High-flyers of the 20th century


By Rhonda Dredge

A few lively works have emerged out of the store room of the Victorian Artists Society in Albert St during their recent renovations and can be seen at a short, 10-day exhibition.

A self-portrait by Norma Bell stands out, striking a note of joy in the mainly traditional fare on show in the three galleries.

And a painting by student Fay Smith captures a glamorous evening event at VAS some time in the ‘50s.

The works have not been curated and so the viewer has the enjoyable task of figuring out the dates and creating a story out of what is depicted.

This is the first time all of the works in the VAS collection have been on display, providing a rare insight into the workings of this prominent East Melbourne institution.

Two styles of painting dominate the collection, portraits and landscapes, with most of the sitters in sombre, formal poses in dark interiors and the landscapes quite literal.

Portrait with Blue Headdress presents artistry in the pose and dress of the subject, Norma Bell. It could have been painted in the ‘30s but judging by the biography of the artist is probably more recent.

Compare it to The Black Coat, a portrait by Ron Crawford of a respectable woman, possibly a local. The painting is dated ‘84. Is that 1984 or 1884?

Virtually all of the works, hung plus propped on the floor, are painted or rendered in pastel so that the subject is recognizable to the viewer.

Even though the VAS was connected to the avant-garde in its early days, the organization has evolved to value traditions. Yet it is democratic and promotes contemporary artists.

There’s the sketchy Portrait of Ray Hewitt by Lewis Miller on display, which is more expressionist and takes a few risks.

Those nostalgic for some glamour in their lives might appreciate the slim ankles of the 1950s, lit up in the street scene of Fay Smith’s Untitled.

“The girl inside is in a gown,” VAS president Eileen Mackley said. “The others are down to short cocktail dresses.”

A couple of horses stand out the front, suggesting the governor’s visit, she said.

The VAS is facing the task of documenting the 130 works, some of which have won prizes.

Norman Bull was a member between 1932 and 1937 before working as a war artist in England.

She studied at the National Gallery School after doing an arts degree and would definitely have qualified as a high-flyer for the times.

Two degrees meant something back in the 20th century and studying in Paris was de rigeur.

VAS Art Collection, Victorian Artists Society, until February 5.

vasgallery.org.au •

Kills off the talent too early

Kills off the talent too early

August 3rd, 2022 - Rhonda Dredge
Like us on Facebook