A firm believer in the importance of understanding the ‘grammar’ of visual arts, Helen Maudsley is celebrating her 90th birthday with a solo exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria. “Art is a language like literature is a language and music is a language, and you have to learn it.” By Miriam Cosic.

Knowing Helen Maudsley

Helen Maudsley
Helen Maudsley
Credit: Eugene Hyland

The fact Helen Maudsley is hardly known to the general Australian public is not so extraordinary. Her husband, John Brack, received all the attention, though they were each as dedicated to their art as the other. It’s like Ethel Carrick, whose husband, Emanuel Phillips Fox, received all the attention here for his pretty garden settings, a less macho take on Australian Impressionism than all those shearing sheds and horse riders, despite the fact Carrick was far more respected by the Parisian art world when they lived and worked there.

That Maudsley had four children in rapid succession when she and her husband were just setting out together couldn’t have helped. If Cyril Connolly’s famous aphorism has any merit – that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway” – tell it to a woman.

“I think it’s just stupid, all that. I never bought that idea,” Maudsley says when I raise the feminist critique over tea at the National Gallery of Victoria, where a show of her work is finally hanging. “And, also, once the children all got to school, I had far more time than John did. He was working all day, earning the money.”

Maudsley has turned 90. She is hunched now and shuffles a little as she walks. But she’s sharp when she raps you over the knuckles. That old-world Melbourne accent adds to the feeling that one is a schoolgirl daring to question the headmistress. Maudsley is equally acute when discussing herself. Why did she not get the recognition? “Well,” she says crisply, “because nobody was interested in what I was doing. I had exhibitions.” And no, apparently, it wasn’t because her art was too cerebral, too difficult to understand. “I just think people wanted other things,” she says, not giving herself an inch.

Maudsley is big on the concept of visual analogy, and the recent drawings and paintings on display at the NGV in Our Knowing and Not Knowing are distillations of her thoughts on it. They luxuriate in ornate titles, such as The Rose Petal Scrolls become the Scrolls of our Ancient Past; of the Law; of Wigs, still worn. The Hands of Now, of Doing. The Pear That is Flesh and Heart. The Conflict with Arrogance. Also, the Flicker of Life, and the Question Mark. I draw a breath after reading it. “Oh, yes,” she says lightly. “I like that one.”

The works are assemblies of signs – lines, numbers, shapes, letters in the subdued pink-blue colour palette she has come to favour – that look almost like hieroglyphs. They force the eye to roam the canvas, up and down, side to side, studying, noticing, connecting and conjecturing in search of an “Aha” moment. They are deeply intellectual, requiring a knowledge of the “grammar” of visual arts – a word Maudsley repeats often – and yet also immediately apprehensible, the symbols themselves eye-catching and recognisable.

Sasha Grishin, the veteran art historian, critic and author of many books, including an encyclopaedia of Australian art and a biography of John Brack, was pleased when Maudsley’s exhibition was announced. “Maudsley is a slow burner,” he says by email from Harvard. Hers is “exquisite work that requires a fairly high threshold to enter. I suspect that the NGV show will be of critical importance for her growing recognition.”

And not before time. Maudsley was born in 1927 and grew up in South Yarra, the daughter of a doctor. She was precociously good at both art and music and started piano lessons when she was tiny. “I come from a professional family and everybody learns music from the age of four,” she says proudly. “You learn to play the piano, and the rule was you had to stay whether you liked it or not until you were eight. And then you’re allowed to choose.”

Maudsley was a serious child and something of a swot, a predilection that was reinforced by a year bedridden with osteomyelitis when she was 12. “They didn’t have penicillin in those days,” she says. She studied by correspondence and did not need to be held back a year when she returned to school.

When she was ill, drawing had been an easier pastime than the piano, and by the time she reached 15 – the age students could leave school in those days – she wanted to quit school and enrol at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School. Her parents insisted she stay at school to matriculate and then she would be allowed to follow her heart. They tricked her. When she matriculated, she still wasn’t allowed to go to the gallery school. Her parents persuaded her to enrol at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music so she would have a fallback in teaching if her art ambitions failed.

She finished that degree, with the flute as her instrument, and finally was allowed to enrol at the gallery school. It was legendary in those days; its famous teachers tutored some of Australia’s best and brightest. Maudsley, of course, found most of her teachers too conservative, though she now calls every one of them “a lovely man”, and chose the least worst. Most of her education seems to have come from what she was exposed to, rather than directly from her teachers, including from the prints of famous artworks that were mounted on the classroom walls.

She vividly remembers a copy of Vermeer’s A Lady and Two Gentlemen, which the Dutch master painted about 1659. To hear Maudsley unpick even a well-known painting now is to see it anew. She uses it to explain her understanding of “visual analogy”, which she began to get by looking at it while she was studying. She segues from a woman in a red dress, through the milk jug and white cloth, which has “exactly the same configuration as the woman to wombs and hearts and other sexual allusions”. She says, “It’s simple, a bit of visual grammar is all you need to use, and it was very easy for me to use this sort of grammar.”

She remembers another moment. For a few days running, she noticed a girl about her age sitting on her tram. “She was extraordinary. She wasn’t like any of my sisters or any of the girls at school,” she says now. Maudsley kept staring at the girl and one evening tried to draw her.

“It looked exactly like her, but it did not look like her,” she says. “It took me about a week of playing with it – altering the eyes, altering the this, altering the that – before I thought, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say.” She showed it to an older artist who exclaimed, “That is the most erotic drawing of a girl I have ever seen.” “I didn’t know that word ‘erotic’, I was so naive. But that was what I had succeeded in doing, in defining that thing about her. That was Opus No. 1 in my work.”

It was at the gallery school that Maudsley met Brack, who was older than her, about 25, a soldier returned from World War II. He took up the government’s offer of further education for veterans who had left school to serve. She was ahead of him in her studies, but they clicked intellectually and emotionally.

“John was doing something very different from me,” she says. “He was very, very profoundly Labor. His dad worked in a brewery and was a union member. In John’s family, the workers were good and the employers were bad. What he wanted to do was pictures for the public, for the people. And his idea was if you make it so that everything is easily identified, the common man in the street would be interested. And when he becomes interested, he will see other things as well.

“Of course, it didn’t work out that way, but it took him many, many years to admit defeat.”

If Brack represented the common man and she the daughter of “professionals”, they shared a common penchant for concealed meanings, that visual analogy she always talks about. He was also surprisingly sentimental for a man with such a spare artistic style. Mind you, so is she. “When our last-born turned one year old, John looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t it awful we don’t have any more coming along.’ But, he said, you’ve got to stop somewhere. I certainly felt bereft that we weren’t going to have another darling little thing there who was funny and gorgeous and so on.”

But back to business. “John always had a subterranean message in his works that wasn’t always seen,” she remarks. She refers to The block (1954), which he made to release the images of the Holocaust that continued to haunt him. “Photographs came into the papers in Melbourne,” she recalls, “and you had photographs of German soldiers throwing recently dead corpses into a huge hole in the ground. Now, the Holocaust is just a word, but then, to us, it was unimaginable. You know how shocking it was when the aeroplanes went into the towers in New York? That’s what it felt like to us.

“This really got into John’s whole being – the ‘horrificness’ of it, and the fact that we hadn’t known about it. And he thought he should do something about it.”

In her forensic way, Maudsley unpicks The block, a painting writers tend to group with other pictures of workplaces, such as Brack’s painting of a menswear shop or the famous bar. She tries to remember a quote from Picasso that impressed them both at the time, something apropos a suite of his wartime paintings, about how you don’t have to paint a man with a gun, a tomato plant will do.

“When it was shown, he was terribly upset because everybody laughed,” she says of Brack’s The block. “Everybody said, ‘Isn’t John a scream, painting an empty butcher’s shop.’ Nobody saw it for what it was. And if you look at it, it’s perfectly obvious. Of course it’s a Holocaust picture.”

Maudsley teaches about looking at art for the Centre for Adult Education in Melbourne, and often takes her students to that picture and talks them through it. Most exclaim in surprise. But inevitably, she says, there will be one old Jewish lady who hangs back and says quietly, “I saw it immediately.”

Maudsley was pleased when I said I wanted to talk about her work, not her husband’s, but it is impossible to ignore the ubiquity of his works in her life – even though her work, she says, owes nothing to his, and vice versa. Indeed, Grishin remarks, “I am amazed that she has managed to maintain an independent practice, and one of a very high calibre, without being swamped by the genius of Brack.”

We segue back from Brack to her own rather rigorous view of the world. “People don’t engage with a picture,” she says. “They don’t stare. You’ve got to give it time. Now people just glance. They come in and say, ‘I like that’ or ‘That’s awful’ and then, ‘Let’s go and have a cup of coffee.’ Art is a language like literature is a language and music is a language, and you have to learn it. You have to learn the grammar of the language.”

We have come full circle in our conversation and I go to the front desk as she goes to the cloakroom with her ticket. “I have Helen Maudsley with me. Could we get her a taxi?” I say. The young woman looks at me blankly for a few seconds, and then it clicks. “Oh, you mean Helen Brack,” she says. When I repeat it to Maudsley, who doesn’t believe in feminism, she rolls her eyes and growls something salty, before we brave the Melbourne heat for the tram she insists on taking instead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2018 as "Knowing Helen".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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