Footballers 1956 signed 'John Brack' lower right ink on paper 45.8 x 63.5cm (18 1/16 x 25in).
PROVENANCE Peter Gant Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1988
EXHIBITED Spring Exhibition, Peter Gant Fine Art, Melbourne, 27 October - 25 November 1988, cat. no. 40
LITERATURE Sasha Grishin, The art of John Brack, Oxford, 1990, vol. 2, p. 48
This 1950s ink drawing of Australian football players shows John Brack turning his attention to popular sport. It is one of only two studies made of this subject, for the artist was not a sports fan and never attended a football game. But Brack was interested in the subject intellectually because, according to Helen Brack, her husband "thought popular sports might give him a lead into human nature." 1
Melbourne was gripped by football fever in late 1956 when Brack developed the drawing: the MCG recorded its then greatest attendance when 116,002 people turned out to watch Collingwood beat Melbourne, the crowd being so large that the gates were closed at 1pm and many fans resorted to climbing on the grandstand roof. Sports excitement was also mounting in anticipation of the forthcoming Melbourne Olympic Games that November.
Intrigued at how the Australian imagination seemed gripped by sport, John Brack was conscious that a football match is effectively a contemporary form of ritualised combat, with historical roots reaching back to the medieval joust (team uniforms recall courtly livery) and the gladiatorial contest (the football ground is an arena). It is this sense of the ancient buried within the modern that Brack wanted to bring out.
Inspecting the drawing, even if one player jumping for a mark wears either a Collingwood or North Melbourne uniform, the composition was not intended to depict identifiable sportsmen in a specific match. Instead, it was meant as an image of generic footballers in a moment of intense action. The foremost players are taking a mark in three different manners, the work being a composite with Brack deriving the figures from newspaper photographs of different matches. 2
These motifs were flattened and schematised before an abbreviated background with goal posts positioned in middle ground to the left, the figures arranged in a physically improbable but aesthetically stimulating configuration. The finished design, which deliberately lacks a ball, both visually invokes the photographs for a popular spot-the-ball competition featured in Melbourne's Sun newspaper that year, and alludes to traditional frieze-like compositions of warring figures from Trajan's column to the Bayeux Tapestry.
John Brack made a second drawing in pencil of the three foremost figures in this piece, but took the football theme no further. Nonetheless he did later build on ideas introduced here. The compositional frieze effect was re-used in his major painting The chase of 1959; while competitions form the basis for both the 'Ballroom dancers' series of 1969 and 'Gymnasts and ice skaters' series of 1971-75, with the distinctive geometric values of this piece being developed further in the latter sporting works.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Helen Brack, conversation with author, 12 October 2008. 2 The probable sources are sports action photographs featuring Geelong's Clive Brown (Sun, 24 August 1956, p.21), Melbourne's Denis Cordner (Argus, 3 September 1956, p.18), Melbourne's Robert Johnson (Argus, 3 September 1956, p.18) and Collingwood's Laurence Rymer (Herald, 8 September 1956, p.36).