Wednesday, 2 August 2017



Wedding Dress, (1982)


(Second in a series of ‘my favourite works’)

The Johnston family was a taunting mix of genius and misery. George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, (1964) is known, if not read, by very many Australians. Along with Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, (1981) and Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, (1977), it offers another personal tangent, if a somewhat melancholy one, to another iconic era of our short white Australian history, verbally complementing the visual work of Albert Tucker in that each is ‘a daring challenge to the cosy assumptions of national character and virtue’. These latter are the words of one reader/writer, Paul Daley, who confesses to re-reading Jack every ten years or so – as a wake up to our ‘origins’, possibly as a reassurance that something of the kind still exists, in this world of flux. His loving (not too emotive a word) account can be read here: My Brother Jack at 50 – the novel of a man whose whole life led up to it

Indeed the ‘Johnston world’ was not easy – but is the world of any artist (and in this case in a family of six, including Johnston’s first child, four were ‘artists’). What did George Johnston expect, leaving his first wife in the land of herbaceous borders and running off with a glamorous other, in the days when this was definitely not done, (dreamed of but not done). One might suspect that he would argue: someone had to feed the vicarious pleasures of such a mundane world, someone had to live the fantasy in order the spark of inspiration survive. But there would be fallout. Johnston did not plot his life, the animal in him just took over a boy from Elsternwick. Then he and ‘the other’, Charmian Clift, abandoned what they described as the ‘bewildered’ world of Australia for the drama of London, and in time gave up that smoggy capital for the tough idyll of Greece. Left behind in all this was the gorgeous daughter of Johnston’s first marriage, GAE, her name derived from her parents initials, G-A-E (George And Elsie) Johnston.

Sadly GAE JOHNSTON is no longer with us but her spirit lives on, for this writer, in a substantial drawing (above) admired for nearly 40 years. I first saw this work leaning over to the left of our conversation when I went to speak with Gae about her mother, stepmother and father, back in the early 1980s – I was writing about Australian artist couples. The drawing kept drawing my attention. When we stopped talking about parents I asked Gae about it.

The subject is a dress hanging over a chair. The dress is a ‘significant’ type, not a shift, but perhaps something ceremonial. Further afield among leaning works there was a similarly dimensioned, what might be called ‘negative’ of the same subject. Where the drawing that immediately caught my attention was dark, the other was light, in the same way that a black and white photographic negative, which ultimately produces a darker image is lighter. Gae was exploring the positive and negative with significant reason in this context.

If my memory is correct Gae was then living in Eltham, or nearby. I recall the room in which we talked as rather sombre, with internal stone walls, similar in style to a lot of buildings in the area inspired by Monsalvat. Gae and I moved in the same circles, to an extent, so I knew her from other occasions too. Gae was a very beautiful woman, small, natural blonde, gentle in manner but ferocious in her visual ability, a significant draughtswoman. The strength of her work and her physical demeanour seem strangely mismatched.

The story Gae told of the dramatic drawing that leaned into my consciousness was this: it was indeed a significant dress, a wedding dress, lying over the back of a chair. The dress belonged to her half-sister Shane, the second child of George Johnston and Charmian Clift’s union. Nadia Wheatley, in her biography of writer Charmian Clift, (The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, 2001) reports Clift retrospectively musing, (in a Hazel de Berg interview, 8.6.65), of the time of her second pregnancy with Johnston, so soon after the birth of their first son Martin, who was then seven months old:
At this point I should have taken wings and started to fly, but at this point also, of course, I was involved in having children, and for many years I had this dual thing, the frustrations that are inevitable with any creative person being tied and bound and at the same time struggling, beating one’s head against a wall to do what one wants to do. I think those are terribly difficult years for any young woman and for a young woman who wants to write or paint or anything else, even more so.’ (Wheatley, 218)

Clift and Johnston had just shared the 1948 Sydney Morning Herald Prize for their collaborative novel, High Valley.  It is impossible not to wonder how much of such thinking found its way into the psyche of her gestating child.

George Johnston on Hydra

Shane wore the dress in the drawing on at least two significant occasions: her wedding, and her death. She put it on before she committed suicide in 1974. Her mother, aged 45, had died of a barbiturate overdose in 1969 and her death seemed to open the floodgate of family tragedy. George died in 1971, Gae died of an overdose in 1988 and poet Martin Johnston, the eldest Johnston-Clift child, died of alcoholism in 1990. Yet they leave behind them very significant achievements, one of which in my care I wish to share.*

I have asked various contemporaries and mutual friends what they can recall of the Gae of some thirty years ago, at least one said her work still influences his.

*Because of the nature of what I was writing, I asked Gae if I could buy another work which is reproduced below.

Gae Johnston (signed but untitled) 1978 

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