The Eternal Ern

Ern Malley is probably the most widely discussed Australian poet of the twentieth century. The fact that he never existed has done little to damage his popularity. On the contrary, it has given him an enormous boost. Like Frankenstein’s monster he took a terrible revenge on his creators, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who suffered the indignity of watching Malley’s verse being praised and anthologised while their own works attracted decreasing attention. Small wonder Stewart once referred to Malley as “the unburiable urn”—or was that “Ern”?

In The Ern Malley Affair (1993), Michael Heyward records the admiration Malley inspired in the American poets Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery: “For the Americans, Malley’s credentials were more impeccable because he did not exist. Koch remembers that he and Ashbery thought of Malley as a secret exotic figure, precious because he was outlandish.”

In fact, Malley was both outlandish and ordinary—an irresistible combination for a literary legend. While fabulists such as Kafka or Huysmans spent much of their lives working as office clerks, Ern Malley sold insurance. Even here he was in good company: Wallace Stevens, the poet; Benjamin Lee Whorf, the linguist, and Charles Ives, the composer, were all in the insurance business. McAuley and Stewart could not have known they were inserting Malley into such distinguished ranks, but like every other part of the saga, this only goes to show how reality managed to outstrip all attempts at satire. If Malley’s poetry was “nonsense”, the world was even more nonsensical.

It all began one Sunday afternoon in October 1943, when Lieutenant McAuley and Corporal Stewart were serving their country at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne. Disgusted by the antics of the twenty-two-year-old Adelaide poet Max Harris, and the group of would-be modernists he was promoting in his magazine Angry Penguins, they decided to undertake “a serious literary experiment”. Borrowing lines at random from a disparate collection of sources, they stitched together a swag of Surrealist poems, which they titled The Darkening Ecliptic.

Their next invention was the poet, Ernest Lalor Malley, who had recently died of Graves’ Disease, a malady that manifests itself in the form of a goitre and bulging eyes. This may have struck Malley’s creators as an appropriately “surreal” image for their homegrown Modernist. The name was precisely chosen: as earnest as any young Modernist; as revolutionary as Peter Lalor, the hero of the Eureka Stockade; as Australian as the Mallee scrub. The poems were despatched to Angry Penguins by Ern’s sister, Ethel Malley, who lived in the Sydney suburb of Croydon. Ethel had nursed her brother through his last illness and found the poems when she was going through his things. It was a plausible, ordinary story, although there was nothing ordinary about the poems.

When Max Harris and his patrons, John and Sunday Reed, read Ern Malley’s work, they were thunderstruck. Here was an unknown Australian poet, dead at the age of twenty-five, writing in a sophisticated Modernist idiom. Malley combined the youthful demise of Rimbaud and Keats with the scholarly eclecticism of Eliot and Pound. For Harris there were also echoes of Rilke and Wilfred Owen in the mix. Malley’s images had a startling quality that seemed to spring directly from the subconscious. According to McAuley and Stewart, they actually sprang from the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a dictionary of quotations, a volume of Shakespeare, and, in the case of the poem “Culture as Exhibit”, from “an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes”.

Harris swallowed the bait and the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins was dedicated to “the Australian poet, Ern Malley”. Sidney Nolan’s cover illustration was inspired by lines from Malley’s poem “Petit Testament”.

By June 1944 the hoax was exposed in the newspapers and Harris and his colleagues looked like prize dopes. Although they argued that McAuley and Stewart had created powerful Modernist poetry without being aware of it, such arguments—in those days before Roland Barthes invented the phrase “the death of the author”—were met with derision.

At this point it is customary for historians of Australian art and literature to lament the philistine nature of this nation, and pronounce that the hoax set back the local acceptance of Modernism by some incalculable eon. In retrospect this seems completely untrue. Max Harris and the Reeds may have briefly become laughing stocks, but as inveterate poseurs and provocateurs they were already accustomed to the hostility. They set out to provoke strong reactions in an audience, although “derisive laughter” may not have been high on their list.

With or without Ern Malley, Modernism was always going to struggle to take root in a land that still saw the painters of the Heidelberg School and the bush balladists of the 1890s as the finest avatars of Australian art and literature. One could argue that Ern Malley enjoyed a succes de scandale that many poets of flesh-and-blood would envy. His verse has been read and re-read, analysed, reproduced, exported, and studied at university level. He has become an Australian icon, like Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, Phar Lap or Bradman. Unlike them, there was no earthly existence to tarnish the purity of his myth.

Even today it is not easy to dismiss Malley’s verse, although it is full of palpably silly lines that must have had his creators in stitches. (“Knowst not, my Lucia, that he who has caparisoned a nun dies with his twankydillo at the ready?”) The Darkening Ecliptic is parodic and pretentious, but filled with images of start-ling lyrical beauty. Regardless of what the hoaxers intended, they really did create effective—if patchy—Modernist verse. Twenty years later, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs would compose entire novels by random sampling of other texts—the “cut-up method”—and earn themselves a lasting niche in the annals of the avant-garde. Although they would make no claims, McAuley and Stewart had already planted a flag in that wilfully obscure territory.

Garry Shead is the latest in a long line of artists and writers who have been inspired by the Ern Malley story, and the poems. As Barry Pearce tells us in his introduction to The Apotheosis of Ern Malley, Shead first read The Darkening Ecliptic in 1961, when he was nineteen years old. Along with friends such as Martin Sharp and Richard Neville he shared a taste for irreverence and satire, at a time when artists were being obsessive about picture planes and edges. He did not accept conventional wisdom that the Ern Malley affair had retarded the growth of Australian Modernism. He was fascinated by the idea of an imaginary poet created as a spoof on an insular and self-regarding group of avant-gardists by a couple of would-be traditionalists who exposed themselves as closet Modernists in the process.

Over the next thirty years Shead would experiment in many mediums and experience all the miseries and splendours of the art world. He has been through a period when nobody wanted his work, followed by a virtual feeding frenzy, when suddenly everybody wanted it. He has gone from being a penniless bohemian to a blue-chip special. Throughout this rollercoaster journey he has remained true to his own interests and indifferent to the fashions that ripple through the shallow pond of contemporary art.

In some ways Shead is a latter-day Antipodean: a literary painter in the tradition of Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, who likes his paintings to tell stories. He began to attract an audience in the early nineties with a long-running series of paintings based on D.H. Lawrence’s brief residence in Australia in 1922. The Lawrence paintings were distinguished by their lyricism, their Chagall-like fantasy and humour. By this stage Shead had arrived at a highly distinctive style in which figures had a rubbery, cartoon-like appearance. Anatomy was discarded, as was gravity. His paintings are dream-like and obliquely autobiographical. Lawrence’s wife and muse, Frieda, was almost always a portrait of Shead’s wife, Judith Englert. The figure of the writer stood in for the artist himself.

Another series was based on visit of the young Queen Elizabeth in 1954, a moment when Australia could still think of the monarchy with pride and affection. There was a good deal of satire and absurdity in Shead’s portrayal of the Queen, but the pictures also had a sentimental aspect that appealed to a broad audience.

The Ern Malley series represents the extension and culmination of Shead’s work of the past two decades. He began thinking about Ern Malley after winning the 1993 Archibald Prize with a portrait of the publisher Tom Thompson. Upon seeing the painting reproduced in a newspaper, Max Harris wrote to Thompson saying that he felt he was looking at the very embodiment of Ern Malley. “It accords with the visual fantasies all of us had in our mythical dealings with him,” he enthused.

Shead started to record ideas in a sketchbook in late 2002, and exhibited his first Ern Malley paintings at Australian Galleries in Sydney in October 2003. More shows followed over the next two years, as he developed the theme into an ambitious series of paintings, etchings, collages, drawings, and even a set of large ceramic vessels in collaboration with the master potter Lino Alvarez.

The Ern Malley series bears the signs of Shead’s newfound popularity and prosperity. Some artists are childishly delighted that a particular kind of work has proven popular, and hasten to repeat the dose again and again. Shead has taken the opposite course, working harder and longer on his most recent paintings, as if he had to justify his sudden eminence to his audience—and himself.

The Ern Malley paintings are, without doubt, the most substantial works of Shead’s long career. This is as close as Shead has come to painting a self-consciously “great” series. If he falls short it is as much due to his incurable whimsy, his inability to take himself that seriously, as it is to the mannerisms of the pictures. This is a failure to be celebrated, not regretted, because the quest for greatness is a fatal trap for artists, and works with “literary” themes can easily degenerate into glorified illustrations.

This publication brings together a representative collection of Shead’s works in the Ern Malley series. It is the second attempt at such a book after the artist declared himself unhappy with an earlier version. It is the latest in a series of publications on Shead written by Sasha Grishin, who has become the artist’s virtual writer-in-residence. His compact, informative essay tells us everything we need to know about the Ern Malley affair, and everything pertaining to the artist’s interest in the subject. Apart from one short burst of hyperbole, when he calls Shead’s painting The Novachord (2003) “a brilliant and confronting work”, he holds fast to the detached, professorial tone.

Grishin describes Shead’s Ern Malley paintings as “a general philosophical exploration of the idea that a creative person in this material world is almost inevitably a sacrifice”. This is borne out by the way Ern appears in painting after painting as a surrogate Christ, his head crowned by poet’s laurels rather than thorns. The religious symbolism is so insistent it is easy to forget that Ern Malley was concocted as a joke. In these pictures he seems purified of all sin and satire—a blank-faced, big-eyed victim of cultural misunderstanding. The other character that recurs in almost every work is the figure of the muse—Ern’s once-mentioned girlfriend, Lois, reborn as Mary Magdalene. In most instances, the muse is also a portrait of Shead’s wife Judith.

McAuley and Stewart make frequent appearances in their army uniforms, looking like security guards minding Ern’s legacy. Malley’s “black swan of trespass” becomes the swan that has its way with Leda in one painting, as Shead shifts happily between myths and stories.

These are impressive paintings that owe a debt to the Renaissance masters, but it is ultimately difficult to reconcile the symbolism of religious martyrdom with the anodyne Ern that stands at the centre of this series. Shead’s Ern Malley is an innocent—a man-child who seems oblivious to the turbulent events that surround him. The Ern that Ethel Malley describes had a streak of “wildness” that suggests an aggressive little punk-poet like Rimbaud rather than a pale Messiah. Is there a trace of maudlin self-pity in this portrait? A melancholy indulgence in the idea of the artist as perennial outsider and victim? As Ern Malley wrote: “I had read in books that art is not easy”. Neither is it an easy matter to get to the bottom of these paintings, so grand and yet so awkward, in which the darkest scenarios are played out by characters with the impassive faces of dolls.

The lasting appeal of Ern Malley owes a lot to his fictional nature. Untarnished by experience, always open to interpretation, he arouses envy in each new generation of artists condemned to pass through the messy trials of life before they may graduate to the status of legends.

The first volume in John McDonald’s historical survey of Australian art, Art of Australia, was published by Pan Macmillan last year and reviewed by Patricia Anderson in the March issue this year.

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