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— Essay by Jane Eckett

Study for fragmented arch 1956


Progression in space: works from the Norma Redpath studio

Jane Eckett
University of Melbourne
June 2013

Artists’ studios are, in many ways, akin to archaeological sites: buried beneath layers of detritus – newspapers, dishes of dried paint, desiccated rolls of masking tape, and, in the present case, thick smatterings of dried wax – lie unexpected wonders. Norma Redpath’s studios (for there are two, one attached to the elegantly restored bluestone cottage in Carlton that she called home for the last twenty years and the other separated from the house by interconnecting covered courtyards) contain many such surprises. In a dim far corner of one studio, hidden behind bits of technical apparatus, the original plaster maquette for Dawn Sentinel, 1962, awaits discovery, its survival intact all the more remarkable considering that it has travelled from Melbourne to Milan and back again. In the larger studio, attached to the house, a set of plan drawers reveals not only the anticipated loose drifts of sketches, many annotated with calculations for enlargement as monumental sculptures, but also several unpublished manuscripts detailing her development as an artist as well as the original linen-bound portfolio of mounted photographs submitted for the Italian Government Scholarship that she won in 1961. On the surrounding shelves miniature wax maquettes jostle for space with found objects such as wooden pattern parts for machinery or whitewashed fragments of egg cartons that have captured the artist’s imagination. Art historians are rarely granted access to studios in such a raw unadulterated state, hence usually encountering art works and papers only once they have been culled, boxed and deposited in public repositories. The opportunity to carefully sift through this material in situ, tracing the artist’s personal system of organising her life’s work, matching sketches to wax maquettes and to finished bronzes, is a privilege not taken lightly. What follows is a loosely stitched chronology of the first half of Redpath’s career, based upon the works remaining in the studio and included in the present exhibition.

The earliest extant work, Shell Structures, 1942, is a drypoint etching made when Redpath was just thirteen or fourteen years old during her first year at Swinburne Technical College. The original copper plate, smeared with traces of blue ink, survives. Shell Structures evinces the same interest in the sculptural qualities of natural forms that Henry Moore demonstrated in his series of shell drawings from 1932 and in his widely reprinted article ‘The Sculptor Speaks’ of 1937, in which he owned to paying ‘great attention to natural forms, such as bones, shells and pebbles’. Indeed, the collection of shells and driftwood on the windowsills of Redpath’s living room in Carlton echo those found in Moore’s studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. This early student work points to the young Redpath’s sympathies with Moore, notably developed well in advance of the first showing of Moore’s work in Melbourne, in 1948.[1]

At Swinburne Redpath initially enrolled in the commercial art course and found satisfaction in ‘learning the craft of drawing, rendering and copying of plaster casts’.[2] She studied watercolour painting under Nornie Gude (1915-2002) and Scott Pendlebury (1914-1986) and later recalled their ‘intuitive understanding and generosity’ as they involved her in discussions on art and loaned her books such as Cezanne’s Composition by Erle Loran (published 1943), which prompted her awareness of ‘solid space’ and – what she termed – the ‘human participation between the planes’.[3] Her studies at Swinburne were interrupted for two years in 1944, when she contracted tuberculosis. On her return she embarked on a self-directed course of painting and drawing, becoming known among her peers (including painter James Meldrum) as an innovator. Untitled (pair of bird forms), which the artist retrospectively dated ‘1940s’, was almost certainly painted towards the end of her time at Swinburne and most likely after 1947 when Redpath saw Russell Drysdale’s The Rabbiters, 1947, at the NGV. She later recalled the ‘extraordinary impact’ the work had upon her in terms of its scale relationships between man and landscape, though here it is the palette of rust red, burnt umber, terracotta, black and white that is most strongly reminiscent of Drysdale.[4] However, by mid-1949 Redpath had come to view painting as ‘an exercise in nihilism, for there would be multiple solutions to each idea and I would extend every possibility as far as it was possible. … I went too far and had to stop’.[5]

In desperation she recalled the pleasure experienced in early childhood playing with modelling clay and began thinking about sculpture.[6] A visit to Danila Vassilieff’s exhibition at Tye’s Gallery, in April 1949, left a deep impression and confirmed her desired direction.[7] Towards the end of that year she enrolled in the sculpture program at the Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT). Once again her studies were largely self-directed though Stanley Hammond imparted valuable technical skills. During these student years, 1949-52, she looked carefully at the work of Moore and Hepworth, for whom ‘reference was abundant’, and, like them, began direct carving into stone and wood.[8] In one of her earliest such carvings, Bird Form, c. 1950-51, a series of arcs quietly delineate the folded wings and curved neck of the sleeping bird, giving a notional idea of the stone block’s contours and contributing to the sense of stasis that characterised much of the modern British school of carvers.[9] Interestingly, this same stillness is also found in the early work of the London-trained Clifford Last, particularly his two woodcarvings likewise titled Bird Form that he showed at Georges Gallery in October 1948 – an exhibition that Redpath visited and later recalled as ‘probably my first actual contact with … contemporary sculpture’.[10]

Redpath’s earliest carvings immediately attracted attention: she was invited to exhibit with the Victorian Sculptors Society (VSS) in 1950 and, from as early as 1951, her work was invariably reviewed favourably – the first mention appearing in a review by Gordon Thomson, who would go on to champion her work.[11] She was elected onto the VSS council and became Vice-President in 1954. Three senior internationally trained sculptors representing Melbourne’s avant-garde – Inge King, Clifford Last and Julius Kane – invited her to join them under the aegis of the Group of Four; she showed with them in 1953 and 1955 at Melbourne University’s School of Architecture and continued with them into the sixties as a founding member of Centre Five.[12]

In 1956 Redpath made her first visit to Europe, staying nearly two years. After studying Italian at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia she set up base in Rome, immersing herself in art and architectural history, and travelled to the UK, France and the former Yugoslavia. In England the Tasmanian-born sculptor Oliffe Richmond took her to Hertfordshire to visit Henry Moore; in France he introduced her to Stacha Halpern and ‘the somewhat wild Paris scene’.[13] The few works that remain from this period are all on paper. Their subjects clearly draw upon her new surroundings but the thinking behind them is entirely sculptural. As Redpath herself later related;

I was aware of a developing language and the extension of my interest in sculpture not only as object but the importance of the relationship of human stature to ‘object’ to surrounding space; the 1957 drawings lead from the depicted ‘object’ (Horse, Bird and Sun) etc. to Women and the Etruscan Arch, Perugia, to the three point arch Bird Wings and Nuns Wimples, Paris, the latter being envisaged as an open, walk into and through form, internally lit at night.[14]

This interest in the relationship of humans to their physical environment would come to play an ever-increasing key role in her development.

In Rome, in 1957, Redpath had her first opportunity of having two works cast in bronze.[15] The experience was a revelation, enabling her to conceive of work that embraced movement rather than stasis, while the process liberated her from much time-consuming manual labour. Upon her return to Australia she continued to carve in wood while planning a new body of work to be cast in bronze. Owing to the dearth of bronze foundries in Australia, the opportunity to do so had to wait until 1962 when she was able to return to Italy on an Italian Government Scholarship. She enrolled at Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy, and on the recommendation of the Brera’s professor of sculpture, Luciano Minguzzi, she sought out the renowned Fonderia Battaglia, where the likes of Marino Marini and Luciano Fontana were regular clients. Among those of her own generation who also cast with Battaglia and who would become respected colleagues were Arnaldo Pomodoro, Alik Cavalieri, Giacomo Benevelli and the Japanese sculptor Kengiro Azuma.

During the next intense twelve months, 1962-63, Redpath produced twelve bronzetti (small-scale bronzes) as well as two larger bronzes, Horse, Bird and Sun and Dawn Sentinel, which she had designed in Australia and brought in maquette form with her to Milan. Together with three large works in plaster for future casting, these fourteen works comprised her phenomenally successful – both critically and financially – first solo exhibition held in October 1963 at Melbourne’s Gallery A.

Ironically, given that she had to wait to get to Italy to realize them, these works drew heavily on forms derived from the Australian landscape.  In her own words:

Development of a language of form fragments had been evolving and seemed to take on something from the strange collection of forms in combination almost unique to this continent; the sun and dead trees, space and light, the rock forms, desert, the lonely shipping markers, dead animals and even abandoned decaying man made things left in the struggle of establishment on this continent.”[16]

Whether she had ever visited the Australian desert, or seen an actual animal carcass, is unknown and possibly irrelevant. What is interesting is that the imagery evoked in her list was central to two of Australia’s preeminent landscape painters: Drysdale and Nolan.[17] The iconography of modern Australian painting was thus shared but, in Redpath’s case, used to ultimately abstract sculptural purposes.

Dawn Sentinel, 1962, was to be ‘the confirmative work’ of Redpath’s development to that date.[18] It was purchased by the NGV in 1964, with funds from the Felton Bequest, and won first prize that year at the Mildura Prize for Sculpture. The finished work is a towering construction of slabs, alternately smooth and fretted, its forward slant counterbalanced by the dynamic backwards sweep of the upmost panel. Critics such as Bernard Smith found it to have ‘a baroque amplitude, a feeling of controlled power’.[19] Astonishingly this same sense of controlled dynamism is conveyed in the 1:8 scale maquette, cast posthumously for the present exhibition. Likewise, the textured hatching and fine seams and runnels of moulded material in the maquette successfully convey the effect of eroded soil profiles present in the final work.

Of the twelve bronzetti exhibited in 1963, Redpath managed to retain just one: Piccola Città, 1962.[20] It too was sent with Dawn Sentinel to the 1964 Mildura Sculpture Prize exhibition and was illustrated in the accompanying catalogue. Piccola Città, or Small City, marks the beginning of a new type of sculpture for Redpath: one consisting of multiple elements envisaged on such a scale that they could be walked through or around in a landscape. She termed this type of work an ‘environmental sculpture’ and would later return to the idea, in 1976, when developing a proposal for the entrance court of the Australian National University.[21]

Following the success of the Gallery A exhibition Redpath received a number of commissions. The first came from architect Don Hendry Fulton, who requested a bronze relief for the stairwell of the British Petroleum administration building at Crib Point, Westernport. A number of pen drawings for the work survive and are included in the present exhibition, while a fragment of the relief was cast separately and purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. In July 1965 she received the commission for Canberra’s Treasury Fountain, her best-known work and one that would take more than four years to see through to installation. In the intervening years, however, she worked intently on developing a new series of bronzetti, building on the lessons she had learnt from the 1962-63 series. During 1966-67 Redpath produced no fewer than forty new bronzetti, again cast at the Fonderia Battaglia. These then constituted her second solo exhibition – held in Sydney at the Rudy Komon Gallery in 1970. This time she managed to retain approximately two-dozen maquettes, some of them only existing as artist’s proofs while others were cast in editions of two or three.

The titles and indeed forms of the 1966-67 bronzetti are notable for their references to classical architecture. Fragments of columns, walls, portals and arches now constituted Redpath’s visual lexicon. These arose from her mounting concern that sculpture be related to human scale, just as architecture was – at least in classical times – scaled in relation to human stature. In doing so, Redpath believed that sculpture could help man ‘adjust and identify himself and his needs with the psyche of his time, with his shelter and his surrounding space’.[22]

One of the most persistent forms from this period – and one that would frequently reappear in later works – was that of the arch. Usually the arch was incomplete, implying ‘an invisible but nevertheless “felt” progression in space, an extension from an inner core, beyond the physical dimensions of the sculpture’.[23] This is seen, for instance, in Extending Arch, 1967, in which the rounded wedge appears ready to tip forward and thereby complete the arch.[24] Fragmented Arch exists as two differently-sized bronzettis and a number of ink drawings. In each case the two separate elements are in dialogue with each other, populating the space just as the separate elements of Piccola Città had earlier done. As her friend and supporter Gordon Thomson commented to her in conversation, the broken arch was ‘right for this age’,[25] referring to his description of the fears besetting contemporary urban society in the 1960s: ‘Economics, war, machinery, the social ladder’.[26] The fragmented arch might therefore be seen as a consolation in the face of these fears, alluding to possible unity and harmony of form, while also sounding a warning note: behold the ruins of an ancient civilization.

In many cases the architectural elements were subservient to more organic source material. Screen Wall, 1967, is an excellent example of this, recalling as it does both ancient cliffs and geological strata while also potentially functioning – if enlarged – as a dividing room screen. A marvel of casting, the work consists of myriad delicate chips of bronze (akin to chisel heads) wedged between overhanging outcrops. Some surfaces have been polished smooth, while others remain soft, semi-molten, with traces of the artist’s fingerprints evident. The National Gallery in Canberra possess the second cast of this work and included it in an exhibition, Contemporary Australian Painting and Sculpture, which they toured to New Zealand in 1973. The work would also provide inspiration for Redpath’s submission to the Comalco invitational award (Sculpture for Architectural Environments), in 1968.[27]

For all that the 1966-67 bronzetti and larger bronzes turned on architectural forms and analogies, they nevertheless embodied movement and entropy rather than monumental inertia. Several of the titles of her work, such as Flying Capital, 1966, evoke flying forms, though the ‘flight’ seems less to do with that of birds than that of flying buttresses in Gothic cathedrals.[28] Forms span space, defy gravity, and articulate potential future trajectories.

This element of movement marks the distance travelled since the calm stasis of the 1950s works. The initial inspiration of Moore and Hepworth, and the adherence to direct carving, had made way for a new form of expression. The decision to work in bronze entailed not only a new body of technical knowledge to master and a new method of working with foundry artisans, but also a complete reversal of her earlier practice: where once she had begun with a block of stone or wood and removed material, now she built up matter from an inner core and cast it into space. On a very broad level, this interest in the passage of material in space characterized much of the most advanced sculptural work then being produced in Europe, particularly in Italy, from the molten cores of Pomodoro’s spheres and columns, to the discomforting punctured balls of Fontana’s Spatial Concept: Nature series. It speaks of Redpath’s international affiliations during the 1960s, and points towards the increasing universality of her work that would emerge in subsequent decades. 

[1] The British Council toured a small collection of 15 sculptures and 27 drawings by Moore to the five Australian state galleries in 1947-48.

[2] Redpath, Autobiography, unpublished manuscript, artist’s papers, 1979 with revisions made in 1991, p. 17.

[3] Redpath, Autobiography, p. 19.

[4] Redpath, Traces 1950s: A description of the decade and of the associated events, unpublished manuscript, artist’s papers, c. 2002, p. 6.

[5] Redpath, Autobiography, p. 20.

[6] As a young girl she had worked with clay, both at the kindergarten attached to Strathcona Girls Grammar School and at Swinburne, and had watched her paternal grandmother model sealing wax as a means of decorating small boxes. Redpath, Autobiography, pp. 7-9, 20; Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 11.

[7] Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 6.

[8] Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 8.

[9]Bird Form has been dated c. 1950-51 based on its close affinity with the artist’s White Spheroid, 1950-51 (collection NGV), also carved in soapstone and with the same delicate red veining. On direct carving and stasis see Penelope Curtis, ‘How direct carving stole the idea of Modern British Sculpture’, in David Getsy (ed.) Sculpture and the Pursuit of a Modern Ideal in Britain, Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate Press, 2004, p. 293.

[10] Redpath, Autobiography, p. 26. Clifford Last’s exhibition of 1948 included two works titled Bird Form: one in mahogany and the other in alabaster (both private collections). In each case the bird’s head is turned and tucked under its wing, as occurs in Redpath’s Bird Form, although the tail feathers in the two works by Last are directed upwards in counterpoint to the downward sweep of the neck and wings.

[11] Thompson, The Argus, 30 October 1951.

[12] Centre 5 formed in January 1962. Redpath resigned in March 1964 owing to work commitments that increasingly required her to be in Milan, unable to fully participate in planning the group’s activities.

[13] Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 6.

[14] Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 5. The drawing referred to here as Horse, Bird and Sun is almost certainly Bird and Horse, 1957, in the present exhibition. The confusion likely arose owing to two later sculptures being titled Horse, Bird and Sun – one in the AGNSW and the other, smaller, version in the NGV.

[15] One of these two is almost certainly Untitled (woman and bird), bronze, 23 x 13 x 10, private collection, Mosman, NSW. The other work was gifted to a friend in Italy and is currently untraced.

[16] Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 5.

[17] Redpath attested to the importance of both Drysdale and Nolan to her own development: the former for his ‘capacity to scale relationships within the context of landscape’ and the latter for his grappling with the ‘infinite space’ of the outback (Redpath, Traces 1950s, p. 6).

[18] Redpath, Autobiography, p. 32.

[19] Smith, The Age, 15 October 1963.

[20] An ink drawing of Piccola Città was purchased by the NGV in 1963.

[21] Two further maquettes titled Piccola Città were produced: one in silver in 1976 and a slightly larger version in bronze in 1978, both in an edition of five. Examples of each are in the ANU art collection.

[22] Redpath, Autobiography, p. 35.

[23] Redpath, ‘Notes on Approach to Commissioned Sculpture’, unpublished manuscript, artist’s papers, 1969.

[24] The artist’s proof of Extending Arch is in the collection of the McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park, Langwarrin, while Redpath retained number one from the edition of two.

[25] As recounted in Redpath, ‘Untitled note re work’, unpublished manuscript, artist’s papers, June 1965.

[26] Gordon Thomson, An overall study of the work of Norma Redpath and in particular the years 1960 to 1970, Sydney: Rudy Komon Gallery, 1970, p. 19.

[27]Model for a Screen, 1968, aluminium, 90 cm wide, Comalco collection.

[28] The title Flying Capital was later applied to the Sydney Dattilo Rubbo Memorial at Melbourne University (1970-74), but in fact the memorial was based upon another bronzetti, Flying Column, 1967, which is also in the present exhibition.

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.