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image icon 'The message arrives', 1995

'The message arrives', 1995
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting made in 1995 by James Gleeson (1915-). Measuring 131.5 cm x 177.5 cm, this largely abstract work is a swirling mass of organically shaped images and forms arranged around the irregular white shape at the centre of the work. These images and forms, which are largely off-white, grey and blue-grey in colour, are in turn bounded by organically shaped areas of strong bright blues and dark reddish-browns.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by James Gleeson, who is Australia's most notable Surrealist artist - Gleeson is also recognised for his significant contribution the Australian art scene, not only as a painter and poet, but as a critic, writer and curator; Gleeson studied at East Sydney Technical College (1934-36) and Sydney Teachers' College (1937-38); in 1947 he made the first of his overseas study tours; later tours (Europe 1947-49, Europe and USA 1958-59) saw him influenced by the work of Italian old masters, particularly Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), the British Romantic landscape artist J M W Turner (1775-1851) and modern Surrealist artists including Salvador Dali (1904-89); in the 1940s his works explored the effect of war on the human psyche; in the 1950s and 1960s his style of painting drew on religious imagery and classical mythology; through the 1970s and 1980s he created painterly abstractions that evolved from the human figure into dramatic, large-scale paintings with strong organic qualities
  • is an outstanding example of the artist's most recent style of work - the imagery of this work is characterised by a sense of half-realised organic forms caught up in some kind of interplay with cosmic forces; Gleeson considers his work of the last 20 years to be his 'most creative, without question ... the most important of my working life'
  • contains strong maritime references - most of the objects display the kind of hollows, ridges, joints and broken edges usually found in shoreline bones or shells; the upper right section of the painting resembles shallow seas meeting land; Gleeson continues to find inspiration in shoreline or littoral environments, particularly the rock pools and sea-sculpted forms found at Terrigal on the New South Wales central coast and from Noosa to Maroochydoore on Queensland's Sunshine coast
  • contains symbolism - in Surrealist art the shoreline is a symbolic site because here the subconscious (sea) meets the conscious (land); as a student, Gleeson became interested in the writings of the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung (1875-1961), particularly his theories relating to the collective unconscious; Jung proposed that the sea was the symbol of the collective unconscious; one of the artist's most critically acclaimed works is the painting titled 'We inhabit the corrosive littoral of habit' (1940), which presents the broken shell-like forms of a human face and figure within a shoreline setting
  • expresses an idea that is central to the artist's life and art - Gleeson has suggested that 'the basic spring for all these late paintings is the belief that everything is in a state of transition - not just in a state of transition, not just physical change, day by day - but throughout nature and the whole cosmos. Stars are born and die and everything changes its form but nothing is lost. It's reassembled'; this belief is evident here in the way in which the artist has created powerful illusions of forms rising, sinking and interlocking within swirling currents of movement
  • demonstrates skillful use of the paint medium to express ideas - the successful integration of the many visual features and details incorporated within 'The message arrives' is based on an ability to use tones and glazes, and to create strong illusionist details such as crevices, protruding forms and qualities of hardness, softness and liquidity
  • is the product of intensive deliberation - Gleeson works purely from memory, and drawings made in the studio using charcoal and collage always precede the act of painting; preparation may sometimes involve collecting and collaging photocopied images from books, magazines and newspapers, fragments of human anatomy as illustrated in medical texts or insect life photographed under a microscope; he has said that he looks 'hard at details of the landscape, mainly the rocks and the sea. I don't think you forget anything. It's all in the mind and, when the need arises, it surfaces and you can put it down'; many of the images for Gleeson's works are also resolved in a dreamlike state
  • is a surrealist-style work - Surrealism emerged as a 20th-century art movement with the publication of 'The Surrealist manifesto' in Paris in 1924; Surrealism took many different forms but was united by a common belief that art involved making forms not from conscious knowledge or thought or direct observation, but from the imagination; as Gleeson once stated, Surrealism means 'creating a synthesis between the daytime reality of our mind and the darkness of our subconscious world'.