At the end of 1990, I visited Broken Hill in the far north-west of NSW. I was there as the guest of the Broken Hill Art Gallery, with a brief to give talks that would enhance the professional development of the gallery staff and the local arts community. I also attended the opening of a remarkable exhibition of paintings by Kate Lohse, an artist who lived for some years at Broken Hill, and also worked for the Department of Family and Community Services.
Until I travelled the interminably long train ride to Broken Hill, I had thought little of Pro Hart, the Silver City’s most celebrated resident. In my ignorance, I probably would have joined in the Australian arts community’s communal sneer at his popularity, his repetitious imagery, and his celebration of the clichÃ©s of bush life.
If I were to summarise Pro Hart’s career as an artist, other than his ‘local hero’ aspect, I would add that he liked to experiment with paint and techniques of painting, and that, when given the opportunity he could extend beyond the clichÃ©s into works that were surprisingly sensitive. He had a visceral love of paint and the materials that made art.
I would also add that as a product of the Broken Hill working class, he could never trust authority and instinctively aided those he saw as the helpless, or victims. He had seen enough of the abuses of power by the Barrier Industrial Council which for many years had a stranglehold on all activity in the town to know that some ‘workers’ friends’ were in reality enemies. And this, combined with his fundamental Protestant Christianity, inclined him to ideas that could be described as ‘whacko.’
So what changed my mind about Pro Hart? It was the opening by Pro Hart of Kate Lohse’s exhibition, ‘Made in Broken Hill.’ She had spent three years reacting to the harshness and hypocrisy of a city that suffered the cultural legacy of a harsh industrial past a city most effectively written about by Kenneth Cook in Wake in Fright back in 1961.
Her paintings were about the mindless gambling, the crimes against children in towns like Wilcannia, and in one stunning series, ‘Behind Closed Doors,’ the beating of women by their respectable husbands. It was a very brave exhibition for a ‘blow-in’ and there was a certain edge in the way that some of the locals looked at this stranger who had dared criticise them.
Then Pro Hart spoke. ‘It took me 20 years to get the measure of this place,’ he said. ‘She’s done it in three.’
With the endorsement of Broken Hill’s favourite son, the tension eased. All was well except he went on to give a ringing condemnation of domestic violence and those who pretended it didn’t happen. Not your classic opening speech.
The next day I went out to his house and to his gallery. There was a fridge out in the carport. He was painting it to give to SIDS, the charity for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. He mentioned in passing that he had lost a grandchild, so felt an extra obligation to support them. The house was a jumble of paintings, old church organs and a huge spa.
Some of Pro Hart’s paintings those with pointy-hatted jesters as figures of evil reminded me a bit of David Boyd. He explained that they represented the people who had harassed Lindy Chamberlain. Along with the artist Guy Boyd, Pro Hart was an early supporter of the Chamberlains. He knew enough from his time down the mines that mobs turn on those who are eccentric and unusual. His own beliefs were strange in that he believed in international conspiracies and evil governments common enough beliefs among older working class people in the country.
His art gallery was a revelation. Most of the works were by artists whose work was based in emotion: Chagall, Picasso, Rouault, Arthur and David Boyd, William Dobell and Asher Bilu. Then there were paintings of surprising sensitivity: Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Fred Williams and Godfrey Miller. I’m used to going to artists’ homes and it is rare to find one who collects much outside of their own immediate circle.
I think it is true to say that Pro Hart, who had become wealthy through painting and commercial reproductions of his work, used his wealth to gain first-hand access to art that nourished him. He had never been to art school, but he was able to ensure that an entire art education came to him. Then he shared his newfound knowledge with the city that was his home.
Some years after I met him, I heard that he had become a supporter of Pauline Hanson. This was hardly a surprise. She had all the elements that he admired: young, female, under attack and a believer in conspiracies by governments.
His support for Hanson was seen as a further reason for sneering at his art. This is an odd technique for making aesthetic judgements. If Francis Bacon’s fame had depended on charm rather than skill, he would only have ever achieved a small cult following. Maybe the reason why so many institutions that collect work by living artists make bad choices is that they tend to buy the work of pleasant people, and get upset when they are insulted by the unpleasant, or forced to confront the uncouth.
There is another reason for being concerned at those who sneer at Pro Hart. I am old enough to remember when work by Albert Namatjira was regarded as a joke, and those who admired it were subject to ridicule in just the same way as admirers of Hart. Namatjira was one of Australia’s most popular artists, and yet ‘educated taste’ loathed him.
I remember in the early 1970s, a curator was instructed to hang the only Albert Namatjira in his gallery’s collection. He hung it outside the ladies’ toilet, next to a bowl of gladioli. He thought this was a witty thing to do. Now he is the subject of scholarly discourse.
How many years, I wonder, before the first PhD on the importance of Pro Hart to Australian art in the second half of the 20th century?
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