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— Introductory Essay by Charles Nodrum

This is the most extensive exhibition of paintings by Michael Shannon we have ever held and includes major works from every decade of his fruitful career – including many of the artist’s personal favourites not seen on the market for many years.  The range is focussed on some of his best-known subjects - the urban streetscape and the rural landscape.     

Born into a South Australian pastoral family in 1927 and educated in Adelaide (where he received his first formal training in painting), Shannon left in 1945 to study at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. At the Gallery School he received a sound but conservative training from William Dargie and Alan Sumner; concurrently, from George Bell, alongside the likes of Fred Williams, Leonard French and Lina Bryans, he received a firm introduction to modernism.  

1949 to 1952 were spent in Europe - including time in Italy with fellow South Australian Jeffrey Smart and study under Fernand Léger in Paris (where Bernard Buffet’s work was in the ascendancy), and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London (where the neo-romantics Graeme Sutherland, John Minton and John Piper held sway).  His early work reflected these influences and he later acknowledged that they had inhibited the emergence of his own style. 

Back in Melbourne he soon gained respect for his interpretation of the urban world - a subject all but ignored by the majority of Australian artists, with a few notable exceptions such as Tom Roberts's ebullient glimpse of Bourke Street.  Yet even there, Shannon made a break, for where Roberts was clearly enchanted by the colour and bustle of one of Melbourne's busiest streets and in Sydney Sali Herman was infusing the (then) shabby houses of the inner suburbs with a certain nostalgia, Shannon chose the most utilitarian - and hence least picturesque – of sites over the handsome facades of the older buildings or the clean lines of the early high-rise offices.  When it came to choosing a bridge, he ignored the elegant arches spanning the Yarra and chose the heavy steel cantilevers carrying the railway viaduct between Spencer and Flinders Streets (cat. no. 5).  It was a move at least one critic respected: Alan Warren, in The Sun News Pictorial, 1957, wrote:
"Drab Spencer St marshalling yards become irresistible - especially when "dressed" as they are today at the Peter Bray gallery.  The magic transformation comes from Michael Shannon's caressing brush strokes, the delicacy and richness of his surfaces and the cleanness of his colour. Even the smokey greys are somehow clean.”

The urban environment's most prominent visual features are the right angle and the flat surface, with the vertical lines of the buildings predominant - at least from the pedestrian's perspective.  But it's often only a case of going a few floors up to see out across the surrounding roofs and thus gain a glimpse of the horizon (cat. no. 7).  In the suburbs this is the rule rather than the exception and the 1970s saw a distinct shift in his point of view.  The formal result was a break with the previous structure of his paintings, where verticals and horizontals both played a balanced role in the composition, to a simpler and almost minimalist composition where the entire foreground is filled with a uniform miscellany of rooftops stretching to the horizon. (cat. no. 11). These works formed the overture to the next major move in his work.    

In the late 1970s he went on sketching trips to Tasmania, painting en plein air with his friend and gifted amateur painter David Chapman (who established the Chapman Powell Street Gallery, as it then was).  This was new territory and (I'm guessing here) the traditional training from his art school days cut in.  The resulting paintings were small in scale and fresh in execution and, as in the 50s, received critical respect for what was clearly an exploratory move.  When some of the small studies were shown at Macquarie Galleries, Nancy Borlase gave them a positive review:
"In small paintings with their first, sure brushwork, impulsive palette of harsh ultramarines, smokey grey-blues, and sweet mauves, working alfresco has obviously had an invigorating effect".[1]

Influenced by the experience of this initial concerted foray into landscape painting he sought to buy a place in the country where he could concentrate increasingly on this new direction – a move a personal friend felt was influenced by a strong attachment to the land carried through from his childhood in rural South Australia.  After an intensive search he eventually settled on a small country property near Heathcote in Central Victoria.  The views of the surrounding countryside provided subject matter and inspiration - ranging from Mt Ida (his Mont Sainte Victoire), across the creeks, rivers, farms and vineyards of the region to the distinctive rock forms of Pyalong.  Although he remained based in South Yarra (where he continued with still life and portraiture, though mostly on paper) landscape remained his central theme for the rest of his life.  

In professional terms this was clearly a move into a competitive field already dominated for twenty years by Williams and Olsen but Shannon's purpose seems to differ radically. In the 20th century Australian artists had sought to interpret the landscape and, with varying success, to somehow infuse it with an almost metaphysical significance.  This was not to be Shannon’s path. 

On a historical note, it's worth remembering that he'd been sidelined from both Bernard Smith's Antipodeans and from Brian Robertson's Whitechapel exhibition principally, it would seem, because he just did not fit neatly enough into the spirit of the times which sought a more expressive approach. This did concern him at the time - but not overmuch, since his career pressed forward independently and successfully anyway.  Two decades later, the mood of 1980s was again expressionist: young artists gathered around Roar Studios and the likes of Peter Booth's dark and turbulent visions were predominant.  Both represented the virtual antithesis of Shannon’s approach.  

The two main publications on his work are subtitled "Painting and the Poetry of Daily Life"[2] and "Australian Romantic Realist".[3]  Initially the latter seemed like a contradiction in terms, but further thought persuaded me that the later landscapes were indeed both romantic and realist.  These spacious vistas are seductively beautiful in the traditional sense but his paintings can equally be seen as a dispassionate record of his own surrounding landscape which now became a vital part of his daily life.  This, after all, is the country traversed by Major Mitchell in 1838 and which he famously named Australia Felix.  With its gentle undulations and comfortable balance of trees and grassland it epitomised, then as now, an almost ideal landscape – one where, in biblical terms, sheep may safely graze, and where, in 19th century British terms, a yeoman farmer could prosper with diligence.  Yet Shannon remained even handed in his choice of subjects: the rockfaces hacked by human machinery at the quarries at Axedale and Lilydale are confronting, even threatening, yet painted with equal attention.  If he was saddened to see Mt Ida ravaged by bushfire, he didn’t flinch from painting its blackened flanks with the same descriptive realism as Homer employed to recount the death of Hector.   

If we can accept him as both a romantic and a realist, I’d risk going further by describing his approach as one of fascinated disinterest: he is neither expressive nor judgmental but, as a quiet observer, he is both careful and caring.  If his subjects are conventionally unattractive, he seeks to find something positive and help us see qualities we may have missed; but if, like the handsome country in central Victoria where he chose to make his second home, they are, in the standard sense, very fine in the first place, then he succeeds.  These landscapes don’t make the pulse beat faster, but nor do they send us to sleep. If anything, they do help us to breath more deeply and simply enjoy them as we would enjoy the landscape itself. No metaphysics and no ulterior expression. Expressionists paint what they feel; Shannon painted what he saw.  Elwyn Lynn summed it up:
“Clarity, lightness and natural and unforced harmonies are his aims, and he achieves them as no one else.”[4] 

Shannon is represented in all major public galleries in Australia and in most of the major corporate collections of the period.  An urbane and erudite man, he served as a member of the Council of the National Gallery of Victoria and was Deputy Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council from 1975-79.  In the 1970s he contributed significant articles to Art & Australia and was art critic for The Australian from 1973-5; he also taught at Prahran CAE and RMIT.  He won the Crouch Prize in 1953 and 1955 and the John McCaughey Prize in 1968 and was later awarded an AM “for services to Australian art”.  Following a long contest with Parkinson’s disease, he died in 1993.


[1] Nancy Borlase, Craft, art or...?, Sydney Morning Herald, 1979 (and quoted in Sturgeon, op cit p 40)

[2] Graeme Sturgeon, Michael Shannon – The Poetry of Everyday Life, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990

[3] Gordon Morrison, Elizabeth Cross, Ronald Millar and Patrick McCaughey, Michael Shannon - Australian Romantic Realist, Art Gallery of Ballarat retrospective exhibition catalogue, Ballarat, 2011

[4] Elwyn Lynn, Fine quality obscured by evenness, Weekend Australian, 23 August 1986, p 12

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.