[FIRST PUBLISHED IN INPRESS MAGAZINE 30.03.2011]
There are few topics on which I feel more qualified to speak on than that of failure. I have begun and irreparably failed careers as an engineer, a teacher, musician, fishmonger, salted snack manufacturer, and postman. I have written (a number terrifyingly and certainly over a dozen) novels and then proceeded to fail audaciously in getting a single one of them published. As a student, I once failed for an entire summer holiday at concocting a recipe for a palatable, and thus saleable, carbonated milk drink. Just this morning I was attempting to swat a wasp with a rolled up copy of the Vintage Cellars Wine Club Gazette, missed, and sent a jam jar’s worth of thumbtacks and five cent pieces tumbling down a previously unknown and barely accessible crevice between my writing desk and the wall.
And yet, and yet on the subject of the failure of humanity; I am a blissful dope. I can only conclude that I am not yet old enough nor well-read to have abandoned the idea that there is hope for us lot.
Image of Modern Evil: Spring in Fitzroy 1943
oil on canvas on plywood
58.7 x 69 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist 1982
© Barbara Tucker
In 1943, Albert Tucker made Spring in Fitzroy (now on display at Heide: part of Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series exhibition – really, truly, go there), and it is difficult to not read the painting as a woman staring down at a world gone terminally sick. It is the vision of faith on the brink of failing.
Australia and the world was at war, and Tucker’s objections to fighting were ones both political and personal. The whole blasted affair disgusted and terrified him. He saw his city of Melbourne as one decaying into moral and actual ruin – it was the end of the world, with violence and sex being exchanged on the streets like drinks at one last party. Tucker saw a civilisation that might not deserve to be saved.
The central figure of Spring in Fitzroy is a wasted woman, laughing and throwing her arms up in hysterical defeat. In the background is a city ready to burn and to her side is a withered plant, an aspidistra, a symbol borrowed from George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. In George’s book, the plant is an emblem for everything wrong with a contemporary life, it is the “money-god” we worship. Orwell’s male lead spends the novel haunted by a potted aspidistra in his room, eventually dousing it with chemicals, desperate, but it stays standing high and refuses to die.
Whereby, despite his scene of utter despair, Tucker has triumphed in injuring his aspidistra. The bugger has slain it. The thing is gloriously limp and lies next to our hero like a drunk and her hungry dog.
I cannot surely know what Tucker meant by this; if it was a cheeky wink to camera, but in his vision of hell, I am choosing to take this sign of death as a tiny sign of hope. I see a chance, but of course, I am young and have read not nearly enough.