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1938 – 2009
Fred Cress was born in Poona, India in 1938. During the turbulent period this same year, which followed the granting of India’s independence, the Cress family moved to England and settled in Birmingham. In 1954 Cress went to study at the Birmingham College of Art. There his training taught him much about the discipline of drawing from the model, but little else.
Ultimately his inspiration was not to come from the contemporary practice, but from the art of the past, chiefly Goya and Turner. In turning to the past for his paradigms, Cress began a process that continued to preoccupy him. In fact, his modernity has always recognised the role of tradition.
Cress settled in Australia in 1961 and applied for a teaching post. He was sent to Wangaratta and then, after two years, took up a lectureship at Caulfield Technical College. In June 1965 he staged his first solo exhibition at the Argus Gallery. The art historian Bernard Smith, reviewing the weekly offering of exhibitions in the Melbourne Age, described Cress as the “most stimulating and in many ways the most professionally competent and that his work had something of ‘the menace of Goya”.
In 1965, Cress left on a study tour to Europe. Before departing he had a painting called “Love Me and Leave Me” accepted for the McCaughey Prize at the National Gallery of Victoria. The painting addresses a subject which was to become central to his work – the male/female relationship. Fred Cress has built a reputation as an intriguing figurative artist – an acerbic, pictorial commentator on the contemporary human condition. “Human nature and human values underpin the images I create” he has said “and particularly those aspects that all of us prefer to keep hidden from view. Picture making is important and I enjoy narratives based on everyday existence. To turn the petty into the significant, to give it drama, colour, movement yet fix it as a memorable image – that’s the aim”.
Cress spent some years as an abstract artist “to learn how to make paint live for itself” and then many more as a quasi-abstractionist. This latter phase was particularly productive in 1985 with the “Stages” and “Secrets” drawings and paintings. The subject matter of his narrative grew so strong that by 1988 he could no longer contain it within abstracted shapes and he was to produce the “Tell Tales” series of drawings which were the beginnings of his re-emergence as a figurative artist. 1988 was also the year he won the Archibald Prize and Peoples’ Prize for his portrait of artist John Beard.
Since then Cress has not looked back and has produced many works dealing with the secret narratives between us. He has placed his dramas in gardens, on table tops and within large groupings of people. Vases with flowers are decorated with people and are the basis of his recent etchings.
A distinguishing feature of Cress’ figuration is that it is not based on photographs. Everything comes from his imagination and his experience of life. The images, therefore, develop an authenticity with which we, as viewers, identify. This disturbs some while amusing others. People think they recognise some of his characters but this is impossible. He is not representing anyone in particular because the aim is to keep the subject as general as possible. One can identify with the behaviour but not those practising it! There is an element of humour to much of his work which Cress feels is essential, in order to cope. Life is so full of surprises yet underlying themes remain the same. The subject is inexhaustible.
Fred Cress passed away on 14th October 2009 after a long battle with cancer.
National Gallery of Australia, ACT
Hamilton Art Gallery,
Rockhampton Art Gallery, Qld.
Albury Art Gallery, Vic.
Ballarat Art Gallery, Vic.
Benalla Art Gallery, Vic.
Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Qld.
Bendigo Art Gallery, Vic.
McClelland Art Gallery, Vic.
New England Regional Art Museum, NSW
Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW
Peninsula Art Gallery, Vic.
Adademi, New Dehli, India
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, France
Art Gallery of New South Wales, NSW
Art Gallery of South Australia, SA
Art Gallery of Western Australia, WA
National Gallery of Victoria, Vic.
Queensland Art Gallery, Qld.
Tasmanian Art Gallery and Museum, Tas.
Parliament House Collection, ACT
Queen Victoria Art Gallery and Museum, Tas.
Broken Hill Art Gallery, NSW
Wollongong Art Gallery, NSW
Shepparton Art Gallery, Vic.
Townsville Art Gallery, Qld.
Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery, NSW