Some of us are old enough to remember just how cold and drab this dump was until we were blessed with waves of European and then Asian and African migrants that helped to break the choker hold of Saxons and Celts. Arthur Boyd, A Life, by Darleen Bungey deals with some of the first wave. The names are familiar to the art community, but their vibrant contributions to our national life deserve wider notice.
Yosl Bergner was a Jewish refugee from Warsaw. His father had implored Polish Jews to quit Europe. He had come to Australia looking for land for a Jewish settlement. For that purpose, he explored the Kimberley with a young blackfella and a white truck driver. It wasn’t the heat, or the wet, or the remoteness that put him off – the author tells us that he couldn’t imagine the new Zion with so many flies. When Yosl got here, just in time, he did so with firsthand knowledge of the great art of Europe. He quickly befriended Arthur Boyd and declared that most of Arthur’s work was rubbish. This was new for Arthur. He thought that Yosl, who scavenged the discarded vegetables at Victoria Market, was ‘a very forward bloke.’ Yosl described himself as ‘a Jew with a complex’ who saw anti-Semitism all around him. He traded in his bike for three tubes of paint, but unlike the native artists, he didn’t like the bush. Arthur looked at Yosl – who would surely have been at home in Catch 22 – as his first contact with Bohemia. (He was I think yet to meet the Reeds and their set.) It may have gone both ways. I didn’t know this, but some hookers in Melbourne then used cigarette shops as fronts. Yosl stepped into one – but he didn’t like what he saw. So he asked for a packet of cigarettes! That’s when Yosl learned the local terms of trade. ‘First pay, then fuck, then buy cigarettes.’ To his enduring credit, Yosl complied. He believed that ‘prostitutes have their professional pride and self-respect and you don’t have to hurt their feelings.’ What a noble expression of tolerance! Could this perhaps be a true Australian value?
Stanislav Halpern was known as Stacha. The author says this:
Halpern’s pottery describes Halpern: earthy, solid, with an alluring overlay of vivid decoration, applied with great eagerness and speed. He was a Jewish-Polish refugee who spoke broken English through the side of a twisted mouth that usually sprouted a cigarette. He was a blower of kisses, an embracer of life. Stacha Halpern and Arthur became great friends. They shared characteristics, such as shortness of body and strength of arms, and both worked with robust physicality. Neither cared a jot about convention. Both wore their hair long and both were amused at the abuse thrown one night from a passing car: ‘Get off the road, you poofters!’
There’s something inalienably homely about that story.
Danila Vassilieff hit town like a typhoon. He was a Cossack peasant who had fought on the Eastern Front in the Great War and had become a Colonel in the October Revolution. He was captured by the Bolsheviks, but he escaped to live with nomadic Tartars in Azerbaijan and Persia. He travelled through India, Burma, Manchuria, and Shanghai. This man of the world had an overpowering personality. He was a ‘history-laden’ figure. He helped build a railway line at Katherine, and he took up banana and sugar-cane growing before painting. The Medici at Heidi (the Reeds) took him in for his ‘curious splendour’ and his expression of the ‘pathos and loneliness, the violence and tragedy’ of the human condition. Nolan thought it was the man rather than his art that carried the whack.
Karel Zoubek was a gifted Czech musician. He had been a soloist at both German and Italian embassies. He was detained in Tehran and transported to Iraq. From there he was deported to Australia. There he was interned. He got out in 1945. His wife left him ‘after he beat her with hands he had declared too sensitive for manual labour.’ He was fined two pounds, but served seven days instead. He entertained the inmates with violin solos. He was a small man who had one other flaw. He was a pathological pants man. He just couldn’t help himself. He propositioned every woman in the Boyd family. He said ‘I am eunuch.’ This puzzled the ladies – until they realised he was saying ‘I am unique.’ Boyd’s wife answered the proposition with a flying tomato, but Boyd’s mum, Doris, fell for him. This was too much even for the peace-loving Arthur. He convinced the family that they should get Zoubek committed. They got him before a shrink. The meeting, the author tells us, went well – too well. Zoubek sounded OK. But just as the interview was ending, Zoubek lent across the table and gave the shrink the benefit of his mind: ‘The trouble with you is you fuck too much.’ Well, that bloody did it! As he was bundled into a cab, Zoubek realised what the game was. ‘Some party. I’m surprised at you.’ The men in white coats were in the car behind. Zoubek was sandwiched between Arthur and another in the back seat. John Perceval was in the front in the death seat. This was Arthur showing his cold side – but, in the name of heaven, this dude looked like he was having it off with Mum! Later, Arthur painted Zoubek with mad fierce eyes – ‘he’d hypnotise you with his absolute madness.’ Some may have felt something like that while looking at the paintings Boyd and Nolan were painting around then.
Well, that’s how the land of the long week-end and six o’clock closing under an English monarch got some exposure to Europe. This was about a generation before Victoria banned Playboy and some idiot proposed an entertainment tax on contraceptives. God only knows what the matrons of Balwyn or Brighton may have made of these four migrants. But the more important question is: would our government let any of them in now? As best as I can see, they all arrived by boat, and their English may have been as doubtful as their manners – or their religion.