James Gleeson: Surrealist painter, art critic and curator who drew dark inspiration from contemporary events

James Gleeson was one of Australia's greatest artists, and the country's foremost surrealist painter. Unlike his contemporaries, who merely dabbled in surrealism, Gleeson remained true to its philosophy until his death at the age of 92. While his early work was critically acclaimed, in the middle period of his life Gleeson was better known as an art critic, author, poet and curator. At 68, he devoted himself to art full-time, and went on to produce more than 400 canvases.

Influenced not only by the great European surrealists, particularly Dalí and Magritte, but also by Freud and Jung's theories on the unconscious mind, his work features nightmarish landscapes, full of violent and disturbing imagery. The early paintings, it is said, made women faint, and at least one hysterical girl had to be escorted from an exhibition.

Yet their creator was a gentle, unassuming man who spent the past half-century in the same modest suburban cottage in Sydney, sharing it with his mother, Isabella, then with his partner of nearly 60 years, Frank O'Keefe. Gleeson spent every morning in his studio, pausing only for a cup of tea, and although he was very frail towards the end, he was still working at a prodigious rate in his nineties. Honoured with a retrospective in 2004/05, "James Gleeson – Beyond the Screen of Sight" at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gleeson was a philanthropist who bequeathed his entire estate – worth A$16m (£6.3m) – to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).

Born in Sydney in 1915, Gleeson grew up mainly by the sea. He lost his father, James, in an influenza epidemic in 1919 and was brought up by his mother. Gleeson used to say he was "born a surrealist", and even as a child felt reality lay beyond the surface of things. Gazing into coastal rock pools, he was captivated by the hidden life within. "Inside were fantastic creatures. They made me realise what I thought I knew about things was only the beginning." At 11, Gleeson was taught to use oil paint by his aunt, Doris McPherson, an accomplished amateur artist. He attended East Sydney Technical College, an art college, and became a teacher. But he continued to paint, and in 1939 exhibited his first work, City on a Tongue.

When he first read the philosophy of surrealism, "it just clicked", although it was not until 1939 that he saw a real Dalí. Surrealism seemed an artistic language appropriate for a dark period that witnessed the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In 1945, Gleeson painted his early masterpiece, Citadel, an apocalyptic vision deemed "too aggressive" to be included in his 1948 show at London's leading surrealist gallery, the London Gallery.

Travelling in Europe from 1947 to 1949, Gleeson became inspired by the great classical masters. He explored mythology and religion in his subsequent work, but remained true to his surrealist roots. During the Sixties and Seventies, he was a prominent art critic and historian, writing monographs of, among others, the Australian artists Sir William Dobell and Robert Klippel (a lifelong friend with whom Gleeson shared a studio in London and who also exhibited in the 1948 London Gallery show). Gleeson also wrote poetry, and worked for several arts foundations and advisory boards. He helped assemble the collections of the new National Gallery of Australia, which opened in Canberra in 1982.

For 27 years, he painted only at weekends, mainly producing small works featuring male nudes. Then in 1983 he took to his easel full-time for his "final burst", as he called it. He labelled his first canvas No 1. By the time of his death, he had passed No 450. This last phase of his artistic life is widely regarded as his most brilliant, yielding some truly monumental paintings, which Gleeson called "psychoscapes".

He drew further dark inspiration from the atmosphere generated by 9/11 and the war in Iraq. One critic wrote of these works: "Representing an ineffable world in the furthest recesses of the human mind, these form an imaginary coastline, not of water, rock and sand, but a disturbing, organic morass of muscle, sinew, carapace, shell, hair and dripping membrane." The director of the AGNSW, Edmund Capon, said this week: "James saw into our inner soul."

A talented draughtsman who always began a painting with a drawing, Gleeson never really received the recognition he deserved, and the 2004 retrospective was belated. Some blame his subject matter. While near-contemporaries such as Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale focused on Australian themes, Gleeson described the world of the imagination. Gleeson's bequest to the AGNSW was the largest ever received by the gallery. He said it was "my way of paying back to society what it provided to me... it enabled me to devote my life to art".

In 2005, Gleeson said he still had hundreds of ideas for paintings. His works are held by all the leading institutions in Australia, while the British Museum has some of his drawings.

Kathy Marks

James Gleeson, painter, art critic, poet and curator: born Sydney 21 November 1915; Lecturer, Sydney Teachers College 1945-47; AM 1975, AO 1990; Visiting Curator of Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia 1975-78; died Sydney 20 October 2008.

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