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McGilchrist, Erica - 1967.10

Erica McGilchrist

The embrace 1964
oil in composition board
79.8 x 100.3 cm
Purchased 1967

Erica McGilchrist painted The embrace in 1964, when she had just returned to Melbourne after a ‘love and pain-packed’ three-and-a-half-year stay in Germany.[1] While her time overseas had been professionally rewarding, with a scholarship completed at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts and solo exhibitions in Germany and London, it had also been marred by significant personal crisis. McGilchrist had separated from her husband on the cusp of travelling to Europe, and there she soon found herself in a romantic entanglement with one of her teachers and his wife. Returning to Australia to preserve her marriage, she entered another complicated relationship. By this point she was emotionally distraught but also creatively motivated to freely invent and explore.

The events that unfolded in McGilchrist’s private world gave rise to a series of paintings. The embrace is the first in a suite developed over several years in which she explored the concept of unity through the vehicle of a male−female relationship.[2] In drawing upon her own experiences, McGilchrist’s aim was not only to chart the inner-self but also to understand the force and character of the human psyche in a universal sense. Such concerns were closely tied to both her strong humanist interests and her artistic grounding. Though she never belonged in a formal sense to any movement or group, her ideas about art had been shaped by the improvisatory and uncensored techniques brought to prominence in European surrealism. In her earliest works of the 1950s through to the final painting she realised in 1995, McGilchrist mined the realms of her subconscious to call forth imagery.

McGilchrist typically allowed the mood or meaning informing her images to dictate her stylistic approach. As a result, she worked fluidly between abstraction and figuration, and often combined both modes in the one picture, as seen in The embrace. Conceived before she switched from oils to acrylics as her primary medium, the picture reveals a skilful melding of imagined and representational forms, which coalesce to describe three entwined figures, each signified by an outstretched arm and a tenderly placed hand­­. Strongly contrasted areas of black and white on a field of red at once define and disguise the lovers, who appear to float in a dreamy fusion. The way McGilchrist has arranged their bodies in a continuous relationship – both with each other and with the soft, womb-like environment – heightens this sense of harmony. It is only the ominous black void at the bottom of the picture that suggests the intimacy is fleeting and a melancholy of parting imminent.

McGilchrist’s ability to invoke feelings and states of mind through formal means is one of the strengths of her art, yet she always balanced the emotive tenor of her work with an intellectualism. Later reflecting on this period of her oeuvre, she remarked that it came almost a decade before her feminist awakening, during which she reconsidered many of the attitudes and conditioned expectations she had held about the interdependence of men and women.[3] From 1975 onwards, McGilchrist campaigned passionately for women’s rights, and she hoped to be remembered as an activist as much as an artist.[4]

Linda Short is a curator at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

[1] Letter from Erica McGilchrist to Ruth Bergner, Melbourne, 5 April 1964, Erica McGilchrist Papers, Heide Museum of Modern Art Archive, Melbourne.

[2] The series includes a larger painting of the same title made in 1965, held in the National Gallery of Victoria Collection.

[3] Erica McGilchrist in conversation with the author, July 2013, exhibition notes for Erica McGilchrist: Selected Works 1951−1995, Heide Museum of Modern Art Archive, Melbourne.

[4] The Women’s Art Register, which she helped establish in Melbourne in 1975, continues to document and promote the work of Australian women artists. McGilchrist also campaigned for the protection of the natural environment throughout her adult life.