Feature / Arts

Counihan Gallery celebrates its namesake’s artistic legacy

A new retrospective of the career of Noel Counihan shows the breadth of his talent and his interests as an artist

Mick Counihan in front of Tête, painted by his father in 1969 and the first acquisition of the Brunswick gallery 20 years ago.

Mark Phillips
Monday, August 1, 2022

Noel Counihan is now considered one of the most significant Australian social realist artists of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t always that way.

Such was his notoriety in Menzies’ Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, that his family regularly relied solely on his wife Pat’s income as a teacher to house, clothe and feed them as Noel was blacklisted from commercial work because of his membership of the Communist Party.

His father’s reputation created some awkward moments for his two sons, Mick and Terry. 

“I was aware he was a controversial figure because he was a Communist,” said Mick Counihan. “But he also painted nudes, and so for the kids I went to school with, to have a father who was ‘a red’, and he paid a women without clothes on sort of meant that I wasn’t quite like everybody else.”   

Times have certainly changed, and today Noel Counihan is, who died in 1986, is held in such high regard that a major retrospective exhibition of his career has opened  in the Brunswick gallery that bears his name. 

Although he only lived briefly in the area and it did not have a major influence on his art, Noel Counihan has a strong association with Brunswick because of his radical political activism during the Great Depression. He was the key player in one of the most famous incidents of that period, a free speech protest at the corner of Sydney Road and Phoenix Street in 1933. 

The connection continues today as Mick Counihan, now in his mid-70s, lives in Brunswick and often passes both the street corner and the free speech statue that commemorates it outside the Mechanics’ Institute in Sydney Road. 

The new retrospective features paintings, prints and drawings from the gallery’s own collection, further enriched with key loans from other collectors and the Counihan estate. 

There are 34 works on display in total. 

“Although he’s often seen as just a painter of working class life in the Depression, actually, that’s a tiny fragment of a much larger and more varied oeuvre,” said Mick Counihan, who attended the exhibition opening on Saturday. “This gives us a sort of hint of how big and how varied that was.” 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the gallery’s latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, which was unveiled to the public for the first time on Saturday. 

An oil painting that was part of a series by Counihan in the mid-to-late-1950s which portrayed the Victorian Parliament and its members, it was bought by Moreland City Council last year for $24,000. 

Top: Moreland Mayor Mark Riley and Noga Mizrahi with the gallery’s new acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench. Above: A close up of the work.

BORN in 1913 in Albert Park, Counihan studied at the National Gallery of Victoria art school, reaching adulthood at the start of the Great Depression, joining the Communist Party and involving himself in political activities. 

That was how he came to be addressing a rally in Sydney Road from inside a steel cage on the back of a cart on the evening of May 19, 1933.  

Police attempted to shut down the rally and arrested Counihan for obstructing traffic, and the event became a cause celebre in the free speech movement. A conviction recorded against Counihan was later reversed on appeal and the incident led to a change in the law so police could no longer use the spurious reason of obstructing traffic to break up protests and demonstrations. 

As an artist, Counihan travelled widely, including to the Soviet Union, and his work often featured strong political themes, including anti-fascism, working class life, and later opposition to the Vietnam War. 

He won several major awards for his painting and had a major exhibition in London in 1973, and moved in the same circles as Pablo Picasso. 

Counihan (pictured left in the 1960s) died in 1986. His work is held by galleries around Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Victoria, and trades for tens of thousands of dollars. 

The Counihan Gallery opened in 1999 and acquired its first significant work by its namesake, a large, semi-abstract 1969 oil painting called Tête through a donation in 2002.  

The piece usually occupies pride of place in the gallery’s foyer, but for the new exhibition dominates a wall alongside a similarly graphic Laughing Christ, which was painted the following year. Further down the same wall is Counihan’s linocut tribute to the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira.  

In an essay written to accompany the exhibition, which runs throughout August, Counihan Gallery curator Victor Griss says the retrospective is an important acknowledgement of the artist’s legacy and influence, the gallery’s origins and curatorial bearing and the growth of its collection of his works. 

“Importantly for the Counihan Gallery, its namesake has become a touchstone for the kind of artwork visitors can expect to encounter at the gallery – provocative, confronting, political and outspoken,” Mr Griss writes. 

“In short, the gallery embraces the position of the artist as activist and, in many ways, this reflects the broader history of Moreland as a progressive and diverse community and cultural landscape.” 

Mick, the artist’s oldest son, has also loaned several pieces from his own collection for the show, including his personal favourite, Boy In Helmet, which his father painted in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Counihan opposed the war both on moral grounds, but also because at that time Mick and his younger brother, Terry, were both in danger of being conscripted and sent to Vietnam to fight.  

The painting was reframed for the exhibition, which led to the discovery of Noel Counihan’s signature in the bottom right corner, which had previously been obscured by the old frame. 

The exhibition also features several nudes, including Woman and Man (centre), painted in 1984, two years before Noel Counihan died.

MICK Counihan said when he was growing up, Noel was always “in the shed” working on his art until several strokes slowed him down later in life. 

He is glad to see him receive the posthumous recognition he deserves after he was treated as an outcast for much of his life. 

“Noel was blacklisted for a long time,” he said. 

“He couldn’t get the commercial work that he previously got doing cartoons for newspapers and so on. So during the Cold War he sold a few portraits that he was commissioned to paint of people he knew, but otherwise it wasn’t really until the ‘70s that his pictures sold to any appreciable degree.” 

Neither of Counihan’s sons became artists, but they did inherit his “genetic leftism”, Mick said. 

The latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, came into the gallery’s hands through good fortune.

Soon after it was completed in 1957, it was gifted to Sam and Mara Wisel as a wedding present. But the couple moved to Israel soon afterwards, leaving it behind in a cupboard where it remained until it was discovered by their daughter, Noga Mizrahi, when she was clearing out the house of a deceased relative in North Balwyn.

“I’ve got a brother and sister and we thought it can’t be hung in three different places and it would be good to find a new home for it,” she said. 

She offered the Counihan Gallery first option to buy the painting, which came at a far cheaper price than if it had been put on the open market. 

The Counihan retrospective will run at the gallery until September 4. Also showing currently at the gallery, until September 11, are Malleability, a solo exhibition by Mark Smith which explores the complexities of living with a disability; and Leftovers of a Ghost, a series of experiment-based artworks by Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak.

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N

oel Counihan is now considered one of the most significant Australian social realist artists of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Such was his notoriety in Menzies’ Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, that his family regularly relied solely on his wife Pat’s income as a teacher to house, clothe and feed them as Noel was blacklisted from commercial work because of his membership of the Communist Party. 

His father’s reputation created some awkward moments for his two sons, Mick and Terry. 

“I was aware he was a controversial figure because he was a Communist,” said Mick Counihan. “But he also painted nudes, and so for the kids I went to school with, to have a father who was ‘a red’, and he paid a women without clothes on sort of meant that I wasn’t quite like everybody else.”   

Times have certainly changed, and today Noel Counihan is, who died in 1986, is held in such high regard that a major retrospective exhibition of his career has opened  in the Brunswick gallery that bears his name. 

Although he only lived briefly in the area and it did not have a major influence on his art, Noel Counihan has a strong association with Brunswick because of his radical political activism during the Great Depression. He was the key player in one of the most famous incidents of that period, a free speech protest at the corner of Sydney Road and Phoenix Street in 1933. 

The connection continues today as Mick Counihan, now in his mid-70s, lives in Brunswick and often passes both the street corner and the free speech statue that commemorates it outside the Mechanics’ Institute in Sydney Road. 

The new retrospective features paintings, prints and drawings from the gallery’s own collection, further enriched with key loans from other collectors and the Counihan estate. 

There are 34 works on display in total. 

“Although he’s often seen as just a painter of working class life in the Depression, actually, that’s a tiny fragment of a much larger and more varied oeuvre,” said Mick Counihan, who attended the exhibition opening on Saturday. “This gives us a sort of hint of how big and how varied that was.” 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the gallery’s latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, which was unveiled to the public for the first time on Saturday. 

An oil painting that was part of a series by Counihan in the mid-to-late-1950s which portrayed the Victorian Parliament and its members, it was bought by Moreland City Council last year for $24,000. 

Top: Moreland Mayor Mark Riley and Noga Mizrahi with the gallery’s new acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench. Above: A close up of the work.

BORN in 1913 in Albert Park, Counihan studied at the National Gallery of Victoria art school, reaching adulthood at the start of the Great Depression, joining the Communist Party and involving himself in political activities. 

That was how he came to be addressing a rally in Sydney Road from inside a steel cage on the back of a cart on the evening of May 19, 1933.  

Police attempted to shut down the rally and arrested Counihan for obstructing traffic, and the event became a cause celebre in the free speech movement. A conviction recorded against Counihan was later reversed on appeal and the incident led to a change in the law so police could no longer use the spurious reason of obstructing traffic to break up protests and demonstrations. 

As an artist, Counihan travelled widely, including to the Soviet Union, and his work often featured strong political themes, including anti-fascism, working class life, and later opposition to the Vietnam War. 

He won several major awards for his painting and had a major exhibition in London in 1973, and moved in the same circles as Pablo Picasso. 

Counihan (pictured above in the 1960s) died in 1986. His work is held by galleries around Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Victoria, and trades for tens of thousands of dollars. 

The Counihan Gallery opened in 1999 and acquired its first significant work by its namesake, a large, semi-abstract 1969 oil painting called Tête through a donation in 2002.  

The piece usually occupies pride of place in the gallery’s foyer, but for the new exhibition dominates a wall alongside a similarly graphic Laughing Christ, which was painted the following year. Further down the same wall is Counihan’s linocut tribute to the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira.  

In an essay written to accompany the exhibition, which runs throughout August, Counihan Gallery curator Victor Griss says the retrospective is an important acknowledgement of the artist’s legacy and influence, the gallery’s origins and curatorial bearing and the growth of its collection of his works. 

“Importantly for the Counihan Gallery, its namesake has become a touchstone for the kind of artwork visitors can expect to encounter at the gallery – provocative, confronting, political and outspoken,” Mr Griss writes. 

“In short, the gallery embraces the position of the artist as activist and, in many ways, this reflects the broader history of Moreland as a progressive and diverse community and cultural landscape.” 

Mick, the artist’s oldest son, has also loaned several pieces from his own collection for the show, including his personal favourite, Boy In Helmet, which his father painted in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Counihan opposed the war both on moral grounds, but also because at that time Mick and his younger brother, Terry, were both in danger of being conscripted and sent to Vietnam to fight.  

The painting was reframed for the exhibition, which led to the discovery of Noel Counihan’s signature in the bottom right corner, which had previously been obscured by the old frame. 

The exhibition also features several nudes, including Woman and Man (centre), painted in 1984, two years before Noel Counihan died.

MICK Counihan said when he was growing up, Noel was always “in the shed” working on his art until several strokes slowed him down later in life. 

He is glad to see him receive the posthumous recognition he deserves after he was treated as an outcast for much of his life. 

“Noel was blacklisted for a long time,” he said. 

“He couldn’t get the commercial work that he previously got doing cartoons for newspapers and so on. So during the Cold War he sold a few portraits that he was commissioned to paint of people he knew, but otherwise it wasn’t really until the ‘70s that his pictures sold to any appreciable degree.” 

Neither of Counihan’s sons became artists, but they did inherit his “genetic leftism”, Mick said. 

The latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, came into the gallery’s hands through good fortune.

Soon after it was completed in 1957, it was gifted to Sam and Mara Wisel as a wedding present. But the couple moved to Israel soon afterwards, leaving it behind in a cupboard where it remained until it was discovered by their daughter, Noga Mizrahi, when she was clearing out the house of a deceased relative in North Balwyn.

“I’ve got a brother and sister and we thought it can’t be hung in three different places and it would be good to find a new home for it,” she said. 

She offered the Counihan Gallery first option to buy the painting, which came at a far cheaper price than if it had been put on the open market. 

The Counihan retrospective will run at the gallery until September 4. Also showing currently at the gallery, until September 11, are Malleability, a solo exhibition by Mark Smith which explores the complexities of living with a disability; and Leftovers of a Ghost, a series of experiment-based artworks by Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak.

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Get our latest articles and current events around Brunswick straight to your inbox.

N

oel Counihan is now considered one of the most significant Australian social realist artists of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Such was his notoriety in Menzies’ Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, that his family regularly relied solely on his wife Pat’s income as a teacher to house, clothe and feed them as Noel was blacklisted from commercial work because of his membership of the Communist Party. 

His father’s reputation created some awkward moments for his two sons, Mick and Terry. 

“I was aware he was a controversial figure because he was a Communist,” said Mick Counihan. “But he also painted nudes, and so for the kids I went to school with, to have a father who was ‘a red’, and he paid a women without clothes on sort of meant that I wasn’t quite like everybody else.”   

Times have certainly changed, and today Noel Counihan is, who died in 1986, is held in such high regard that a major retrospective exhibition of his career has opened  in the Brunswick gallery that bears his name. 

Although he only lived briefly in the area and it did not have a major influence on his art, Noel Counihan has a strong association with Brunswick because of his radical political activism during the Great Depression. He was the key player in one of the most famous incidents of that period, a free speech protest at the corner of Sydney Road and Phoenix Street in 1933. 

The connection continues today as Mick Counihan, now in his mid-70s, lives in Brunswick and often passes both the street corner and the free speech statue that commemorates it outside the Mechanics’ Institute in Sydney Road. 

The new retrospective features paintings, prints and drawings from the gallery’s own collection, further enriched with key loans from other collectors and the Counihan estate. 

There are 34 works on display in total. 

“Although he’s often seen as just a painter of working class life in the Depression, actually, that’s a tiny fragment of a much larger and more varied oeuvre,” said Mick Counihan, who attended the exhibition opening on Saturday. “This gives us a sort of hint of how big and how varied that was.” 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the gallery’s latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, which was unveiled to the public for the first time on Saturday. 

An oil painting that was part of a series by Counihan in the mid-to-late-1950s which portrayed the Victorian Parliament and its members, it was bought by Moreland City Council last year for $24,000. 

Top: Moreland Mayor Mark Riley and Noga Mizrahi with the gallery’s new acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench. Above: A close up of the work.

BORN in 1913 in Albert Park, Counihan studied at the National Gallery of Victoria art school, reaching adulthood at the start of the Great Depression, joining the Communist Party and involving himself in political activities. 

That was how he came to be addressing a rally in Sydney Road from inside a steel cage on the back of a cart on the evening of May 19, 1933.  

Police attempted to shut down the rally and arrested Counihan for obstructing traffic, and the event became a cause celebre in the free speech movement. A conviction recorded against Counihan was later reversed on appeal and the incident led to a change in the law so police could no longer use the spurious reason of obstructing traffic to break up protests and demonstrations. 

As an artist, Counihan travelled widely, including to the Soviet Union, and his work often featured strong political themes, including anti-fascism, working class life, and later opposition to the Vietnam War. 

He won several major awards for his painting and had a major exhibition in London in 1973, and moved in the same circles as Pablo Picasso. 

Counihan (pictured left in the 1960s) died in 1986. His work is held by galleries around Australia and overseas, including the National Gallery of Victoria, and trades for tens of thousands of dollars. 

The Counihan Gallery opened in 1999 and acquired its first significant work by its namesake, a large, semi-abstract 1969 oil painting called Tête through a donation in 2002.  

The piece usually occupies pride of place in the gallery’s foyer, but for the new exhibition dominates a wall alongside a similarly graphic Laughing Christ, which was painted the following year. Further down the same wall is Counihan’s linocut tribute to the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira.  

In an essay written to accompany the exhibition, which runs throughout August, Counihan Gallery curator Victor Griss says the retrospective is an important acknowledgement of the artist’s legacy and influence, the gallery’s origins and curatorial bearing and the growth of its collection of his works. 

“Importantly for the Counihan Gallery, its namesake has become a touchstone for the kind of artwork visitors can expect to encounter at the gallery – provocative, confronting, political and outspoken,” Mr Griss writes. 

“In short, the gallery embraces the position of the artist as activist and, in many ways, this reflects the broader history of Moreland as a progressive and diverse community and cultural landscape.” 

Mick, the artist’s oldest son, has also loaned several pieces from his own collection for the show, including his personal favourite, Boy In Helmet, which his father painted in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Counihan opposed the war both on moral grounds, but also because at that time Mick and his younger brother, Terry, were both in danger of being conscripted and sent to Vietnam to fight.  

The painting was reframed for the exhibition, which led to the discovery of Noel Counihan’s signature in the bottom right corner, which had previously been obscured by the old frame. 

The exhibition also features several nudes, including Woman and Man (centre), painted in 1984, two years before Noel Counihan died.

MICK Counihan said when he was growing up, Noel was always “in the shed” working on his art until several strokes slowed him down later in life. 

He is glad to see him receive the posthumous recognition he deserves after he was treated as an outcast for much of his life. 

“Noel was blacklisted for a long time,” he said. 

“He couldn’t get the commercial work that he previously got doing cartoons for newspapers and so on. So during the Cold War he sold a few portraits that he was commissioned to paint of people he knew, but otherwise it wasn’t really until the ‘70s that his pictures sold to any appreciable degree.” 

Neither of Counihan’s sons became artists, but they did inherit his “genetic leftism”, Mick said. 

The latest acquisition, Study for On the Front Bench, came into the gallery’s hands through good fortune.

Soon after it was completed in 1957, it was gifted to Sam and Mara Wisel as a wedding present. But the couple moved to Israel soon afterwards, leaving it behind in a cupboard where it remained until it was discovered by their daughter, Noga Mizrahi, when she was clearing out the house of a deceased relative in North Balwyn.

“I’ve got a brother and sister and we thought it can’t be hung in three different places and it would be good to find a new home for it,” she said. 

She offered the Counihan Gallery first option to buy the painting, which came at a far cheaper price than if it had been put on the open market. 

The Counihan retrospective will run at the gallery until September 4. Also showing currently at the gallery, until September 11, are Malleability, a solo exhibition by Mark Smith which explores the complexities of living with a disability; and Leftovers of a Ghost, a series of experiment-based artworks by Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak.

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