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January 22, 2021

Remember Me: The Art of Joy Hester at the Heide Museum of Modern Art

Open until February 14, an exhibit of Australian artist Joy Hester’s striking works is currently on display at Victoria’s Heide Museum of Modern Art.

The survey exhibition explores the progression of Hester’s practices, with the body of work showcasing the distinctive and emotionally laden imagery Hester produced during the 1940s and 1950s. With Hester frequently visiting the Heide home before its museum status, the exhibit is a homecoming of sorts, highlighting one of Australia’s most intriguing artists in her native cultural hub.

Having opened last year, Remember Me marks the centenary of Hester’s birth in 1920. Hester began producing works in the late 1930s, and her legacy thus comprises over twenty years of incredibly expressive artworks created before her death due to cancer in 1960 – two decades filled with modernist representations of human complexity. As an integral figure of the Heide circle, an influential group of artists and intellectuals who frequented the Heide house for discussion and creation, Hester was progressive and unique even within the group; not only was she a woman in a predominantly male field, but her chosen medium – ink on paper – was then considered inferior to painting. It enabled her, however, to capture the dynamic, free-flowing nature of the figures she depicted.

A major influence on Hester, and indeed the entire Heide Circle, was the end of the Second World War and the publicised footage of Nazi atrocities in concentration camps. Hester’s works took on a more prominent psychological theme, which her medium again lent itself to. She spoke of drawing as crucial to capturing ‘the psychological and psychic aspect of a moment, or not even a moment but a split flash that half a moment can give’, an immediacy which can be seen in her almost unrestrained strokes of ink. Following the end of the war, imagery of emaciated figures depicted as angels became a common motif for Hester, while distress and fear dominated the facial expressions of her pieces. Artworks like City of Dreadful Night (1945), (Two Huddled Women) (c. 1945), and I Fled in Terror of the Night (c.1945) all demonstrate the far-reaching psychological impact of the war and the Holocaust, which permeated Hester’s works with visceral emotion.

Eyes constituted a particularly important facet of Hester’s drawings, becoming more prominent as she undertook radiation treatment in the late 1940s. Her Faces series is filled with bulging, disparate eyes that literally externalise feelings of vulnerability and fear, with intense gazes seeming almost to flee the faces in which they reside. These eyes often accompany pared-back faces either obscured or missing other features, drawing attention first to the eyes, and then wherever those eyes happen to be staring. On the other hand, works like Faces (c. 1948) and Girl Holding Flowers (1956) de-emphasise the facial features in favour of oversized heads, correspondingly representing more positive themes and emotions. In this way, Hester created her own visual language of scale and emphasis, crafting an expressive corpus of faces and figures in an unfortunately short span of time.

Joy Hester is one of Australia’s most striking modernist figures, helping to shape the movement in the Australian art scene while occupying a distinct presence within it. The Remember Me exhibit at the Heide Museum of Modern Art is a wonderful tribute to Hester’s works and legacy, bringing her emotive drawings back into the public eye.

If you liked this feature, you might like our article about Nigerian artist Eniwaye Oluwaseyi’s vibrant portraiture.

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