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by Sandra Bruce, 19 January 2022

Dr Joseph Brown with Two Typists
Dr Joseph Brown with Two Typists, 1996 Noel McKenna. © Noel McKenna/Copyright Agency, 2023. John Brack 'Two Typists' 1955 is kindly reproduced with permission from Helen Brack

‘There were worlds within worlds, and each will have within its confines values and meaning.’ Alexander McCall Smith, The right attitude to rain

The year Noel McKenna painted Dr Joseph Brown with Two Typists, his subject was 78 years old and had been a driving force within the Australian art world for at least three decades. Dr Joseph Brown ao obe was a teenager when he arrived in Australia from Poland with his family in 1933. With an early eye for creativity, he studied painting and sculpture formally for several years, before enlisting and seeing military service during the Second World War. Establishing a career in fashion on his return to Melbourne, he worked in a boutique on Bourke Street; it was another twenty years or so until Brown made the decision to become an art dealer, opening his own gallery on Collins Street in 1967.

Brown had a canny approach to modernism and a good eye for contemporary art. Over the course of his long-running career he represented artists, bought and sold art, acted as advisor, buyer and benefactor for various public collections, and built a personal collection of some magnitude. He exhibited the work of the established Melbourne artist John Brack at various times in the 1970s, beginning with an attention-grabbing exhibition of nudes in 1971. Six years later Two Typists, the Brack painting featured in this portrait, was included in Brown’s Winter Exhibition 1977: Recent Acquisitions at his Melbourne gallery. Ultimately, Brown decided to acquire the work for his own collection.

Brack painted Two Typists in 1955, as one of a series of works that culminated in the artist’s unique and timeless view of inner-city Melbourne life, Collins St, 5p.m., where the two women featured in Two Typists can be clearly seen in the foreground. The finished works from the series were originally shown together at Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne in 1956. Almost immediately acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, Collins St, 5p.m. has long been recognised as an exceptional representation of urbanity in the 1950s, an iconic artwork illustrative of Australian mid-century modernism. Nearly 50 years later the paintings were reunited, when in 2004 Brown made a major gift of more than 150 works to the NGV, including Two Typists.

Noel McKenna, through an introduction by his gallerist, met Joseph Brown in the early 1990s. The subject of many portraits (including at least one by John Brack), Brown became perhaps one of the most ‘represented’ men in Australia. In 1996 McKenna asked Brown if he could paint him for the Archibald Prize, and continuing his custom of supporting contemporary practice, Brown was happy to say yes. McKenna visited him at his home in Toorak, where Brown sat for several sketches that the artist then took back to his studio to create the portrait.

A great admirer of Brack’s work, McKenna chose to feature Two Typists in this portrait because he knew that this particular example was held in Brown’s personal collection. McKenna’s signature raw, expressionist and minimal style is a sympathetic vehicle that focuses the attention on the work’s obvious and key elements, without distracting from the portrait’s capacity to unmistakably represent its subject.

This is recognisably Dr Joseph Brown; and this is recognisably one of John Brack’s paintings. The man and the painting are clearly in a gallery, as the little red sticker used to indicate a sale shows. A seemingly austere composition: Brown, the Brack, and a red dot, placed in the uncomplicated surrounds of light-coloured wall and floor. This is all that is required to show us that this is a portrait of a leading figure of the Australian art scene in his natural environment. Although, after considering the connections between the subjects, perhaps this is also in some form a dual portrait, of renowned and respected contemporaries.


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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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