Abstract Australis
Abstract Australis
Brighton, Victoria 3186 Australia
Ph: 0407 501 808
ABN: 66 086 690 771

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Louis Robert JAMES (b.1920; d.1996)

Louis Robert James (1920-96) was an Adelaide born painter, illustrator and printmaker of immense significance particularly within the confines of 20th century Australian art.

Nearing adulthood during the Depression, James felt self-conscious about attending art school during his teen years and thus, barring a collection of Saturday morning life drawing classes, he remained a self-taught artist.  In his own words to his contemporary, James Gleeson (1915-2008);

“I used to be a bit embarrassed by my clothes and things at that time, you know. It was a very bad time, 1930, and I was a very sensitive adolescent at that time…. I think so, yes. I remember making some terrible blunders very early on with oils, you know, but I think I’ve learnt. The difference between formal art education and, I suppose, informal, I think is rather narrow because most people who study, they have the advantage, I think, at an art school of having companions, people involved in the same, other artists working with them. They also often have the advantage of a mentor or a tutor that would be enormous help. But I think I’ve found other people, I’ve found other artists, I’ve found people I wanted to talk to and listen to and learnt very much the same way outside of formal training.”*

Prior to the war James worked as a public servant working as a draughtsman within the South Australian ‘Lands Department’ and as an occasional illustrator for local papers, ‘The Express’ and the ‘Journal’.  In 1939 he joined the army but by 1944 he was back in Adelaide at the ‘Lands Department’.  Despite applying for a post-war reconstruction grant (to study fine art), he was rejected on the grounds that he was in a job already, pursuing the arts was regarded as quite frivolous.  For James it was a difficult rejection, by now he longed for creative opportunities beyond the monochrome realms of print journalism and draughtsmanship.

Despite being newly married, James was compelled to sell up in Adelaide and shift his life to London (1949) where he remained for the next fifteen years.  He and wife Pat set about establishing a life, both working hard by day; James became an artist during the night as it was the only time he had to devote to his practice.  London fascinated him, as did exposure to post-war art in Europe more broadly.  James recalls vividly the first London-based exhibition he saw:  Francis Bacon (1909-92): “Spectacular. I still think he’s, you know, one of the best painters that I know.”**  He also established a working relationship with  the Redfern Gallery, one of the oldest and most respected galleries in London, which hosted four exhibitions of his work in these years.

James rejected much of the art he created in Australia prior to leaving for London.  The influences he celebrated during his years living as an expatriate artist weaved together to replace the figurative paintings of his early career with the mature style on which James forged his reputation.  Modernist influences are strongly felt in the immediacy of the lines and rendering of rich layers and textures of paint, however, so too are the earlier influences of Australia, particularly through the articulation of place and landscape, which is so unmistakably Australian.

A trait keenly felt in the practice of many of Australia’s most celebrated modern artists is the sense of unrestricted individualism in their oeuvres.  Gleeson pursuing his unique brand of Australian surrealism. Ken Whisson (born 1927) celebrated for his two-dimensional abstracted landscapes in bold colours.  James too forged his own path, the geographic isolation resulting in a unique offering.  Upon returning to Australia in 1964, he embraced abstraction, developing his own language of symbolism, whilst retaining a clear sense of place through landscape, colour and more literal references.  In his own words:

“Imaginary symbols. Some of them are more emphatic than others. Some aren’t. They’re not meant to carry messages, except in my own private sort of messages. I’ve always had a belief that, you know–well, we all know this, I know–there’s a sort of memory storehouse, a visual memory storehouse, which we have from birth and under certain circumstances there’s many things can be resurrected and brought to the surface. These symbols and signs often just mean nothing more than shapes in the work, but all these things I think are things which you have stored away somewhere, and they come to the surface at certain points.”

These years back in Australia delivered James’ most acclaimed works.  He had successful shows at the iconic Bonython Gallery in Adelaide marked by the sale of works to major public institutions.  James’ work is represented in public collections nationally and internationally including the Art Gallery of NSW, the Auckland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

*Louis Robert James interviewed by James Gleeson in 1979,   https://nga.gov.au/Research/Gleeson/pdf/James.pdf



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