Full title: A few insights and numerous questions concerning Max Meldrum and the creation, maintenance and preservation of his paintings

Abstract

Examination of fifteen of Max Meldrum’s paintings reveal an array of techniques and materials that speak of his compositional methods and of his concerns about the reception and longevity of his works. Gridlines or reference points, coated surfaces, marouflage and curiously placed red circles offer a few insights and raise numerous questions about his working methods. This presentation identifies some recurring issues for discussion and poses some conclusions.

Meldrum’s use of grids, apparent in several works from different periods, sheds some light on compositional methods that allowed him to capture ‘the real nature of appearances’ (The Science of Appearances, 1950: 81) without recourse to drawing, a method he referred to as ‘a strange anachronism’ (1950: 81). One painting reveals grid marks at its perimeter apparently executed before and after composition, suggesting either preparation for a larger work and/or an example of his scientific approach to capturing visual phenomena. Meldrum’s desire to preserve his pictures by protecting them from environmental influences is illustrated in the use of marouflage and the application of various coatings on the recto and verso of the paintings. Wax is a material that he employed regularly to preserve his works both front and back. He utilised different types of boards for marouflage, ranging from hardboard like Masonite to what appears to be hand crafted or modified academy boards.He also painted the backs of some boards and/ or attached painted canvas to the verso as a protective layer. Yet, in certain cases, these measures have an aesthetic value, seemingly to add a finished look to the boards themselves. The question of aesthetics and appearances is further complicated by the embellishment of several paintings with a red circle painted onto the verso of the supporting boards. Another work bears a raised red ornament, possibly wax, on the recto and turnover edge but it has mostly been obscured by paint. Questions arise as to whether there is any connection between them and for what purpose they have been applied. More specifically, were they added for a purely practical purpose or are they emblems used to confer some level of distinction on the works?

Meldrum’s drive to preserve pictures from damage is one that transcends a sole concern for his own works. It appears that Meldrum may have used his position as a Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria as means of emulating his role model, Velasquez as court
painter with responsibilities for the care of the Spanish Royal Collection. Historical documents demonstrate that Meldrum participated in treating an important work in the Gallery’s collection and that he was involved in influencing the practices of Harley Griffiths, a private restorer who treated the Gallery’s works over an extended period and was ultimately employed by the Gallery.

Meldrum had very particular views on how paintings should be constructed and should appear. As outlined above, he incorporated practices and materials that reveal an attention to detail and finish that add to his works without his succumbing to typical notions of finish concerning the painted surface. Moreover, while the protection of his and other paintings seems a clear motivation for Meldrum to employ various methods and materials, the full picture of his aims is still unclear. Were hand crafted boards a means of cutting costs? Were they expressions of the artist as master craftsman or both? Were there other intentions underlying his embellishments? Regardless, it is clear that Meldrum had a strong vision of himself as a pioneering artist with a scientific approach to techniques and materials to create an enduring and ‘pure Art’ (1919:107).

References:

  • Colahan, Colin (ed), Max Meldrum: His Art and Views, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1919.
  • Meldrum, Max, The Science of Appearances as Formulated and Taught by Max Meldrum, Shepherd Press, Sydney, 1950.
Conference:
Insights & Intuition: 10th Paintings SIG Symposium 2006
Paper author:
Ellem, Alexandra
Year:
2004