“I was born on 19th December 1919. My family was from Cobar (country NSW). Hill End mining family, Protestants. Late 1920s, parents and seven sisters and brothers – I was the youngest, moved to Bankstown. My family bought a newsagency in Marrickville. The newsagency gave us employment after our parents died, through the Depression. At school at Marrickville, I suddenly became a bad student, after being top at Leeton. The reason was the magazines in the shop – did no homework. I repeated sixth class and did not get to high school.” …
Robert Mitchell on left, aged 14
First Art Encounters “The paper shop had magazines which from the beginning aroused life-long visual curiosity. Esquire first one appealed to me – it was very sophisticated. Liked the Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, and Life Magazine. Got my blooding of art – not from the art Gallery, but from the American and English magazines, “Tatler”, “Illustrated London News”. Remember seeing reproductions of Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Old Masters. Picasso in cartoons – not so much in magazines – and Surrealism. “Australian Women’s Weekly” – liked artists like Heysen, thought the gum trees were beautiful. Norman Lindsay always there. “Smith’s Weekly” – Virgil O’Reilly black and white … Thought I’d like to learn art but was too shy to go into art college.”
Robert Mitchell says in his notes: "A 1937 cover, I thought LIFE magazine wonderful in those pre-WWII years. Before I knew, I wanted to become an artist, in 1942 Jap POW camp, I was already "teaching" myself art from LIFE magazine."
The War – Singapore and Japan
“When I was 21, I got called up. The first artist I saw in action was in this same call-up – Tom Bass – Salvation Army Tent. He did some drawings. I was too shy to look. My aunt, a nurse from WW1, was matron at Waterfall Sanatorium and at another Sanatorium. First artist I met was Cedric Flower, who was a patient. I never saw his art.”
“I volunteered for the AIF in September 1941. Knew I as going to be called up anyway. I wanted a trip overseas. Not pro-war, but anti-Nazi. Tamworth Signals, 8th Division signals, training Morse code etc. Got 40 out of 150 for shooting.”
“Landed Singapore 24 January 1942. Troop ship. Three weeks later Singapore surrendered. Three weeks after I landed I was a POW”…
“February 1942 at Changi barracks, and first started to do art. I enrolled in an art class under Murray Griffin, but we had no pencils or paper. We got clay from the bottom of a shell hole and modelled each other’s heads. Did drawings from life, traded paper; had camera as a kid; used to draw bombed houses etc. I used to draw huts. (The army) paid us ten cents a day. I used to get a dollar for one drawing.”
“End of 1942, we were asked for volunteers to go elsewhere. I volunteered, as I hated Singapore. We were given some winter army clothing and blanket and knew we were going on a ship, somewhere cold. Ship was Kamakura Maru, a passenger ship, luxurious, used as troop ship, two-week trip. Stopped at Formosa (Taiwan) didn’t get off, then up the China Sea. Snow, not much clothes or food, a bowl of rice a day.”
“8th December 1942, exactly a year after Pearl Harbour, I landed at Nagasaki. Snow – freezing. Half day on platform. Train came, heating over-heated, extremes, couldn’t look out but peeped and thought it a beautiful country; the islands seemed to float. Beauty of Japan – I took to it straight away. The architecture and beauty of place and way they cultivated the landscape.“
“Kobe, suburb Takatori Michi - I was called Takatori Mitchell - was one of the best camps in Japan we found out later. I got down to seven stone. Berri-Berri. Not high death rate, about 10%. Freezing, couldn’t get warm. No hot water. No wood. Japs had a rough time themselves. Shortly after went to work in Kobe near waterfront, Kawasaki shipyard, same as motorbikes, same badges Kawasaki; house established by water in Japanese characters. Americans fire-bombed Kobe, burn job. Fire-bombing end of Kobe. Shipyard out of action. By end of war Japs starving, couldn’t give food etc to us. We were getting more than the Jap civilians.”
Back in Australia
“I thought Australia so flat and drab-olive green when came back. Advised to sit for entrance exam to East Sydney at end of 1945 after arriving and do ex-servicemen’s course, CRTS, Commonwealth Re-Training Scheme. Would get half the basic wage. Failed exam. Told to do evening class and try again. Got portfolio together and began 1946. Grounding in modern art started in 1945 – 46 when buying lots of books, such as Janis book “Abstract and Surrealist Art”, just after war. Frank Hinder taught Design; Wallace Thornton pushed Bonnard. Bonnard came as a shock as art student in 1948.”
“I didn’t want to go to ESTC, I wanted to go to New York. I had all the money I’d saved as POW. Told “OK” but need dollars. Can’t have dollars unless ESTC says America better than Europe. Dundas said: ‘If you go to America, study photo lithography at Parsons or Chicago Art Institute or Chicago Bauhaus. The last appealed, but I didn’t get dollars.”
“In college, GI had book on Kandinsky. Don’t know if I was astonished as aware of Kandinsky, but remember looking through, I liked it, no disapproval. White border, daring.”
Robert Mitchell in his Dee Why home in the late 1940s
“Pollock got explosion from Kandinsky in Guggenheim when it was Museum of Non-Objective Art. He worked there as an attendant. There was nothing to see of Abstract Expressionism in September 1951 when I went to MOMA. I was annoyed not to see more Abstractville.”
Robert Mitchell says in his later notes: "Toronto - mid Fifties. I was using string and fabric and acrylic (?) house-paint, deep-texture. "Geometry" may have come from Ad Reinhardt, Mondrian, Malevich and fifty otheres. I think I overworked this one and destroyed it (I gave a few away to friends.) No hope of exhibiting much, even in New York then.
Toronto, Canada. By now I was painting in 'minimal', textured,
geometrical style, inspired by Burri, Ad. Reinhardt (his paintings
were smooth - I remember his
'art as art' philosophy, impressed me then; and Robert Rauschenberg Red
Paintings I saw in his 1954 - 55 Christmas one-man show in New York
Egan Gallery", Robert Mitchell says.
Robert Mitchell's comment to the photo on the right:
1960, age 40. I was then nearing the end of my Abstract Expressionism
and had started doing my altered books. These are deep textured, using
string and fabric strips and Robbialac emulsion house paints - they
came in bright primary colours and a pure purple and black. They were
cheap and dried quick and I preferred them to artist's colours. Still
inspired the yellow / black one."
"Altered Degas Book, 1960. By the end of 1960 in Canada, I was so fed up with Abstract Expressionism and I was trying to get out of it. At that time there was a lot of assemblage around; the younger New York artists were using it a lot: Rauschenberg, Johns, Bruce Connor and, of course, Cornell was always there. So I started to "alter" art books. My friends were annoyed and disapproved - I just said I was improving the books. I think this "Degas" one is the first one - I did it in 1960 and sent it home then."
London 1961 - 1980
Robert Mitchell's inscription on the back reads: "Me. Am not pie-eyed, yet. Just the flash effect on my eyes (unfortunately). Artwork on wall about 6' 0" wide and about 2' 0" deep at some spots. Collects dust, if nothing else. Visitors say, "Ooh what is that?" Photo taken in 1967 / 68 in Mitchell's London flat.
"A photo of a photo I took of a London 1967 art work of mine. It was very fragile and a dust-catcher - none of the art galleries was interested in my photos - so I destroyed the work."
"Kenzan, food dish, about 1738, as shown in the Bernard Leach book. It reminds me of the late Bonnard - the tree in blossom - Bonnard's last painting. I know the Impressionists were aware of Japanese prints; and van Gogh, especially so. But were they aware of the painterly Japanese art such as this, and in earlier Japanese and Chinese art? Sesshu seems to be predicting Cezanne; and Kenzan and his brother Kori were in to paint-for-paint's sake, found "paint" as poetic as "poetic" subject matter they were depicting."
Sydney, 1980 - 2002
used to do long walks all around North Sydney looking at the boats,
birds, sailboards. Cremorne Reserve... especially the Shell Cove
waterside path… it was all a winding path of glimpses of pictorial
excitement… looking through… get glimpses through leaves and vines with
the light hitting them – looking down and can’t see anything clearly.
That’s the thing I like – all those possibilities.”
Day 1997: Raining on and off all day, the poor marching old soldiers
would have been soggy. Anzac Day always makes me sad, thinking of all
the ones I knew in WW II who didn’t come back, the ones I knew in the
Singapore battle, and in Jap POW camps. Some didn’t reach twenty-one.
Not only Anzac Day, I think of them and that awful experience – every
day is a Rembrance [sic – pun with Rembrandt] Day for me; but I don’t
dwell on it, now it’s just part of my thinking.”
life is decorative. We humans are 99% self-invention and 1% basic true
nature; - need such decoration for life to be bearable."
Sources: “Bob Mitchell – Intricacy and Intrigue”, a film by Stella Free and Terry Hunt. Robert Boyed Mitchell's commented photographs.
Copyright Estate of Robert Boyed Mitchell Created by Banziger Hulme Fine Art 2007