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Important Australian Art / Leonard French (1928-2017) Man With A Serpent, 1960

Lot 62
Leonard French
Man With A Serpent, 1960
23 August 2022, 19:00 AEST

AU$30,000 - AU$50,000

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Leonard French (1928-2017)

Man With A Serpent, 1960
signed and dated upper left: 'French 1960'
titled verso: 'MAN WITH A SERPENT'
enamel on hessian on composition board
122.0 x 122.0cm (48 1/16 x 48 1/16in).


Mr Roderick Macdonald, Melbourne
thence by descent
Private collection, Melbourne

Weekend Galleries, Melbourne, 1960, as Man Entwined by Serpent

Vincent Buckley, Leonard French, The Campion Paintings, Grayflower Publications, Melbourne, 1962, p. 101, as Man Entwined by Serpent

The Garden, 1960, synthetic polymer paint on canvas on hardboard, 202.5 x 183.0cm, in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

By 1960, Leonard French had emerged as one of the country's most dominant figures in Australian modern art. Only one year prior, he had made the decision to become a full-time artist after securing a role as the first Exhibitions Officer at the National Gallery of Victoria under the directorship of Eric Westbrook. In 1960, French produced a body of work that is today considered to be amongst his most powerful and transformative. These works were promptly acquired by national public Institutions and the most prominent private collectors.

He won the 1960 Sulman Prize with his painting The Burial, which formed part of a series of five works entered that same year into the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Art Prize. Also included were Genesis (acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth), The Garden (acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), Death in the Garden (acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), and The Wake (acquired by Sir Allen Lane, London) all loosely based on the Book of Genesis. The present work, Man with a Serpent, also hails from this distinguished series of works.

Charles Blackman went on to win the travelling scholarship that year, however it was not without controversy. George Berger, art critic for The Observer, summed it up best when he wrote 'There is a general agreement in Sydney that Leonard French should have won... French, impresses by the grandeur of his achievement and the consistency of his effort. Genesis has a conceptual power and convincing quality in the handling of paint which could gain it a place in any of the world's leading galleries'.1

The years leading up to 1960, and his collaborative work with a brilliant young architect, Roderick Macdonald, (the present work having been owned by the Macdonald family since it was created), launched French's artistic career. Macdonald was a leading, innovative modernist architect between 1949-1996, a founding partner of Eggleston Macdonald & Secomb Architects and later, a long-term Trustee of the McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park.

'In 1956 Melbourne was to be the host city for the Olympic Games and Len was selected to create and construct a mural at the Beaurepaire Physical Education Centre at Melbourne University. Then pairing with a brilliant young architect, Rod Macdonald, and Len a rising star in the field of modern art, was not accidental. It was purposely engineered by the University and the Frank Beaurepaire estate in the belief that the outcome would add a new and exciting dimension to Melbourne's dull and dreary post-war architecture. The outcome was achieved, both architect and the artist lapped up the accolades.'2

Leonard French was one of many emerging artists with whom Macdonald shared an affinity. Other artists included Jan Senbergs (see lot 63) and Roger Kemp (see lot 64). Many of these artists complemented Macdonald's award-winning designs for clients such as BHP, the University of Melbourne (featuring Leonard French's first mural), and the State Bank Centre (now Commonwealth Bank of Australia featuring Leonard French's largest mural).

Alex Clark

1. Reg MacDonald, The Boy from Brunswick: Leonard French, a Biography, Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne, 2018, p. 174
2. Ibid., p.143-144

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