An Aussie avant-garde

Sixteen kilometres east of Melbourne’s city centre lies Heide: an incubus of Australian Modernism turned museum. It’s story begins in 1934, when prominent art patrons John and Sunday Reed bought what was then just a farmhouse on fifteen acres of land. They lovingly named it Heide after the nearby town of Heidelberg. 


Left to right: Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday Reed, John Reed and John Sinclair. c.1945


Throughout their lifetime, the Reeds invited artists, writers and intellectuals to Heide. They fostered the careers of Sidney Nolan, John Perceval, Charles Blackman, Joy Hester and Anne Marie Hall, to name just five. They were also instigators of the Angry Penguins, a Modernist art movement and cultural journal published by the Reeds and poet Max Harris. 


Sidney Nolan, 'Burke and Wills Expedition III'


Charles Blackman, 'Children Skipping'

Intellectual rebels of their day, the Angry Penguins made biting swipes at cultural conservatism. They were the targets of what poet David Lehman called, “the greatest literary hoax of the twentieth century”, known as the Ern Malley affair. This scandal saw two men submit nonsensical poetry to The Angry Penguins under the fictitious name Ern Malley. The work was published and lauded, seemingly confirming the prankster’s condemnation of Modernism as pretentious claptrap. By the 1970s, however, Ern Malley’s poetry had been re-imagined as successfully surreal – focus had by then shifted from the author’s intention to the audience’s reception. 


Garry Shead, 'Tragic Poet' (from Shead's book 'The Apotheosis of Ern Malley')


Entwined with the Angry Penguins were the Antipodeans: a group of artists dedicated to preserving figurative art in the face of what they saw as encroaching abstraction. Led by art historian Bernard Smith, they included Charles Blackman, Arthur and David Boyd, John Brack, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh. In 1959, the Antipodeans signed a now iconic manifesto, calling for the rejection of abstract art. So vehement was their protest, that it forged a symbol battleline between Sydney and Melbourne. Many abstract artists fled to Sydney – a hub for abstract art – leaving Melbourne’s scene entrenched in figurativism. 


Clifton Pugh, 'Myrtle Trees, Island Camp'


Heide was not only a site for artistic collaboration, it was also where friendships blossomed, love affairs sparked (and stuttered), and solace was found. The length of its reach is still being accessed, with attention recently being drawn to its historically overlooked female participants, such as Joy Hester, Anne Marie Hall and Mirka Mora


Anne Marie Hall, 'Minimal Portrait'


The Heide period is synonymous with creative innovation. Aided by the Reeds, the Antipodeans and Angry Penguins addressed big questions: what does it mean to be Australian; what is loss and love; how does our country’s violent history bear on us; and what does modernization mean for our society? The results remain touchstones of the Australian canon.