Mad girl c.1942-43 also known as 'Mad woman', 'Mad lady' oil on beaten tin 44.5 x 57.2cm (17 1/2 x 22 1/2in).
PROVENANCE John and Sunday Reed, Melbourne Museum of Modern Art and Design, Melbourne Reed Estate, Melbourne Private collection, Melbourne Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1997
EXHIBITED Modern Australian art, toured as A Melbourne collection, Museum of Modern Art and Design, Melbourne, September 1958; David Jones' Gallery, Sydney, 18 February 7 March 1959, cat. no. 51 Joy Hester, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 6-25 October 1976, cat. no. 81 Joy Hester, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, April - May 1977, cat. no. 24 Project 21: Women's Images of Women, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 October 13 November 1977, cat. no. 20, titled Mad Lady Joy Hester, National Gallery of Victoria, September 1981, cat. no. 13 Art and Social Commitment: an end to the city of dreams, 1931-1948, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 September 28 October 1984; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 15 November 1984 - 6 January 1985; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 January - 3 March 1985; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 26 March - 28 April 1985, cat. no. 65 A Century of Australian women artists 1840s-1940s, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 1993, cat. no. 162 Great Australian Paintings: from Melbourne Private Collections, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 30 May 15 June 1997, cat. no. 26 Joy Hester and Friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1 September 28 October 2001 For Matthew and others, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney, 5 October - 11 November 2006, cat. no. 217
LITERATURE Barrie Reid, et al, Modern Australian art, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art and Design, Melbourne, 1958, p. 69 Jude Adams, Jennifer Barber, Barbara Hall, Project 21: Women's images of women, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1977, pp. 2-3 Janine Burke, Joy Hester, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1981, p. 24 (illus.) Janine Burke, Joy Hester, Greenhouse, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 64-65, p. 69 (illus.) Charles Merewether, Art and Social Commitment: an end to the city of dreams, 1931-1948, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1984, pp. 42, 96-97, p. 147 (illus.) A Century of Australian women artists 1840s-1940s, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 1993, cat. no. 162, p. 41 (illus.) Great Australian paintings from Melbourne Private Collections, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 1997, cat. no. 26, p. 48 (illus.) Deborah Hart, Joy Hester and Friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001, pp. 30-31 (illus.) Dinah Dysart, et al, For Matthew and others, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2006, pp. 89 (illus.), 140-141, 153
Joy Hester was born into a middle-class Melbourne family in 1920. Although they were reasonably well-off, the family dynamics were not healthy. In 1930 her bank-manager father was sacked for drinking, and by 1932 he was dead. Hester's adolescence was marked thereafter by battles with her controlling and increasingly vindictive mother. Fortunately Hester found escape in the sympathetic family of a cousin and at school, where her aunt taught drawing. In 1937 Hester enrolled at the Gallery School. The dusty, Victorian-era curriculum gave her a solid grounding in academic draughtsmanship, for which she drew praise, but she did not last long. Hester liked to be provocative and was attracted to experimentation in art and life. She played up her strikingly sensual blonde looks by peroxiding her hair and adopted what John Reid referred to as 'half-baked' communist views. In 1938 she met Albert 'Bert' Tucker, a broke but shiningly committed artist six years older than herself and left home to live with him. The young couple were hounded by Hester's enraged mother and moved their shabby digs often. Hester took on a series of menial jobs to make ends meet, including as a portrait model and as a taxi-pager. At the same time, she and Bert joined the new Contemporary Art Society (CAS) and began exhibiting with it. In 1939, the landmark Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art containing works by Dali, Picasso and others came to Melbourne. Too radical for the National Gallery of Victoria, it was shown at the Melbourne Town Hall. Fittingly, this was where Hester was introduced to Sunday Reed, one of the key figures in her life. Sunday was fifteen years older than Hester, patrician, cultured, generous and charismatic. Her lawyer husband John was a leader of the CAS and a radical spokesman for the modernist cause. Hester and Bert were drawn willingly into the Reed's world of conversation, art, music, poetry and books at their home at Heide, an ex-dairy farm property in semi-rural Templestowe.
Mad girl was painted in Melbourne around 1941 to 1943, tumultuous years in which Hester's ongoing personal dramas meshed with the generalised anxiety and changes brought on by the war. Hester married Bert in January 1941, using a false name to escape detection by her mother. The transition to 1942 was a particularly tense and fearful time when Australia seemed to face real prospects of invasion. In February 1942 the British surrendered Singapore and Japan began its bombing raids on Darwin and the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory. The young men of Hester's circle were leaving en masse for the army. Sid Nolan was posted to Dimboola and Bert to Wangaratta. He left Hester living in a primitive tin shed across the road from the Reeds at Heide. Perhaps this was where Mad girl was painted.
In 1939-41 Hester was groping towards her personal style in figure studies from the model and in sketches of everyday life observed in streets and bars. Her work variously recalls the massive distortions of the figure of Picasso, Henry Moore and Peter Purves Smith, the hard German Expressionism of George Grosz and the street scenes of Melbourne social realist Danila Vassilieff. Hester was at the same time looking inward, writing poetry and producing masses of ink drawings from memory. Brush and ink and watercolour were her preferred media. Lacking a studio, Hester worked rapidly and deftly while sitting on the floor at home or at Heide, often as company and conversation milled about her. Mad girl has the unlaboured spontaneity, fluidity and strong black outlines of her best drawings and anticipates her mature style. Always chronically short of cash, Hester could not afford to be fussy about materials. Mad girl, one of her occasional essays in oils, is painted on a scrounged piece of bashed-out tin.
Hester rarely dated her early works and tended to give them simple, if enigmatic, titles. The anonymous Mad girl has no story or specific evocation of place. The clues to her psychological derangement are subtle. They are in her massive, shapeless body sprawling over the foreground, in the naked, unmistakeably public expanse of the linoleum floor and the unadorned walls, in the heavy black bars of the chair, and in her broad, sliding features. Yet she is not in institutional garb but sitting up and dressed with care. Her bright frock is prettily trimmed at the neck and sleeves, her hair is waved, her eyebrows delicately in flight and her mouth freshly smeared with red lipstick. She appears alert and grounded with her capable hands and arms relaxed, but her chalky face is almost collapsing with sadness. Her wide-spaced eyes with their exaggerated whites veer in the direction of the open doorway behind her. Perhaps this doorway holds the promise of release, or perhaps she is waiting for someone to come through it.
Harry 1942 (University of Queensland) uses the same motif of the open doorway behind a frontal figure and therefore helps to date Mad girl more securely. Harry was a taxi-driver and, briefly, Hester's lover while Bert was away on war service. Harry is in a domestic room, probably a bedroom, indicated by a mirror on the wall and rug on the floor. Orange-yellow light floods into Harry's room through the doorway whereas in Mad girl the light that fills the narrow, distant aperture is cold white and unable to penetrate. Unlike the mad girl, naked, truculent Harry is full of red-blooded life and needs none of our warming empathy.
Other artists Hester knew were interested in portraying psychosis at this time, exacerbated by their war experience. In 1942 Nolan painted a traumatised digger in Head of a soldier and Tucker a truly terrifying, barely human image of total breakdown in No way out. Yet Hester's Mad girl offers no wider context of a commentary on men and war. The plight of the mad girl is a private and feminine one, all the more touching for having no claims to importance.
References Janine Burke, Joy Hester, Random House, Sydney, 2001 (first published 1983) Janine Burke (ed.), Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne, 1995 Deborah Hart, Joy Hester and Friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001