We still had a lot of talking to do
I stand in front of Francis Bacon’s “Study for the human body” in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). I love art and creativity and have spent a lot of time at the NGV since I was a teenager.
It is not the first time I have spent time with this artwork. This time, however, I have found reason to relate to it out of a greater appreciation for the artist, after studying his art as part of my Fine Art studies at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).
It was my love of art that led me back to university in my fifties when my time in the AFL came to a close.
Painted in 1949, I have long understood the artwork’s place in time. My parents were born in the early 1940s, during the Second World War. The war was the backdrop to their childhood and remained a ubiquitous yet unspoken part of their growing years.
My grandfather Edgar Taplin served in the air force, the RAAF. He wasn’t a flyer, but a courier who rode a motorbike, delivering messages between the lines. We only know his function because there are photos that survive him. He was my mother Annette’s father, who migrated from the UK to Australia in his twenties a couple of decades earlier.
His grandchildren called him Puppy. He and I were close. I liked it when people said we were similar, commenting on our looks and mannerisms. He would laugh freely at my kid jokes.
I was fascinated by his RAAF cap, which I found one day when digging through some old stuff in a spare room at his home. While he would reluctantly place it on my young head when I badgered him, he refused to put it on his own. He never marched on ANZAC day.
I was in my teens when I was gifted Puppy’s RAAF cap after he died suddenly from a stroke. It was my first real experience of death.
My memories are of a caring, purposeful, smiling yet taciturn man, who encouraged me to draw, often with the thick oily tradie pencils from his outdoor workshop. He taught me how to draw horses. I still draw horses.
Francis Bacon’s painting evokes memories of my grandfather.
It also reminds e of the conversations we never got to have.
Looking at Bacon’s painting, I imagine myself as a grandchild again. I am a little boy and have quietly opened the door to his suburban bathroom. I do so out of curiosity, hoping I will get an initiation into the unseen world of men and their intriguing and somehow mysterious ways.
I had been in this bathroom before, with and without my grandfather’s knowledge. He would sometimes lather my child face with his old horse-hair shaving brush, and ‘shave’ me with his safety razor, empty of its razorblade.
But the painting elicits more than a visual response. My grandfather is showering, and the steam from the shower seems to carry a heady mix of man smells, Brylcream, Old Spice and calamine lotion as I peer into the dark and humid space. I can make out my grandfather’s thick white body through the mist. Though unaware of my presence, he appears to be moving away from me, and the rest of his home and life as the shower curtains threaten to engulf him. He moves towards an indiscernible and somehow menacing place.
This isn’t the man I think I know. He is a stranger, altered by his despair, loss of will, in crisis, quietly suffering in his imposed claustrophobia.
While remaining unseen, I have invaded his silence. I close the door. I am fearful. I cannot relate to this damaged man, nor rescue him from his lonesomeness. I doubt that anyone can.
I am left wondering, who was the real Edgar Taplin, Puppy, my grandfather? I cannot resolve the anguish I witnessed with the man who would bring me close and kiss the crown of my youthful head.
This painting tells me more about Edgar Taplin than any experiences we shared, or photos of him in uniform, and even the symbolism of the prized RAAF cap in my home.
I am now a man, and for all its sense of calamity, I find solace and comfort in this artwork.
I like the quote, “An unknown meaning for an unknown person”, and I can only guess the artist’s inspiration and intention. The conversation he sought to start. But I find deep personal meaning in Bacon’s work, perhaps on behalf of my late grandfather, or now as a mid-life man.
I relate to this loneliness and isolation.
I can only guess what my grandfather experienced after he returned from the war, the distance between the private and shared personas. The damage such that not only was he alienated from people who cared for him, but also from himself.
I still miss my grandfather. I think about him when I draw.
Perhaps this is the reason why I am attracted to the ‘veteran’. Growing up around football clubs, there was ready access to generous elders, mainly men. Many were elegant storytellers, raconteurs who enjoyed an audience, even when it was just one wide-eyed young fella who loved the game and knew enough about the yarn spinner to treat this time with respect, and some reverence.
Every so often, as I listened to the elder, the conversation would slow, and eyes would fill with tears. I was never sure how to press forward, the ambiguity of the emotion, but loss, in its many forms, seemed to be at its heart.
In telling his story, there is grief, perhaps just a nostalgic yearning for ‘glory’ days now long past, but more likely something deeper, lost purpose, friendship, or opportunities and ambitions forever unfulfilled.
About a dozen or so years after my grandfather died, I lost my father Alan. It was sudden and shocking. Dad is the most significant influence in my life. A quarter of a century later, I am four years older than Dad was when he died, and I still go to ring him.
What I think about most are the conversations we never got to have. We still had a lot of talking to do.
But I also think about the conversations we could have had, but our distracted lives meant far less consequential stuff got in the road.
Conversations never-had is the narrative for this drawing I’ve titled “Ice-cream veteran”. As a kid, I remember the old soldiers dressed in their best suits, even on the hottest Melbourne days, mainly to visit their local RSL. This old soldier, after a day with his old mates, finds solace in the timeless pleasure of an ice-cream in a cone.
It is a reflection on the conversations I wished I’d had with my grandparents, but also my father, who would now be elderly.
As I was working on the drawing, I paused and asked myself “What conversations should I be having now?”
I have now made two commitments. Firstly, start a conversation. Seek out the veteran, seek out the youngster, and I’m at an age where I have wonderful access to both. Then, my second commitment, embrace unlearning by asking myself:
“Am I prepared and expecting to have my mind changed?”
An unknown meaning for an unknown person.
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