The Sydney Scene in the 1960s.

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The Sydney Scene in the 1960s.


Backen, Earle.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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The Sydney Scene in the 1960s

The Sydney Scene in the 1960s.
byEarle Backen

Tate and Udo have already told you of their experiences in printmaking and I am happy to join them in making my contribution in oral history to this symposium.

I can say that I was one of those actively involved in resuscitating printmaking in the 1960s, and without doubt I stand in the tradition of the artist printmaker, one who delights in making a mark and working the image on the plate which is then transformed onto paper. There were two key activities that created the environment from which printmaking could develop – into the sophisticated workshops and college departments that we now enjoy. These two activities were the formation of the Sydney Printmakers as a society in 1961, and the other was the introduction of printmaking into the educational establishments of the time – and these were two. The Willoughby Workshop founded by Joy Ewart in 1962, and the reintroduction of etching as well as the development of screen printing into the National Art School (East Sydney Technical College) in 1963.

I don’t really want to talk about myself, but it would be helpful for you to see where I fit into the picture. I won the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship in 1954 and went to London and later Paris where I studied with Bill Hayter in his Atelier 17. Studying etching in that extremely exciting environment, at that stimulating time was something I have always been grateful for. I returned to Sydney and commenced teaching at the National Art School in 1960 where I remained until I joined the new College of Advanced Education in 1975.

The National Art School played a pivotal role in art education in Sydney. Until 1975 it was the only art college awarding an accredited Diploma in New South Wales (the schools at Canberra and Newcastle were part of the same establishment). It was the largest art school in the country, had a highly structured program with students expected to be at the college with teacher contact of 33 hours per week! The course was for five years, four years for students with the Higher School Certificate.

Last year we had a reunion at East Sydney for the students and staff who had been there during the 1960s. I must admit that I faced it with some trepidation, remembering the horrendous ball in the last column of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ where those characters still living came together – all caricatures of what they had once been. Well, it had some elements of that, but everyone (I think everyone) found it immensely rewarding, somewhat nostalgic, and moving. Without being over-romantic and certainly not wishing to ignore the negative aspects of the times, we all remembered the particular character that the National Art School had – a character sadly lacking in our highly pressurised, awards-seeking art factories of the art institutions of today. We had photos pinned on the walls, wore sixties gear, played the Beatles and tried to rock and roll. It must have looked like a documentary.

As Tate Adams has already outlined, the decade of the sixties was an extraordinary period of transition with changes in values, social structures and art education. It must be remembered that there was practically no financial assistance for the arts and art education. We were breaking from many of the strictures of conservatism (some of you will remember things like the police raid on a café in Kings Cross because they had reproductions of Toulouse Lautrec pictures on the walls which were considered to be pornographic – or the indiscriminate banning of books, including one called Fun in Bed which was a book written for sick children). Economic Rationalism, and the computer were unheard of, and there was some idea that things could only get better (notwithstanding the Vietnam War). There was little unemployment – anyone could get a job – but society was deeply divided over the war and other issues. The Aboriginal rights movement was an issue highlighted by the civil rights movement in the USA and from the middle of the sixties there was increasing unrest in universities and colleges. The student rebellions in 1968 led to sit-ins and inevitable changes in art education by the early seventies.

These events are known to you all, but they have to be considered as background to the developments in art – and of course in printmaking.

In Sydney, printmaking was in the doldrums.

Here is an interesting theme for those academics looking for a new subject for a thesis to get another degree. But perhaps it is not conceptual enough!

Why was it that in Sydney, printmaking had almost expired in the 1940s and the 1950s?

Why was it that there were no workshops, and that only screen printing was being taught at the National Art School? And except for a very primitive endeavour at Joy Ewart’s workshop, nowhere else?

Why were artists dumping their presses (the few that still existed) and why did the Government Printery give all its lithographic stones to the Royal Botanical Gardens so they could be used as paving stones (and slippery and dangerous ones at that)?

Why did the galleries (the few we had) and the collectors show so little interest in prints, when they certainly had shown interest in prints, when they certainly had shown interest in previous decades?

Perhaps prints were identified with gum trees and gothic cathedrals. And perhaps artists began to show the same misunderstanding of the print as a statement by one of our speakers yesterday.

Certainly the exciting work going on in Germany, in France and in England had almost no effect here at all (apart from a few people such as Margaret Preston, Frank Hinder and a handful of others).

Sydney was almost dead as far as printmaking was concerned, unlike Melbourne where the tradition was carried on. It is curious because Sydney earlier had a strong printmaking tradition – Lionel Lindsay, Margaret Preston, Dorrit Black, Thea Proctor.

However light was beginning to dawn.

During the fifties very little was done. Herb Gallop had taught gum tree etching at the National Art School in the 1940s and it was in the late-40s that Elizabeth Rooney was one of his students. She was so fired with enthusiasm for this means of expression (dirt and all) that with great energy and many difficulties she continued – using the poor little ancient press at East Sydney secretly at forbidden hours, by climbing over walls. This was the beginning of those linear devastating and witty social comments. Frank Hinder had become interested in lithography and learnt from Robert Emerson Curtis. They produced prints in the fifties. Others who did the casual print, usually in lino block, were Bim Hilder, John Coburn, Sue Buckley, Jim Sharp, Roy Fluke, and a very important figure, Joy Ewart.

Joy was a very frail figure – but a person of vision, quite dynamic and achieving results under the most appalling conditions. In the fifties she set up a primitive workshop in an old bakery in Chatswood, half open to the elements. I remember going there a few times with John Olsen to draw from the model – it was freezing so the poor model must have nearly expired. She spent some time in the USA where she was fired with enthusiasm for the creation of a print workshop. Later she got support and founded the Willoughby Workshop in 1962. She died only a couple of years later, but the Willoughby Workshop has flourished and continues its work. Elizabeth Rooney after much drama managed to get her press enlarged (it had been given to her by Bim Hilder) and this was set up in the workshop and is still in use. Through Rod Shaw they got a litho press and were experimenting with lithography from the beginning of the workshop. Here I want to mention two important connections – the Lithuanian Connection, and the Paris Connection.

The Lithuanian Connection

Henry Salkauskas had come from Lithuania in 1949. He continued working in linocut and became a dynamic member of the Contemporary Art Society. His friend Eva Kubbos, also Lithuanian, had been in Melbourne but also came to Sydney. They both worked in the tradition of European expressionism. They influenced the Lithuanian Society of Sydney to give a prize of £50 for a drawing, and Dr Ambrozia donated £100 for a print in an Australia-wide Graphic Art Exhibition organised by the Contemporary Art Society in 1960. (I am happy to announce that I was the winner of that award.)

This exhibition turned out to be pivotal and influential – and many artists made prints for the show. These included Roy Fluke, Carl Plate, Tom Gleghorn.

The Paris Connection (David Strachan, John Olsen and myself)

David Strachan joined the staff of the National Art School in 1961 after many years in Paris where he had been etching as well as painting. He had also worked in a lithography workshop in London. As I said before, I had studied the new developments in etching with Bill Hayter in Paris, where we were working in traditional etching techniques as well as colour printing using rollers with different ink viscosities and relating printmaking to contemporary movements. These techniques were relevant to what painters were doing. You will remember that this was the period of abstract expressionism, action painting, the use of textures and experiment in many ways. John Olsen returned to Sydney in the early sixties but later went to Melbourne where he became involved in printmaking.

It wasn't until 1963 that David Strachan and I set up the etching workshop in the National Art School. Arthur Freeman was teaching in the screen printing studio. The conditions were appalling – no fume extraction, the rooms crowded, one small etching press, the acid trays near the window, no aquatint box. Things didn't improve for some years, but by the end of the decade we had a new larger and good Japanese Holbein Press.

We did however build up a dynamic workshop with etching and screen printing. Offered as an elective course for more advanced students as well as evening classes. David Rose gave a great contribution to the screenprinting workshop. Other teachers at that time were Margaret McLellan in screenprinting, and Elizabeth Rooney in etching. It was not until later that printmaking was integrated into the full diploma course.

Looking back from the Sydney of today with the Sydney College of the Arts in Sydney University, the College of Art in the University of NSW, the Diploma Program in East Sydney Tech together with the suburban colleges, the University of Western Sydney, and the Fine Arts Department at Sydney University as well as the workshops sprinkled around the city, it is difficult to imagine that there was only one poorly equipped workshop at the National Art School and the Willoughby Workshop in Sydney.

The Sydney Printmakers

As a result of the Contemporary Art Society Graphic Arts show, Laurie Thomas, who was a critic and had been at the Art Gallery of Perth acted as an entrepreneur and organised a meeting of those people actively involved in printmaking – and from this meeting held with great conviviality in Kings Cross the Sydney Printmakers was formed in 1961. The original cast included Sue Buckley, John Coburn, Roy Fluke, Tom Gleghorn, Arthur Freeman, Strom Gould, Weaver Hawkins, John Henshaw, Eva Kubbos, Peter and Ursula Laverty, Eileen Mayo, Michael Nicholson, Frank Hinder, Margaret Preston, Elizabeth Rooney, Vaclovas Ratas, David Rose, Henry Salkauskas, James Sharp, David Strachan, Joy Ewart and myself. Laurie Thomas was the president.

Laurie left for Brisbane in 1962, and Daniel Thomas became the next president. I became the president in 1967.

We showed annually and certainly created interest in printmaking, with artists, the galleries and the public. We had a campaign of print education, and this together with the increasing number of students and artists who studied printmaking at the National Art School and the Willoughby Workshop helped to change the attitude towards prints in Sydney.

During the decade the number of members increased, and many painters exhibited with the group. Some of these people were Jean Appleton, Margaret McLellan, Ruth Faerber, Elaine Haxton, Brian Dunlop, Patricia Wilson, Robert Klippel, Colin Lanceley, Jennifer Marshall, and we also exhibited many of the up and coming students from the National Art School and the Willoughby Workshop. Some of those students were Bill Brown, Frank Littler, Leonard Matkevitch, Diana Davidson, Bela Ivanyi, Carmen Ky, Rose Vickers, David Voigt, Jan McKay, Marie McMahon, George Barker, Vi Collings, Mirabelle Fitzgerald and Enid Carlishaw.

We encouraged exhibitions of prints from other centres, and sent exhibitions interstate. We also became involved with the increasing number of print biennales being held around the world, Llujbliana, Cincinnatti, Tokyo, Bradford, etc.

The aims of the Sydney Printmakers

To exhibit and popularise prints

To encourage painters and sculptors to work in print mediums

To educate the public

To adhere to the accepted international standards of what constitutes an original print

Certainly at that stage we would not have accepted a photographic reproduction signed, even by well-known artists and sold off as an original print.

The Sydney Printmakers has continued as a society until today.

It should be remembered that most of us worked under great difficulties. My press was most unsatisfactory. Trying to print etchings in the size I liked was full of hazards as the bed slipped continually. I didn’t get a good press until the early seventies. Good paper, inks and materials were extremely difficult to get and our knowledge of safety issues was very scant indeed.

Lithography was taught at the Willoughby Workshop, but it wasn't until the mid-seventies that lithographic workshops were set up in the National Art School and in the City Art Institute, and the Sydney College of the Arts.

In Sydney, prints were a part of the general art movement with its emphasis on abstract expressionism, action painting and the use of elaborate textures, but by the late sixties, the Pop Art and Op Art movements from the UK and the USA more or less took over. Screenprinting, with its background in graphic design and commercial art together with the increasing use of photography were bound up with these movements. David Rose was a key person during this period – as he taught again under frightful conditions at the National Art School from the mid-sixties.

Rose Vickers introduced me to the use of photo release techniques on her return from London in the mid-sixties, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that we made our first experiments in the use of photography in etching.

Final comments

Looking back on the sixties it is easy to be nostalgic about a very exhilarating period, but it was a period of tremendous frustration and anger as well. But it was also a period of renaissance. Those who had continued printmaking during the lean years together with those of us who studied in Europe, Britain of the USA were able to pass on the tradition and regained the apostolic succession. Etching related strongly to the movements of abstract expressionism and action painting, texture painting, sculpture. Later the screenprint, a development from Graphic Design and Commercial Art was put to full use by those influenced by the Pop and Op movements where the use of photography was exploited and a flat surface sought. Experiment was encouraged.

The enthusiastic activities in printmaking, the workshops and such events as this symposium, have developed from the hard work and commitment of the printmakers of that period.

© Earle Backen, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.