The breakfast table 1958 signed and dated 'John / Brack 58' lower right oil on canvas 121.8 x 68.5cm (47 15/16 x 26 15/16in).
PROVENANCE Mr and Mrs Hal Moran, Melbourne Gifted to Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Melbourne Fine Australian Paintings including the Dr. John L. Raven Collection, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 17 April 1989 lot 470 (illus.) Private collection Donald Cornes Fine Australian Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 08 April 1990, lot 123 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1990
EXHIBITED Group exhibition, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, July 1958 First Anniversary Exhibition, Terry Clune Galleries, Sydney, 1323 August 1958, cat. no. 3 John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 10 December 1987 31 January 1988, cat. no. 40 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE University of Melbourne: Catalogue of works of art, 1971, University of Melbourne, Carlton, 1971, p. 3, titled The laid table Sasha Grishin, The art of John Brack, Oxford, 1990, vol. 2, ref pp. 12, 106 (illus.) Kirsty Grant, et al, John Brack Retrospective, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p. 106
When teaching, John Brack repeatedly advised his painting students to avoid cliché. Conventional habits of seeing were anathema to him, so the things to be avoided with still life were the pictorial and thematic customs associated with that genre. Not for Brack then the pretty picture of petunias or roses on a crystal vase. Instead he took as his subject with The breakfast table the unnoticed everyday sight of a kitchen table in an untidy state before the cutlery and plates have been cleared away. Cliché has been avoided. Then again, the seemingly unassuming glimpse of domesticity shows the artist painting a portrait of his own family at one remove. If they are not literally present, here are the traces of John and Helen Brack and their four young daughters in the kitchen with items left on a table one busy morning.
This is still life that speaks of other matters otherwise off the canvas of human relations and personal character traits; indeed, the National Gallery of Victoria's curator Kirsty Grant extolled this canvas as a 'stilled fragment of human existence.' 1 Breakfast has finished and the participants have gone, although the detective-like artist has set out visual clues that tell us about the people who were here. To begin with Brack himself, his painter-wife, and their four daughters are signified by a glass, a tea cup and four mugs. Of course, all these vessels are empty, much like the egg shell in its cup, and the five plates dotted with a few crumbs left from toast. Even bottles are drained of liquids. Not a scrap of food remains. No crusts, no dabs of butter, no unconsumed dregs of milk. The youngsters have gobbled all up. They were hungry.
Then again Brack has set himself some deliberate artistic tasks with this domestic composition. The palette is not naturalistic for all is illuminated with an unsettling acid green tinge, and there is a suggestion of purple to the thin shadows cast on the white table cloth (a similar palette to that used in his 1957 painting of a nude in a suburban bathroom). Rather than painting this still life in perspective, the artist has also taken an unexpected viewpoint nearly over the table so that the objects upon it are plotted out and arranged geometrically. This translates the household objects into a pattern. If bottles and glasses are tubular, plates seem closed to flattened discs on a hard surface. There is a restrained formality especially to the seven bone-handled knives, which are tilted at different angles. Design values are given primacy. This is why the rectangular table top so neatly fills nearly all of the canvas, Brack only allowing glimpses of the floor and chairs to intrude in skinny gaps along the picture's edge, while all that is shown of the wall beyond is a near abstract blur.
All of this was surely apparent when The breakfast table was painted. However, what no one could possibly have perceived is how it foreshadows future pictures, setting out in embryonic form ideas that would become dominant themes in Brack's art of the following decades. Here, for instance, is a foretaste of those arrangements of knives synonymous with his 1960s still lifes, his grim existentialist portrayals of instruments that cut, pierce and wound. So, too, we find the origin of Brack's allegorical table tops of the 1980s, those densely considered pictures on human conflict. In fact, the artist later explained that their initial inspiration had been his father-in-law's habit of illustrating his memories of First World War battles by using knives, forks and butter bowls on the family dinner table to illustrate troop movements.
There are depths to this complex painting. It speaks of the artist's family relationships, of his creative aversion to cliché, and also of those formal problems he daily confronts in the studio, those technical questions of how one brings off an adroitly designed work. Yet it also uncannily foretells of important pictures to come, of paintings in which John Brack will use allegorical means to probe weighty ideas about humanity, conflict, even existence.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Kirsty Grant, et al, John Brack, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p. 106