The hollow men 1966 signed and dated 'EDWIN TANNER 3-10/66' lower right oil on canvas 124.5 x 145.5cm (49 x 57 5/16in).
PROVENANCE Carnegie collection, 1966 Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1990
EXHIBITED Paintings from the collection of Mr and Mrs Douglas Carnegie, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 27 October 30 November 1966, cat. no. 81, titled We are the Hollow Men Edwin Tanner, Barry Stern Gallery, Sydney, 8 November December 1967, cat. no. 6 (loaned by Margaret Carnegie) Edwin Tanner: an exhibition of eighteen paintings, Powell Street Gallery, Melbourne, 2-20 October 1984, cat. no. 13, titled We are the Hollow Men Edwin Tanner: works 1952-1980, Monash University Gallery, 15 March 12 May 1990, cat. no. 69
LITERATURE Edwin Tanner: an exhibition of eighteen paintings, Powell Street Gallery, Melbourne, 1984, cat. no. 13 (illus.) Jenepher Duncan, Edwin Tanner: works 1952-1980, exh. cat., Monash University Gallery, 1990, pp. 10 (illus.), 69 Gary Catalano, 'Scepticism Tanner's diving force', The Age, Melbourne, 11 April 1990 (illus. detail)
For The hollow men we don't have to search far to find the reference to a central theme in T.S. Eliot. The title of his celebrated poem, published in 1925, quickly came to encapsulate the status of modern man literally and figuratively gutted, empty, a 'paralysed force, gesture without motion' and locked in a world doomed to end 'not with a bang but a whimper'. So, what to do about the existential hollowness that dogs our lives?
Tanner's genius consisted in turning Eliot's morose view on end. Thinking laterally and philosophically he comes up with what few, if any, other artists would have invented. The question had to have been "Is this situation as bad as it seems? Can emptiness be valuable?" Fossicking around and thinking musically he soon found a class of things in the world for whom hollowness is essential to their being wind instruments. And we humans have learnt to make and manipulate these hollow tubes to generate the music for our ears. Animating these pipes, he equips them with bodies and legs, but not feet they run on wheels. Like his ships, they defy gravity and this may explain why we see no trace of the fatalistic anguish that haunted Eliot's hollow men: Tanner's pipes (or are they pipers? Probably both) inhabit a world where the standard rules of physics are seriously but joyfully bent.
If that is indeed the case, then life starts looking better. If matter changes, then so will mind especially when we've had the cheek to turn our emptiness into music. These pipes might be modern versions of their famous forebear, The Pied Piper, luring us away to another world. Some with the straight back of the concert violinist, others with the suppler legs and torsos of the jazz musicians, they all dance jauntily across the canvas seemingly entranced by their own music. No whimpers here.
On the art history side, there are other related works in this series including If music be the food of love (Wilbow Collection, Melbourne) and Operatic aria (TarraWarra Museum of Art). They were painted in a transitional phase: the 60s was nothing if not an inventive and exploratory decade, and in Tanner's case he moved away from what are often referred to as the "flat" (and representational) paintings towards constructive works on board, often in deep relief. Typically, these had philosophers and engineers enclosed almost imprisoned in constricted spaces or boxes, and they employed a much higher degree of abstraction. The wit was still very much there, but the humour had darkened. The hollow men occupies a middle ground: the pipes (and pipers) are stylised and formalised, but set free to roam across an open landscape. A serene atmospheric perspective (shades of Yves Tanguy?) takes us to an empty horizon. What finer setting for beings whose hollowness is their central virtue?