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image icon 'Now and then', 1986

'Now and then', 1986
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting by John Brack (1920-99), painted in 1986. Measuring 152.7 cm x 184.2 cm, the painting shows a large number of steel nib pens and different coloured pencils arranged in groups on two different-shaped surfaces, one of which resembles a rectangular tabletop and the other an oval-shaped mirror. The group in the lower half of the work is painted in bright, clean colours, while the group in the upper half is quite subdued in its colour scheme. The pens and pencils at the centre of each of the two groups stand upright and are bunched together, while those at the edges are scattered with some lying flat. At the bottom centre of the work are three cards, each bearing a letter that spells the word 'Now'. In the upper section, near the middle of the painting, are two groups of cards, one of which consists of three blank red cards while the other has four cards with letters on them that read, from right to left, 'Then'.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an excellent example of the work of John Brack, one of Australia's most significant 20th-century artists - discharged from the army in 1946, Brack trained at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, along with fellow students Fred Williams (1927-82), Sam Fullbrook (1922-2004) and Clifton Pugh (1924-90); from 1952 to 1962 (when he became head of the National Gallery School) he produced some of his best-known figurative paintings, including 'Collins Street, 5 pm' (1956), and the 'Wedding' (1960) and 'Ballroom dancing' (1968) series; in 1972, at the age of 52, Brack took his first trip overseas which resulted in his pictorial world becoming more about notions of balance, the state of the world and binary opposites; he began focusing on different human situations such as world affairs, politics, religion and territorial disputes, and used allegorical symbols rather than the human figure to represent and symbolise these situations
  • uses symbolism to explore an idea - the pencil and the pen is the symbol of the artist's craft; throughout his work Brack continued to explore the idea of human regimentation and the way individuals in society can be shaped and controlled by systems and rituals of behaviour; the pens and pencils could have other symbolic roles to play in this painting; the pen and pencil sketches made by Brack when working towards this series of paintings were later destroyed by the artist, leaving those in the painting as 'reflections' of the originals
  • is a highly inventive and puzzling image - 'Now and then' may be the impossible image, a painting of time; the viewer must decide what the relationship is between the lower and upper sections of this image; careful viewing should reveal that something of the lower section is reflected in the upper half, which can be seen as the 'mirror' section, and if that is the case, the words 'Now' and 'Then' (reversed) would provide the key clues about time being like zones or spaces
  • demonstrates how ideas can be adapted from other artists and artworks - in 'The rout of San Romano' (1456), Italian artist Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) used massed and scattered spears to create the idea of the advance, clash and retreat of protagonists on a battlefield; in 'Now and then', Brack has manipulated the pens and pencils to create a similar sense of two opposing forces
  • demonstrates Brack's skillful use of compositional devices to engage the viewer - the high viewpoint has meant that everything is 'tipped up', allowing the artist to set up linear patterns that create a sense of the pencils and pens compressing and expanding, bonding and fragmenting; curator Dr Ted Gott has argued that the towers of pens and pencils in Brack's works are often positioned on very fragile unstable tables, as though the artist is telling us that 'the constructs of human civilisation exist in a very delicate balance that can be very easily toppled'; most of the pens and pencils are also in individual, precarious states of balance.