I have tried to paint groups of figures in landscape, using mythology as a pretext; my main pre-occupation was to try to order space and colours in a certain way, so that they would suggest to me some atmosphere I recognised, possibly a place I had seen.
These five figures, posed like statues in a tableau vivant, possess a kind of erotic energy. Their solidity suggests parallels to archaic sculpture and to the work of Aristide Maillol, and to the figures in the paintings of the Italian masters Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. This is hardly surprising given that the artist, Jean Bellette, wrote articles on these masters. She was also inspired by the monumental figures in Picasso’s neo-classical paintings of the 1920s and the work of her teacher, Mark Gertler.
Although nothing is happening in this image, we associate the figures with tragedy, with death and mourning – with the classical reference in the painting’s title. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, gave her life for her country when the goddess Artemis asked for it in exchange for favourable winds so that the Greek ships could sail to Troy. Bellette’s melancholic painting might be supposed to portray Iphigenia’s friends mourning her death.
Bellette was one of a group of artists working in a kind of artists’ community in Sydney and at Hill End during the 1940s and 1950s, which included Donald Friend, David Strachan and her husband Paul Haefliger. Like Piero della Francesca, she wanted ‘to reduce the desperate adventure of a lifetime to something equable, calm and capable of enduring’;2 and to do so, she fused aspects of the classical tradition with the modern. Like several Sydney artists at this time, she used stylised figures and formal arrangements to create a timeless sense of mystery.
1Jean Bellette, quoted in Ursula Hoff, ‘The Art of Jean Bellette’, Meanjin, no.51, summer 1952, pp.358-66
2Jean Bellette, ‘Piero dell Francesca 1416-1492’, Art in Australia, 1 March 1942, pp.28-36 (p.36).
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002