Legacy of the Whitlam Era

Artist's Action and the Griffin Collection


The recent celebration of the life of Gough Whitlam served as a reminder of the close relationship between the politician and the arts community. Paintings by Coburn, Nolan, Inson and Ball, all originally purchased from Labor fundraisers Artists Action, from the Collection of Catherine Griffin go on sale at Shapiro Auctioneers on 8th December 2014. They form a unique collection assembled by one of the key participants and are a tangible legacy of a time when artists rallied collectively as part of a political movement.

Artists’ Action was one of several grassroots organisations set up by Australian artists to support Whitlam and Labor’s policies in the 1970s.

In the wake of the November 1975 dismissal, artists swung into action at the Artists for Parliamentary Democracy Rally and exhibition. Following Labor’s 1975 landslide election loss and what they felt was the subsequent undermining of progressive legislation by the Fraser government, the same artists re-grouped, calling themselves Artists Action to 'organise continuing protests and pressure in appropriate ways.' The original committee included such politically active creative luminaries as Arthur Boyd, John Coburn, John Olsen and Brett Whitely. Members of the extended Coburn and Boyd families were staunch supporters; Lloyd Rees opened or addressed almost every fundraiser the group held; the spokesperson for the group was David Boyd and the Chairman and later, Secretary, was Catherine Griffin, whose collection was assembled over the lifetime of Artists’ Action and is being sold by Shapiro. Catherine Griffin was integral to the group’s organization and marketing; her preservation of ephemeral records provides an insight into artists’ practical support for Whitlam in the 1970s.

Artists’ Action also provided a political voice to creatives whose exhibitions were responses to, as they called it, the ‘coup d’état which unseated the elected Australian Government.’ The group became a significant fund raiser through exhibitions of works for sale donated by Australian artists held around Sydney,. Their press boasted that ‘no commercial gallery in Australia could bring so many distinguished artists together for a single exhibition’ and advertised to the public that ‘You can Get a Bargain by an Artist you admire’ at prices lower than at a gallery.

The outstanding painting of the collection is Lot 60, John Coburn’s Earthscape, painted especially for the Opposition to Uranium Mining Exhibition, at the Sydney Opera House, 1977. Coburn was close to Whitlam and a key player in the group. The painting is instantly recognizable as a Coburn by its reduced colour palette and flat organic shapes. Coburn brings his fascination for revealing the order of nature to Earthscape.

But it is also highly significant as a unique political composition, with its news cuttings on uranium mining and for its association with this historical group and event.

The anti-nuclear exhibition signalled a breakthrough for Artists’ Action, for its scale and its move beyond the party sphere into big picture politics. Now they partnered with activists such as the Movement Against Uranium Mining and Friends of the Earth. David Boyd’s press statement outlined artists’ fears, the danger of radioactive waste, nuclear theft and the possible final nuclear holocaust. The group urged the government to implement the 5-year moratorium on uranium mining in Australia.

Despite the arts community’s efforts, Whitlam lost the 1977 election and stepped down as leader. Anti-nuclear activism was more successful and the ALP conferences of 1977 and 1979 endorsed a moratorium on uranium mining.

Artists’ Action continued their work and organized exhibitions for the Labor party and Nuclear Disarmament in 1979 and 1980. A spin off group, Artists for Democracy, was formed in 1979, by which time Whitlam had retired from parliament and it was clear he would not contest another election.

The legacy of an artistic political movement is once again returned to public attention, at a poignant time for the nation, through the sale of the Collection of Catherine Griffin.