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Elwyn Augustus (Jack) Lynn (1917–1997)

by Joanna Mendelssohn

Elwyn (Jack) Lynn. Artist and critic. Born Canowindra, NSW, November 6, 1917. Died Sydney, January 22, aged 79. In his art Elwyn Lynn saved the best until last.

The paintings in his last exhibition at Robin Gibson gallery in Sydney were so strong and fresh that they looked as though they were the work of a man in his prime. Pure red underpainting broke through the black crusty surfaces to proclaim the endurance of colour in a neutral world, and the natural colours of his raw materials of rope and canvas were made more intense by placing them with the purest of whites, the blackest of blacks and the most radical of reds.

As always with Lynn, they were textured pieces, with an intensity of colour that was the only possible clue to the reality of his physical state. He had lost the sight in one eye some years before, and while the exhibition was receiving critical praise, skin cancer caused him to lose most of his remaining sight. Other older artists who have found it difficult to see painted worlds dissolving into light.

Lynn always understood contrast. He was always more than an artist. For many readers of The Australian he was the art critic, whose often witty, sometimes acerbic, but usually generous columns graced The Weekend Australian from 1983 until 1995. His many books include Contemporary Drawing, Sidney Nolan: Myth and Imagery, The Art of Robert Juniper, and The Australian Landscape and its Artists.

He was the first full-time curator of the Power collection at the University of Sydney (now the Museum of Contemporary Art), and he was an active advocate for artists as chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council from 1976 to 1979.

As with many talented people of his generation, it all started with teaching. Elwyn Augustus Lynn was born in the small NSW country town of Canowindra, the son of a railway worker. For much of his childhood times were not easy. The Great Depression was hard on rural Australia, especially because it coincided with a major drought. His daughter, Victoria, remembers him telling her that at one time there was only one plate for a meal. After eating the main course it was tipped upside down to provide a clean surface for dessert.

Education was his pathway out of poverty. Junee primary was followed by Wagga Wagga high and a teachers college scholarship to the University of Sydney. Here he majored in English, graduating with a BA Dip Ed in 1941.

Throughout his writing there is an awareness of the value of language. Often he would play games with words — sometimes he would incorporate fragments of words into his paintings, their physical shapes adding to the meaning. University and teachers college also introduced him to the making of art, and from thence he became an exhibitor and an activist in the Contemporary Art Society of NSW.

Because he was educated, at a time when many artists were deprived of formal education, in 1954 Lynn found himself appointed secretary of the NSW branch of the Contemporary Art Society. The society put out a newsletter, the CAS Broadsheet, which Lynn made the most influential publication of its day on Australian art. He arranged for air mail subscriptions of major international art journals, so that throughout the 1950s local artists were told of the activities of New York, Paris and other centres. He also encouraged a lively debate on the local art scene, so that Sydney artists struggling with problems of abstraction and modern art began to think of themselves as part of a wider context.

In 1963 he was elected president of the society, which was by that time a major force in Sydney's visual arts life. Despite his busy life of teaching and writing, Lynn's own art matured in these years.

In 1957 he was awarded the Blake Prize for what was seen as a radical abstract work, which was really just the start of his personal pathway to abstract form and texture and colour. He was teaching at Cleveland Street Boys High when Bernard Smith approached him about applying for the new position of curator at the Power Collection and the appointment was confirmed in November 1968.

For the next 15 years he gathered in storage a remarkable collection of the latest European, American and Australian art. He understood that the continuing debate about art, especially modern art, was part of his brief as curator. Years later he told me that "I think that Modernism has a trajectory, a power, and it just continues and you feel the modernism in it. I don't ever think it's dated". He collected works by Joseph Beuys, Enrico Baj, Marcel Duchamp, all of whom were giants of the international stage. But he also collected (then) lesser-known artists including Ed Keinholz and Sean Scully. The acquisition budget was so small and the ambitions of the institution so large that the curator needed to exercise his judgment with imagination.

He once described the quest for art as a feeling that "I've always been insatiably curious about what was happening over there. I've always lived in a state of expectation that something is happening somewhere," and he always wanted to see it for himself.

The major change he made to the Power collecting policy, a change that is evident in its descendent, was to acquire work by Australian artists. Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan both entered the collection at his instigation.

As well as collecting, Lynn gave some lectures at the university, and in 1971 he ran a museology seminar for honours students, the first time such a course was taught at an Australian university. I was one of his students, and years later I had the enjoyable experience of teaching his daughter, Victoria Lynn, now the curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of NSW. He also had a long association with the College of Fine Arts in Sydney and was a board member for many years.

For most of the time his University of Sydney years were not happy ones. Many of his colleagues resented his choices in art, and wanted to follow their own ideological bent. It has taken some years to demonstrate that many of his judgments in both writing on art and in collecting it were sound.

After he retired in 1983 his own art came to the fore. His later works show the Lynn playfulness and wit, as well as his considerable knowledge of the world of art and ideas. It is as though the fallow years of full-time employment were needed to nurture the creative spirit of semi-retirement.

He died in hospital, in his sleep, on Wednesday night. Lynn is survived by his wife, Lily, and their daughter. The family will hold a private cremation and a memorial service will be held at a date to be announced.

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Citation details

Joanna Mendelssohn, 'Lynn, Elwyn Augustus (Jack) (1917–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

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