Power Play - The Art of John Wardell Power 1881 – 1943

Exhibition dates: 9 May - 27 June 2002

Opened by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Director of
the Museum of Contemporary Art, 6pm 9 May 2002

Portrait of a woman in pink
(Portrait of a woman in pink) c.1925, oil

John Power is well known for his important bequest of shares worth about $2,000,000 to the University of Sydney in 1961. This provided for the establishment of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, the Power Research Library and the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art. John Power wished to "make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in the plastic arts".

However John Power the painter also deserves to be better appreciated for his own artistic achievements. He was an original artist who participated in the avant-garde movements of his time and produced an exciting and unique body of work.

The Band, c.1929, oil, Bequest of Edith Power 1961
The Band, c.1929, oil, Bequest of Edith Power 1961

John Power was an expatriate artist who spent most of his life living in England. Independently wealthy he travelled extensively and painted in Morocco, Belgium, and France.

Shortly after completing a medical degree at the University of Sydney he left for Europe travelling as a ship's surgeon. By 1920 Power had received his substantial inheritance, married Edith Lee, and was able to devote his life to studying and making art.

Power received favourable reviews of his paintings from his first exhibition and was invited to exhibit with leading English artists Roger Fry, John and Paul Nash and Epstein in 1924. He continued to exhibit with progressive artists in London and Paris during the 20s and 30s.

His popular subjects are paintings of his travels, and portraits of luxurious family and domestic life.

(Head), gouache on paper, Bequest of Edith Power 1961
(Head), gouache on paper, Bequest of Edith Power 1961

His strong interest in flowing decorative patterns and vibrant colours found expression in studies of flowers and abstract still lifes imbued with a poetic symbolism.

In Paris Power was able to see the work of influential artists like Picasso and Dali. Power's art was initially inspired by the work of Picasso, Braque and the Cubist artists, although he developed his own ideas on picture composition based on geometry, and later, an interest in Surrealism.

Power was a meticulous draughtsman and a compulsive sketcher from life. His sketchbooks contain detailed studies for paintings and many examples of people enjoying life, picnicking, and promenading at the beach. The twenty-two paintings and a series of ten drawings in the exhibition revealed how the artist used geometry to construct abstract compositions based on his observations of life.

(Abstraction) c.1931, oil, Bequest of Edith Power 1961
Reproduction of images requires the permission of The University of Sydney
(Abstraction) c.1931, oil, Bequest of Edith Power 1961 Reproduction of images requires the permission of The University of Sydney

This exhibition provided a tantalising view of Power's artistic development and accomplishments, and was selected from over 150 paintings in the University's Power Collection housed in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.