Ralph Balson (1890-1964) Untitled, 1941

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Lot 58
Ralph Balson
Untitled, 1941

Sold for AU$ 402,600 (US$ 275,876) inc. premium
Ralph Balson (1890-1964)
Untitled, 1941
signed and dated lower right: 'R-BALSON-/41'
oil and metallic paint on cardboard
70.5 x 56.0cm (27 3/4 x 22 1/16in).


    The estate of the artist
    Cooks Hill Galleries, Newcastle
    Private collection, Sydney

    Ralph Balson - Oil Paintings, Anthony Horderns' Fine Art Galleries, Sydney, July 1941
    Ralph Balson, Gallery A, Sydney, November 1979, cat. 14 (label attached verso, signed by Ann Lewis)
    Ralph Balson: 10 Constructive Paintings, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, October 1980, cat. 6
    R-Balson-/41 - Anthony Horderns' Fine Art Galleries, Ivan Dougherty Galleries, College of Fine Arts, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 August - 27 September 2008
    Call of the Avante-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 5 June - 8 October 2017, cat. 7

    R-Balson-/41 - Anthony Horderns' Fine Art Galleries, Ivan Dougherty Galleries, College of Fine Arts, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008, p. 14-15 (illus.), 39
    Sue Cramer and Lesley Harding, Call of the Avante-Garde: Constructivism and Australian Art, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2017, p. 44 (illus.), 144 (illus.), 145

    Painting, 1941, oil on paperboard, 78.7 x 63.5cm, in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
    Painting, 1941, oil on cardboard on composition board, 47.2 x 78.7cm, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

    In August 1941 Ralph Balson held an exhibition of paintings at the Fine Art Galleries in Anthony Hordern's George Street department store. The exhibition of twenty-one works proved to be something of an artistic emergence for Balson, though he had contributed to a group show of mostly abstract works (Exhibition I, David Jones Gallery) two years earlier. Organised with the help of his friend and mentor Grace Crowley, the 1941 exhibition was later acknowledged as the first solo exhibition of totally abstract art in Australia though at the time its reception by a conservative and parochial Sydney audience was largely one of scorn, one critic dismissing them as purely decorative.

    If anything, they were the opposite, instead grounded in wide-ranging aesthetic theory. Balson read extensively and, according to Crowley, fully embraced and understood abstract art in a way she did not. While Balson would later say that Mondrian was 'the greatest single influence', his 1941 works also show a sophisticated understanding of international Cubism through the teachings of Albert Gleizes and a familiarity with the work and ideas of the Hungarian artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy whose circles and semi-circles can been seen in his dynamic compositions.

    Another influence on Balson's 1941 works (as noted by Deborah Edwards in her essay in 2008 CoFA exhibition catalogue) was probably the exhibition held at the Guggenheim Museum curated by the German artist Baroness Hilla Rebay in 1936. As well as Kandinsky and Rebay herself, the exhibition included the work of the then little-known German artist Rudolf Bauer, though Balson's work never emulated their hectic energy and crowded compositions. Rebay applied the term 'non-objective' to their work, which she defined as being devoid of any relationship to the natural world: compositions of the 'abstract', as opposed to the 'abstracted'; that is, a composition without an object. In a rambling (and at times incoherent) foreword to the catalogue, Rebay argued that non-objective art gave respite from the harsh reality of representational images as seen in modern 'reproductions, photographs and movies', images in which the horror of the war was presented to the public as never before. By contrast, the viewer could feel uplifted and rested by the 'elevation, rhythm, balance and beauty' of non-objective art.

    However, another probable influence on Balson was the 1939 Herald exhibition of British and European art brought to Australia by the newspaper tycoon Sir Keith Murdoch. First exhibited in Sydney at the David Jones Gallery in November - December 1939, the exhibition was stranded in Australia by the outbreak of the second world war and re-mounted at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the first six months of 1940. Amongst the two hundred works shown were nine Picassos, four Braques and seven Cézannes, as well as works by Léger, Ben Nicholson, Gris, de Chirico and Chagall. Conservatives in the Sydney art world labelled the exhibition the work of 'degenerates and perverts' but its impact on Balson, Crowley and their circle of Sydney modernist artists cannot be overestimated. This was of course an age when almost all art reproductions were still in black and white and very poor in quality. Colour was expensive and usually reserved for the most expensive books, rather than art magazines and catalogues. Probably for the first time Balson saw first-hand the works of Picasso (yellow and black); Gris (greens and browns); Léger (yellow, blacks, maroon); Ernst (greens, browns and blacks) and Nicholson (browns and creams). Given the duration of the exhibition, Balson had time to observe and absorb.

    In this work, the palette would seem to reflect the age of war: the browns and royal blues and maroons of uniforms, with touches of green, black and metallic gold. Here an ominous black shape - somewhere between a cone and a triangle - pierces a golden halo, sending other circles and rectangles tumbling in disarray. His technique was not the smooth finish of his later works; his edges are not perfect and his hand is always apparent. However, his colour choices for the whole series were audacious and unlike any of his contemporaries. Balson understood that colour was form and subject.

    Though not successful at the time, the exhibition marked a turning point for Balson towards what he would subsequently call his 'constructive' paintings and set him on the path that he would follow for the next decade.

    Dr Candice Bruce

    A word from SHEILA

    Some of you may not have heard of my mother, Sheila Cruthers. In the course of her life she was variously described as a human dynamo, a force of nature, a friend to women artists and the rudest woman in Perth. It's true that she could be direct, blunt even, but she had a tremendous passion for life and, after 1974, for women's art. In that year she started to collect Australian art by women. After some time reading and touring galleries, she began to assiduously pursue work by unknown or neglected historical artists. At the same time she met, supported and often befriended younger women artists, buying works
    from their early exhibitions and helping in other ways.

    In 2007 Sheila donated her collection to The University of Western Australia so it could be preserved and made available to the Australian people. By then known as the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art, it comprised over 460 artworks by 175 artists. Now numbering over 700 artworks, it is the largest stand-alone collection of art by women in Australia, and one of the largest in the world. It's probably best known for its holdings of over 100 self portraits by Australian women artists, known colloquially as "Sheila's sheilas".

    Also in 2007, Sheila started a family foundation to assist the collection
    at UWA and support and advocate for women's art and women artists. After 10 years of operation, her foundation is now transitioning to a new entity - SHEILA A Foundation for Women in Visual Art. It is named in honour of the first Sheila, but also to acknowledge the 50% of Australia's population who aren't blokes – and who, in the art world at least, we should be hearing more about.

    Within our family, Mum was only one collector among three. My father favoured 20th century artists, nearly all men, like Lloyd Rees, John Olsen, Sam Fullbrook and Guy Grey-Smith. I collected the work of younger contemporary artists who were my peers – Tim Johnson, Geoff Lowe, Angela Brennan, Elizabeth Newman. But when Sheila's collection was exhibited at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1995 as part of the National Women's Art Exhibition, it was obvious that her women's art was the most interesting and valuable part of our family's collection. It was a unique repository of art made by women over a century that provided a rare window into their experiences, their stories and what drove them.

    From that moment on, my family stopped collecting men's art. In fact we began selling art by men to fund the continued growth of the women's collection, a development Sheila proudly boasted about. In the period from 1995 to the 2007 gift, it tripled in number. Mum would be pleased to see this trend continuing in the present auction.

    She would be equally pleased to see her humble family foundation transitioning into a public entity with a national reach. SHEILA will be launched in Perth in May 2019, and will support and celebrate women artists through research projects, public awareness and advocacy campaigns, symposiums, lectures and exhibitions. It will also continue to assist and grow the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art at The University of Western Australia.

    We urge you to keep an eye out for SHEILA and, after its launch next year, to become involved in our programs and events, subscribe to our newsletter and support us financially. We sincerely believe that working together we can bring generations of neglected women artists back into the light, and create a more level playing field so today's women artists, and those of the future, can fulfil their talent and potential. As Sheila herself often said, it's time for women's voices and stories to be heard.

    John Cruthers

    Bonhams will be donating 10% of its profits from the sale of Ralph Balson's Untitled, 1941, to the SHEILA Foundation. We invite you to join us in supporting this important and timely initiative.
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