Roy Opie 1909 - 1968
“Roy Opie is an artist whose highly individual works helps show the diversity of art in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His paintings and drawings in this exhibition are not a survey of his art, but are selected to show his interest in Surrealism. Unlike the classical Surrealism of Dali, his style is “automatic”, a style in which he alone in Australia explored. His work and ideas are akin to Andre Breton, Andre Masson, Matta and the early Max Ernst. He first studied with George Bell and A.D Holquhoun; he was a foundation member of the contemporary Arts Society of Melbourne, and an habitue of the Eltham artists’ colony run by Justus Jorgensen, Montsalvat. He travelled and lived in Europe from 1960 onwards, with two visits to Australia, and the colours of his paintings became gradually more brilliant and their execution freer. He loved France, but his paintings record his travels in Italy, Spain, and England as well. He was killed in a street accident in Paris in 1968 while preparing for his first exhibition.”
Curator of Australian Art NGV
The Spirit and the Subconscious - Georginia Houghton and Roy Opie. 1978
Geelong Art Gallery
17th – 25th Feb. 1979
On the 16th of July 2016, the surviving works of Roy Opie were displayed at a private viewing attended by the descendant, extended families.
Sixty works on canvas and board, and a further 400 works on paper were available for viewing. The works range from Roy’s early art school styles in portrait and landscape to sketches up until his untimely death in a road accident in 1968. The works produced during the 40’s and 50’s show how he was influenced by the emerging field of psychology and in particular dreams. His style changed, and the accepted principals of composition and colour took a back seat to capturing fleeting, seemingly unrelated images. Landscapes became dreamscapes and portraits morphed with the subconscious in his life drawing.
The style change was radical causing disdain from some critics, and his brother Arthur who remarked in a written piece “I do not like his work, never have and I doubt I ever will.” And after a viewing of his work, probably at Ballarat, “came away even more convinced that he had nothing of importance to say, and what he did say, said badly”.
Art critics were various in their summations. Those who knew his background with Bell and Colquhoun marvelled at the departure and accredited him with being the founder of Australian Surrealism. Others dismissed the style as naïve, and not in the art school sense. This division was evident even at the NGV level where the new director Eric Rowlinson (1975 -80) asked that all Opie’s work be returned to the estate owner. However, the Director of Australian Art, Jennifer Phipps, countered by mounting The Spirit and the Subconscious exhibition (1978).
The paintings that he was preparing for an exhibition in Paris, 1968 have never been found. Only the sketches were salvaged and returned to Melbourne.
The surviving works of Roy Opie have passed to his sister Elizabeth (Ena) Mudge, to her daughter, Jan, and then to her son, Kim Pitt (Roy’s great nephew). Kim's father, John (Jack Pitt) was the first principal of the VCA Secondary School and was fastidious about preserving the work which he stored alongside his prized MGTF. He understood the value of the works in terms of family history and their part in the Melbourne art scene.
If not for the work of these four people most of the works would have long since disappeared. Ena worked for several years to mount exhibitions and ensure that galleries were aware of the importance of his work and how it fitted within the art landscape.
(on behalf of Kim Pitt)
After being asked to pull together the threads that we do know, I have to say that I find Roy Opie a bit like the Mysterious Man in Sondheim’s musical, “Into the Woods”. He pops up in a one line aside in both of Mirka Mora’s books, he is mentioned in articles about Monsalvat and Heidi, visited Picasso in his Paris studio, and he died, run over by an ambulance while pedalling his bike in Paris. I have the sense that he was always “there” at the important places where changes in the Australian art movement were taking place.
The remaining members of the family who do remember him, were under 10 years of age when Roy departed for France. Their memories are hazy.
For this brief bio I relied on the article by Elga Kenins that was compiled from interviews with Roy’s sister, Elizabeth Mudge, in 1988.
Ryles, Graham. A Buyer Guide to Australian Art. P:177 Mandarin (Melb) 1992
Mora, Mirka. My Life Wicked but Virtuous. P: 48 Penguin (Melb) 2002
Kenins, Elga. (three page article) The Australian Post. 24/09/1988.
Exhibitions with catalogues
Drawings of William Dobell and Roy Opie July 12 – August 2, 1984
David Ellis Fine Art 37 Bedford St., Collingwood 3066
Roy Opie April 21 – May 9, 1980
Stuart Gerstman Galleries
Roy Opie Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings 1937 -68 Feb 12 – March 11, 1984 Golden Age Ballarat
The Spirit of the Subconscious. Georgiana Houghton and Roy Opie 19th May – 18th June 1978 NGV Melbourne
Roy Opie 1909 – 1968. A retrospective exhibition of paintings and drawings.
Geelong Art Gallery 17th January to 25th February 1979
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Launceston
Art Gallery of New South Wales
News Articles (The Age)
Apr 10. 1934 Review of exhibition. Soho, Block Pl., Collins St.
Aug 3. 1954 Mirka Mora Gallery
May 19. 1978 Review Spirit and the Subconscious
Jan 26 1979 Geelong Gallery
Apr 30 1980 Stuart Gerstman Gallery. Review
Feb 10 1984 Golden Age Gallery Ballarat
May 8 1984 Golden Age Fine Art Gallery Ballarat
Known Works held by Galleries
National Gallery of Victoria - 3
National Gallery Australia – 11 titles
Geelong Art Gallery - 3
Golden Age Gallery Ballarat – 9
Bendigo Art Gallery – 1
Art Gallery of South Australia - 2
Warrnambool Gallery - 2
Victoria and Albert Museum, London – 3
Holmes a Court Gallery - 1
Heidi Museum - 2
Peter and Margaret Gordon. Black Rock Vic 3193
Robert and Janet Holmes a Court
Vuilleman, Steve and Megan
Cox, Nigel and Lisa
Opie, Richard and Cheryl
Opie, Michael and Louise
Lea, Joy Helen and David
Johnson, G &M
Johnson, C & S
Ure, Michael and Anita
Wilson, Peter (AO) and Rebecca
Sutherland, Peter and Carly
Woodley, Russell and Lindee
Wallara (Sages Cottage) Mt Eliza
Rare pic of Roy Opie captured by Albert Tucker (State Library of Vic -digital records)
His face is top left
Compare to his self portrait 1945 (Top of this page)