fleshy drawings of the nude had been used by Michael Powell in his film, The Age of Consent, based on Norman Lindsay's pantheistic novel. In the film, James Mason plays a modern painter who abandons the decadent abstract style that had made him famous - represented by the abstracts of John Coburn! - and retires to a tropical island where he encounters the young Helen Mirren as an erotic spirit of nature. Soon he begins producing Paul Delprat's Rococo nudes, reversing the conventional direction of artistic 'progress' in a manner than has some affinities with Thomson's career. Despite a few attempts at abstract painting in the early 1960s, Thomson found he was obsessed with correct drawing and with detail. His work progressed in the sophistication of his subjects and compositions, but his actual style remained hyper-realistic. This would generate a life-long debate between those who recognized the severe, contemporary nature of his motifs, and those who saw his style as fundamentally reactionary - a remnant of another age.
Delprat encouraged Thomson in his studies, and at the age of seventeen he started at the Julian Ashton school. 'It was a revelation,’ he writes. 'Bustling hither and thither were all these people my age or so, arty-looking types in cords and straggly beards, good-looking girls - and that smell! [of fresh paint, turps and oily rags] . . . the hoopla of being an aimless teenager was over. I now intended to be an aimless adult artist.'4
The Ashton school would be important for Thomson, and he speaks fondly of it in his memoirs, while allowing for its shortcomings and moribund phases. He appreciated the instruction of the venerable Henry Gibbons, who provided a link to George Lambert and the other illustrious alumni of the school. At Ashton's, Thomson would meet lifelong friends such as Max Miller, and learn skills that would prove permanently useful in an era that witnessed the rampant de-skilling of art education.
'The Ashton school never taught ART; they taught, instead, an adherence to the academic skills of solid drawing and tonal painting. It was a real Beaux-arts and Salon education, Rembrandt was on everybody's lips. It was musty, dusty, in places gloomy and nineteenth century. I loved it!’5
In time, Thomson would return to teach at Ashton's, passing on those same academic skills to a new generation of aspiring artists who still felt the need of an unfashionable grounding in studio technique. But this was a long way into the future. Upon graduating with a diploma after two years, his wanderlust returned and he spent two aimless years in New Zealand. Returning to Sydney in 1967, at the age of twenty-one, he held his first two one-man exhibitions at the now defunct Stables and Chippendale galleries. Neither show was a success, with the second recycling many of the paintings from the first. Shortly before, Thomson had received his first portrait commission, from a friend of his mother's. It was an early lesson in the problems of the genre - having to deal with a prickly, unsympathetic subject, who had to be taken to court before she handed over payment.
Thomson's next, seemingly random, move was to Perth, where he would stay five years. He went there because he 'had always wanted to', hitching a ride across the Nullabor, and arriving without a cent in his pocket. He spent the first night sleeping in a park, and then found accommodation with a Christian support family. With no documents and no qualifications that he could prove, Thomson found work as an art teacher at a secondary school in Pinjarra, fifty miles south of Perth. He clinched the job with three drawings he had worked up the night before his interview: 'a portrait of my host's daughter, a rendering of my arm and hand and a sensitively observed drawing of a cup and saucer. 'Brilliant!' exclaimed Jock the following day, 'You start Monday.'6
Thomson taught at Pinjarra for two years, before moving to Perth, and finding primitive accommodation in a double garage. This year, 1970, he describes as 'the real entrance, as it were, of myself as poverty-stricken artist.'7 He scraped together a precarious living from part-time teaching and taking private pupils. The local shops gave him credit, and he would occasionally pay for purchases with paintings or drawings. He was concentrating on 'moody landscapes with a 'man alone' theme’8 in emulation of Jeffrey Smart. He claims to have invented an art movement called 'Psychoenigmaticism', of which he was the only member.
In that year he joined the Contemporary Art Society of WA, and emerged from his first meeting as President, Treasurer, Secretary and Editor of the CAS Broadsheet- unpaid jobs that no-one else wanted. He immediately embarked on a fund-raising drive, and organized an auction at which businessmen such as Jack Bendat and Kerry Stokes picked up all the bargains.
At the beginning of 1971, Thomson conceived a great desire to be a film director. He bombarded the local ABC with phone calls and applications, and looked for a part-time job that would help him buy some rudimentary equipment. He found work as an assistant male nurse at a psychiatric hospital, and was accidentally plunged straight into the wards that housed the most extreme cases of insanity. He lasted nine weeks, recalling the experience as 'nauseating, frightening . . .' 9 Fifteen years later, it would form the basis of a powerful series of paintings set in a mental asylum, and shown at the Robin Gibson Gallery.
The ABC rewarded Thomson's persistence with a job in staging. From this minor post. he was given an extraordinary break, being allowed to shoot a five-minute fill-in - an 'interstitial' to use the correct jargon - to be shown before the seven pm news. He responded to the opportunity with an excess of enthusiasm, producing what he suspects may be 'the first surrealist film ever made in Australia .'10 This vision of zombie-like figures traipsing across a bleak landscape, holding enigmatic objects and disappearing into a hole, was not exactly what the ABC producers had in mind for a timeslot usually filled by footage of ducks floating on a pond. The film was canned, and shortly afterwards, Thomson abandoned his cinematic ambitions and the ABC.
He moved to an old theatre outside of Perth, with the same rudimentary facilities for sustaining life to which he had now become accustomed. He worked for two days a week at a Christian Brothers school, and prepared for a show at the Skinner Gallery, which in those days was 'the only real gallery in town.'11 That exhibition opened in October 1972, and consisted of 'eerie and lugubrious' landscapes of the 'man alone' sub-genre. The influences of Jeffrey Smart and Andrew Wyeth were much in evidence, but it was well-received, with six works being sold - one to an English actress named Moira Lister, who invited Thomson to contact her in London.
This was all the encouragement the artist needed to marshall his funds and set off overseas. He was lucky enough to find a studio and living space within a few days, in a row of buildings awaiting demolition. He spent nine months in that studio, listening as the demolisher's ball came gradually closer. He painted, visited exhibitions, and ornamented his downstairs shop front with jokey slogans such as 'Bureau of Psycho-Enigmatic Enquiries.'
After a fruitless approach to Fisher Fine Art, Thomson was recommended to the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, which was then in its heyday. Thomson describes Treadwell as 'not a deep thinker in art philosophy terms. Art was something which gave visual pleasure... He was a phenomenal salesman. Once he had you there was no getting away- unless you bought a picture! . . . His gallery artists were lightweight painters, decorative, humourless, like a ditty to an aria. Nevertheless, for six years Nick Treadwell sold enough of my work - very tough almost unsaleable work too - to keep me solvent and pay for several holidays, one a return trip to Australia for Christmas.'12
Looking at a pile of catalogues issued by Nicholas Treadwell it is at first hard to understand why Thomson saw the gallery artists as 'humourless'. It seems as though the garish, irredeemably tacky humour is screaming at one from work after work, like a Carry On movie set in an art gallery. There is a whimsical group show devoted to variations on the Mona Lisa, one to portraits of the Queen; there were shows devoted to bottoms and to fatness. The paintings are often highly realistic, and full of private jokes. Treadwell's face appears in one work after another, like the master impresario he undoubtedly was. At a certain point, it all begins to resemble a social club rather than a gallery – a therapy group for skillful but hopelessly unfashionable painters and sculptors. Treadwell even invented an ad hoc British art movement Superhumanism - which he promoted at international art fairs, and with special publications. It was all great fun - perhaps obligatory fun. Nowadays, to look at this procession of side-splitting antics, tits and bums, campery, working class sentimentality and exaggerated 'sensitivity', is to feel an immense sadness wafting from the page.
Thomson, who is absent from most of the group shows and catalogues, writes that he wondered over the years why Treadwell agreed to exhibit his work. 'Maybe it was the quirkiness, the black humour . . .'13 Nevertheless, it must be said that his pictures of the mid 1970s do not seem wildly out-of-step with the Treadwell aesthetic. In the first Superhumanism catalogue of 198014, Thomson is represented by six pictures: Christine and Hugo Holidaying in Scheveningen (1977) - in which a smiling couple enjoy themselves at a seaside cafe, oblivious to a screaming man with his head on fire who stands directly behind them; Mother drowning son (1976), in which a naked woman drowns her son in the bath; Untitled (Girl in a boat) (1977), featuring a naked woman adrift in a row-boat, being circled by a shark; Angela (1977), wherein a girl stares serenely at a burning cat, perched, with equal serenity, in front of her on the table; Bonjour Monsieur Thomson (1979), a submarine self-portrait, with shark in hot pursuit; and Blind (1977), a scene of comic devastation in which a group of blind lunch guests pour water on the table and accidentally stab themselves with cutlery. (One curious fact about this picture is that the model for one of the male figures was David Dale, who later became a well-known columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.)
These works come across as a mixture of the self-diagnosed 'undergraduate humour', and gimcrack Surrealism. They are representative of the 'nasty' pictures Thomson was beginning to paint - works that seemed to dare his dealer to find a prospective buyer. Of the pieces mentioned above, Mother drowning son is the stand-out, since it could easily pass for a scene of playful bathroom eroticism, were it not for the title. Once we understand the relationship between the two figures, it becomes apparent that the women is forcing her son's head under the water - perhaps as an extreme form of parental discipline. But why is she naked? There is a story here for the imaginative viewer.
This tactic was taken even further in the deadpan painting, This family has just eaten human flesh (1976), a snapshot of a happy nuclear family whose cannibalistic tendencies are exposed by the equivalent of a tabloid banner headline. One source of inspiration may be Rene Magritte, who famously wrote, Ceci n'est pas une pipe, under a picture of a pipe, making us question with our minds what seems perfectly obvious to our eyes.
As his London studio succumbed to the wreckers, Thomson left for Europe. His first stop was the Netherlands, where he was expected by Harry and Loeky van der Gluys, parents of close friends, who showed him some Dutch hospitality and helped him find a studio in Bergen aan Zee, a picturesque village three kilometres from the sea. After the grimness of London, where he felt constantly lonely, Thomson fell heavily for Holland. He stayed in Bergen until the weather grew cold and the heating costs became excessive. His next move was to Rotterdam, where the local cultural organisation almost instantly found him studio accommodation. Thomson moved again, in 1974 to Den Haag, where Harry van der Gluys had bought a business and offered him accommodation for a token rent. He stayed in the city for three and a half years, teaching at the Dutch Royal Academy, and sending works to Nicholas Treadwell, to be sold and exhibited at art fairs.
Thomson felt he owed his rapid acceptance by the Academy to the fact that these were the years in which the Dutch government was actively buying work from any Dutch citizen who called themselves an artist, no matter how mediocre. 'So who would want to teach in an academy when you can get paid by the government?'15 By the mid-70s the standard of work at the Academy was so low that Thomson's academic skills took on an exaggerated value.
During those years Thomson had a demonstration of Nicholas Treadwell's abilities as a salesman, and of the very different tastes of a European audience, when a painting called Grand Prix (1976) was sold from the Basel Art Fair to a Swiss woman who ran a private home for crippled children. This large-scale work was based on a magazine photograph of a Grand prix finish line - with the wave of the chequered flag, and the excitement of the crowd. In his painting Thomson left the essential details of the photograph intact, but replaced the racing cars with racing cripples. The little man with no legs taking first place was based on an actual cripple Thomson used to see at Circular Quay.
Thomson had every reason to believe that the painting would be seen as a sick joke, but his Swiss purchaser found it 'inspirational’16, and said she would hang it in a prominent location in her children's home. Nowadays, with the prominence given to events such as the Paralympics, the idea no longer seems far-fetched.
When his friend Harry sold his business, and the work at the Dutch Royal Academy ran out, Thomson moved back to London. He saw the following nineteen months as the loneliest time of his life, in which he found it impossible 'to penetrate the English reserve'17. He carried on exhibiting with Treadwell, but found it hard to make a living. A Christmas trip back to Australia left him doubly aware of the depressing aspects of 'grey, bland, England.'18 When the prospect arose of having to find new accommodation in London, he opted to return home.
Back in Sydney Thomson went immediately on the dole, before finding work as an art master at Scots College, Bathurst. At the end of 1979 he moved to Manly, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He began by taking private pupils, and then secured part-time teaching at the Julian Ashton school, where Paul Delprat was fighting to keep the rent down and student numbers up.
It is from this point that Thomson became a significant figure in the Australian art scene, partly through his success at winning prestigious prizes, partly through the shock tactics he continued to employ in his immaculate but 'nasty' paintings. The first local art dealer to give Thomson an exhibition was Chandler Coventry, the scion of a wealthy New England grazing family who had devoted himself to the visual arts, becoming a collector of far-reaching and adventurous tastes, before taking the same outlook into the commercial gallery world. It was both a strength and a weakness of the Coventry gallery that its owner was not motivated by profit. It needed a brave dealer to show work that seemed calculated to repel customers. Yet in his first Coventry Exhibition in 1981, Thomson sold seven out of eleven pictures. There would be two more exhibitions in 1982 and 1984, but Thomson would eventually leave because he felt the gallery had become 'a rich man's hobby.'19
With Coventry, he realised 'there was little marketing, minimal promotion and unreasonable relations with his gallery staff.'20 Having had a stroke shortly before Thomson's first exhibition, being thereafter confined to a wheelchair, Coventry may have had little to smile about. Yet there are many who will testify that his negative demeanor was also a part of Coventry's personality even in his earlier days.
Thomson painted his new dealer for the 1983 Archibald Prize for portraiture, and won. The portrait of Coventry sitting alone in his wheelchair, in an empty gallery, was seen as a compassionate and sensitive work. Thomson had a slightly different view: 'I depicted Chandler alone, and by visual implication, friendless. By that time many artists had left him. The gallery was deserted.'21
Artist, Judy Cassab, was one of the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW that judged the Archibald Prize that year. In her Diaries, published in 1995, she tells how she argued strongly against the Thomson picture in favour of Keith Looby's portrait of David Coombe. 'I'd like us to be a board blazing a trail towards the twenty-first century, not one which is stuck in the nineteenth,' she said. 'I consider this choice a retrogressive step. I don't see a transformation of nature here, only imitation. What one could read into it is its literary content, not form, colour, or presence.'22
This remains a succinct summary of the usual objections to Thomson's work, if one discounts the more strident reactions to its often sensational content. But as modernism has faded into the past, so too has our automatic reverence for the concept of progress in art. What may have appeared retrogressive in 1982 seems rather less so today when there is less of an institutional hierarchy of approved styles, and a renewed interest in realism.
In what Cassab described as an 'unfortunate coincidence'23, Thomson was also awarded the Sulman prize for subject painting that year, by guest judge, Lawrence Daws. His painting, Marat, the unsophisticated will be shocked at the depiction of your death: or, the artist answers his critics (1983), was a copy of David's famous painting, The Death of Marat, which exists in several versions - one of which had recently been seen in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Thomson had stood behind a group of people who made appreciative noises at David's 'murderous work'. He imagined that these people who stood around 'admiring the bloodied knife, the bath full of blood, the wounds'24 were the same ones who would see his own works as weird or sick. His response was to repaint Marat, with the same impeccable, 'licked' surface, but to change the inscription on the piece of paper held by the dead man. Translated from the French, it read: 'Marat, the unsophisticated will be shocked at the depiction of your death.' Ultimately, the sophisticated were no less shocked. Terence Maloon, art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, opined that in this decision, 'originality, creativity and dash do not seem to have counted'.25
Thomson had 'done the double' of the 1983 Archibald and Sulman awards and re-established his presence in the local art world. Yet anyone who based their understanding of his work on the Coventry portrait or the Marat would have been misled, because most of the paintings he exhibited in the early 1980s were of the 'nasty' variety. Sometimes the nastiness was explicit, but usually it seemed to creep up on the viewer. For instance, Mrs Cynthia St Lawrence Hopeton, her son Roddy and her late husband Elliot (1980-81), which at first glance appears to be a scene from a lifestyles magazine, with palm tree, marble pergola and giant-sized swimming pool. It could be a close relation to David Hackney's brightly-coloured views of Californian swimming pools, apart from the fact that the late Elliot is floating face downwards, having apparently been shot by his wife, who still holds the gun. In an interview with Joe Eisenberg, Thomson said the painting was about marriage as 'entrapment'26, about false ideas of romance and love, and a woman who has everything except happiness. This makes it sound very simple, but the calm manner of Elliot's execution is still unsettling, suggesting this is also a comment on the cold-bloodedness of those at the top of the social tree. The same might be said about Picnic (1980-81), where a group of well-dressed men and women sit down to a meal of kitten.
A painting such as The burning question (1980/81) is a more pointed act of social criticism, showing a TV crew trying to interview a burning man, who may or may not have set himself on fire in the manner of the Buddhist monks who self-immolated in protest against the Vietnam War. It is a harsh statement on the voyeurism and sensationalism of the media, on the way human sympathies take second place to a good story.
These works might all be seen as rather extreme forays into social satire. The same cannot be said about a painting such as Bravo (1980-81) or Cliff (1980-81). The former, which was purchased by Chandler Coventry from the 1981 exhibition, is one of Thomson's most unsettling images: a muscleman, straight from the pages of a body-building magazine, stands in menacing proximity to a crippled girl in callipers, sprawled at his feet. The disparity is so striking that one immediately begins to conjure alarming scenarios. Is the girl dead? Has she been murdered by this he-man? Does the title imply that we are applauding the murder, or simply his preening narcissism which renders him indifferent to the sight of the girl? Thomson told Eisenberg that he saw the man's body as a weapon, and wanted viewers to recognize the lethal nature of those muscles. Yet the possibility remains that this juxtaposition of figures is random and innocent – the murderous implications are added, only too readily, by the viewer's imagination.
The ambiguities of Bravo are set against a calm, empty backdrop of sea and sky. The drama of Cliff, is played out in a similarly placid setting. This time it is impossible to tell whether the older figure has pushed the younger one off the cliff, or if he is reaching out in a despairing attempt at a rescue. The question hangs eternally in the air, in the same manner as the falling figure, poised perpetually on the brink of extinction.
Thomson was an intellectual painter who thought deeply about the content of a work, and its potential effect. Yet he is at his best when that content is not immediately obvious, as it is in paintings such as It's a giraffe (1981-82), a surreal comedy in which a woman seems to be giving birth to a tiny giraffe, or Hit run (1981-82), in which a group of road workers have calmly painted a white line over the dead body of a car accident victim. Such works, which send up social conventions, or highlight our increasing desensitization to the misery around us, are little more than one-liners. These works were both in the 1982 exhibition at Quentin Gallery in Perth, that set Ted Snell ranting about 'violence, callousness, insanity, terror and anxiety'.
By the time of his third and final exhibition at Coventry Gallery in 1984, Thomson's work had taken on a new and savage aspect. These paintings had a blatant sexual emphasis that Thomson would later claim was a response to the posturings of the Moral Majority, who were making inroads into the political sphere on a platform of family values, censorship and anti-abortion. As responses go, it was vehement: two paintings, Loss of innocence (1983-84) and Bored girl (1983-84) were based on images taken from hard-core pornography. In the latter, a young girl watches the sexual activities of two adults, presumably her parents, with an air of supreme ennui, as though she is waiting for them to finish so she can watch television or go out for a pizza.
The three most powerfully ambiguous works in the exhibition could be considered just as inflammatory today as they were twenty years ago. Frightened girl (1983-84) features a naked pre-pubescent girl, standing in the corner of a bare room. Why is she frightened? One thinks, inevitably, that she is being threatened with sexual violation. In On the way home from school (1983-84), a sinister-looking redneck with a chainsaw poised like an erection, is eyeing off a school girl who passes him on a lonely dirt track. Once again, there are clear implications of rape and murder, although the scene could - just conceivably - be perfectly innocent. In the third work, Children's rites (1981-82), a group of small naked children dance around a naked man tied to a pole. This time, there is nothing metaphorical about the erection, although one could argue that it is a result of being asphyxiated by a neck restraint, rather than sexual excitation. Either way, it was - and is - a painting that seems designed to cause an explosion of moral panic. Indeed, since the work was first exhibited, there has been such an enormous outcry against paedophilia and child pornography that Thomson's image continues to skate on the thinnest of thin ice.
The painting was adapted from a photograph found in one of those nudist magazines such as Health and Efficiency, that try so conspicuously to portray an impression of good clean fun. All wholesome intentions aside, in a more prudish age these magazines were used as a form of popular pornography. Thomson has taken the sexual implications to their limits with an image that suggests a group of not-so-innocent children taking some form of pagan revenge on a would-be paedophile. The pun on 'rites' and 'rights' is a way of saying that the children have exceeded even the most liberal interpretation of their rights, turning into the little barbarians we have met before in stories such as Lord of the Flies.
Children's rites was the subject of a censorship scandal in December 1984, a couple of months after its first appearance in the Coventry exhibition. Thomson entered the work in the Sulman Prize for subject painting at the Art Gallery of NSW, and it was chosen to be hung by that year's judge, Arthur Boyd. The gallery Director and Trustees had different ideas. Anticipating a public outcry, they withdrew the work from the show, even after it had been listed in the catalogue. Judy Cassab's Diaries record her feelings when the decision was made to the pull the work: 'although censorship in art is abhorrent, I couldn't defend this painting with its sado-masochistic connotations connected to child pornography.'27 This view is probably representative, because there were few people who felt that the Trustees had acted unreasonably. In this bleakly comic piece of provocation, Thomson had bumped up against the limits of art.
In retrospect, the scandal surrounding Children's rites seems like a turning point in Thomson's career. While he still had the urge to shock and challenge his audience, he abandoned many of his 'undergraduate' tricks and began working systematically through particular themes and series. He left the Coventry Gallery and began exhibiting with Robin Gibson, who held promises of a more urbane and sales-driven approach. He responded with a show of paintings and drawings based on his recollections of the nine weeks spent working in a mental institution in Perth. These pictures were as grim and confronting as anything he had previously painted, but without the seemingly gratuitous sensationalism. The works were brutal, but so were the conditions inside these psychiatric prisons in which society's misfits were incarcerated. Around this time there was a series of horrifying reports in the newspapers about the conditions in mental hospitals, so Thomson's paintings managed to be both timeless and topical.
He expected the pictures would prove unsaleable, and this may have been the case, had it not been for a Melbourne doctor, who had seen an ABC television report on the show and raced in to buy eleven out of twenty-four pieces. Thomson borrowed back the major work, State institution (1985-86), and entered it in the 1986 Sulman Prize. Guest judge, Albert Tucker, split the award between Thomson and Wendy Sharpe, leaving the artist stunned at the extraordinary success he had gleaned from the most unpromising material.
State institution depicts a grim, bare room, in which a plump doctor in a laboratory coat stares complacently at a patient slumped in front of a wash basin. The patient looks as though he has been brutalized, a fact that seems to give the doctor a sadistic satisfaction. Sunlight pours through the window, marking the contrast between the outside world and the dark, claustrophobic interior of the asylum. This time, there is no mistaking where Thomson's sympathies lie: in this work and others in the series, he is unambiguously on the side of the victim.
Thomson prepared meticulously for the mental institution series, visiting the old Callan Park psychiatric hospital in Rozelle and taking numerous photographs. He made studies of friends - and himself - in various poses that he would duplicate in the pictures. One drawing, Self portrait with bandages (1985-86), signals his debt to the camera, while playing on the paradox of a self-portrait made by an artist with bandaged eyes. It prefigures an interest in blindness that would culminate in his 1997 portrait of Barbara Blackman.
For his next exhibition with Robin Gibson, in 1988, Thomson undertook extensive research in libraries and police archives, looking into the case of Graeme Thorne, the eight-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in July 1960, shortly after his parents had won the first Opera House Lottery of £100,000. This time the artist's fatalism was justified - no eccentric doctor appeared, waving his cheque book and the paintings prove unsaleable. Thomson subsequently destroyed all but three from a series of ten, not because of a lack of commercial success, but from a niggling dissatisfaction with a series that had become a personal obsession.
Thomson viewed the Graeme Thorne case as Australia's 'loss of innocence'28, marking the transition from the comfortable days of the 1950s, when people would hitch-hike anywhere and never bother to lock their car doors, to the dangerous and paranoid world we now inhabit. The Opera House Lottery gave Australians their first taste of get-rich-quick greed, while the publicity the prize received inspired the kidnapper and murderer, Stephen Leslie Bradley, to try and extract his own share of the winnings from the Thorne family. Thomson was fascinated by the fact that this was the first time in Australia that forensics had been used to track down a murderer, suggesting that every little detail of a crime was now to be examined with scientific exactitude, and that criminals would henceforth need to make greater efforts to cover their tracks.
After seven tense weeks, Graeme Thorne's body had been discovered in a vacant lot in Seaforth, very near the home of one of Thomson's boyhood friends. Thomson realised he had walked past the spot on many occasions, even while the corpse was waiting to be found. What makes the series unique, is that it was an attempt at a modern Australian form of history painting that spun out an allegory of national identity from a single tragic incident. Thomson divided his canvases into diptychs and triptychs, creating discordant juxtapositions of imagery that echoed the way information is presented in the newspapers or the television screen. He drew on archival photos, often working in stark black and white, as if to emphasize the way the Thorne case was fed to Australians as media event.
The Graeme Thorne series led Thomson on to a deeper fascination with murder and human evil. Between 1988-89 he painted a series based on the Moors Murders, in which Myra Hindley had complied with her lover, Ian Brady, in the torture and murder of a series of children, who were buried in the Yorkshire moors. This case is legendary among modern crimes, but Thomson was transfixed by the fact that in prison, Hindley had repented and embraced Christianity. The line between unspeakable evil and Christian compassion seemed disturbingly frail. As he had done with the Graeme Thorne series, Thomson divided each picture into diptychs and triptychs, only now the imagery was a mix of Christian kitsch, newspaper photos and panels that portrayed small children as victims of torture. The six paintings in the series were never exhibited, and would eventually be destroyed by the artist, who may have glimpsed the truth of Nietzsche's insight that when you stare deeply into the abyss, the abyss stares deeply into you. Whereas paintings such as Children rites were self-conscious provocations, exercises in bad taste, there was nothing stirring or funny about the Moors Murders. This was as dark as Thomson's work became, and it was never to be seen on the walls of a gallery. He told Joe Eisenberg, 'I got that out of my system. That was all to do with religion.'29
The Moors Murders paintings had a cathartic effect on Thomson, who would retain the idea of creating montages of apparently discordant images, but veer away from the bottomless pit of crime and cruelty he had been trawling for the past few years. The stock market crash of the late 1980s, which plunged the art market into despondency, made it hard for dealers to sell the dramatic and difficult work that Thomson was driven to keep making. It was four years until his next solo exhibition, with Charles Nodrum in Melbourne, and nothing sold. This was no reflection on the works, which had taken on a cinematic aspect- fragmented narratives that invited the viewer to puzzle out the full story. It seemed as though Thomson's youthful ambition to be a film director had returned, with Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch as his role models. The paintings based on the Graeme Thorne case and the Moors Murders had honed in grimly on one central story, but Thomson's works of the 1990s were bursting with ideas and themes. Thomson considered Tunnel (1991-92) to be the best painting in the Charles Nodrum show, and it was purchased the following year by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum, at a time when the artist was struggling to make ends meet.
Tunnel features a debutante in her ball gown in the left-hand panel, a gloomy brick alleyway in the central panel, and a life buoy in the right-hand panel. It may be read like a cryptic crossword, and Thomson seemed to accept that process when he took Joe Eisenberg through the work step by step: the debutante is coming out, she has her life ahead of her. The tunnel represents a possible false step, the prospect of a narrow and uncertain future. The buoy (boy?) is both a warning, and a symbol of the way one's life may drift aimlessly, tossed around by the waves of fortune.30 There are, of course, many other ways of reading the painting, and it seems unusual for Thomson to explain the work in such a precise fashion. It may be that he was willing to talk freely because he was already so ill with cancer when the interview was recorded. It may have seemed important to be clear about matters that could once have been left mysterious. It also emphasises the degree to which Thomson planned and analysed all his paintings, down to the smallest details.
During periods such as the early 1990s, when he sold and exhibited very few works, Thomson fell back on part-time teaching and portrait commissions. Ever since his success in the 1993 Archibald with the portrait of Chandler Coventry, he had been known as a skillful painter, capable of capturing a near-photographic likeness. This was the foremost requirement for most clients, until Thomson accurately painted some aspect of themselves that they did not especially like, such as a big nose. Thomson dreaded the peevishness with which many clients received a finished work, and hated to be type-cast as a portraitist. 'I'd like to think that I am going to go down in history as an artist,' he told Joe Eisenberg, 'not as a painter of portraits . . . anyone that's been to art school and been taught how to draw and paint a tonal still life can paint a portrait, anyone can do it, it's part of the trade.'31
While allowing the point, it must be recognized that Thomson's best portraits are some of his most important paintings. He may have painted a few 'pot-boilers', but he knew that a successful portrait is actually a successful painting, not merely a likeness. He painted the art world personality, Thelma Clune, in a dress as colourful as her personality, and the artist, Salvatore Zofrea in front of one of his own massive creations. He completed a cool and subtle portrait of the collector, John Schaeffer; and complex, highly original, family portraits for the businessmen, Nick Whitlam and John Bond. Perhaps the most sensitive picture he ever painted, was a 1986 portrait of his friend, the writer Kate Grenville, suckling her baby in a garden chair.
One portrait commission added to Thomson's list of scandals: a 1984 picture of the socialite, Susan Rossiter Peacock Sangster Renouf, which was intended as a present for her then-husband, racing tycoon, Robert Sangster. He painted a crisp but unsympathetic likeness, set against a glorious, sun-drenched vista of Sydney Harbour. By the time the portrait was finished and delivered, the Sangster marriage was on the rocks and the sitter had no desire to take possession of the work. As with his first ever portrait commission, it seemed as though the case was heading to court, this time under the eager gaze of the tabloid press. The case was settled before it got that far, when a patron stepped in and bought the picture.
It was portraiture that brought Thomson back into public prominence, when he won his second Archibald Prize in 1997. His portrait of Barbara Blackman was not merely a likeness, but a study of how to convey the experience of blindness - or sightlessness, to use the less pejorative term. This was a subject that had engaged Thomson in earlier, comic works such as Blind, or in his Self portrait with bandages. He made the entire surface of the picture slightly out-of-focus, as if a touch of vaseline had been applied to the camera lens (a device he would rework in a picture of that same year based on a work by J.E.Millais). Blackman stands like a statue in the centre of the work, wearing a floral print dress. Darkness seems to encroach from all sides, with further symbolism being added by some withered flowers and an empty cardboard box. But what does it mean to paint a portrait of someone who will never see the finished work? Someone who never sees their own face in the mirror? All the trivialities and vanities of portraiture are stripped away, since there is no pressing need to flatter the sensitivities of the sitter.
The Barbara Blackman is an impressive work, but probably not as impressive nor as poignant as Thomson's portrait of Manoly Lascaris that was inexplicably rejected from the 1995 Archibald hang, and exhibited in that year's Salon des Refuses at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. Manoly Lascaris had been Patrick White's long-term partner, and after the writer's death, was now living all alone in a big house in Centennial Park. Thomson was struck by the thought of what it means to be 'the partner of a great person . . . left behind and of absolutely no use to anyone once all his private letters and papers had been poured over as regards the Great Man.'32 When he went to see Lascaris he found that everything was uncannily as he had imagined it, both the big, gloomy empty house, and the lonely old man, who told him: 'Oh, no-one comes to see me now, now that Patrick's gone. No-one bothers any more.'33
When the portrait was rejected from the Archibald, it provided an awful confirmation of Lascaris's assessment of his own obscurity. The prize is supposedly reserved for 'the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics’, although this requirement has been gradually relaxed. To the judges, it seemed that Lascaris was 'nobody' - which was the way he had been known to describe himself.34 Thomson was devastated that the work did not get hung, believing it to be the most compassionate portrait he had ever painted. It is probably a more profound work than the Barbara Blackman, with a less insistent symbolism and a much simpler use of light for poetic effect. Lascaris stands in deep shadow, against the glare from a set of French doors, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his life with White. It is an unsentimental study of loss and loneliness, without parallel in Australian art.
Thomson was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, when he was painting at the top of his form, experimenting with new ideas and formats. These experiments informed many of the pictures shown in his final two one-man exhibitions, held at Annandale Galleries in 1997 and 1998, which seem like beautifully-painted intellectual exercises. He may have been feeling his own mortality, but he claimed that the Sunset series of 1996 began with the idea that people see sunsets as one of the enduringly 'nice' things that artists should paint. A sunset is no less a visual cliché than the gum trees that populate so many conventional Australian landscapes, or those sad clowns which are staples of international tourist art. Yet there is no reason why gum trees, clowns or sunsets should not generate better paintings. Thomson's sunsets are relentlessly enigmatic- a spectacular lighting device for a series of cryptic motifs. They are made more disquietening by the fact that many images are painted in tones of grey, as though they have been cut out and superimposed on these golden backdrops. They are film stills composed of impossible combinations of colour and black and white. Thomson recognises that any image set against a sunset will take on an apparently symbolic dimension, no matter whether it be a pair of hands, a horse's head, or a man wearing shorts and long socks.
The large paintings shown at Annandale Galleries one year later seemed to borrow devices and motifs from the Sunset series, but they were most probably the finished works for which the Sunsets were preliminary sketches. By this time, Thomson had already had operations for cancer of the bowel and liver, and was undergoing chemotherapy. If this had an effect on his painting it only seemed to increase his energy and ambition, as he raced to work through his ideas in the time he had left, while still hoping to overcome the disease. There is no doubt that the 1998 exhibition at Annandale was his best and most mature show, full of tough and enigmatic paintings, but free from the aggressive shock tactics that threatened to transform some of his earlier exhibitions into sideshows. A painting called Untitled (Car) (1997) turned an ordinary car under a tarpaulin, into an object as veiled in mystery as Man Ray's wrapped sewing machine. Car Crash (1993) was a kind of altarpiece, featuring a man and a woman in the side panels, and a central motif of a wrecked car. The implication was that their relationship was, or would be, nothing better than a car crash. One of the largest Untitled paintings, ended up on the cover of a 1998 issue of Art and Australia. A powerful tripartite work in red, black and white, it used the image of a naked child set against newsreel images of soldiers to reflect on the corruptions that led German culture into the cul-de-sac of twentieth century militarism and evil.
In the context of Thomson's career, the work is closely related to a painting such as Bravo, and to the Graeme Thorne and Moors Murders series, but makes its point in a more restrained and considered fashion.
One of the most striking works in that exhibition was Untitled (Baskets) (1993), a group of empty wicker baskets set against a sunset, painted exclusively in shades of grey, apart from a sliver of pale yellow light on the horizon. This picture, which Thomson saw as representing the end of toil, a long day's work completed, has a strongly elegiac dimension, yet it was completed long before the artist was diagnosed with cancer. It is a purely poetic image from a painter who often seemed to revel in impurity, who made his reputation as an iconoclast and a cynic. That incipient lyricism was to be found in many pictures in that final exhibition, giving a clear indication of where Thomson's work would have gone, had he been granted the gift of a little more time.
1 Snell, T, "Art macabre is enigmatic", Western Mail, 20 February, 1982, p.91
2 de Berg, Hazel, Interview with Nigel Thomson, 23 September, 1982, for the National Library of Australia. p.2 of transcript
3 Thomson, Nigel, handwritten memoirs in possession of artist's estate, 1993-1997, p.3
4 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.3
5 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.3
6 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.7
7 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.8
8 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.9
9 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.10
10 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.10
11 Thomson, Nigel, 1993.97, p.12
12 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.15
13 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.15
14 Treadwell, Nicholas, Superhumanism: A British Art Movement, Nicholas Treadwell Books, London, 1980.
15 Eisenberg, Joseph, taped interview with Nigel Thomson, 1999, p.4 of transcript.
16 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.22
17 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.22
18 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.23
19 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.25
20 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.25
21 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.26
22 Cassab, Judy, Diaries, Alfred A. Knopf, Sydney, 1995, p.352
23 Cassab, Judy, 1995, p.352
24 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.26
25 Maloon, Terence, quoted by Judy Cassab, in 1995, p.352
26 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999 p.5
27 Cassab, Judy, 1995, p.371
28 Mendelssohn, Joanna, 'Nigel Thomson and the World of Unease', Art and Australia, Vol. 35, No.3, 1998. p.354
29 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999, p.21
30 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999 p.16
31 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999, p.34
32 Thomson, Nigel, 1993-97, p.37
33 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999, p.41
34 Eisenberg, Joseph, 1999, p.41
© Copyright - John McDonald April 2004