Beauty and the beast - the Art of James Gleeson 1938 - 1958

Exhibition dates: 28 August - 3 October 2002

This exhibition presented thirty art works by major Australian artist James Gleeson, Australia's most visionary and venerable surrealist artist.

Images, 1946 University of Sydney Art Collection

Images, 1946 University of Sydney Art Collection

He has had a remarkable artistic career that spans over sixty years, as well as an influential role as an art critic and writer. Gleeson continues to paint and have commercially successful exhibitions of his work.

Included were major paintings on loan from the Kerry Stokes collection and the Holmes à Court collection as well as two paintings from the Agapitos/Wilson collection, acknowledged as the finest collection of Surrealism in private hands.

The National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Macquarie University, and Bendigo Art Gallery, also lent important paintings to the University.

Featured in this exhibition were seven important paintings from the University of Sydney's Art Collection in an historical context with related paintings from the 1940s and 50s. This was a period when Australian art was dominated by imaginative responses to the horror of war and the artistic influence of European Surrealism and Expressionism. The earliest painting on display dated from 1938 and was purchased from the artist's first exhibition at Sydney Teachers College.

The Judgement of Paris, James Gleeson University of Sydney Art Collection

The Judgement of Paris, James Gleeson University of Sydney Art Collection

The concept of this exhibition was to focus on an important early period when he was painting subjects drawn from the Bible, art history and classical mythology.

Gleeson is a superb painter with masterly painting skills allied to a rich and astonishing imagination. His art is also deeply philosophical with literary and psychological insights. There are levels of layered and hidden, meanings to be discovered in his paintings. Gleeson has written about this, "Many of the depicted images are the end results of remembered dreams. Many others have floated into my consciousness so precisely detailed that they could only have been forced up by pressures in the subconscious level".

For some viewers Gleeson's images may seem beautiful and frightening at the same time. One of the intriguing aspects of art of this period is Gleeson's alternation between "beauty and the beast" within the same painting. For Gleeson the line between beauty and ugliness and good and evil is only an imaginary line as he says, "In Nature, in the cosmos, the rose and the virus co-exist".

Regarded as Australia's most important surrealist artist, Gleeson has practised as a painter, poet, and collagist since the 1930s.