A painter and printmaker, John Brack is considered one of Australia's most significant artists, whose subject matter was resolutely urban, modern life. Brack's extensive body of work across several decades is largely defined by its caustic realism, sense of alienation and sense of humour.
Cecil John Brack was born in Melbourne on 10 May 1920. He attended evening classes at the National Gallery School, studying under Charles Wheeler, from 1938 to 1940, and used the State Library of Victoria reading room after class. Brack enlisted in the army in 1940, being assigned to the Artillery Corps and stationed in Western Australia. He was commissioned in 1943 and appointed to heavy artillery, becoming an instructor and later assigned to a field artillery unit bound for Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, however the war ended before his unit was deployed. Discharged from the army in 1946, Brack returned to the National Gallery School as a full-time student under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, studying under William Dargie. From 1947-48 he shared a studio with Fred Williams, a friend and fellow Gallery School student, in the Salisbury Building on the corner of Queen and Bourke Streets, Melbourne. In 1948 he married fellow student, Helen Maudsley. Brack completed his studies in 1949 and apart from a small number of works, destroyed almost all of his student drawings and paintings. He worked as assistant frame-maker at the National Gallery of Victoria from 1949 to 1951, and then served as Art Master of Melbourne Grammar School until 1962. He was then appointed Head of the National Gallery School, a position he held until 1968.
In 1952 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased The barber’s shop 1952 from a group exhibition at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne, the first work by Brack to enter a public collection. His first solo exhibition was held at the Peter Bray Gallery in 1953 and in 1959 he participated in The Antipodean Exhibition. In 1965 he was awarded the inaugural Gallaher Portrait Prize for Portrait of Harold Hattam 1965 and received a commission from the American Harold E. Mertz, who was establishing a collection of Australian painting. He was awarded the Travelodge Art Prize in 1971 for Three pairs 1971. His first major retrospective, John Brack: selected paintings 1947–1977 was held in 1977 at the RMIT Gallery, Melbourne. This was followed by the expanded John Brack paintings and drawings 1947–1977: retrospective exhibition at the Australian National University, Canberra, later in the year. A major survey of his drawings, John Brack Drawings 1945-79, was mounted at Monash University Exhibition Gallery, Melbourne in 1981. The National Gallery of Victoria has mounted two retrospectives of Brack’s oeuvre, John Brack: a retrospective exhibition, curated by Robert Lindsay in 1987, and John Brack, curated by Kirsty Grant, in 2009 – both were accompanied by major catalogues. Other important publications include, John Brack by Ronald Millar, 1971 and The art of John Brack by Sasha Grishin, 1990. John Brack stopped painting in 1994 and died in Melbourne on 11 February, 1999.
Kirsty Grant, Senior Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria