ARTIST, ART TEACHER
By JAVANT BIARUJIA
JOAN Gough, one of Australias earliest abstract painters and a quietly influential figure in the promotion of modern art, has died in Glen Iris, aged 93.
Born in Reading, London, to Edith and Ernest Cook, she arrived in Australia four years after the end of World War I with her widowed mother and brother, Bobby, who died young. They settled in Tasmania within a community of Religious Society of Friends. The tug-of-war between her Gypsy heritage her grandmother was a fully fledged Gypsy and Quaker upbringing soon emerged, and may have been the source of her artistic talent. She attended the Quaker school in Hobart and in 1940 graduated from Tasmania University.
She questioned everything, much to the alarm and annoyance of her Quaker elders, who preferred womens roles to be unassuming, something Gough never was. She studied first under Andrew Fleury, and later, under Lucien Dechaineux, and worked briefly with Hirschfeld Mack, who had taught Paul Klee at the Bauhaus. She quickly gained renown as a portrait painter, but it was the modern art movements in Europe and the United States that excited her most and to which she devoted her creative powers.
She was particularly known for her Bauhaus colour theories and was deeply immersed in the ideas of Aldous Huxley and Arthur Koestler.
While in Tasmania, she introduced art therapy to mentally ill patients at the asylum at New Norfolk at least a decade before Eric Cunningham Daxs pioneering work in the field. With World War II raging, she moved to Melbourne, where she defended conscientious objectors using her Quaker principles, before connecting with the modern art movement.
Sunday Reed invited her to join her artists colony at Heide, but she declined her Quaker side won over the wilder Gypsy. Appalled by the free living at Heide, she told Reed that she preferred to know who the father of her children was. She did, however, maintain a loose association, attested by her sketches of Joy Hester and Albert Tucker, now in the State Library of Victoria.
She furthered her education at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, as well as Melbourne University, and was a council member of the Royal Tasmanian Art Society and committee member of the Victorian Art Society.
By the 1970s, Gough was heavily involved in the Contemporary Art Society, headquartered at the Joan Goughs Studio Gallery in South Yarra. She was president of the organisation for six years.
Her gallery was run not for profit but for artists nurturing and development. She ran an annual art prize for contemporary art (as she also did at Ruyton Girls School, where she taught art for 23 years to great admiration and popularity), organising such luminaries in the art world as Fred Williams, Patrick McCaughey, Lenton Parr, Clifton Pugh, Bernard Smith, Jan Senbergs and others as judges, with former Victorian premier Sir Rupert Hamer opening her first show in Kew. In 1989, she started her own group, Contemporary Art Australia, which, although remaining at her gallery, had an international reach. She continued sponsoring art prizes, with a group meeting informally every Monday for years, to paint, discuss art theory and socialise.
In 1991, McClelland Gallery & Sculpture Park, in Langwarrin, held a major retrospective of Goughs work, especially her assemblage of found objects of the Australian landscape, such as feathers and seed pods. (The only other Australian artist focusing on assemblage at the time was Rosalie Gascoigne.) Her Message Sticks, for instance, was directly inspired by indigenous culture, though in no way imitative.
She often reworked the surfaces of found objects, or gave new life to discarded objects, such as the innards of a veneer door, which became Snake, Inhabitant of the Gully. Her work is held at the McClelland, the State Library and in many private collections in Australia, the Philippines, Britain and the United States.
Gough, recognised as a great art teacher, became a board member of Victorias Ministry for the Arts. She was an early exponent of Womens Liberation, supported Gay Liberation (her Drag-Queens Neon City series of 1984 also attests to her sense of fun and good humour), and was fascinated by the counterculture, painting imaginary punk rockers in the Australian landscape.
In her retirement, she was a volunteer guide at the National Gallery of Victoria. Her white Daimler parked in front of the water wall of the NGV was a familiar sight during the McCaughey years. Married first to Ron Gough, her second husband, Ronald Notley died in 2004. She is survived by her daughter, Brier another daughter, Vanessa, predeceased her by six weeks.