Bea Maddock: A Lifetime of Innovative Printmaking

The original article published in Imprint Winter 2013 Volume 48 Number 2.

‘For Maddock the process of creating the work of art is an essential element of the final result, requiring concentration, stamina and conceptual rigour.’

Cover for Imprint Winter 2013 Volume 48 Number 2 featuring Tony Ameneiro‘s Floral Head with Infinity Ear, 2013, multi-plate colour monotype, 76 x 56 cm.

Following the sad news of Bea Maddock’s death last weekend, and as a tribute to this inspiring artist, we revisit an article written by Alisa Bunbury, Curator, Prints and Drawings, NGV, and published in the winter 2013 issue of Imprint, Vol. 48 No 2. It appeared during the NGV‘s survey exhibition Bea Maddock, 14 February to 21 July, 2013.

Bea Maddock is one of Australia’s most significant artists, recognised in particular for her innovative and evocative prints. Through her art Maddock explored issues of loneliness, vulnerability and autonomy, and in her later work pursued investigations into place, environment and Australia’s contested histories. Maddock’s name and art are less widely known than might be expected for an artist of her stature. Although she exhibited widely over many years, she never catered to the art market. Her printed editions were small and her art was acquired more frequently by institutions than by private collectors, and in her later years she opted out of the commercial gallery system. A survey of her art was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1980 and major exhibitions were organised by the National Art Gallery, Wellington, which toured New Zealand in 1982–83, and jointly by the Queensland Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia, which toured Australia in 1991–92. Thus the current exhibition of Maddock’s art at the NGV is the first to survey her entire output. Based on the Gallery’s strong holdings, it inevitably omits some key examples of her art held in other collections, but nevertheless spans from the earliest etchings to her last great panoramic work, completed in 1998.

Born in Tasmania in 1934, Maddock trained and worked as an art teacher before heading to London to undertake post-graduate study at the Slade School (1959-61) where she first had access to printmaking facilities and training. Her earliest prints include a number of painterly lithographs and prints exploring the tonal possibilities of hard- and soft-ground etching and aquatints, primarily based on life studies undertaken at the School and strongly influenced by the prints of Georges Rouault.

On her return to Tasmania Maddock taught art at the Launceston Teacher’s College, painting, drawing, printing, making ceramics and creating the occasional sculpture in her own time. Lacking access to a press, she printed relief prints and lithographs by hand. She held her first solo show in a Launceston shopfront in 1964. The positive reception of this exhibition encouraged her to move to Melbourne, where fellow Slade student and friend Murray Walker included her work in Six Young Printmakers, at the Argus Gallery later that same year. However the move did not result in opportunities for employment and exhibitions as she had hoped; instead it was a period of great loneliness and introspection. This is apparent in the woodcuts and drypoints Maddock made at this time, which are powerful investigations into isolation and identity. Always frugal, Maddock used wood from fruit packing crates for roughly cut woodcuts, inspired by German Expressionist prints that she had seen on visits to the NGV. The small drypoints, and full editions of the woodcuts, were printed on her return to Tasmania.

For the next five years Maddock continued to work in Launceston, exhibiting in group exhibitions, being selected for print shows and winning several art prizes. Survey exhibitions of her art were shown in Ballarat in 1969, and in Launceston in 1970. During this period Maddock began to explore screenprinting, which had principally been a commercial process but was proving to be the perfect medium for pop art’s incorporation of advertising and contemporary visual culture, and the current movement of Colour Field painting, with its bold use of solid colour. Despite the lack of a darkroom, Maddock’s desire to incorporate photography into her prints was such that she even hand-copied enlarged dots onto screens, one of many examples that show her determination to achieve the desired result, however laborious the process may be.

In 1970 Maddock moved to Melbourne again when she was appointed as lecturer in printmaking at the NGV Art School (in 1973 this became part of the VCA). Here she had access to state-of-the-art facilities including a darkroom, with students keen to learn new methods. However, Maddock soon abandoned screenprinting in her own art and turned to photo-etching. One of the very first artists in Australia to explore this technique, Maddock learnt from a commercial photo-engraver. Using photographs selected from newspapers and magazines, and later her own photographs of personal items and surroundings, she then worked onto the plates by hand, creating powerful representations of contemporary life, ranging from images of war, such as Gauge (1976), to objects of daily use such as Chair II (1974). These enigmatic prints were challenging to many, but soon gained Maddock widespread recognition – three prints were acquired for the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1973, and by the end of the decade she was selected to represent Australia in Indian and Canadian art exhibitions and projects. In 1979 a substantial twelve-part mural was commissioned for the newly built High Court in Canberra.

As a counterpoint to the large-scale prints and commissioned works, in the later 1970s Maddock began producing art that was increasingly tactile and textural. She returned to painting, which she had ceased since moving to Melbourne, and began to combine techniques and media such as paper making, book binding, letterpress text and encaustic wax. For Maddock the process of creating the work of art is an essential element of the final result, requiring concentration, stamina and conceptual rigour. The inclusion of text in her art became increasingly evident, as in paintings such as Disquiet (1981) which was influenced, as was much of her work, by the art of Jasper Johns. Maddock resigned from the VCA in 1981 and taught part-time, inviting students to share the facilities at her Macedon house and studio. This was destroyed in the disastrous Ash Wednesday fires, thirty years ago this year, and her house, possessions, equipment and art collection were lost. Maddock stoically continued with plans to return to Launceston later that year, while also establishing a studio in the Victorian goldfields town of Dunolly, which she visited regularly until 1990.

A forty-day voyage to the Antarctic in the summer of 1987 inspired a return to the landscape as subject matter, for the first time since her student days, and encouraged an increasing awareness of Tasmania’s Indigenous history, which she explored in subsequent works of art. Panoramic multi-panel landscape paintings and prints form the majority of Maddock’s later work, few in number but each the result of considerable thought, preparation, research and sketches. The most magnificent and overwhelming of these is her final panorama TERRA SPIRITUS … with a darker shade of pale (1993-98), a view of the entire coast of Tasmania depicted from the sea in which issues of traditional ownership, British colonisation, recognition and reconciliation are evoked with great beauty, simplicity and power. Made from local ochre mined and prepared by Maddock herself, the work comprises an extraordinary fifty-one sheets (plus title page) which, when installed, spans forty metres, and was made in an edition of five, plus an artist’s proof. Maddock called on her decades of printmaking expertise and created the work using stencils to impress the outlines into the paper, working the ochre either into the lines, like an intaglio plate, to create the dark forms of the mountains, and leaving the lines free of pigment, like a relief block, for the highlights of the sea. The geographical locations are named, in letterpress text for the English place names, and in cursive script for the Indigenous names that appear to float across the sheet. While its vast size limits its exhibition (the NGV has twenty sheets displayed) and its reproduction, and thus a more widespread awareness of this drawing-print, it is, without doubt, a master work.

Since completing TERRA SPIRITUS in 1998 Maddock has been working to record her life’s output, in conjunction with many staff at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston. Through her generosity, QVMAG holds the most substantial collection of her art, including prints, paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, studies and numerous sketchbooks. A result of this diligent cataloguing and researching was published in 2011 in the catalogue raisonné of Maddock’s art from 1951 to 1983, edited by Daniel Thomas. This weighty tome is both informative and accessible, containing an overview of Maddock’s oeuvre, a biography, and an analysis of her materials and techniques during these decades, followed by entries for over 900 works, many with comments by Maddock herself. Volume two, examining Maddock’s art from 1984 to 1998, is currently being prepared by Irena Zdanowicz. In addition to these, a small publication accompanies the NGV exhibition.