Roy Dalgarno

Roy Dalgarno - socialist bohemian & social realist

He painted seagulls circling the seafarer like flies buzzing around the face of a bushman. Thus did the artist depict the maritime worker.

Socialist bohemian and social realist Roy Dalgarno sought his subjects on the wharves and ships, the factory floor, down the mines and in the fiery heat of the furnace room. Sweaty men depicted toiling with the same grace, pride and professionalism as an athlete or actor.

"Roy depicted the working class by projecting their dignity and strength", said Maritime Union National Secretary Paddy Crumlin.

"This is particularly true of his early work when seafarers, wharfies and miners were exploited and devalued economically and politically."

Artist Roy Dalgarno died aged 90 in February, 2001, after a long association with the left and the labour movement, in particular the maritime and mining unions.

His works live on in the Australian National Gallery, the art galleries of NSW, Queensland, Auckland, Newcastle, Ballarat, the Australian War Museum, Parliament House Canberra and in the rooms of the Maritime Union of Australia in Sussex Street, Sydney.

A casualty of the Cold War, his paintings, like political prisoners, were locked away for many years in the gallery vaults.

Roy Dalgarno was never to enjoy the recognition he so deserved, art historian Bernard Smith laments.

He belongs to that great generation of social realist Australian artists who flourished during World War II and the early post war years but whose works in the aftermath of the Cold War are now largely stored and forgotten by curators. ('Artist of the Everyday' The Australian, 23/2/2001).

During the Cold War social realism became associated with communism, while abstract expressionism (such as the works of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko) served as adjunct to American capitalism and its ideology. Abstract expressionism was a movement aligned with the rise of American cultural imperialism. It became allied with the right; social realism with the left. (Modern Art: A critical introduction by Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon )

Massive institutional promotion of abstract expressionists in the Western bloc was due to the fact their work was seen as apolitical. Yet the artists who became so successful owe much of their fame to their promotion by liberal intelligentsia, funded by the CIA.

The Cold War required a specific form of national identity to export as par t of its cultural arsenal. Abstract art works came to symbolise American individuality and freedom'. The artists themselves were seen as anti-communist cultural warriors - willing conscripts of the Cold War. This destroyed abstract arts supposed autonomy by aligning it with the capitalist and imperialist ethics of agencies like MoMA.

But the American rhetoric of freedom was mocked by Mcarthyism the blacklisting of artists in the US and the shunning of artists like Dalgarno in Australia.

Abstract work was seen as neutral enough to stay out of trouble. Art institutions intentionally represented their works as apolitical in order to escape government censorship.

In the corporate world to this day only artists who portray products or 'pure' art sell. Workers on canvas do not sit comfortably on the walls of the privileged few who can afford to invest in art.

Dalgarno's clientele remained the inner left wing circles, with the Seamen' s Union commissioning two series one in the forties, another in 1991.

Yet his credentials as an artist are unquestionable.

Dalgarno studied art for a decade at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, Dattilo Rubbos and the East Sydney Technical College in Sydney, the Ecole des Beauz Arts and William Hayter's Atelier 17 in Paris.

His first job was as an apprentice to Melbourne lithographer Henry Wicks in the old St James building on the corner of Little Collins and William Streets, Melbourne the same rooms where brothers Norman and Lionel Lindsay maintained a studio in 1892.

Smith describes the building as a hotbed of socialism in the thirties. Jack Castieu who established Australia's first socialist magazine Tocson with Bernard O'Dowd also had rooms there. Dalgarno did not separate work and home, life and politics. He moved in to his studio and became involved with another left wing publication 'Strife'. It was in the words of Bernard Smith a revolutionary magazine that sought to enlist art, politics and culture in the battle for a new Australia that would uproot the existing social and economic order of chaotic and tragic individualism.

Disenchanted with the misery and despair of the Depression and the failure of capitalism Dalgarno joined the Australian Communist Party.

It was, according to Smith, a short, if passionate affair his bohemian temperament incompatible with party puritanism.

Dalgarno left Melbourne for the Queensland cane fields, devoting serious time to his painting.. But it was not until 1949 that he left the party.

Like many artists Dalgarno served during the war as a camouflage officer. With peace came recognition and a series of commissions from both unions and corporations to make drawings of industrial life.

Dalagarno also helped found the Studio of Realist Art with James Cant, Dora Chapman, Hal Missinghan and others. He taught drawing and painting at East Sydney Technical College before the Cold War struck and he left Australia for a self imposed exile in Paris and escape into the world of existentialists and surrealists.

From Paris Dalgarno moved to Bombay, India, working as a commercial artist and establishing a lithographic workshop. After the death of his second wife in 1975, he settled in Auckland New Zealand, working as a teacher, painter and graphic designer until his death.

As if to commemorate his final days the Wollongong City Gallery held an exhibition of his drawings and prints in January.

Dalgarno's work was also exhibited at established private galleries during his lifetime.

These include a series of paintings of Broken Hill miners at the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney (1984), steel workers at the Holdsworth Galleries, Sydney (1986) and shearers at the David Ellis Gallery in 1988.

The Seamen's Union commissioned two series of works from the artist, the first in the early forties and a second in 1991 (see Artists and Rebels on the Waterfront works of art by Roy Dalgarno, Seamen's Journal, July, 1992 & September 1972 & The Seamen's Union of Australia 1872-1972: A History by Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill). - The early series gives an idea of the lot of the seamen in the coal burning days. They show men crowded together in cramped cabins, at work stoking the fires and swabbing the deck.

'Down the stokehold' (above) presents a little known aspect of the fireman' s lot. Here two men are shown recuperating in the stoke hold under the ventilation shaft. They are hanging on to a strap and gasping for air in between shovelling fuel into the fires of an old coal burning ship.

The only ventilation was from deck, says retired Seamen's Secretary Pat Geraghty. That's if there was any wind. Otherwise the job was all heat and no air. They would have just come away from the open fires. You can see the men are exhausted and stressed, hanging on for any breath of air they can get.

Dalgarno's work has a two fold purpose, wrote Fitzpatrick. Firstly to show the humanity of the men at work, and secondly to account for their militancy by attempting to artistically recreate their working conditions.

"I hope kids will see my paintings as a very strong part of Australian history. People want to see their own country and people", he once told the Melbourne Age.

"What worries me a bit is that it's regarded as old-fashioned.

"But you must be stupid at my age to even contemplate fashion as an alternative to the way you feel. I have seen them all come and go and come back again.

"You only have one life, and what you have to do is realise yourself in the only way you feel is genuine and not through other people's eyes.

"We are programmed enough as it is. I think we have to unprogram ourselves to produce something genuine before we pop off."