Library’s masterpiece stands the test of time
30 years on, Phoenix still manages to mystify with its hidden secrets and symbols
IF you’ve ever spent time at the Brunswick Library in Dawson Street, you can’t help but have seen the huge, colourful mural that dominates the main room’s south wall.
Approximately 7m wide and 9m tall and titled Phoenix, it was conceived and painted by renowned muralist and Brunswick resident Geoff Hogg in 1992.
The 30th anniversary of the unveiling of Phoenix was on December 10, the date when the new library at the back of the Brunswick Town Hall was opened to the public.
The library is located in what was an art deco era concert hall built in the 1920s. The then-Mayor of Brunswick, Elisabeth Jackson, said she had advocated for the concert hall to be demolished and a purpose-built library constructed in its place, but she was over-ruled on heritage grounds.
The council’s architectural consultants then had to work out what to do with the large stage at the southern end of the hall. This was where Dr Hogg came in.
An accomplished illustrator and painter and one of Australia’s pre-eminent public muralists, Dr Hogg was (and still is) a Brunswick resident.
He had brought back an interest in public murals when he returned from a period living in Mexico and the United States in the early-1970s. In 1979, he had developed a large mural over the walls of the Turana youth justice centre which had emerged from an oral history project. A couple of years later, Dr Hogg was commissioned to design and paint a mural for the new Museum underground train station (now Melbourne Central).
After moving to Brunswick in 1983, he immersed himself in the suburb’s history and met several people who would be important in the development of Phoenix almost a decade later, including local historian Les Barnes, who was a font of knowledge about life in Brunswick during the Great Depression. Also influential were former Mayor Loreto York and his wife, Olive, and real estate agent John Lazarro.
“The notion [behind the mural] was to work with people who lived in the area and talk about their own experiences and their particular way of understanding Brunswick,” Dr Hogg said.
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Several themes that came through strongly in the final work were Brunswick’s history of political protest, industrialisation, and migration.
The mural’s title refers to the famous free speech incident on the corner of Phoenix Street and Sydney Road in 1933, when a young Noel Counihan locked himself in a cage to prevent police arresting him while he delivered a speech to unemployed local residents.
A depiction of Counihan – who became one of Australia’s great social realist artists and whose name graces Brunswick’s art gallery – occupies pride of place in what Dr Hogg describes as “the heavenly position” at the top of Phoenix. Adjacent to Counihan’s head are a cage, a megaphone and a wounded leg which refers to a person who was shot by police during the free speech incident.
The free speech monument outside the Brunswick Mechanics’ Institute, created by British-born sculptor Simon Perry, was produced at the same time as Phoenix in what was a period of great investment in public art by the former Brunswick City Council. Dr Hogg said Brunswick was a trailblazer among Victorian municipalities in backing public art during the early-1990s.
The mural contains dozens of images and references to Brunswick, some obvious and others more ambiguous. Rather than depict Brunswick scenes, it alludes to them through stories and associations. There are references also to other histories and places of origin, and some characters in the mural – such as a woman in a scarlet dress and a man in Tudor style clothing – could be understood as comments on the use of classical imagery in the way we understand history.
The painting is influenced by the popular style of Australian illustration of the 1930s, and includes Turkish ceramic design, Victorian reproductions of classical figures, a Chinese poem of departure, and an underlay of dozens of hand prints that could be seen as referring to the area’s original inhabitants – although Dr Hogg was careful not to appropriate Indigenous art for his own work.
At a recent event held by the Brunswick Community History Group to celebrate its 30th anniversary, Dr Hogg was playfully evasive when asked to explain some of the more obscure images, such as the large mirror in the foreground and the dozens of yellow dots that form a kind of screen across the surface of the work.
But others, such as clay brick walls and chimneys and rope are obvious allusions to the quarrying, brickmaking and ropemaking industry that sustained Brunswick during most of its first century after colonisation.
“The thing I put forward in the project as well as that aspect of working class history and Brunswick’s important part of it, was the thing I really experienced when I moved to Brunswick which was a diverse community, the strong character that migration experiences had brought to the area,” Dr Hogg said.
He recalled that when he first began visiting Brunswick in the early-1970s, the area was rich with Greek culture, but by the time he began painting the mural in 1992, there was a new wave of Chinese migration starting.
When Phoenix was unveiled to the public, it was to mostly positive reviews, with one notable exception: Noel Counihan’s biographer, the eminent art historian Bernard Smith.
“When he looked at this, he said, ‘oh no, there’s too much in it, there’s nowhere to rest the eye’,” said Dr Hogg with a chuckle. “He was very gentle about it, though.”
Dr Hogg believes that part of the mural’s enduring interest is that it was integrated into the design of the library from the start, rather than added after the building was completed.
Phoenix took him about a month to paint from start to finish. He worked on the mural while plasterers, carpenters, electricians and other tradespeople completed the interior fit out of the library building itself.
It was the first time he used an overhead projector to help sketch out the basic images onto a wall, and he applied synthetic polymer paints for the finish.
“I didn’t plan it in detail but I had a collection of images I wanted to do, so I had a cherry picker and I would project the images onto the wall and draw them with a Texta.
“That meant I could adjust it all the time and if something was too large or too small, I would move it around. It was more spontaneous than works I had previously done.”
Unlike some of Dr Hogg’s other public works, such as the Turana mural which have been destroyed by subsequent development, Phoenix has survived for 30 years. Dr Hogg said the mural remains a living piece of work that is open to different interpretations by subsequent generations of visitors to the library.
“The whole idea of an artwork like this is memory is established together,” he said. “It’s a dialogue … so the actual meaning of the artwork, certain audiences and spectators will tell the artist what is happening and the meaning and significance evolves over time. Every generation is able to experience and add to and inform the meaning of the art work.”
Now aged in his early-70s, Dr Hogg is retired as Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT but continues to make art in Brunswick.