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.
— Introduction by Charles Nodrum
Roger Kemp's paintings of the late 1930s form a small but coherent body of work – one as forward looking and exploratory as any of his Australian contemporaries. Yet, with the brief exception of a few shown in the extensive, five-gallery retrospective curated by Patrick McCaughey in 1978 (1) they have remained virtually unknown. Even for a market-watcher like myself, knowledge was restricted to a few small monochromatic studies which occasionally appeared on the secondary market and, with their energy, idiosyncrasy and high level of abstraction, always instigated the obvious questions of "How come?" and "Where from?"
The answers are now clearer. Kemp fell into the classic mould of the introspective (in which he was far from alone: the history of the arts is well supplied). Furthermore, he was quiet (to the point of silent) concerning his early life and our current knowledge derives from Christopher Heathcote's later biographical research. From this we learn that, unlike the Boyds or the Heide set, who formed small clans that were both supportive and critical, Kemp had few artist friends - and his family remember his taste for long, solitary walks. Music was, and remained, significant. He came from a Methodist background where hymn singing was regular and in his youth he had sung in a choir; in later years, fellow students at the Gallery School remember him occasionally breaking spontaneously into song as he worked at his easel.(2) From the outset, many paintings were given titles relating to music, and the connection between the musical and visual arts remained significant throughout his career.
In the early 20th century, the combination of music and the visual arts had been revolutionised by the Ballets Russes - costumes, choreography, sets and music all underwent a sea-change. When they came to Melbourne audience response was strong, and Kemp was transfixed - and it's not hard to see why, given his background in both the relevant art forms. The results were unique. First, an expansively high-keyed palette made the ruling traditionalists look stodgy and the emerging modernists (the Bell-Shore group) look politely restrained; even the Angry Penguins of the early 1940s tended to favour a quieter palette. Next, the forms and marks were infused with an electric energy: in many of the ballet works the brushstrokes seem to mirror the muscles of the dancers straining to stretch and leap and spin. On this score they are truly expressionist paintings in their effort to communicate directly those physical tensions. At the same time they can be seen as harbingers of his later abstraction in their shift of emphasis away from the depiction of the visible bodies to the invisible energy itself. It is also worth noting other interests that informed the work – colour theory (Steiner and Goethe) and theosophy, both of which played a role in the work of Godfrey Miller, with whom he is sometimes compared.
In the mid 1940s there’s a dramatic change of palette. In the landscapes, day is followed by night, and from the dark nocturnes there soon emerged a purer abstraction that held sway through the 50s and into the 60s. Here, circles, cruciforms (and, later, bird-forms) appear and the symbolic aspect comes more to the fore: the circle epitomising balance and perfection; the cruciform, the human body; and the dove, flight and freedom. Composition board and enamel paints allowed for both a larger scale and for the more rigorous patterning for which he is probably best known. In these he seemed to be moving towards a transcendence of both the order and the chaos of the universe – no less – from the microcosm of the atom (and the particles with all those strange names and even stranger behaviours) to the macrocosm of the galaxies (where the seemingly random scatter of stars is now seen as firmly guided and ordered by predictable physical forces).
This was to prove the over-riding direction of the artist’s work - and this exhibition, focussing on his first 30 years, briefly maps the steadily diminishing presence of the visible outside world in his paintings - and the equally determined exploration of forms. But in this task Kemp never became a pure formalist in the Greenbergian sense. He practised what some have termed 'transcendental abstraction' (3) and others 'symbolic abstraction' (4). In this world, forms don't have meaning in the sense that words have meaning (and definition) - rather, they suggest, via the relationships between the forms, an order or harmony which, being abstract, can never be physically depicted, only evoked.
1. Patrick McCaughey, Roger Kemp – Cycles and Directions 1935-1973, exhibition catalogue, Monash University, Melbourne, 1975
2. Christopher Heathcote, The Art of Roger Kemp, McMillan, Melbourne, 2007, p 17; 25
3. Heathcote, op cit,
4. Bernard Smith, Australian Painting, OUP, all eds., chapter 11, p 373-386, passim