We recently featured a painting by the iconic Australian artist, John Brack, of his little daughter (now in her 60s), which had only recently been discovered: Click Here.

Today’s reflection is about another John Brack painting called Collins Street, 5 p.m., painted in 1955, and acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), in 1956.

The grid of Melbourne CBD, showing Collins Street, second street up, parallel to the river.

In April 2011, it was voted the most popular exhibit at the Gallery, out of the 70,000 exhibits on display! Not bad going !

It is considered to be both an iconic painting of peak-hour Melbourne and a social commentary on daily life in the 1950s. The Olympic Games were soon coming to Melbourne, and the country was slowly recovering from the deprivations of WWII. Economic growth was strong, housing and suburbs were growing and immigration from Europe and Britain was transforming the country1.

John Brack was born in Melbourne in 1920, and so had grown up through this era himself.

The NGV Education Resource v3 provides the following description:

“The painting depicts people emotionally closed down by the grind of daily work. The office workers are unaware of each other, despite their close proximity, and are oblivious of the artist, who may be drawing them. It is also a painting about the loss of individuality and a lack of social cohesion among the masses. This idea may have wider political implications to do with class and power relationships.

John Brack painted with sincerity from his own direct observations and experience of working in a city-based insurance company as a young man. To develop this painting, he referred to photographs of buildings in Collins Street and used his friend John Stephens as a model for the man wearing glasses closest to the left hand-side of the work.

John Brack’s Collins St, 5p.m. is a stark and compelling painting of office workers that is produced with a limited palette. The colour and structure of the painting are vital to the meaning it conveys.

Repeated horizontal lines and intermittent vertical elements make up the grid-like structure, and many sharp lines and edges are used in this composition. Elongated rectangles within the grid are used to express the horizontal nature of the streetscape. This structure provides an overall sense of order to the composition and is reflective of Brack’s initial visual stimulus, the city of Melbourne, with its rigid geometric layout. The grid is also often used by architects as they design facades of city buildings.

The repetition of shape is used to build a sense of unity within the composition. It also highlights the monotony of the subjects’ nine-to-five work routines. This concept can be seen here in the repetition of geometric-shaped hats, windows and facial shapes”.

What impressions of working life in the 1950s does this painting give you? Do you think it is a happy painting or one of melancholy and routine? How does the colour pallete and the structure add to the message?

Why do you think it was voted by the people as the most popular exhibit of the NGV in 2011?

In contrast, we leave you now with a 2020 version of John Brack’s painting, by Alistair Lloyd2. It speaks for itself in the current world environment...........

Footnotes:

  1. With thanks to the ngv.gov.vic.au
  2. With thanks to Alistair Llloyd, who is a strategist, designer and writer, living in Melbourne, Australia.