ERN MALLEY SUITE
Although Garry Shead has become one of Ausralia's most acclaimed lyrical figuratiive painters, who has been in the public eye since his first solo exhibition in the mid-sixties, and his Lawrence and Royal Suite series have become iconic in Australian visual culture, the Ern Malley series marks a new departure.
In Shead's journal, titled in white lettering on the black cover as 'Malley Book I', there is a remarkable series of ten consecutive drawings executed in six days between 12th September to 18th September 2002. They are quite large pen and ink drawings with most bearing an inscription at the bottom of the page. One is titled "McAuley becoming Malley", where a slightly scrawny figure in a transparent loin cloth is shown awkwardly suspended, or possibly crucified, against a monumental crucifix, accompanied by a crescent moon. In front of him, a nymph or Muse-like female nude, wearing a digger's hat, seems to stretch her arms up towards him in a gesture of adoration. A gun, a bottle, a skull and bones, as well as remains of classical columns are scattered in the foreground, like symbols or attributes. Three figures bow in supplication next to the crucified figure and a colonnaded facade appears in the background.
In another drawing, titled "Grave's Disease", the scrawny figure stands on a pedestal inscribed "E McAuley/Ern" swirling a rod, (or is it a whip?), apparently aimed at the surrounding birds, while the nude Digger Muse stands next to him saluting. A subsequent drawing titled "Birth of Ern Malley", shows our scrawny poet embracing his naked avenging Muse, then in "Ern and Muse" they are shown lost in an enchanted garden, in another instant, the poet appears in the role of the trespasser, like "the black swan of trespass on alien waters", or in the process of trespassing or embracing his Muse in the presence of the lyrebird with the "multipennate tail". In one of the strangest of all the drawings, titled "Resurrection of Ern Malley", the Muse is shown literally pulling the poet out of a recently excavated grave, and behind them, a kookaburra surmounts an Ancient Greek temple facade. While the reference to the Australian poet Ern Malley is apparent, the interpretation of Shead's Malley iconography remains problematic. As Shead wrote in his journal "Who is Ern Malley/ is he two men/ A creation - the figure of Jesus Christ". 1
Shead first experimented with the Ern Malley theme in the early 1960s and then produced a large number of photographic collages in 2000-2001, however the images in the 2002 sketchbooks were the first coherent series of drawings that he devoted to Ern Malley, a theme which has become one of the central concerns of his art and which has found expression in a major series of paintings, three-dimensional ceramics and etchings. 2
Ern Malley has been Australia's most controversial poet since the 1940s. To some, he doesn't even exist, he was invented as a literary hoax by two bored Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who wished to deflate the egos of the pretentious literary avant-garde, to others, he was one of Australia's greatest modernist poets, where the creation has certainly become greater than the creators. McAuley and Stewart later claimed to have cobbled together the sixteen poems of The Darkening Ecliptic on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1943. They did it as a deliberate example of bad verse, at random, borrowing from disparate sources and for an author created the pseudonym: 'Ern Malley'. They felt a general frustration with so-called modernist poetry and specifically with the efforts of the twenty-two year old Max Harris, known as "comrade Maxie" in some quarters, who was supported by his well heeled friends John and Sunday Reed based at 'Heide' on the outskirts of Melbourne. 3 The Heide group published as their house journal Angry Penguins, something McAuley and Stewart viewed as a particularly pretentious modernist publication. They sent a couple of poems as bait to Harris, as the Adelaide-based co-editor of Angry Penguins, and then on his request, the whole anthology followed. He fell for the poems hook, line and sinker, enthused his fellow editors, John Reed and Sidney Nolan, and in 1944, the Autumn issue of Angry Penguins was published "to commemorate the Australian poet Ern Malley". One of Ern Malley's poems was illustrated by Sidney Nolan on the cover. In June 1944 the literary hoax was exposed in the press and despite the various rearguard actions fought by the modernists, the Heide crowd emerged red faced.
Yet Ern Malley survived this indignation and did not disappear into oblivion and ironically Stewart, virtually on his deathbed noted in a letter in 1995, that "one day it will be irrefutably proved that James McAuley and Harold Stewart were really figments of the imagination of the real-life Ern Malley and in fact never existed!" 4 The poems themselves continue to exist. Many, if not most anthologies of Australian verse, include one or more poems from The Darkening Ecliptic, they are quoted in numerous books and no account of Australian literature, art or culture is complete without some reference to them. 5 They have entered as an event in Australian popular culture and even occupy a modest episode in Australian legal history, when the poems were taken to court by the Adelaide establishment through the police as "indecent advertisements". In fact, they have become some of the most famous and controversial poems to have ever been published in Australia and have received widespread recognition internationally. 6 As one critic expressed it, the poems became "a kind of cultural herpes that once it's been caught can't be eradicated, and that leads to a series of secondary infections." 7 If the poems exist and persist in their existence, someone must have written them, so a poet exists. But who is this poet - McAuley and Stewart or Ernest Lalor Malley? This is not quite the open and closed case as it may at first appear.
The whole question of authorship has been brought under considerable scrutiny in the past few decades. Perhaps, as Michel Foucault argued, "we can imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author". 8 When some theorists today speak of the "death of the author", 9 this is not an act of cultural anarchy or nihilist denial, but rather a simple realisation that an author is "unknowable" and that the author's intentions are irretrievable and perhaps irrelevant, and once a work of art has been created - be it a poem, a painting or a piece of music - it is largely a fruitless task to set out to try to determine what an author may have intended by it. After all, authorial intentions, like authorial sincerity, are frequently irrelevant to the results. The work of art has a life of its own, an independent existence and each of us, on encountering it, interprets it through our own eyes with our own intellect, bringing with this process a whole range of thoughts, associations and ideas.
Ern Malley in many ways is more real than Shakespeare. We certainly know more about him than we do about Shakespeare and a copy after the autograph manuscript survives untampered by the hand of time. In order to introduce Ern Malley to Harris, McAuley and Stewart invented for him a sister, a certain Ethel Malley living in Croydon in New South Wales, who had found his poems when "going through my brother's things after his death". 10 On Harris's request she furnished a biographical sketch of her late brother. 11
For many modernists at the time, including the painters Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker in Australia and for the writers Herbert Read, T.S. Eliot and Harry Roskolenko abroad, 12 both the verse and idea of Ern Malley was an achievement of a very high order and in some instances a source of inspiration. 13 Nolan at one stage commented, "Without Ern Malley there wouldn't have been any Ned Kelly ... It made me take the risk of putting against the Australian bush an utterly strange object." 14 Subsequent authors including Ian Kennedy Williams (1990) and Peter Carey (2003) have been inspired to write fictional accounts of Ern Malley.
Historically, the Ern Malley incident has been interpreted as a clash of cultures, between the modernists and the traditionalists, not dissimilar to the one being played out in the visual arts at the same time, in the clash between the Australian Academy of Art and the Contemporary Art Society or the controversy over William Dobell's win the Archibald Prize, and frequently involving a similar cast of characters. More broadly, it could be viewed as a resistance to change. "The respectable burghers of Adelaide who insulted and reviled Max Harris in North Terrace and King William Street were speaking not from a considered ideological position on surrealism but from an obscure and uneasy conviction, exultantly peddled to them in the press, that arty people like Harris and his supporters were a threat to morals and stability and that the mysteries they practised - incomprehensible, non-rhyming poetry and unrecognisable 'art' - were unnatural and ought to be repressed". 15 Although some have seen this as a catastrophic blow to the modernist enterprise in Australia or simply symptomatic of a broader malaise - it gave expression and identity to a new cultural hero in Australia - the slightly tragic, soft spoken creative genius guided by his Muse. Socially an outcast and surrounded by a world dominated by the Ethel Malley type, with their limited intellectual horizons and sanctimonious malice, Ern Malley became the symbol of the creative spirit at odds with a materialist world, a world in which he is always an itinerant, an outsider and a sacrifice. It is this figure of Ern Malley which is celebrated in Shead's series.
The first response to the appearance of the Ern Malley poems was simultaneously literary and visual. While Harris wrote an elegiac for Ern Malley, where he waxed lyrical concerning the merits of the verse, Nolan responded by creating the first of his Ern Malley images. Nolan returned to Ern Malley thirty years later, in 1973-74, in a series of paintings and large drawings for an exhibition at the Adelaide Festival in 1974. The striking portrait, Ern Malley, 1973, is now in the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Garry Shead is an artist who has worked in numerous mediums. As well as painting, drawing and printmaking, he has worked as a film maker, photographer, muralist, cartoonist and scene painter.16 A medium is not compartmentalised in his thinking, but is part of a fluid process, where the artist moves freely from one form to another, frequently transferring solutions discovered in one medium into a different one. "The Ern Malley theme seemed to call for a move into three-dimensional ceramics and many of the breakthroughs in thinking there fed directly back into my paintings". 17 For his sculptural ceramics Shead collaborated with the master potter, Lino Alvarez Carrasco at Hill End, much in the same way as he has collaborated on the Ern Malley etchings with the master printer, Basil Hall in Darwin. Alvarez prepared the clay, built and threw the vessel to Shead's specifications, which Shead then proceeded to model, shape and decorate. Alvarez then fired the ceramics, which Shead either waxed or to which he applied glazes for further firing. Shead noted in his journal: "In Picasso's pottery the idea that the pot is at once a sculpture and at the same time a pot - and painting complicates either reading - is a result of the notion of transformation and the desire to produce art whose power resides in that ambiguity. The idea of creatures or objects with dual nature was fundamental for Surrealists, and they saw their ambiguity as eliciting disturbing or repressed psychological or sexual associations". 18
Shead's three dimensional ceramics, some almost a metre and a half in size, are strange and unconventional, at times brutal and confronting, weeping from gashes like festering wounds, at times wonderfully lyrical. Forms and faces struggle to break free from the clay to create an existence in three dimensional space, like an image fighting for its autonomy within the sea of matter. The inside of the vessel compositionally, is as significant as its outside form. In Shead's ceramics there is an organic fluidity, a kinetic quality, so that as you move around the vessel, the image unfolds and adopts a life of its own. The words of Ern Malley appear incised into the surface of many of the vessels, and as with the lyrics there is apparent that conflict between the trembling timidity, the desire to define an existence, and the brutality of being. As Ern Malley wrote in 'Sweet William'
My blood becomes a Damaged Man
Most like your Albion;
And I must go with stone feet
Down the staircase of flesh
To where in a shuddering embrace
My toppling opposites commit
The obscene, the unforgivable rape
One moment of daylight let me have
Like a white arm thrust
Out of the dark and self-denying wave.
In quite a number of the ceramic pieces the desire to break out into a moment of daylight, out of the dark self-denying wave, is almost palpable in its expression. It is a desire to break the boundaries of the ceramic shell and the straitjacket of flatness of the surface and to break the rules which circumscribe conventional ceramics. In terms of their formal structure, Shead's ceramic vessels constantly engage with this idea of thrusting out of the darkness of the interior into the a moment of daylight of the exterior form.
Shead's works are very unconventional ceramic pieces, neither belonging to the tradition of pop "funk ceramics", nor to the tradition of collaborative decorated pots and plates created by potters working with painters. They find more of a kindred spirit with the work of the Murrumbeena potters and John Perceval's mischievous angels, 19 where beautiful and sensuous three dimensional objects are created which celebrate the spirit. Although Shead has been know to refer to his creations as "Ern's urns", 20 the pun somewhat belittles the conception. Alas, this verbal play was not lost on McAuley and Stewart, and Stewart was known to lament the existence of The Darkening Ecliptic as "the Unburiable urn". 21
Shead is an artist who subscribes to what is now an unfashionable theory that the artist is a medium who surrenders to his Muse. 22 Although he is an exquisite technician, who has spent forty years mastering the skills of the old masters, in the final analysis, as he notes in his journal "Ern Malley emerges from the blank page". 23 In a series of about twenty quite disturbing collages, which Shead made in 2001, he had mounted glossy photographs, generally taken from fashion magazines, dissolved their surfaces with an art medium and then manipulated the forms mainly with pen, brush and sepia ink. 24 Occasionally washes and secondary areas of collage have been added to the surfaces. The titles of these collages have generally been drawn from The Darkening Ecliptic, but the whole purpose of the process was to loosen conscious control over the development of the art work. "It becomes like a collaborative process with Ern Malley developing a life of his own over which I have little control". 25 The drawings, paintings, prints and ceramics which have grown into Shead's Ern Malley series have likewise developed intuitively, unconsciously and frequently as a surprise and revelation to the artist himself. Ultimately, this was also the secret of Ern Malley, the Muse was stronger than the petty jealousies and subversive intrigues of McAuley and Stewart. Ern Malley caught the flame and became a torch bearer for creative freedom and as Henry Miller once famously remarked, in reference to inspiration by a great writer: "The only way to do justice to a man like him who gave so much, is to give another creation ... prove ... that one has caught the flame he tried to pass on". 26 In this, Shead has caught the flame of Ern Malley and has tried to pass it on, despite the struggle, difficulties and opposition. As Ern Malley stated in his 'Egyptian Register':
It may be for nothing that we are:
But what we are continues.
Professor Sasha Grishin
1 Garry Shead, Malley Book I, 2002, manuscript, no pagination
2 Garry Shead, Malley Book I, approximately 42 x 29 centimetres, drawings dated upper right, 12 - 18 September 2002.
3 For a detailed account of the writing of the Ern Malley poems see Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley affair, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane 1993, pp. 89-99
4 Stewart in a letter to Milton Moon, 20 February 1995 quoted in Michael Ackland, Damaged men: The precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Sydney 2001, p. 4
5 For example, John Tranter and Philip Mead (eds.), The Bloodaxe book of modern Australian poetry (originally published as The Penguin book of modern Australian poetry) Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1994, publishes the entire Ern Malley cycle.
6 Heyward, op. cit., pp. 81-163
7 Philip Mead, "Cultural pathology: What Ern Malley means", Australian Literary Studies, vol 17/1 (1995), p. 84
8 Michael Foucault, "What is an author?", in his Language, counter-memory, practice, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York 1977, p. 138
9 Roland Barthes, "Death of the author" in his Image, music, text, essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath, Hill and Wang, New York  pp.142-148
10 The letter is reproduced in facsimile in Ern Malley, The Darkening Ecliptic: Australian poet, Reed & Harris, Melbourne 1944, pp.7-8
11 Angry Penguins, 1944, Autumn, pp. 2-3
12 Heyward, op. cit., p. 156
13 In America the poets John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Harry Matthews and James Schuyler sprang to Ern Malleyâ€™s defence, see Mead, op. cit., p. 87
14 Sidney Nolan quoted in Heyward, op. cit., p. 175
15 Brian Matthews, "Literature and conflict" in Laurie Hergenhan (ed.), The Penguin new literary history of Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood 1988, p. 303
16 For a general discussion of Shead's career see Sasha Grishin, Garry Shead and the erotic Muse, Craftsman House, Sydney 2001
17 Garry Shead, interview with the author, 12th July 2003, Hill End, NSW.
18 Garry Shead, Malley Book IV, 2003, entry March 2003, manuscript, no pagination
19 Patricia Dobrez and Peter Herbst, The art of the Boyds: Generations of artistic achievement, Bay Books, Sydney , pp.69-103, 198-202
20 Garry Shead, letter to the author, 21 July 2003
21 Ackland, op.cit, p. 82
22 For a detailed account of this thesis see Sasha Grishin, Garry Shead and the erotic Muse, Craftsman House, Sydney 2001
23 Garry Shead, Malley Book II, 2002, manuscript, no pagination, entry [November 2002]
24 Shead employed Art Spectrum medium to loosen the high gloss surface and mainly Sennelier sepia ink.
25 Garry Shead, interview with the artist, Bundeena, 18 May 2002
26 Henry Miller, The World of D.H. Lawrence: A passionate appreciation, Capra Press, California 1980, np.