In 1919 the artist George Bell returned to Melbourne from London, forty-one, unmarried and uninspired. He had left for Europe in 1904 to study art before serving as a war artist between 1918 and 1919, compelled to retire due to ill health. Back home, he was dumbfounded by how staid and repressed Melbourne’s art scene had become, the rows of uniform brick houses that had sprung up in his absence. Modern art had still not breached the city’s rigid shores, it was twenty years behind Paris and fifteen behind Sydney.
George Bell, 'Island Woman'
Bell, who hated modern art, had also tired of traditional art which he dismissed as mere “colour photography”, lacking in originality and expression. He was left with two choices: retire from art altogether or seriously consider the art he detested. “It frightened me”, Bell wrote, “I thought that if one of my pictures hung between two [modern works of art], it would be wiped right out.” He decided to throw himself into it, returning to art school in 1934 to learn about modern art.
Across his tutelage, Bell underwent a painful but life-changing conversion. He came to agree that art’s central concern – to reveal underlying formal truths about the world – could only be achieved through modernist techniques. It was art’s job to capture the essence rather than the appearance of forms, achieved through colour, distortion and universal design principles.
George Bell in his studio
Armed with his new understanding of art, Bell became a spokesperson for modernism. He opened the George Bell School from his Toorak home and premises on Bourke Street, in turn guiding a generation of important Australian artists. While his doctrine eventually lost favour, Bell was, as Robert Hughes has declared, “the most influential teacher who ever worked in Australia, a seminal figure.”
Fred Williams, 'Acacias'
Waging a war
In 1930s Melbourne, Bell found himself amidst a battle between traditional and modern art. The traditionalist front was led by Max Meldrum, an art teacher who advocated for tonalism, and James S. MacDonald, director of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). MacDonald, who despised modern art, declaring the majority of it “the product of degenerates and perverts” force fed to the public by the press. In 1941 he was ousted from the NGV, arriving at his office to find that the locks had been changed.
Against them, Bell became a passionate spokesperson for modern art. He engaged in a public debate with the then Attorney General Robert Menzies who had established the Australian Academy of Art, modelled after Britain’s Academy. In response, Bell founded his own body, the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), and in 1937 brought fifty-two works from outside Australia to the NGV, including paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. For many Australians, it would be their first encounter with European modernism. While the traditionalists asserted that art ought to mimic reality, Bell pursued a practice of selection, memory and invention.
George Bell's 'Sitting Room, Mulberry Hill' (1927) (left) and 'Toinette' (1934) (right) were painted just seven years apart. They exemplify the turn Bell's practice took, away from illusions of real space towards geometric configurations created from memory. A portrait of his daughter, 'Toinette', is flatter, the backdrop abstracted.
Bell’s triumph against the traditionalists can be seen in the success of his students. Those that took his classes include Eric Thake, Constance Stokes, Sybil Craig, Fred Williams, Dorothy Braund, Albert Tucker, Russell Drysdale, Vic O’Connor, Anne Marie Graham and many more – a legion of still relevant modernists. He taught them compositional competence rather than a set of stylized habits, believing that they must nurture their own individual expression. For him, subject matter was secondary to form, creativity was something you could not teach but education was critical. Rules could be broken, but they must be first mastered.
Dorothy Braund, 'Untitled (By the Water)'
In some ways, it was Bell’s formalist dogma and dismissal of subject matter that was his undoing. He thought that psychological, mythical, literary and political subjects were incompatible with the self-expression and invention of great modern art. Representations that were urgent, spontaneous and emotive read as the failing of restraint to him, the lack of a proper education. It was however, the naive and idiosyncratic paintings of Blackman, Nolan and Boyd that came to most viscerally capture the complexities of modern life. In a society shattered by two world wars, Bell’s fidelity to essences, his certainty, no longer resonated.
Yet, his legacy lives on. It is in Braund’s bulbous bathers, Craig’s technicolour palette, Thake’s ingenious use of design and William’s grasp of the character, not the surface, of the landscape. Many of these artists would end up pushing against Bell’s doctrine, but it remains an axis in their work. He was a bridge between the past and the future, ardently arguing that it is the quality of the mind that most matters in art – an idea we still hold to. In no small way, Bell awakened the city to a radically new conception of art.