Charles Meere’s painting Australian Beach Pattern is an iconic representation of Australian sybaritic beach culture. It has been widely reproduced, appropriated and copied, and is a big seller on the postcard stands at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
But who was Charles Meere and how did his contributions pervade through decades of Australian culture?
Joy Eadie’s book Discovering Charles Meere takes us on a journey through seven of Meere’s works, each of which reveal an intriguing artist who embedded an acerbic critique of Australian society within seemingly benign paintings and prints.
The English-born Matthew Charles Meere first visited Australia in 1927 to work as a graphic designer. Having studied art in France and England and served in World War I, Meere pursued further study in design and mural painting at London’s Royal College of Art. He then emigrated to Australia with his second wife in 1933 to continue his career as a designer in tandem with his fine art practice.
Teaching drawing at East Sydney Technical College brought him into contact with the next generation of young Australian artists. Painter Freda Robertshaw, for one, was a student of Meere’s who became his apprentice in the late 1930s. So by 1938, when he won the Sir John Sulman Prize for his piece Atalanta’s Eclipse, Meere was already well established on the local art scene.
Meere’s nuanced social and cultural commentary is highlighted by Eadie’s excellent visual acuity. Her ability to focus on the small details in each artwork is informed by research and a sophisticated knowledge of Australian and European cultural history. Eadie’s close reading of Meere’s works begins with a poster for the sesquicentenary of the establishment of European settlement in 1938 Australia. At a time of political and social disruption following the ravages of the Depression, Meere’s celebration is surprisingly subversive.
The top half of this poster is very bleak. He showcases the then newly completed and crisply outlined Sydney Harbour Bridge against a sulphurous yellow sky, overwritten in black with the words “1788-1938, 150 years of progress”. With the promise of capitalism in tatters, and many still without work or a means to support their families, the looming steel arch is presented as a bridge to a grim future.
However, under its lifeless grey span, the native flora is green and lush. Amid the soft-brushed foliage, three Aboriginal men with spears look out at a small boat bedecked with the Union Jack, which pulls toward the shore. To the right of the print, the trees form a cross that cancels out the flag on the boat’s stern. As these invaders are not (and were not) stopped, in Meere’s view, their arrival has led inexorably to the clearing of native land and to the building of a geometric city that’s visible in the distance. Perhaps the artist questions, is this really 150 years of progress?
Here Eadie draws parallels to early Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools, held in the Louvre. His painting also features a yellow sky and a boat with a mast entangled with foliage. Although there is some vague correspondence between the two images, Eadie admits that for Meere’s it may “… have been a private allusion” and therefore it is impossible to confirm.
While the analogy is pertinent to Eadie’s argument, the reference does seem somewhat oblique, and perhaps even unnecessary as a way of convincing us of Meere’s clever message of subversion.
Australian Beach Pattern conveys this same message, despite its more familiar interpretation as an iconic image of all that is good, healthy and cohesive about Australian society. According to Eadie, the painting is a critique of the pervasive isolationist position that led to the dire consequences of the Second World War.
While the superficial style of the people in the piece echoes wartime Germany’s National Socialist celebration of physical and racial perfection, Meere painted this picture at the beginning of the war. At this time, both his English and French homelands were at war with Germany, hence the rhetoric of eugenics had already been exposed for the dangers it presaged.
Rather than emulate a fascist visual propaganda, Meere’s adoption of a Neoclassical style, Eadie argues, enabled a highly complex yet coherent grouping of figures that elucidated his fears of an increasingly isolationist attitude in Australia.
Eadie carefully leads us through a series of references to various artworks in the painting, including French painter Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, painted in 1819. That artwork documented the horrors of a scandalous shipwreck which, following acts of endurance and cannibalism, left only 15 survivors. Géricault’s painting was, in fact, a catalyst for political change in France. To Eadie, Meere has similar hopes for his epic depiction of Bondi Beach in changing Australian attitudes.
While the visual correspondences between Géricault’s figures and Meere’s bathers are sometimes oblique (Eadie’s notion that Meere has taken poses from the French painting and then flipped them over, so a man on his back becomes a boy on his stomach, requires a leap of faith), the interpretation she weaves around the various groupings is convincing: To the right, a woman in a bathing cap gives what’s suggestive of a Nazi salute; to the left, a family marches in step; there is a man waving a white flag, his beach towel; and vulnerable children play on the shore. For Eadie, this is Meere “deploying paradox and irony at every level”.
Such intriguing and lively interpretations offered by Eadie gives fresh insights into Charles Meere’s formidable achievements as a painter. Even when improbable, her informed analyses are engaging and her many examples are cogent, nonetheless. Most importantly, they force us to look closer and to think harder.
Discovering Charles Meere is published by Halstead Press.