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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all