JOY HESTER: a recollection by Ken Whisson

When teenage Ken Whisson met artists Joy Hester, her husband Albert Tucker and the Reeds’ avant-garde circle in 1940s Melbourne, his creative education truly began.

Melbourne’s young artists of the 1940s, the avant-garde then derided as Modernists and later known as the Angry Penguins, gave Australian art one of its most important moments of social and aesthetic transgression. The time Ken Whisson spent with the group while still in his teens was an education in art like no other, visiting Albert Tucker’s studio, painting with Danila Vassilieff as a teacher, and discovering Sidney Nolan’s electrifying new Australian landscapes, prior to the Kelly series.

It’s almost apt to say that Whisson was born into the family of this milieu, as his cousin Pauline, with her husband Jack McCarthy, owned one of the artists’ haunts, a lending library which Whisson fondly describes as “a detective, mystery and romance library, with rooms behind with lots of prints on the walls”.

Even from the distance of 70 years, Joy Hester remains lucent in his memory. Only seven years his senior, Hester was still in her early 20s when their paths crossed and yet to produce the work that would distinguish her as an original, many would say visionary artist. But thinking back to that time (it was around 1943, with the Second World War grinding on and no conclusion in sight), while he “saw nothing that gave any full impression of the work I’ve seen since,” Whisson’s memory is of an impressive sensibility.

“I think the first time I met her was when I went with the McCarthys to visit Bert and Joy in their house at Robe Street in St Kilda (“Bert”, Albert Tucker, was Hester’s husband). I was 16 or 17. It was quite wonderful and Tucker was painting at his very best at that point. Up on the walls were the very best paintings of his St Kilda trams and tramlines, just done.

“Then there were a whole lot of Joy’s drawings of Matcham Skipper’s gypsy wife. I remember saying to Bert, ‘they’re so good’. There’s nothing of any semblance of those that I’ve seen since in books. What happened to them goodness knows. They weren’t like the drawings we now know her for but they were very good.”

Whisson’s first recognition that Hester was maturing towards something unique came later. “The first one that made an impression on me, and the only one for years, was a pen drawing in Angry Penguins. A very nervous line which impressed me so much, I was struck forcibly by that drawing.”

As the occasions when Whisson saw Hester tended to be gatherings of friends, he had ample opportunity to observe how the lights and shadows of her character showed in company. “So feminine and so extrovert,” Whisson remembers. “Such a burst of emotion. She felt she had been locked out the back door, out into the yard at McCarthy’s place one time. They probably had locked her out for fun except she went absolutely wild, shouting and screaming as though something horrible had happened, when nothing had happened.”

Whisson recalls that Hester was not averse to some teasing of her own, provoking him – the young newcomer – with a coarse joke or two just to see his reaction, a memory he clearly cherishes. This playful streak, of defiance softened by humour, was a strength he thinks may have fortified Hester in her most significant relationships. “In relation to Sunday Reed, they had known each other for a very long time and had established a very close friendship. I was at Bert Tucker’s place and Joy was saying that Sunday believed she had a poltergeist now – because Tucker believed in poltergeists – and she said ‘you can only have poltergeists if you’re a virgin. But I wonder, I wonder, perhaps Sunday’s become a virgin again.’ ”

“This told me several things – that even when she has a close friendship and respect and admiration for somebody as she had for Sunday Reed, she was completely detached just the same; and even though she went along with Tucker in this belief in poltergeists, she could be detached about that as well, following him in word but not in her mind.”

“As far as her personality is concerned,” he continues, “the impression was of a very feminine extroversion and spontaneity, combined with a very real intuitive intelligence and comprehension of the world surrounding her. I can remember her quoting Henry Miller once in relation to men on the aeroplane talking about nothing but business – buying and selling – and when an attractive hostess went by they looked up for a moment, then immediately went back to business. She was very good at encapsulating the upside down values of the world.”

The picture of Hester that accrues from each anecdote and impression is of an artist for whom one-to-one human relationships were the essence of life and the source of her creative drive, and it is perhaps not surprising that she showed less interest than many of her circle in overarching theories of art or hypotheses about the political significance of the work they were doing.

“Tucker, Nolan and the Boyds belonged to the Communist Party for a time, but I have no conscious memory of Joy talking seriously about Communism. She was really affected by the revelation of the German concentration camps. She did some drawings of those, attempts to represent them, which shows just how much she was affected by that. Everybody was. Shown in the newsreels at the theatres, the Jews coming out of the gates, and behind the fences when the Russians first came to release them. The horror of the whole thing.”

Leafing through a monograph on Hester, Whisson attributes the shocking radiance of her best work to her capacity for approaching each picture as a creation formed uniquely in that moment. He points out that when the Angry Penguins went their separate ways after the war and, with the distinct exception of Albert Tucker, gradually lost the sense of purpose that had propelled them to their remarkable early achievements, Hester came into her own.

“An important characteristic of Joy was her independence and originality. And this includes total independence – lack of influence of any kind – from the powerful work and personality of her husband Albert Tucker. Some indirect influence one would say came from Vassilieff and Nolan, but more importantly from German Expressionism.”

“I had this idea about German Expressionism that it contained the possibility of something beyond itself, and she’s one of the people who took it way beyond itself, its spirit taken to what it should and might have been – meaning the negation of contemporary culture’s banality, slickness and superficiality. Not a head-on conscious negation, as was the case with German Expressionism – this was their mistake – but a more immediate and spontaneous ignoring of the banality of our surrounding culture; and thereby drawing and painting with the direct focus and hit-and-miss process that are required to make the above possible. The value of her work is she jumps from one thing into another; a continuous attempt to drive it into a new direction.”

Joy Hester was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 27, a condition she succumbed to at 40. Highly productive through the last decade of her life, it is testament to the strength of spirit Whisson observed in her that during the 1950s – a horribly bleak time for Australian artists as he experienced it – she remained true to a discomfiting vision that ran against the grain of mainstream society.

Courtesy the artist, Albert Tucker Photographic Collection, Heide Museum of Modern Art, State Library of Victoria, Gould Galleries, Melbourne and Watters Gallery, Sydney.