Leonard French Leonard French 14 April 1827–4 May 1900 By Reg MacDonald In the accompanying black-and-white photograph, the Australian artist Leonard French relaxes in a comfortable chair, cigar fitted between two fingers, with a group of New Guinea objects, including the present Boiken bust, on a shelf behind. Probably the most popular artist in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, French (1928–2017) was a keen collector of tribal art from Oceania: “The bold and distinctive carvings from these regions, especially those highlighted with strongly colored natural pigments, presented me with a new and exciting language of symbols.”1 During an active career that lasted over six decades, French created in many mediums with work, usually series, that was nearly always about the perilous nature of the human condition. As a symbolist painter, French established an iconography of circles, hands, fish serpents, vines, Romanesque arches, oblongs, darts, waves and many others. He became a master at aesthetically arranging these symbols in graphic juxtapositions to illustrate the concepts for his glassworks, paintings, murals and tapestries. Leonard French in his home circa 1960s In 1960, French began a series of 12 paintings on the life and martyrdom of the 16th-century English Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. It was with the “Campion Series” that he achieved critical acclaim and financial success and, coincidentally, began collecting Oceanic art. The exhibition was held at the Farmers Blaxland Galleries in George Street, Sydney, in October 1961. Before the show even opened, the dealer, Rudy Komon, bought most of the Campion paintings. French, then 34 and in the money for the first time in his career, celebrated long and hard at the famous Marble Bar with his friend Melbourne poet and academic Vincent Buckley. First thing the next morning, still slightly tipsy, French caught a taxi to Senta Taft’s Galleries Primitif in Woollahra and acquired his first Melanesian pieces—four Asmat fighting shields. He had seen them for the first time soon after their arrival in Sydney when he and Buckley went for a “shake off the cobwebs walk” in Woollahra and accidently discovered Galleries Primitif. Following that acquisition, French became a keen collector of items of material culture from Melanesia and, later, after visiting South America, where he represented Australia in the Sao Paulo Biennial in Brazil, he began collecting good examples of Pre-Columbian art. In 1968, he was critically acclaimed in Australia and abroad after completing the massive glass ceiling for the new National Gallery of Victoria. He used more than 10,000 pieces of 25 mm thick dalle de verre glass from France and Belgium, in a range of 50 colors, in this pioneering work. “Using a hammer and chisel I cut each piece of glass like a jewel to bounce and refract the colored light,” he explained. “My leather apron was covered with so much blood it looked like I was doing surgery.”2 In 1982, South African magnate and billionaire, the late Harry Oppenheimer, then chairman of Anglo American Corporation and De Beers, commissioned French to create a giant mural called “The Bridge” for his library at Brenthurst, his family’s heavily guarded, electric-fenced, 16-hectare compound in Johannesburg. A seminal work in French’s extensive oeuvre, “The Bridge,” a dramatic six-panel mural 2.7 meters x 5 meters, highlights South Africa’s brutal experiment with apartheid. It took French two years to complete, and when the library was officially opened in February 1984, it was hailed by Afrikaner journalists as South Africa’s “Guernica.”3 French’s paintings have found a home in all of the Australian State and most regional galleries, plus the Tate Britain, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and many major private collections around the world. French was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to Australian art and three Australian universities—Monash, La Trobe and the Australian National University—conferred honorary doctorates on him for his services to art and the Australian community. While a member of Australia’s Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, and later the acquisitions committee and interim council of the Australian National Gallery, French became a forceful and persuasive advocate for the collection of outstanding examples of Oceanic art. Due to his articulate advocacy, two outstanding examples of Melanesian art were purchased for the Australian National Gallery’s collection. They are the famous Ambum Stone5 and the acclaimed twin figure (male and female) ancestral piece from Lake Sentani, Irian Jaya,6 once owned by the internationally recognized English sculptor Jacob Epstein. For the last 35 years of his life, French lived in a converted 19th-century flour mill in the sleepy rural hamlet of Heathcote in Central Victoria, where he surrounded himself with tribal art objects both large and small—from an outstanding small wooden feast bowl from the Admiralty Islands with exquisitely carved anthropomorphic finials to the present superb pre-contact Boiken ancestral spirit figure. He allowed their distinctive designs, powerful color juxtapositions and demanding presence to intrude and influence his fertile imagination and his creative art practice. Yangoru Boiken figure Unfortunately, French did not catalogue his collection or keep any records of the transactions he had made when acquiring pieces, but the author can confirm that he bought most of his major South Pacific objects from the well-known Melbourne ethnographic dealer/collector Mark Lissauer. The author can recall him saying that he “bought the Boiken figure from Mark in the 1960s. I was selling well in those days and indulged myself.” A Holocaust survivor, Lissauer, a scholarly man who was born in Hamburg, Germany, and settled in Australia after World War II, soon established himself as a knowledgeable authority on Oceanic art. In 1948, he visited Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, and acquired his first tribal piece. Fifty years later, Lissauer had documented the acquisition of nearly 35,000 items, principally from Papua New Guinea, the islands of the Western Pacific, Asia and Tibet. The author can recall him saying he had made at least 40 collecting trips to Papua New Guinea. French was exceedingly proud of this exceptional Boiken figure and he mounted it in a shadow box, together with several other minor Melanesian pieces, which he hung on the wall of the downstairs sitting room at Heathcote, a place in which he regularly rested after long working days, usually 10–12 hours, seven days a week, in the studio. 1Leonard French, interview with author, Heathcote, 23/10/2007. 2Leonard French interview with author, Brisbane, 8/10/2012. 3Sasha Grishin, Leonard French, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1995, p. 56. 4It is interesting to note that the well-known ethnographic expert, the late Douglas Newton, was a consultant to the Australian National Gallery in its early days and recommended that the institution buy only outstanding pieces of Oceanic art. He and French became close friends and shared the thrill of finding the rare and outstanding examples of Melanesian material culture. 5Douglas Newton in Australian National Gallery: An introduction, 1982, pp. 164–165, describes the Ambum Stone from the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea as one of the two or three finest known from an extraordinary and mysterious aspect of New Guinea art. He said the stone was an “extraordinary image, like a humanoid or animal embryo with a great overarching head.” 6Douglas Newton, Australian National Gallery: An introduction, 1982, p. 164. In this work, he described the double figure from Lake Sentani in Irian Jaya as an “unquestionable masterpiece.” The double figure was dredged from Lake Sentani in 1929 by Dr. Jacques Viot for a dealer in Paris.