Eight Doors To Edwin Tanner



'Eight doors for Edwin Tanner' Edwin Tanner Retrospective Monash University Galler (1990)

1. A door for art history 

2. A door for Edwin Tanner himself 

3. A door for Melbourne 

4. A door for Wales 

5. A door for engineering 

6. A door for philosophy 

7. A door for any body

8. A door for no body

He no longer suffers himself to be carried away by sudden impressions, by sensations, he first generalises all these impressions into paler cooler ideas, in order to attach to them the ship of his life and actions.


(A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face.)



We have inherited from Edwin Tanner an expansive collection of constructions: dams, bridges, stamps, paintings, poems and stories. Now we have the opportunity to draw this together: to establish an idea whose heat is at work in generating his various projects. The promise of such an idea is the knowledge of what Edwin Tanner had to say to us. To say anything, however, requires a listener and Edwin Tanner’s work seems to have many potential audiences. As Charles Nodrum notes: ‘...with Tanner’s work...it is dangerous to assume a single level of explanation.’3 To make sense of Tanner entails engaging in a number of conversations with many different points of view: art history and philosophy are two of the most obvious, though there are many other voices. While not attempting to cover all points of view, I hope at least to incorporate several of the most vocal, as well as one which has hitherto remained silent.

That Tanner has written and said so much about himself is both a bridge and a barrier between these points of view. While he points to the philosophical meaning of his work he vehemently denies the role of his religious upbringing. A typical anecdote about Tanner brings this to light.4 Like many other Melbournians, Tanner received the occasional call from the Mormon mission. One morning they arrived at Tanner’s doorstep, the ready to provide a passage of inspiration from the Bibles in their hands. Tanner stalled them: ‘Just a minute’. The Mormons waited uneasily for Tanner’s return. Had he left to do the gardening? Was he looking for his shotgun? Eventually, Tanner returned with a copy of the BHP construction manual Shapes and Sections, and with mock sincerity he asked of the missionaries: ‘Now what does yours say on page 43?’ One is left to wonder what the Americans made of Tanner’s question. There are two ways of interpreting this anecdote. First, it demonstrates a disavowal of unquestioned religious assumptions in favour of a more practical form of inquiry. Yet second, it raises engineering to the level of a spiritual doctrine. While the first interpretation is more consistent with Tanner’s professed beliefs, the possibility that he transferred his faith from religion to work should not escape attention. Perhaps there is a hidden message in Tanner’s work. In order to consider points of view thoroughly, the second interpretation will be explored later in this essay.

I should make it clear here that my intention is not to explain Tanner’s work—my quarry is not the ‘influences’ on his development—that will be the task of a future biographer. The aim is rather to find ways of access to his works. I have adopted the metaphor of doors because it is both simple and useful.5 Eight points of view are represented by eight separate doors: each admits a particular audience to a specific reading of Tanner’s work (e.g., philosophers may talk about the logical claims demonstrated in the paintings). They are presented as claims to the ‘correct’ interpretation of Tanner’s paintings—as will be shown, Tanner himself was forthright about what his work meant. The reception to his paintings has been shaped partly as an argument between these points of view.

Tanner’s life lends itself to such arguments: it is a rare boundary case of someone who works in both the ‘creative’ and ‘practical’ domains. As both artist and structural engineer, Tanner he not only made pictures of things but also made the things themselves. Which was more important? The difference between images and things is embedded deeply in the points of view we hold about the world, particularly in the evaluations of art objects.6 Tanner himself wanted the viewer to think of his ‘images’ as ‘things’. His intention appears to run counter to the point of view of art history, whose brief is to represent the development of the ‘image’ as separate from other ‘things’. This is where we begin.

1. A door for art history

The first step of an art historian is to include Tanner among the established names of image makers. Tanner is classed with painters who evoke a similar response in their works. The members of this class worked during this century: Magritte, Tapies, Johns, Klee, etc. It is Paul Klee who has produced the most frequent comparisons. ‘Herald’ critic Alan McCulloch notes this in a review of his 1970 Powell Street show: ‘A Klee-like feeling of suspense pervades the whole exhibition.’7 Mary Eagle reinforces this association; writing about the 1979 Realities show, she found that his works: ‘have justly been compared with Paul Klee, who painted similar mysterious twittering machines on delicately coloured fields..’8 Such a comparison is useful in providing the viewer with an already established response that can be tried out on Tanner’s paintings. With Paul Klee in mind the viewer can attend to the qualities of weightlessness and use of line. By contrast the Magritte comparison points to the enigmatic positioning of objects. These associations focus on the image itself.

But besides bringing to light the formal properties of painting, this method also casts a shadow. In his review of the 1976 Age Gallery Retrospective, Graeme Sturgeon presented the historical resonance of Tanner’s work as compensation for its philosophical pretensions: ‘At its best, his work has a Klee-like delicacy which makes it a unique contribution to Australian art; at its worst it descends to self-conscious contrivance, pumped up with literary allusions’.9 The affinity of Tanner’s paintings with the works of Klee and Magritte appears to promise rescue from the artist’s own theoretical affectations. This historical contribution is useful in containing our gaze on Tanner’s works as ‘paintings’ rather than words on a page that have no value beyond what they ‘mean’. Once it is voiced, though, it provokes alternative claims about the works.

The painter himself presents one of these claims. In 1969 he responded to the ‘Klee-like’ comparison made about his painting Madrigals, then hanging in the new Victorian Arts Centre. He began by quoting the critic, Ursula Hoff:

‘In Tanner’s precise yet fantastic painting “Madrigals”, lines suggesting wire and solid shapes hold a balance as in a mobile and remind us of Klee’s “Twittering Machine”.’ ‘Madrigals’ in fact had nothing to do with the work of Klee although Klee had been of interest to the writer. ‘Madrigals’ was drawn first at an Electric Switching station, Creek Road. Hobart, while the writer was in Her Majesty’s Service, Tasmania, Australia. A painting by the writer which was a first edition of ‘Madrigals’ but called then ‘Creek Road’ won a bronze medal in the Melbourne Olympic Games Art Festival. The writer destroyed it on the grounds of unstable materials. Striving for sound technique alone makes the writer in one way different and in fact better than Klee as an artist.10

Though Madrigals may evoke Klee to a viewer, Tanner is adamant that it arises from his own personal experience. Tanner dramatises this difference by contrasting ‘Klee-like delicacy’ with the brutal efficiency of power stations.

It would be possible, of course, to assert that these positions are compatible: art history locates the painting in the development of ‘images’ while the artist explains it in terms of his biographical development. Each has a different story to tell. However, such relativism takes the heat out of the argument—we still have to determine what to look for in Tanner’s paintings. Rather than thinking that one point of view is ‘true’, it is possible to examine their uses in bringing certain aspects of the painting to light. It is then an ethical question about what form of life (e.g., images, measurements, ideas) is the most important. For Tanner, as student philosopher, the ‘image’ itself was not the most important element in his works.

2. A door for Edwin Tanner himself

Why does an engineer take up painting? Is he trying to accumulate cultural capital, or is he driven by existential despair? The absence of a ready answer to this question provides the space in which Tanner fully asserts himself: standing between two incommensurable pursuits there is nothing but his own identity to account for his actions.

Like a Swiss Army knife, there is an unexpected abundance of facilities in Tanner. He was a champion cyclist, a good cricketer. He was a capable pilot, a poet, a crack shot. The catalogue for his Powell Street Gallery exhibition (1970) identifies him as: ‘Edwin Tanner, B.A., Dip.Art., C.Eng., F.I.Struct.E.(London), F.I.E., Consulting Engineer, Painter and Poet.’ What was Edwin Tanner?

Indeed, it is this very inability to characterise Tanner’s vocation which can become a principle of evaluation. Guy Stuart presents this logic: ‘...he cannot be categorised, he was too much himself.’11 Its principle is clear: Tanner’s individuality is inversely proportional to the success of attaching a frame of meaning to his work. Robert Rooney reinforces this in his review of the 1988 exhibition at Charles Nodrum Gallery: ‘Tanner was that rare thing in modern Australian art: an original whose work, at least in terms of stylistic origins, is hard to pin down.’12 The absence of possible influences becomes the measure of Tanner’s personal value. Turning Tanner’s lack of fit in the art community into a success was also the method of Barrie Reed, who in his Art and Australia article claims: ‘Tanner’s aloneness, his singularity, might, in this sense, be seen as a measure of his stature’.13 This focus of critical interpretation on the individuality of the artist encourages ‘eccentric’ work. As such, though, it lacks a means of understanding how an artist’s work might relate to the world around him or her.

This, then, is the first solution to our mystery: it was Edwin Tanner’s personality that bridged the vocations of engineer and painter. This bridge has itself spawned other accounts of his work, each rooted in his biographical experience.

3. A door for Melbourne

The story of Tanner’s exclusion begins comically in Melbourne, with a painting that was sent from Tasmania to the Contemporary Art Society Exhibition in 1954. In Barrie Reed’s words: ‘The press made a cause cJlJbre out of ‘The Public Servant’ and some commentators read into the empty chair, the half-clock with the hour hand on 5, the gaunt coat rack, literary ironies which had little to do with the painting as a painting and which may not have been intended’.14 Here again, Tanner’s paintings have been interpreted outside their intended meaning, though this time to the detriment of their local audience. Yet Melbourne was to become Tanner’s home for the last 23 years of his life. What does it have to say about one of its most creative inhabitants?

Tanner claimed to be unsuccessful in making contacts in Melbourne’s art world. He wrote in 1967: ‘It was a terrible disappointment to me to find in the arts of all things, everything sewn up.’15 Instead of interesting painters, he found ‘neanderthals living in caves’.16 Despite his many friendships in Melbourne, Tanner presented it as a closed door.

A more detailed examination of what is Melbourne about Tanner’s work might arrive at two different interpretations. On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine Tanner making friends with the more ‘mystic’ elements of Melbourne intellectual life in the 1960s. The poem dedicated to Leonard French by Vincent Buckley, Golden Builders, expresses a sensibility radically opposed to a no-nonsense constructivism: ‘In gaps of lanes, in tingling/shabby squares, I hear the crying of the machines.’ Tanner had little to do with that sort of sentimentalism. Yet there is something in the structuredness of Tanner’s work which we might associate with Melbourne, the gridded regular city. Perhaps we can see in the elongated structured forms of Tanner’s work, some reflection of the Melbourne urban sensibility: dwellers imprisoned on the other side of the world in bureaucratic structures, without the romance of a harbour, without the adventure of the bush. Robert Rooney suggests one Melbourne parallel when he describes Tanner’s early work as ‘a body of highly original, idiosyncratic paintings whose wit, clarity and precision had no equivalent, except perhaps the work of John Brack.’17 Passing through this door also would be Melbourne figures such as Gerald Murnane: people who prefer, as Borges wrote of ValJry, ‘the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order’.18 Order sometimes promotes secrets.

4. A door for Wales

What is more ‘Melbourne’ about Tanner is perhaps his overt allegiance to place somewhere else.19 Tanner was born in the village Gelligaer, in (Old) South Wales. He preferred his Christian name pronounced as the Welsh do, with three syllables: Ed-oo-in. It is the romantic association with Wales that some have chosen as an explanation of Tanner’s mysterious vocation. Patrick McCaughey does this in his review of the 1979 Realities show:

There are more than just two sides to Edwin Tanner. It’s closer to nine lives, for at some stage or another he has been philosopher and aesthetician, cyclist and cricketer, pilot and poet and each has amounted to an avocation at least for Tanner. Perhaps only a Welshman could have a wide enough streak of madness to keep going on so many fronts and Tanner is proud of his Welshness...20

For McCaughey, the ‘streak of madness’ that generated Tanner’s diverse pursuits had its home in the image of an exotic landscape. It is difficult to adopt a precise sense of the traits we normally ascribe to the region of Wales: singing, coal-mining, rugby, etc. Perhaps the strongest value it has is in the point of view of the local common person—an artist who is part of the community: the bard. The contrast between this figure and the serious educated individual from the city is suggested in Reed’s comments, which oppose the cleverness of Tanner’s allusions with the ‘innocent’ qualities of the world:

These titles with their references to Wittgenstein, Shakespeare and Eliot, are, I suggest, great fun and nothing to get a wrinkled brow about... he comes from the same bardic territory as Dylan Thomas, David Jones and Vernon Watkins...Like the white hind of the Welsh bard he, as much as Dylan Thomas, is snared in beauty’s bush. It is this tension between his romantic heritage and the very real disciplines of his education which gives his work its characteristic fineness of balance.21

‘Welshness’ is brought into an appreciation of Tanner’s work in opposition to its textual meaning. Reed uses it as a satiric voice to undercut the ‘serious’ claims that Tanner’s titles might make. This ‘Welshness’ seems to create a space for incorporating a literary tradition into our view of Tanner’s works, though it does ‘naturalise’ the contradictions that it contains. As such, it is not as generative of other points of view. Its specific biographical purpose is to mark Tanner with a distinctiveness that is in proportion to the singularity of his career. In this, though, Tanner’s vocation as a structural engineer is at least as useful.

5. A door for engineering

The role of Tanner’s engineering background in reinforcing the worth of his paintings is reflected in Margaret Plant’s statement: ‘Tanner’s paintings are a pertinent reflection on his personal world; he has lived near machines and can convey their intricacy into intricate lines of art.’22  Regardless of how Tanner can fit into trends within the art world, the graphic expertise of his training is enough to grant the works value. Maureen Gilchrist found that ‘His gifts as a draftsman are undeniable’.23 Special talent replaces depth of meaning. This is perhaps most forcibly stated by Alan McCulloch has found his eye as an engineer to be the strength of Tanner’s work:

In his self-imposed task of turning the finite into the infinite, Tanner occasionally lapses into pretentiousness... His strength lies in the consistency of his viewpoint, his engineer’s capacity for endless invention within the metier and in the restrained lyricism of his handling of colour, texture and metal collage.24

The explanatory function which McCulloch grants engineering is similar to Reed’s use of Wales: it is a natural creative force that undercuts the more ‘educated’ interests of the artist. This reference to engineering, though, presents the rare opportunity for a point of view normally silent in the art gallery.

Here is a point of access for those whose graphic intelligence can be displayed outside of the normal instrumental functions of such practice. But what would they have to say? The journal Professional Engineer presented the opinion that his painting of the same title gave voice to a ‘cry of anguish’; Tanner agreed that the painting made him ‘terribly sad’.25 The life of an engineer is not often presented in this light. In opening the 1976 ‘Age’ retrospective, Professor Moorhouse of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Melbourne University, elaborated this sensibility:

Although Edwin Tanner uses the symbols of the Engineer he manages somehow, to produce something which to the engineer like myself, conveys a great deal more... His ‘circuit components’ are also like spirits—disembodied and imprisoned in their surroundings, a little sad, defeated and resigned to their fate as the servants of a mankind who knows little about them and apparently cares less.

In Moorhouse’s point of view, it is as though the practical mentality of engineering contained an otherworld, where things that are normally judged in terms of their usefulness are given a voice of their own. The chorus line of devices in The Hollow Men (1966) evinces the carnivalesque form of this expression. Here the normally sharp distinction between the subjects who control and the objects who passively obey—what we imagine as a ‘watertight’ boundary in structural engineering—is transgressed. From the post-structuralist perspective,26 professions are seen to inscribe themselves into a normative structure which creates as phenomenon what they attempt to remove: law creates crime, medicine constellates morbidity, etc. Tanner’s paintings leave engineers to wonder what the necessary evil of their profession might be? Human error? ‘What is the safety factor of the human soul?’

6. A door for philosophy

The logic of criticism thus far has opposed natural creativity with the philosophical significance of Tanner’s works. There have been reviews where only half this logic appears: where nothing rescues his paintings from the sterility of intellectualism. For example, Bernard Smith writes that Tanner’s paintings are ‘teaching aids to Wittgenstein.’27 A similar dismay was presented by Nigel Murray-Harvey, who found that they were: ‘more likely to please those in search of meaning than those looking for an accomplished technique.’28 In this regard, they tend to alienate reviewers like Alan McCulloch, who found: ‘the long reductive curves need the addition of explanatory notes before they become meaningful.’29 These three statements compete with the voice of the artist himself, who seemed convinced of the philosophical purpose of his paintings. In the reception of Tanner’s works there seems to be an almost universal reluctance to accept the key given by the artist to consider his paintings. What is this key?

Edwin Tanner’s own formal involvement in philosophy, particularly British analytical philosophy, continued from his attendance at philosophy lectures in Hobart in 1954 until his unsubmitted M.A. thesis (University of Tasmania) in 1969. This involvement can be seen in the exact lecture notebooks, his furious marginal comments in texts, and his personalised indexes to important volumes, particularly fellow engineer Wittgenstein. The questions raised by Wittgenstein appeared to play an important role in his work. This role is most explicit in his thesis ‘Images and Imagination’. Tanner described the purpose of his thesis as being: ‘...to see if abstract things could be legitimately said to have behavioural characteristics of animals especially humans.’ We note here a more conceptual approach to the carnivalesque sensibility referred to by the Professor of Electrical Engineering.

We know Wittgenstein partly for his attack on the referential function of language, the so-called ‘picture theory’ of language. For Tanner, the ambivalence of a ‘doer’ turned into an ‘imager’, made Wittgenstein’s observations on things and pictures of things particularly pertinent. In his thesis, Tanner discussed the proposition raised by Wittgenstein in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics that the consistency of language is conventional: what we call ‘red’ today we may call something else tomorrow. Something happened in this statement which Tanner never quite let go of. At first he claimed that the ability to identify colour beyond conventionality is fundamental: ‘Hell of a world if we couldn’t!’ Wittgenstein defied practical sense for Tanner, particularly in the status ‘simples’. In his index to Wittgenstein, Tanner paid particular attention to #583 of Philosophical Investigations:

What is a deep feeling? Could someone have a feeling of ardent love or hope for the space of one second—no matter what preceded or followed this second? -- what is happening now has significance—in these surroundings. That surroundings give it its importance. And the word ‘hope’ refers to a phenomenon of human life. (A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face).

As a sign of thought, Tanner has marked this paragraph as ‘important’, lined it with green, black and blue lines, and typed the last sentence in red. Tanner seems almost obsessed with Wittgenstein’s concern about the impossibility of reducing meaning to atomic propositions. As Tanner explains it himself:

The writer admits to a preoccupation with Wittgenstein wriggling out of his Tractatus notion of simples as he does on page 23e in Philosophical Investigations, where he says of a coloured square as part of a complex of squares ‘but are these simple?’ Readers may compare the relative complexity of the writer’s drawing ‘white line coming in again confused’ with the monochrome square Wittgenstein refers to and with the art reviews of Mr McCulloch and Mr McCaughey.30

Tanner here presented his aim of using art to defy Wittgenstein’s denial of the presence of ‘simples’; that is, direct, unmediated qualities, like the colour red or the smile, that stand outside of conventions of meaning. What Wittgenstein threatened was the possible arbitrariness of the viewer’s response to the painting. For Tanner, this would be a sign that the paintings did not work properly. His first resolution of this problem is to introduce the behavioural dimension. In a chapter titled, ‘Pictures Mathematics and Cathedrals’, Tanner listed possible emotional responses to a Francis Bacon picture hanging then in the National Gallery: ‘electric razor feeling on the cheeks’, ‘solarplexis feeling of personal inadequacy as picture maker’, and ‘I could eat that!’. Tanner accounted for this variety in terms of the behavioural characteristics of the viewers: how they approach it with their eyes, etc. For Tanner this disconfirms Wittgenstein’s claim that meaning is purely conventional:

The reasons for seeing a ‘picture as’, for seeing the same picture ‘differently’ are endless but they are without doubt reasons and our results are different but not different with arethmetic (sic) regularity, as queried by Wittgenstein.31

For Tanner, Wittgenstein was like a sceptic in the engineering office, questioning whether the structure would stand up to all possible uses. Tanner responds to this by pointing to the plan, to demonstrate his argument. Tanner’s proofs share with Wittgenstein the measured simplicity of an approach which begins with things at hand rather than a textual tradition. The thing placed in the reader’s hand by Tanner is the simplest image possible: a dot on a blank page. Tanner explained its use: ‘For our purpose here let us take the simplest visual atom of normal sight and treat it, not as a basis for an atomic proposition but as something to look at and talk about in many and various ways.’32 Among these ways of looking, Tanner settled on the seventh: ‘The dot is lonely’.33 Is the dot really lonely? Not really, but in Tanner’s mind this anthropomorphism is possible in art where the imagination has the capacity adjust the scale of things.34 It is the scaling process that creates life. His example is the proportion of the human face: ‘A dead pan face may hold us in suspense—we may wait for it to smile, We know that faces, like words, are used to show signs of life, happy life sad life angry life...’ Thus the power of a face to convey emotion is reduced to a question of scale. Rather than attributing this to a set of conventions, as would Wittgenstein, Tanner argued for a universal logic that can be derived from specific instances. Paintings such as My Father’s House can be seen to present a taxonomy of smiles that defies Wittgenstein’s contextualism.

A less symbolic questioning of Wittgenstein occurs in his later chalk drawings on coloured paper at Strines Gallery in 1967. Like optical art, these are designed as unmediated stimuli for the viewer’s response. One feature of this purposiveness in Tanner’s work is that it immobilises the viewer: the viewer is not in the position to recognise elements in the picture, but is actively worked on by the painting. Tanner seems to reduce the status of the viewer to a passive receptacle of visual stimuli. Paradoxically, though, this aim also extends the appreciation of painting to viewers who lack a knowledge of art history.

7. A door for any body

As we saw above, Tanner’s stand against Wittgenstein that there exists a realm of meaning beyond conventional use was dismissed by many reviewers as a purely specialist issue. Yet it is this argument which generates work for a popular audience. Patrick McCaughey helped establish this voice. In reviewing the exhibition at Strines Gallery he noted that ‘These drawings make no reference to points of contact outside the drawing itself. The lines don’t draw funny things: they themselves are actors of their own comedy... Tanner develops Klee’s idea of taking a line for a walk... We don’t have to attuned in any special way or initiated into any mysteries.’35 And for the 1972 Powell Street exhibition McCaughey emphasised the immediacy of his work: ‘For now he goes for a painting where the fineness of his sensibility and feeling is not filtered through metaphor nor concealed in epigram. They belong to that rare and distinguished body of painting which gives access to the stuff of consciousness itself.’36 How does Tanner turn the picture into a universal instrument rather than a fickle sign to be coded by experts?

The line is the main focus of the immanent qualities in Tanner’s work. It is this device which is seen to exercise the viewer. Tanner’s discussion of the behavioural response to his works indicates the work he expected the line to perform:

Thus we roll our eyes in their sockets, and perhaps bend and swivel our necks until we have the other aspect of the picture clearly in focus. This rolling, bending, swivelling and refocussing gives us feelings of physiological excitement.

This is where making pictures of things lives with making the things themselves—by making pictures as designs to be carried out by the viewer’s head just as engineering drawings are realised by a builder.

However, this attention to line can never fully account for the picture. It is not only the movement of the eyes that defines the viewer’s response. Just as a philosophical text must forgo its propositional form occasionally to renew the reader’s attention with examples, so there is an exchange in Tanner’s work between the work of the line and the reward of the colour. But to keep the viewer in check, Tanner keeps the wages low. The dominant hue of Tanner’s paintings is blue-green-brown. Occasionally there is a red background, but this colour is mostly employed as a positive accent such as the hearts and diamonds of Odd Man Out (c1964). Inside The Philosophers Head (1960), the inner core of the brain exposed to view contains a red cellular structure. In Space Odyssey (1960-61) red marks stand out of the painting as junction points in the cellular network. In Lightning Conductors (1961) the small red squares appear as the random event, irregularly placed along the network of wires and rods. Red appears in forms which have no reliable function. The supplementarity of the red is most clearly evident in the nylon rope threaded through the plastic white lattice of Untitled (1975).37

Tanner would explain the sparing quality of red in his paintings in terms of the need to control the power of the work. A statement gives the sense of this:

Certain colours command the attention of the casual and untrained looker more than others do. One only has to recall an image of a page in the American magazine ‘National Geographic’ to notice a red ‘something’ near the foreground and not far from the dead centre. Red is a good seller...38

Tanner considers red to be a fickle colour: it is used a sign of both ‘joy’ and ‘danger’. This is the unreliability he had found difficult in Wittgenstein’s denial of ‘simples’. The potential distrust of ‘red’ is extended by its obvious political overtones, which Tanner suggests in Homage to Solzhenitsen (1976) where the lines exist in a total red background.39 It is ironic, therefore, that the philosophical import which Tanner claimed for his work is undermined by the paintings themselves. This does not mean that the philosophical point of view fails: indeed, it is where much of the action takes place.

As an emblematic colour of instability, red colours not only communism, but also religious movements such as the pre-Reformation Roman church for whom the ‘word was made flesh’.40

8. A door for no body

As the anecdote which opened this essay makes clear, Tanner’s protest against the Bible was not so much that it was not true, but that it does not work. This theme emerges in number of ways. In his poem ‘For Airmen’, Tanner contrasted the evidence of the senses with religious doctrine:


Have faith in your instruments,

Your feet,

Your hands,

And in your seats.

Never fly reading Bibles.

And in his notes for his Master’s Degree Tanner remarks:

When I think of childbirth I think of the god of creation [I] think of what a hopeless fool of a designer he was and how much better job I could have done.

On the surface, Tanner seems very distant from the early religious upbringing. But there are possibilities of connection which the artist himself suggests. Another Tanner anecdote concerns a brief stay in hospital while he was living in Tasmania: asked by a nurse for his religious denomination he replied ‘Logical positivism’. Although this was obviously intended as a joke, we are left to wonder whether logical positivism was indeed his particular version of Calvinism.

Tanner’s parents belonged to the Welsh Methodist church, and while in Australia they embraced stricter denominations, ending with the Exclusive Wing of the Plymouth Brethren who prohibited a range of ‘graven images’, even children’s dolls. While the Calvinist teachings of Tanner’s youth have been used to clarify his sense of personal ambition, there was one distinctive doctrine which has particular bearing on the issue of the usefulness of art. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation: the relation of the image to the sacred thing. In his 1540 treatise on the Lord’s Supper, Calvin argued that the identification of bread with Christ’s actual body was a form of ‘apishness’ that degraded the sanctity of the ritual. Rather, the mass should be seen as a practical act:

For to prostrate ourselves before the bread of the Supper, and worship Jesus Christ as if he were contained in it, is to make an idol of it rather than a sacrament. The command given us it not to adore, but to take and to eat... the Mass, which in the Popish Church is held to be the Supper, is, when well explained, nothing but pure apishness and buffoonery. I call it apishness, because they there counterfeit the Lord’s Supper without reason, just as an ape at random and without discernment imitates what he sees done.41

Despite Tanner’s overt disavowal of Calvinism, it is possible to see him still working within its structures. In a short story METAPICTURE, he wrote that Bible narratives: ‘were written so indelibly on my mind that there was no possibility [of] escape.’ This story is a fantasy about a painter who attempts successfully to create a painting which captures the majesty of the sky. Other painters try to imitate ‘The-Above’ but fail, and the signature of the artist persists through the colours of the painting:

Now and again brave picture makers blind themselves in trying to repaint ‘The-above’ in more subtle colours and tones but they only succeed in improving the original sky painter’s nightmare, patchily and besides there is no colour in our world strong enough to cover his signature which by sound alone penetrates paint however thick and opaque.

No colour can dampen the artist’s original design. The signature forces itself through the paint which threatens to close it off from the viewer. There is the sense of a person trying to assert his presence against the materials the mediate his message. What was Tanner’s message? He describes a painting Message in a 1961 artist’s statement: ‘The possibility of escape behind the frame has always tortured me: thus “Message” has a message and boats imprisoned in bottles and the bottles imprisoned in the picture.’42 That Tanner still believed in the possibility of a ‘message’ in the bottle is most forcibly evoked in his story The Learned Ones, based on a talk he gave to the Galton Society. The story ends with the dream hero being asked to speak to a dot on a distant grassy ridge, which he eventually makes out in the shape of an old bearded man. He wrote:

I stared waiting for my soul to tell my mouth what to say. My head and eyes remained motionless. Gradually a tiny white mark on the other ridge came from the shadows into the light and into focus. It was a hairy faithful and simple old man who appeared, from where I was, to be one sixteenth of an inch tall. He stopped and squatted in hope, in the open, on the grass. I knew he expected something of me—a message he had waited a lifetime to hear. How I knew I do not know but I do know that I knew it. I hoped that my soul would not deceive him as it had deceived me. ‘I’ wanted to give him a message simple, kind and true BUT without warning the breech of my soul fired seven high pitched syllables, so quickly that my lips could not stop them. They were “I HAVE NO MESSAGE FOR YOU”.

I could see the trajectory of the words traverse the valley. They were bullets. I called stop! stop! or you will kill the old man.

“Stop Stop” put brakes on “I have no message for you” which spread out into a white blanket, froze, and in it froze the man.

We can now read this story as an allegory of Tanner’s pragmatist approach to painting: the artist conveys his message directly to the passive viewer. More than this, though, it exposes the sinister potential of this relationship. When the artist has nothing to communicate to the viewer all that remains is a one-sided expression of power: the viewer is left with nothing to respond. As viewers, should we be left in the passive role of stimulus receptors? To a certain degree, it remains with us to construct a message in Tanner’s paintings and thus make of them images with meaning rather than things directed against us.

The meaning I find in Tanner’s work relates to the claustrophobic picture of modern life. In a 1956 painting, Boy with Bird in Cage, Tanner presents the almost spherical head of a young boy peering cross-eyed inside a bird cage. There are two very literal references to make here. ‘Don’t get a fat head, mon’ in sing-song Welsh was a sentence used against Edwin Tanner by his father, for becoming too involved in educated ideas (many of Tanner’s reviewers would agree with this). The ‘fat head’ sits inside a cage. The cage resonates through Tanner’s paintings: look at Positive and Negative Construction (?). Philosophers with No Flies on (1963-65) encloses figures behind a wire mesh and the bodily form of cage is associated with the bared ribs in Castaways (1960-61) and Dead Cert (1960). It suggests mortality and limits. What can we make of this cage in terms of our common world?

Besides the obvious physical constraints of cage, it symbolises an inherited form of life that cannot be changed. This is what Max Weber had in mind when he called the Calvinist structure of modern capitalism an ‘iron cage’. At the start of the twentieth century he wrote:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine productions which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.43

Such a frightening vision of modern life prompts forms of escape. Weber himself became increasingly absorbed in the more fluid forms of ‘charismatic’ social movements.44 What was Tanner’s escape?

In the terms of this dilemma, it is clear from Tanner’s life that he would not embrace a romantic escape from structure per se. This denial is played out in his reading of Wittgenstein, where Tanner disagreed that there could be a form of life wholly autonomous of language. Near the end of Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote: ‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.’45 Tanner’s annotation is forthright: ‘Rubbish there is no need for this’.46 But there was a need in Tanner’s paintings for the things to be made manifest. Despite the behaviourist intention in some of his works, Tanner was still attempting to show that Wittgenstein was wrong.

I’m certainly not suggesting a ‘mysticism’ in Tanner’s painting, far from it. Tanner’s escape from structure took the form of a play between practices of making things and giving them life. For Tanner, the effect of this is more comic than romantic. His works suggest the victory of neither image nor thing—but their confusion. It is like situation of a victim who lures his real-life attacker onto a stage before a live theatre audience: a potentially deadly confrontation becomes a farce in the presence of viewers.47 The Critic at His Peak (1960) has the human face smiling wryly next to the physiognomic instrument which threatens to categorise it. Perhaps it is an escape within the cage.

The project of proving that there are facts that exist beyond conditions of proof seems a pursuit that is fraught with absurdity. Yes, it is trying to show that an ‘image’ is a ‘thing’. Impossible. But it is that argument between image and thing, example and proposition, colour and line, witness and doctrine, which Edwin Tanner’s works and lives set in play. Looking over the reception of Tanner’s work, it appears there have been various attempts to deny the philosophical message which the artist intended: i.e., that there are stable atoms of meaning from which we construct our world. In evaluating his work this point of view has been dismissed by critics in favour of mystified attributions: ‘Klee-like’, ‘Welsh’, ‘draughting skills’, ‘Tanner’s uniqueness’, etc. Yet, ironically, it is Tanner’s paintings themselves which seemed to most defy his intended meaning. Does this mean that they have failed? In failing Tanner’s behavioural aims, as argued in his thesis, the works themselves assert a freedom of image-making: their failure is their success. In Bird in the Bush (1960) delinquent objects float past the doors of their compartments. Like Tanner himself, they defy their calling.


Each viewer to Tanner’s work will no doubt have a separate set of points of view available. My personal access to Tanner relates to the sense of shared discontinuity between science and art. My background in the psychological science serves me in attempting to reduce dense everyday experience into first principles, though I still look for something more.

I would like to thank Shirley and Jan Tanner for their generous assistance in the preparation of this essay. Thanks also to Melbourne University Fine Arts, Charles Nodrum, Naomi Cass, and Jennepher Duncan.

1.. `On truth and falsity in their ultramoral sense' (1873) Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche vol 12, trans O. Levy, New York: Gordon Press, 1974, p.181

2.. Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958

3.. Catalogue Edwin Tanner Charles Nodrum Gallery, 1988

4.. The biographical material draws from three interviews with artist's wife Shirley Tanner and one with artist's son Jan Tanner in November-January 1989/90.

5.. A door is designed to admit entry to certain elements -- normally humans and their accompanying objects -- while excluding others, such as nature. For a much more detailed sociology of the door, see Bruno Latour `Mixing humans and non-humans together: The sociology of the door-closer' Social Problems, 1988, 35, pp.298-310

6.. Pierre Bourdieu's study of different forms of `habitus' towards art objects demonstrates the way a regard of images as things can be important, particularly in maintaining a boundary between class groups (see Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).

7.. `Melbourne Herald' 24/6/70

8.. `The Age' 7/6/79

9.. Graeme Sturgeon, `The Australian', 4/11/76

0.0. Unsubmitted M.A. thesis `Images and Imagination' (University of Tasmania) 1969

1.1. Guy Stuart, Catalogue, Charles Nodrum Gallery, 1988

2.2. `The Australian', 12/11/88. This had been identified previously, in a review of the `Age' retrospective by Maureen Gilchrist who described Tanner as: `...a painter who has generally disdained fashions and trends and pursued his own impulses' (`The Age' 20/10/76).

3.3. Barrie Reed `Maker Signmaker --- Some aspects of the art of Edwin Tanner' Art and Australia 1971, 9:3, p.212

4.4. Barrie Reed `Maker Signmaker' p.213. According to Robert Rooney (`The Australian', 12/11/88), this painting was `"said to be a `libel' by Mr J.Dillon, a member of the Victorian Public Service Board"'.

5.5. Letter to G.Johnson, 20/6/67, quoted Hemingway `Edwin Tanner' B.A. (Hons) thesis, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne, 1985

6.6. Letter to G.Johnson 20/6/67, quoted in Hemingway `Edwin Tanner'

7.7. `The Australian' 6/10/84

8.8. `ValJry as symbol' in Labyrinths New York: New Directions, 1984

9.9. Some of the points of view about Melbourne as `another place' have been presented in an article on local painter Louise Forthun: `Talking to brick walls' Transition 22/23, 1987, pp.90-94

0.0. `The Age' ?

1.1. p.220

2.2. Margaret Plant, `The Australian', 27/6/70

3.3. Maureen Gilchrist, `The Age', 20/10/76

4.4. `Melbourne Herald' 21/10/76. Strangely, exactly the opposite conclusion is reached by, Ann Galbally, who in reviewing Tanner's Powell Street show found that: `He is essentially a draughtsman, directing his art to the intellect before the senses' (`The Age' 24/6/70)

5.5. Professional Engineer June-July 1957, p.6

6.6. e.g., Michel Foucault The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception New York: Pantheon, 1973

7.7. `The Age' 24/11/65

8.8. `Canberra Times' 24/7/70

9.9. `Melbourne Herald' 15/7/71

0.0. `Images and Imagination'

1.1. `Images and Imagination'

2.2. `Images and Imagination' (handwritten chapter 3 `The Visual Atom')

3.3. Other responses include the dot as a: dot, lump, hole, spot, fly mark, pencil mark, tree.

4.4. The paradigm for this according to Tanner as Gulliver's adventures in Swift's novel.

5.5. `The Age' 3/5/67

6.6. `The Age' 26/7/72

7.7. In our world of the 1990s, the life of `red' is probably most evident in the machines left dormant at home where the glowing red dot is the sign that they stand ready to obey the touch of our finger. A similar scene is painted in the age before these machines by Rilke: `Today we had a beautiful autumn morning. I walked through the Tuileries. Everything that lay toward the East, before the sun, dazzled; was hung with mist as if with a gray curtain of light. Gray in the gray, the statues sunned themselves in the not yet unveiled garden. Single flowers in the long parterres stood up to say: Red, with a frightened voice.' (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910)

8.8. `Images and Imagination'

9.9. This is something Tanner refers to directly in his thesis, where he argues that those who inferred the political purpose of Red Line Nearly Missing by its presence on the left hand side missed the point that the line is really on the right hand side of the drawing's face.

0.0. A more extensive study of Tanner's work may benefit by a comparison with the thirteenth century Catalan theologian, Ramon LLull. Llull's mission was to convert the Saracens by the use of diagrammatic machines of logical combination which he hoped would compel conversion to Catholicism. Tanner underlined this passage in Gardner's book Logic Machines and Diagrams (New York, 1958): `There is no doubt that the use of strange, multicoloured devices threw an impressive aura of mystery around Llull's teaching...' Interest in Llull can be seen possibly in his Scheme for mural (1971). Like Tanner, red provided the positive accent of Llull's system. His square of elements assigned a colour to each of the elements: black = earth; green = water; blue = air; red = fire. Fire was the lightest of the elemental spheres. In the intellectual alphabet, red stood for falsehood, and blue for truth. As a power of the soul, red denoted forgetting, ignorance and hate.

1.1. `Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord Jesus Christ' trans. from Latin and French by Henry Beveridge, in J. Dillenberger (ed) John Calvin: Selections From His Writings Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975, pp.531-33

2.2. Cited in Hemingway `Edwin Tanner' p.37

3.3. Max Weber The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism trans. Talcot Parsons, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976, p.181

4.4. See the biography of Weber by Arthur Mitzman The Iron Cage New York: Grosser & Dunlap, 1969

5.5. #6.522

6.6. Likewise, in Philosophical Investigations (#124) where Wittgenstein writes that philosophy `leaves everything as it is', Tanner has annotated in green pencil: `NO'.

7.7. The significance of this comedy may be noted by a comparison with the French surrealist Raymond Roussel, whose writing often entertained the construction of complex fictional mechanisms. In his writing, though, there is a bare bones facticity with no smiles. Foucault evokes the scene: `The words conjure up a mundane world of things (the same things) from one shore to the other, often childish in thought, in feelings, and of familiar murmuring. Just like the hollowness that alienates a word from itself when repeated, the process springs from the mass of machinery never visible, but exposed without mystery to be seen.' (Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel New York: Doubleday, 1986/1963, p.113)