Comrades Up the Cross, Len Fox (1905–2004) — 16 to 30 October 2004
Curated by Jo Holder with Mona Brand
Opening talk by Jack Mundey, pioneer environmentalist, unionist and a hero of the inspirational urban Green Bans movement which saved Sydney’s historic inner-city precincts of The Rocks, Millers Point, Woolloomooloo and Victoria Street, and Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill.
Len Fox the journalist, artist, social activist and Mona Brand, his playwright-partner, lived ‘up The Cross’ for some fifty years.
The exhibition of his paintings, sketches and posters reveals his commitment to the Peace and Civil Rights movements, the Green Bans and workplace politics. It includes rare remnants of the ephemeral ‘poster exhibitions’ held in union halls and workplaces from the 1940s to 1960s. Particularly timely is a splendid work celebrating the Centenary of the Eureka Stockade, 1854–1954.
Len Fox sketched over his lifetime. His adored uncle was the painter Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) and painter Ethel Carrick Fox was his aunt. Len is the little boy in the sailor suit in E. Phillips Fox’s The Arbour (1911, National Gallery of Victoria) a graceful image of a middle-class Jewish family in a spring garden.
Len Fox took up oil painting in the mid-1940s after classes with the Studio of Realist Artists and his modest social realist works have a singularly utopian air. The strength and honesty of political images and messages from this not too distant era contrast with our age of spinmeistery and ‘outfoxing’.
Len Fox, The Old Tree, near corner of Forbes and Cathedral Streets, Woolloomooloo, 1948. Pencil, 32 x 40 cm
Len Fox, Woolloomooloo
Len Fox, Vietnam sketch, nd c. 1956–57
Fox was a prolific writer of socio-political penny pamphlets and, for ten years, wrote for and often illustrated Common Cause, the Miners’ Federation newspaper. He also wrote important histories: Broad Left, Narrow Left (1982), an account of the ups and downs of the Australian Communist Party, and Australians on the Left (1996). Fox edited Depression Down Under (1989) and Dream at a Graveside: The History of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, 1928 – 1988 (1989). With Faith Bandler he co-authored the story of her father’s experiences, Marani in Australia (1980) and The Time was Ripe: A History of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, 1956–69, (1983).
Fox’s local histories Old Sydney Windmills (1978) and East Sydney Sketches (1991) bring to life the old inner Sydney working class areas also favoured by bohemians and émigrés. Mona Brand’s plays were often read at the New Theatre in St Peter’s Lane, Darlinghurst. In several paintings, Fox anguishes over the demolition of much of Woolloomooloo in the early 1970s.
Len Fox recalls in his biography E. Phillips Fox and his Family (1985) about his adored uncle, renowned painter Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) that, ‘He had a wonderful gift: he didn’t expect it to bring him material greatness – just the satisfaction of reproducing beauty in all he saw around him.’ Emanuel Phillips Fox and his wife painter Ethel Carrick Fox light the way for young Len who is the little boy in the sailor suit in E. Phillips Fox’s The Arbour (1911, National Gallery of Victoria) a graceful image of a middle-class Jewish family in a spring garden.
In similar terms, Faith Bandler said at Fox’s funeral service in January this year, ‘He helped renew our faith in people.’
During the Reconciliation Convention in 1997, the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, paid tribute to the distinguished group present who had fought for the ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum, including Bandler, Uncle Joe McGinness, Jack and Jean Horner, Shirley Andrews, John Baker, Kim Beazley snr, Don Dunstan, Charles Perkins, Colin Tatz, Mona Brand and Len Fox.
Len Fox the journalist, artist, social activist, and Mona Brand, his playwright-partner, lived ‘up The Cross’ for some fifty years. Fox met Mona Brand through the Sydney Realist Writers’ Group and the couple married in 1955. Their small terrace in Little Surrey Street was a remarkable home where culture lived with socialist politics. Like many intellectuals and émigrés they were comfortable with The Cross’s mix of cosmopolitanism and working class realism. Mona Brand’s plays were performed at the New Theatre in St Peter’s Lane, Darlinghurst.
Len Fox’s paintings, sketches and posters reveal his commitment to the human face of socialism. The generation of Australians drawn to communism in the 1930s and 1940s, like Len Fox and Mona Brand, emerged from an Indigenous humanist radical tradition and, more often than not, was at odds with the cold, dogmatic men at the top.
As for many in his generation, the Great Depression had a profound impact on Len Fox. After teaching at Scotch College in Melbourne for four years, he went overseas where in Germany he saw the signs of Nazism rising and in London he witnessed the hunger marches. Fox returned to Melbourne in 1934 and joined the Movement against War and Fascism (active 1932–1939). He began writing for the Movement’s journal World Peace and inaugurated a prolific career as a journalist with a pamphlet co-written with friend Nettie Palmer, titled Spain! (1936).
To spread the word about the imminent catastrophe looming over Europe, the anti-fascist movement invited Egon Kisch, the Czech writer and participant in the European avant-garde, to lecture in late 1934. The five months of Kisch’s stay galvanised conservative forces. He was refused entry at each port as a ‘prohibited immigrant’ but managed to lecture to packed halls. During this confident time of the broad left period following the Dimitrov Report, Fox, now secretary of the anti-fascist movement, joined the Communist Party, remaining a member after Cold War paranoia took hold in the 1950s ‘to fight Stalinism from within’.
Fox sketched over his lifetime, preferring to think through images. He took up oil painting in the mid-1940s after classes with the Studio of Realist Artists. His graphic work quotes others he admired, especially his newspaper colleagues, cartoonists Tom Challen and Herbert McClintock, while his modest paintings have a singularly utopian air. He saw himself as a commercial artist, only holding an exhibition for his 90th Birthday. The strength and honesty of political images and messages from this not too distant era, contrast with our age of spinmeistery and ‘outfoxing’.
The exhibition includes rare remnants of the popular but ephemeral ‘poster exhibitions’ held in union halls and workplaces in from the 1940s to 1960s. Often material was destroyed because of the consequence of membership of often banned (‘proscribed’) organisations. Homes were sometimes raided for ‘incriminating material’. These are artworks literally from under the bed.
Looking back, in his Australians on the Left (1996), Fox saw that these long struggles against racism and nuclear weapons, and for Aboriginal rights, workers’ rights and the environment, brought significant successes. Communism failed but fascism was beaten in Germany. Fox wrote ‘We failed to give socialism a human face’ but the Party ‘helped bring Australia out of its insular cultural cringe to the Tories’. Faith Bandler said at Fox’s funeral service in January this year, ‘He helped renew our faith in people’.
Media: Drawings use combinations of pencil, crayon, poster paint or watercolour on paper. Oils are on canvas board or canvas.
1. Peace and Civil Rights, 1950–1967
Fox’s painting, Love, showing two children with a dove, the symbol of the international peace movement since Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was one of 100 works submitted to the Peace Art Prize Exhibition held in conjunction with the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in 1952. Thousands queued to view works, first at the Ironworkers’ and then at the Waterside Workers’ Federation headquarters. When artist Lloyd Rees awarded the prize to a post-impressionist style painting, Tribune fumed that ‘formalism’ had triumphed over ‘realism’, exposing the gaps between the increasingly insular central committee, party press and artists.
Later Fox wrote the poem ‘Brown Child and White Child’ (1957) which reads: “Brown child and white child/ spoke to each other/ And the words that they said/ were Sister … Brother.”
The years campaigning for civil rights which culminated in the ‘Yes’ vote campaign in the 1967 referendum, are recorded by Len Fox and Faith Bandler in The Time was Ripe: A History of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, 1956–69, (1983). These anti-colonial and anti-racist campaigns were in parallel with opposition to Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam, lasting over eleven years (1962–1973).
Love, 1952. Oil, 62 x 51. Peace Art Prize exhibition and Blake Prize entry.
Brown Child and White Child, no 2, 1959–1960. Oil, 76 x 60 cm
Peace for our Children, c. 1959. 76 x 50 cm
Atom Bomb Target? c. 1952. Peace Council, printed poster, 36 x 255 cm
Children of Hiroshima, Japanese Peace Film. Roneo poster.
Right Wrongs Write YES for Aborigines! Referendum to afford full Citizenship Rights to Aboriginal Australians, 17 May 1967. Printed poster.
Greetings! 1959. Artwork for Len Fox and Mona Brand Christmas card.
Peace, late-1950s. Artwork for May Day.
2. Vietnam, 1956–57 & Beyond
Journalist Wilfred Burchett recruited Fox and Brand to help the Vietnamese with English translations. For two years Fox worked as copy journalist at the Hanoi News Agency and Mona for the Voice of Vietnam. This was the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s optimistic interregnum following the defeat of the French army at Dien Bien Phu. A ceasefire agreement, backed by the international community, was signed in Geneva, on 20 July 1954. This was a signal to other colonies; the next to rise up was Algeria, three months later.
Fox’s drawing is of a typical Hanoi street scene directly opposite their home. He was captivated by life on the Red River, crafts and tribal peoples, sketching during the siesta break. Fox wrote Friendly Vietnam and Brand wrote Daughters of Vietnam, based on their experiences. On their return, the couple held exhibitions and lectures about Vietnam.
Map of Vietnam (showing its region and relation to Australia), 1956–57. 30.5 x 38 cm
Hanoi Street Scene, 1956–57. 24.5 x 31 cm
Untitled Portrait (traditional artist), 1956–57. 32.5 x 25 cm
Untitled Portrait (male farm worker), 1956–57. 32.5 x 25 cm
I forgot to take a gun, c. mid-1960s. 30.5 x 38 cm
Vietnam Forum—Vietnam the Continuing War, c. mid-1960s. Printed poster.
Fox campaigned for decades to have the flag of the Eureka Stockade in the Ballarat Art Gallery authenticated and recognised as the dramatic symbol of the Australian struggle for political democracy. In 1954 Fox edited a year-long Eureka Centenary for Tribune’s cultural section. He self-published ‘The Strange Story of the Eureka Flag’ in 1963, concluding that this was the authentic flag. He provided more evidence in ‘Eureka and Its Flag’ (1973) and ‘The Eureka Flag’ (1992). Fox was vindicated when, in 1996, a sketchbook of watercolours by Charles Doudiet, painted on the goldfields in the 1850s turned up. It included sketches of the flag exactly as described by Fox. This November is the 150th anniversary.
The model for Fox’s portrait of Peter Lalor, the 27-year-old Irish engineer who called for volunteers to ‘defend their rights and liberties’ against a Colonial autocracy, was the Woolloomooloo seaman who invited Fox to sketch him as he stoked engines.
After Eureka, trade unionism arose quickly, achieving the 8-Hour Day for many tradesmen in 1856. It was in the Ballarat-Bendigo district that miners formed the first large-scale trade union in 1874 (Amalgamated Miners’ Association) and this spread to shearers in the same region, and then to other workers. After defeat of these unions in the strikes of 1890, the Australian Labor Party was formed.
On guard at Eureka, 1854, 1954. Oil, 76 x 61 cm
Exhibited Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of NSW, 22 January–27 February 1955 (cat. 42).
The Wealthy Classes have a very different tradition, c. mid-1950s. Painted poster, 64 x 52 cm. Verso: Howard Fast gaoled in NSW.
Pig Iron Bob Menzies, c. 1952. Painted poster, 64 x 52 cm
Spirit of Eureka, 1854-1954, 1954. Painted poster, 64 x 52 cm. Verso: ‘Lawrence gaoled for asking that his people were treated like human beings’.
4. Common Cause
When Fox moved to Sydney in 1940, he began an extensive career as a journalist for left-wing papers. He started with the State Labor Party’s weekly paper Progress: The voice of State Labor (1940–45) and moved to the weekly Tribune (1946–55). Progress was the left’s standard-bearer during the Second World War as Tribune was banned over many of these years. Fox said afterwards: ‘We acted as though we, and only we, could plan the future,’ he wrote, ‘as though world socialism was just around the corner. We ignored the rumblings of the Cold War … we ignored reality’.
After Vietnam, Fox worked for the Miners’ Federation weekly paper Common Cause from 1958 under long-serving editor Edgar Ross. When Ross retired, Fox took over until 1970. Fox resigned from the Party in 1970 to write an account of the cultural struggles within the Australian Communist movement in Broad Left Narrow Left. By then the Party had become a truly democratic broad left organisation. The Party dissolved itself in 1991 as it was felt it was too identified with vanguardism to play an effective role.
Glen Davis Shale Mine Stay In, c. 1954. 25 x 30.5 cm
Pitt Top Meeting, Aberdeen, 268 Dismissals, c. 1955. 27.5 x 38 cm
Both drawings made while accompanying Sydney New Theatre strike entertainment groups.
Miner (masthead logo of Common Cause), c. 1958. 23.5 x 19 cm
Untitled (steam train at Central Railway), nd. Watercolour, 20 x 14 cm
Output Up—Wages Down, printed chart drawn and complied by Len Fox. Labor Research, the Monthly Journal of the Labor Research Department, September 1934. Printed flier, 19 x 19 cm
Cartoons: A spectre is haunting Moscow; Untitled (refers to Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1957. Hardliners called this a hoax.) n.d. c. late 1950s.
Untitled (camping, army surplus tents), late 1940s. 27.5 x 38 cm
Untitled (man on ship shoveling coal into furnace), c. early 1950s. 27.5 x 38 cm
Ship at Woolloomooloo Wharves, late 1940s. 24 x 36.5 cm
United Action will Beat Menzies, early-1950s. Printed poster.
6. Pamphlet Covers & Publications
Fox was a prolific writer, publishing thirty-eight books including six books of poetry; over twenty penny pamphlets and union publications. His first socio-political pamphlet was ‘The Truth about ANZAC’ for the Victorian Council of War and Fascism in 1936. Fox designed and illustrated all his publications, a crucial aspect of attracting readers. These small publications carried big dreams: ‘I thought it would have a big impact on the world’. (Australians of the Left, p. 130.)
Fox edited Depression Down Under (1989) and Dream at a Graveside: The History of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, 1928–1988 (1989). With Faith Bandler he co-authored the story of her father’s experiences, Marani in Australia (1980) and The Time was Ripe: A History of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, 1956–69, (1983). His important history Broad Left, Narrow Left (1982) is an account of the ups and downs of those involved with the Australian Communist Party and Australians on the Left (1996) was published on the eve of his 91st birthday. Other booklets were to follow, including Glimpses of a Century and Sketches over 70 Years, a collection of his drawings with commentary, both in 2000.
Special thanks to Mona Brand for her rigorous help and Jack Mundey who opened the exhibition. Thanks also to Con Gouriotis (Casula Powerhouse), Paddy Gorman (CFMEU Mining and Energy), Fiona MacDonald, Jack Mundey, Peter Murphy (Search Foundation), Ann Stephen, Andrew Tantau, Robyn Tantau, Neale Towart (Labor Council of NSW), Peter Whitehead and Deborah Vaughan.