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French, Leonard - 1970.18

Leonard French

Alpha and Omega 1969–70
cut & faceted dalle de verre glass
41 parts, each: 60 to 150 cm. Overall: 730 cm diameter
Donated by Sir Lindesay Clark 1970

Leonard French (1928–2017) was a Melbourne-based artist who worked as a painter, printmaker and muralist, but he is best remembered for his monumental stained-glass works.  His huge stained-glass ceiling for the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), made between 1966 and 1967, brought him international acclaim and remains one of the most recognisable icons in Australian art. In part modelling himself on the French artist Fernand Léger, French believed that art should engage with society and be accessible to a broad cross-section of the general public, and he collaborated closely with modernist architects.

Australian modernist architect Sir Roy Grounds, who had collaborated with French on the glowing glass ceiling at the NGV, received the commission for the Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University in 1968. Almost immediately, Grounds approached French to execute the huge circular Lindsay Clark window, Alpha and Omega, in the west wall of the Robert Blackwood Hall. The scale is daunting, measuring 7.3 metres in diameter, and French opted for a composition of colour-saturated concentric circles made of coloured glass, reminiscent of the great rose windows found in such Gothic cathedrals as Chartres. Technically, he refined the technique he had previously employed for the NGV commission, using the ‘glass slab’ technique, dalle de verre, where thick slabs of coloured glass are shaped by breaking with a hammer or cutting with a saw, with the edges chipped or faceted to maximise the reflection and refraction effects of the materials. The artist, as well as most commentators, see this window as technically and aesthetically the most successful of all his monumental stained-glass works.

Alpha and Omega is composed of 41 sections, each measuring between 60 and 150 centimetres, set into precast concrete by Melocco Brothers, in Melbourne. The overall design takes on the shape of the sun, with a central inscribed cross. When speaking of this work, French drew the analogy between this window and ‘a big sun, cool in the centre, surrounded by a golden glow of red and amber flames’. Although Alpha and Omega brings to mind ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’, an appellation of Christ found in the Book of Revelation 1:8, the atheist artist had a more universal meaning in mind, referring to the first and last letters of the classical Greek alphabet. This is the idea that the imagery in this window contains all of creation, from the beginnings of time through to the end, from genesis through to regeneration. The individual elements found in the iconography of this design, such as the Celtic cross, may relate to crosses that the artist examined on his early trip to Ireland, while the birds may have their origins in the image of the dove of the Holy Spirit found in Byzantine mosaics. Collectively, however, the imagery speaks of French’s holistic philosophy of all creation.

The Alpha and Omega window glows in the sunlight like a light-filled, radiating reliquary. A little over a year after the opening of the Robert Blackwood Hall, on 13 May 1972, French received an honorary doctorate of laws from Monash University in this hall.

Sasha Grishin is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and works internationally as an art historian, art critic and curator.