Note: the following is a rationale that was written to explore the inspiration behind my short student film Reflecting Humanity – The Paintings of Allan Baker. It was written in 2001. The film can be seen here.
“I have too much faith in the existence of the human soul to say that the ability to appreciate art is not inherent in us all.”
– Allan Baker
Returning to my home town of Melbourne after an absence of eight years was much more challenging than leaving ever was. All those ghosts I’d left behind hadn’t gone anywhere. They were still waiting for me. And I didn’t quite know how to deal with them.
I was reminded of why I left: an inherent sense of displacement, of not belonging. I knew I had some soul-searching to do, but I wasn’t sure where to start looking.
When my father returned from a business trip to Perth, he handed me a booklet saying “That’s about Uncle Allan”. I examined the cover: a haunting image of an Aboriginal girl on the outskirts or a town, in muted tones of the Australian outback. The title read: Allan Baker, A Survey. Written by Robert Cook, it was a catalogue which accompanied the retrospective exhibition of Allan’s paintings, political cartoons, WW2 caricatures and early drawings at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, held in September 2000.
The inscription on the first page was addressed to my father and written in Allan’s beautiful handwriting. It simply read: To David, with warmest regards and best wishes, Allan. I flicked through the pages and saw, for the first time, my great uncle’s stunning paintings. I took the booklet to bed with me that evening and read every word that had been written about him. About his life, about his work, about a man of whom – all these years – I’d known little because they lived on the other side of the country. My Great Uncle Allan.
And what I found in those pages had more significance to me than I could ever have anticipated. I’d finally found someone in my family who I felt I could genuinely relate to. He’s been born into a family who did not understand or appreciate or encourage creativity. He’d left his home, his roots, his family, in search of a place where his talent could be nurtured rather than ridiculed. He was compelled to use his art to tell stories in the hope of opening hearts and minds.
When I was shooting my first short film exercise at the VCA (an essay film titled Absence), I went alone to the Swanston Street Bridge to film some abstract out-takes. When I’d finished, I sat down under the bridge by the river to have a cigarette and reflect on the day’s events. Two kids were sitting nearby, drinking beer and rolling a joint. One of them, the boy, was on crutches. We began talking. It turned out he was an unemployed aspiring cartoonist. He felt that pursuing his dream was futile and had given up. We talked about the different paths he could take to realise his dream. It was his birthday that day, and to my surprise, he told me he turned 23.
I told him how I was starting a new course, back at school after ten years, trying to focus myself and build the confidence I desperately needed to follow my dreams. I told him I was ten years older than him, and that age didn’t matter, because it’s never too late. And that if you’re truly passionate about something, there’s always a way. That’s what I believed. And I think he and his friend believed me too.
I could relate to this young man fully, not having known myself where to turn for advice, for inspiration, for guidance in my creative pursuits. But I’d just discovered my Uncle Allan. His life story was providing me with the courage I so much needed; I believe telling his story could provide inspiration to others too.
Yet reading Allan’s life story and all he’d achieved, I couldn’t help but wonder why his work was hardly recognised. He’d been a student at the National Gallery School back in the 30s and again after the war. He’d studied with the likes of Yosl Bergner and James Wigley and had empathised with the trend of the time towards Communism.
Like the infamous members of the Contemporary Arts Society and the Social Realist painters of that era, Allan had a passion for both art and social issues; and a natural inclination to combine the two. But it started well before this significant period in Australian art history. Growing up in Albury during the depression with his Baptist minister father nurtured Allan’s deep sensitivity to social injustices. And documenting his everyday surroundings with a pencil had begun from as early as he can remember.
Allan has always believed that art has a pragmatic function, a responsibility to reveal the plight of the people whom the rest of society chooses not to see. This is reflected in a body of artwork that spans over sixty years. But he also believed that art had the larger purpose of enriching the cultural and spiritual life of all people.
During those tumultuous years at the National Gallery School (now the VCA), Allan was Secretary of the Student Union and heavily involved in fighting various causes for artists of all forms. In 1947, he wrote a manifesto titled ‘Painting for the People’. It highlighted the shortage of support for theatre, ballet, art, literature, Aboriginal art and the availability of cultural resources in rural areas. Over fifty years later, it is apparent that this manifesto of his was not merely an idealistic statement for the movement of the time. Indeed, it stands today as a testament to the next 50 years of his life, spent dedicated to socio-political causes, to supporting and encouraging other artists, and to making those artworks available to the general public.
But in all the art history books covering this well-documented era of Social Realism, why is Allan’s name not mentioned? Why is his own artwork not recognised like the other artists of his era – like Noel Counihan, Yosl Bergner, Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker? Did his generous philanthropy out-shadow his own creative pursuits? I want to find the answers to these questions and tell his story to others. But he is a modest, humble man. He does not expect recognition for his achievements. And he is now eighty years old. Having already suffered two strokes, his eyesight is failing, as is his memory. I want to get to know him before it’s too late.
So I am on my way to Perth to do just that. And just as I was booking my flight, I was let in on a little secret: Allan has been nominated for the Medal of the Order of Australia “for services worthy of particular recognition”. For recognition of his administrative work in supporting and promoting the arts in Western Australia. But will his own hauntingly beautiful and historically significant paintings be relegated to the background once again?
© June 2001, Kaye E. Blum
© 2017, Kaye E. Blum