Important Australian + International Fine Art
28 April 2010

James Gleeson

(1915 - 2008)

oil on board

79.0 x 64.0 cm

signed lower left: GLEESON, inscribed verso: THE FIGHTING ATOMS; PAINTED IN GOSFORD 1938

$35,000 - 45,000
Sold for $36,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 14 - 28 April 2010, Melbourne

Private collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

The late thirties were a time of great significance for modern Australian art, the single most important event being the formation of the Contemporary Art Society. Its first two exhibitions were held in 1939 at the National Gallery of Victoria, and in 1940 in Melbourne and Sydney. James Gleeson contributed Surrealist paintings to both exhibitions. His 1940 painting, We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, shared the Society's prize with Eric Thake's Salvation from the Evils of Earthly Existence. The same years of the late thirties leading up to such early success were also important for Gleeson. From study at the East Sydney Technical College, in 1937 he enrolled at the Sydney Teachers College and came under the liberating influence of May Marsden. The experience was central to his creative development and soon showed its rewards. The following year he was awarded a painting prize at the annual student exhibition. Marsden bought Gleeson's painting City on a Tongue, 1938, for the College's collection (now University of Sydney Collection). It was an experimental and exciting time of development, new ideas emerging with each new painting, as can be seen by comparing Massive Journey of a Personally Nocturn'd Object, 1938, in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, and the 1939 painting, The Attitude of Lightning Towards a Lady-Mountain.

Through the means of Surrealism, Gleeson sought to transcend the limits of the senses, so circumscribed by conscious awareness. This led to him discard the world of reason for that of the unconscious in a journey of self-discovery and understanding of our place within all things. The Fighting Atoms, which belongs to this time, is a painterly work, momentarily characteristic of his changing style. The Three Dancers, 1938, is a work of fleeting similarity through its organic forms linked with the landscape. In The Fighting Atoms the anthropomorphic elements that were to play such a major role in his later works find a precursor in the central figure. Here, like some creature from science fiction, it grows out of the primordial landscape complete with insect-like protuberances and ant-like head. The vigorous brushstrokes heighten the sense of drama and give the painting much of its vitality and lively sense of movement. The Fighting Atoms is a rare early work by the master who was to become Australia's finest Surrealist painter.