JOYCE MORGAN Martin Sharp: His life and times. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
Joyce Morgan’s version of Martin Sharp presents an important portrait of the man and his times.
The cultural volatility of the 1960s demanded new ways to express its clashing ideals and philosophies. Late Sydney artist Martin Sharp was one of the key contributors to its visual language, working mainly in Sydney and London and creating cartoons, paintings, graphic design and collaborative ‘happenings’. But he was a conundrum. A doctor’s son raised in privilege, he was anti-establishment. Although he was a sought-after artist, he resisted selling his work and believed art galleries were elitist and passé. A sensitive and generous person, he carelessly trashed apartments that friends had lent him; although shy, he collected people and lived and worked amid chaotic crowds of creative types, hangers-on, and – sometimes – criminals.
Sharp’s contradictions are irresistible to writers, with two biographies published since his death in 2013. The one reviewed here is by former Sydney Morning Herald arts editor Joyce Morgan; the other is Lowell Tarling’s Sharp: The road to Abraxas: Part one 1942-1979.
In exploring Sharp’s multiple dimensions, Morgan takes a journalistic arm’s-length approach. Her personal assessment of the man is never explicit, resulting in an emotional flatness that, at first, did not seem to fit the magical mystery trip of his life. (Tarling’s book, by comparison, is clearly an insider’s tribute, alight with crazy energy.) In the end, however, Morgan’s approach reveals itself to be a wise choice.
Sharp was born in January 1942. His father, a RAAF medical officer, was absent for the first four years of his son’s life. His mother wrote to his father that their child was ‘quite one of the naughtiest – rudest – bad-mannered kids I’ve ever met – but he’s so good looking.’
When his father returned, the youngster saw him as a rival ‘demanding the attention of the woman whose undivided focus he had had for most of his short life’. His father seemed similarly unimpressed with Martin, apparently only ever picking up the child once. The marriage soured, with tensions between his parents leaving Sharp with a deep-seated distrust of emotional closeness.
Sharp’s mother and maternal grandparents planted the artistic seeds. His mother – who took nine-year-old Martin to art exhibitions – collaged fashion-magazine illustrations, and her cartoon-loving parents cut out newspaper strips like Boofhead or Ginger Meggs to create books for their grandson. But while the roots of his art practice lay in Sharp’s early life, his later work was seen to reflect global art movements. Critics linked his collaged and assembled images to Dadaist collages by John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, while his juxtapositions of high and low culture icons connected him to pop art.
Another early influence was artist Justin O’Brien, at that time teaching at Cranbrook School. He encouraged the schoolboy’s talent, and suggested he enter art school. By 1961, however, Sharp had begun a Sydney University architecture degree. This brought him into contact with ‘a precociously talented group of students who included Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Bob Ellis, Richard Walsh, poet Les Murray, actors John Bell, Arthur Dignam, John Gaden and filmmaker Bruce Beresford’. While he soon dropped architecture, his connections and interests coalesced in the independent publication Oz, and thence to notoriety and charges of obscene publication.
Despite Morgan’s low-key storytelling, the narrative staggers under the weight of characters and events. Sharp, Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and others establish the Sydney and London Oz. He becomes close to the bohemian Mora family in Melbourne. His life intersects with Eric Clapton’s in London. His involvement with the iconic film Performance brings him into contact with Mick Jagger and James Fox. And then his posters capture the psychedelic zeitgeist and establish his reputation.
The sheer number of players, and the dizzying range of their cultural endeavours, creates a swirling dynamic. I puzzled over some unflagged changes of location and sometimes struggled with the timeline.
The man at the centre of this narrative is strangely unengaging, and this is where Morgan’s dispassionate approach pays off. She doesn’t attempt to psychologise, scrupulously presenting his eccentricities without judgment. For instance, Sharp’s staple London diet of a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich receives from Morgan the same detached observation as does his rejection of careerism and the art establishment.
Morgan’s detachment creates a smooth calm surface, throwing into contrast Sharp’s own descriptions of his emotional struggles, which intensified with age. This example is from a letter to Finnish model Eija Vehka-aho, with whom he had an ‘emotionally ambivalent’ relationship while in London:
I must rid myself of my ridiculous guilt feeling which I have traced back to my mother’s smothering and demands which resulted from my father’s coldness […] I have a ridiculous fear of involvement.
One scene, however, suggests that Sharp’s recklessness provokes in Morgan a horrified fascination. She describes interviewing him in 2012, when his emphysema necessitated an oxygen tank. Flicking his cigarette lighter in the oxygen outlet, he assures Morgan, ‘It’s not combustible.’ But after endangering both of them by almost exploding the entire studio, his response is:
Cancel that argument … Life’s a total experiment. You never know what’s going to happen and you’ve got to be able to move fast.
But if Sharp’s recklessness – and romances – left a trail of broken hearts, he unstintingly committed to friendships and persevered with several idées fixes: he championed eccentric US singer Tiny Tim; he campaigned to save Sydney’s Luna Park, and he agitated to discover the cause of the fatal Ghost Train fire and to honour its victims. Even his repeated use of the motif of a copperplate Eternity pays tribute to Arthur Stace, another eccentric ‘outsider’.
Additional obsessions motivated Sharp’s utopian Yellow House gallery project in Macleay Street, Potts Point, during the early 1970s. Paying tribute to a yellow house in which Vincent van Gogh wanted to establish ‘an artistic family’, it also reflected Sharp’s belief in counterculture ideals like community, love, and art as part of life rather than isolated in galleries. After Sharp inherited the family mansion Wirian, he continued his search for an inclusive artistic family amid the chaos of communal living.
Joyce Morgan’s version of Martin Sharp’s life presents an important portrait of the man and his times – the explosive cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. Wisely, the book neither pigeonholes him nor bestows a mantle of greatness. Instead it shows him as an equal among an astonishing milieu of avant-garde cultural giants. Even if he remains enigmatic, his work and context leave vibrant impressions.
Joyce Morgan Martin Sharp: His life and times Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 338pp $34.99
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
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