The exhibition George Baldessin explores the artist’s remarkable, distinctive contribution to Australian art, featuring paintings and drawings as well as the better known etchings and sculptures from the significant body of work produced by Baldessin before his premature death at the age of 39 in 1978.
The Italian born artist was at the forefront of the re-invention of figurative art in Melbourne in the 1960s and 1970s, reinvigorating it with an unaccustomed elegance, an ambiguous sexuality and stylish craftsmanship. His art was also radically opposed to the New York School that had, virtually overnight, transformed the practice of art in Melbourne. From his first exhibition in 1964 he was highly acclaimed as both sculptor and printmaker: he exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney regularly, won major awards and prizes, received important sculptural commissions, was included in travelling exhibitions and international biennales, including representing Australia in the 1975 Bienal de São Paulo.
Baldessin’s decision to focus on printmaking and sculpture was a singular one—and a sign of his individuality and style. His preferred mediums of etching (later onto silver chine-collé surfaces) and cast bronze or aluminum sculpture lent a kind of studied ‘coolness’, sophistication and finesse to his art. The decision to make figurative sculpture—at a time when most ambitious sculptors were pursuing abstract work—marked Baldessin out as an artist indifferent to peer-group pressure or allegiance. Similarly, his choice of etching to convey his pictorial vision, and as his preferred and gritty vehicle for drawing, heralded a renewed interest in prints. He was a major contributor in a generation of artists in the 1960s and 1970s who breathed fresh life into printmaking.
Baldessin’s art was central to the Melbourne School of Figuration, an enduring presence in Melbourne’s art scene centred at the RMIT School of Art, where he studied and later taught, and his influence can be detected in a number of artists who worked as assistants in his printmaking studio in the 1970s. However, with a style so idiosyncratic, and cut short in early mid-career, it is unsurprising that Baldessin’s stylistic influence has been obscured.
George Baldessin provides a rare and important opportunity to re-evaluate his contribution and to revisit his remarkable body of work. Furthermore, while the public have had access to his etchings in the three decades since his premature death, his sculpture has been neglected. This exhibition restores the balance between sculpture, printmaking and painting that George Baldessin sought as an artist.