Summer 2007

Set the letters free

Australian artist Rosalie Gascoigne turned discarded packaging type into ‘stammering concrete poetry’

At an age that often signals retirement, Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-99) was beginning a career that would see her recognised as one of the most vital Australasian artists of the twentieth century. An early interest in ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) had led to her late artistic awakening. She created an inspired body of work that incorporated found materials. At 64, she was the first woman to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. Approaching 70, she hit her stride, making electric images of distilled experience, visual poems that meld culture and nature, language and landscape.

Since colonisation, Australian art has always had landscape as its backbone and Rosalie Gascoigne is part of that tradition. However, unlike much contemporary aboriginal art, with its highly coded cultural and geographic symbols and spiritual custodianship, or that from the dominant European traditions, Gascoigne’s work is elusive, personal, intuitive and visceral.

When she moved to Mount Stromlo, outside the Australian capital, Canberra, in 1943, Gascoigne began collecting domestic and natural detritus in long walks from her home. She had left her native New Zealand and was bored, lonely and isolated. She walked in the dusty heat collecting grasses and bones. In winter she watched the freezing wind punish the pine trees and empty the sky. Initially she used these objects for traditional flower arrangements and more adventurous ikebana displays. In the mid-1960s they became sculptural assemblages; in the 1970s, installations; and, from the 1980s onwards, installations and iconic wall assemblages.

This is how the story goes in the art world, where Gascoigne’s works attract serious international collectors, and fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the story is incomplete. What is missing is any substantial discussion of that which makes Gascoigne’s art so singular: the expressive use of found letterforms. Why, when typography is the assertive visual feature in Gascoigne’s most emblematic work, is it never paid much attention? It is like discussing Lichtenstein without mention of comics, or Picasso without African art. Is it because the artist herself did not dwell on it in interviews or essays? Or because art writers consider it incidental, or beneath their critical realm?


First published in Eye no. 64 vol. 16 2007

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