Norman Lindsay

1879-1969    |    VIC, NSW    |    Artist, painter, author and sculptor

Lindsay was an accomplished black and white artist, painter, author and sculptor whose technical skills were often lost in controversy over his frequently vulgar or risqué subject matter. He became a household name through his cartoons and illustrations of political commentary published in The Bulletin and other magazines for 50 years from 1901. He maintained cartoons should reflect the views of the publication, rather than the artist, earning notoriety through his visual definition of The Bulletin’s isolationist and racist editorial policies. He championed the role of the artist as a moral and social critic in an era torn apart by two great wars.

He became at ease with many areas of artistic comment: satire, comedy, anti-war, the freedom movement, an interest in model yachts and erotica.

Bruce Petty, on Norman Lindsay



Norman Lindsay

Anyone alert and aged around 21 in 1900 would have been aware of a world re -making itself: Alexander Bell talking down an electric wire, the Wright Brothers’ flying machines, radio, the ominous nationalist turbulence, the abstract art experiments in Europe. It was a time of rethinking.

And there was sexual liberation. Women were on bicycles, into trousers, out of corsets and on to cinema screens.

The Lindsay family was very alert. Norman Lindsay must have known, even at a 30-day P & O trip away from the centre of it, that the new European thinking was the excitement subject of the day. The Lindsay family of Melbourne must have known, by then, that each had rare and special skills - in pen drawing, etching, sculpture, water colors and a way with words.

While he was working out how to be part of it, Norman advanced his drawing, lino cut, litho and etching technique at life classes where he mastered representation of the human form. And he married Kathleen Parkinson.

There was a publishing energy about.  Pen drawing and etching were needed to add image to the news of the day - the protests, the riots, the police separating violent political activists. Expressing opinion was in the air.

Norman joined The Bulletin as a cartoonist, studied with Julian Ashton where he met and was entranced, as was everybody, by Rose Soady, a famous model and beauty.

The Bulletin cartoons presented an Australia embattled by Chinese expansion. Aboriginal presence was a national embarrassment. 'White Australia' was the base political position.  A cartoon of the day, ‘The Boy from Manly,’ showed an ‘Australia’ clinging to a floating box, as a Chinese person threatened to displace him. The famous ‘Yellow Peril ' drawing showed an Asian octopus enveloping the World.

Publications came and went but pre-offset printing there was work about for pen-drawing. Illustrated Press News needed to be illustrated.  The New South Wales Book Stall Club, with books from Steele Rudd and Vance Palmer, required art.   

Brother Lionel became staff artist on the Hawklet. The Sydney Bulletin was established. Norman worked on The FreeLance, a Melbourne copy of The Bulletin.  Lionel joined The Clarion. Norman became cartoonist for The Tocsin.

There were poets and artists in Heidelberg, boxing at the Stadium, black and white  

Westerns appearing in the cinemas. Sexual Liberation was alarming the churches. But it fitted Lindsay’s satirical disposition and his mastery of life drawing. The Lindsays explored and commented on Melbourne and Sydney and the new attitudes.

Norman’s children’s book The Magic Pudding was about a smartly dressed Koala and an inverted, animated walking pudding that could magically replace itself after being eaten.

It was an elegantly-drawn satire on a prosperous nation ignoring the economic signals.

Norman went to the UK with publications of his sensational Satyricon drawings. Interest came from Harpers in New York. Back at The Bulletin he drew recruiting cartoons as war became a reality.  He divorced Kate and married Rose. He wrote A Curate in Bohemia, reflecting UK and Bloomsbury. Redheap was a novel written by Norman about his brothers. It was banned in Australia and America.

By now Norman’s position in the art world was confirmed by his assured draughtsmanship and his cartoonist wit. His collective erotic full-frontal subject matter presented some controversy. There were censorship problems.

The quantity of female bodies spread across his paintings, and the fantasy stories justifying this inclination to depict the near-orgy, was both entertaining and confronting to staid Melbourne. There was a satirical element. But was it enough? There was an exploitation component. The anatomical content was formulaic, the subject matter repetitive.

Could the exuberance, the flamboyance, the energy and the painting skill override sexism? There was a Playboy factor. Was it pornography under cover of aesthetics? Did it matter?

Norman knew the work of European contemporaries Durer and Goya. The European impressionists gave female subjects a dismissive neutral look. Norman’s nudes have a teasing, complicit expression. He devised narrative reasons for setting his women in multiple erotic poses. There were legendary fictional sexual adventures - resisting assaults by Satyrs, rapists and pirates. Somehow his artistic skill over-rode a near populist and sensual subject matter.

His watercolor control technique added a chance element and a risky freshness to his representation of the human body. Norman Lindsay’s single line representation of human form held complete authority. His single line could convey eroticism, shape and volume. He could cross hatch clothing into realistic folds and form. Parallel line shading to show form was a key part of his palette.

He became at ease with many areas of artistic comment: satire, comedy, anti-war, the freedom movement, an interest in model yachts and erotica. Sculpture and etching were part of his output. His was a restless exploration of the business of conveying messages of the day. His output was formidable, skillful, unique and much in demand. His work intersected with understanding of the world on many levels.

Art generates its own pressure to innovate. Artists are aware of what drawing exists and what is happening that is significant. One generation of ideas are referenced by the next. The styles mutate. Lindsay would have known the exceptional line of Matisse. He knew of Durer. Students must have sensed Lindsay was watching and was someone to watch.

Galleries were showing interest. The Victorian Art Gallery paid $300,000 for a work.

The public, aware of classical artistic female representations in art books, paid attention to a new art expression based on sexual adventures.

The church protested. Some censorship was attempted. A debate erupted about eroticism drifting into the area of exploitation. Norman Lindsay started a discussion in the 1920s that continues today.

Bruce Petty is an inductee of the Australian Media Hall of Fame. He was a political cartoonist for nearly 50 years, principally at The Age but also The Australian and the Sydney Daily Mirror. He won an academy award for film animation.