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Artist finds truth in literary hoax The Sydney Morning Herald, August 21, 2004
The artist Garry Shead has taken out the $20,000 Dobell Prize for Drawing with an imposing homage to one of the country’s most infamous literary hoaxes.
The subject of the ink on paper diptych Colloquy with John Keats, chosen from a final field of 34 yesterday at the Art Gallery of NSW, was strangely topical, Shead later remarked, given recent events concerning literary fakes.
His winning drawing was accompanied by a plaque featuring one of the 16 poems by Ern Malley, the fictitious bard invented by poet James McAuley and novelist Harold Stewart in 1944 as a send-up of local literary pretensions.
Shead’s work tells the tale of the whole drama, featuring fragments of the poems, the symbols evoked in them, and the key figures in the scandal, such as the young modernist figure Max Harris, who hailed Malley’s poems, full of breathless imagery, as works of genius and published them in his avant-garde journal Angry Penguins.
The artist, who has had two previous exhibitions featuring work inspired by the Malley affair, said yesterday that he had long been “obsessed” with the subject, from its historical impact to the expressiveness of the Malley poems, collectively titled The Darkening Ecliptic.
“Every poem means a different thing. Some are love poems, some are about – I don’t know – the edge of consciousness, some are about the state of the world under siege. They’re beautiful.”
People yesterday were happily playing spot the reference, with links ranging from caricatures of McAuley and Stewart to the small portrait of Lenin alluding to the opening verse of Colloquy: “I have been bitter with you, my brother,/ Remembering that saying of Lenin when the shadow/ Was already on his face: “The emotions are not skilled workers.”
The sketch of a fig tree in the centre of the drawing, Shead explained, represented the tree that used to grow in the grounds of the Sydney Church of England school, where he studied as a child and where McAuley once taught. The woman hanging upside down, skewered on a pole, represented Harris because he “was crucified”.
The cowering figure in one corner was Ern Malley given a face. And the large white angel in the other? “Oh, I don’t know why. You have to have an angel somewhere, don’t you?”
So the drawing isn’t a send-up of a send-up then?
“Oh, no. You can’t be ironic about these things; it can’t be a joke, it has to be deeply felt.”
The winning drawing joins a thriving genre of artistic works inspired by the Malley affair. Examples include the musical Angry Penguins, a book by Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, and Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake.