Murray Griffin’s legacy in Australian printmaking

Murray Griffin’s legacy in Australian printmaking history is a captivating narrative of artistic brilliance. His unique fusion of vibrant colours and intricate techniques made him a remarkable figure. In the exploration of Murray Griffin’s work, we uncover the multifaceted nature of an artist whose contributions continue to leave a fixed mark on Australian printmaking.

MURRAY GRIFFIN (1903-1992) Blue Parrots c.1955, linocut, ed. 20/23, 27.5 x 35.5cm
PROVENANCE: The Estate of Murray Griffin

Born in Melbourne, Griffin’s artistic journey began at the Melbourne National Gallery School shortly after World War I. He experimented in printmaking during the 1920s, with the encouragement of fellow artist, Napier Waller, and gained early recognition with one of his monochrome prints finding a place in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection (The Lodge Bridge, 1922). In 1930, Griffin’s horizons broadened when he discovered the works of Austrian artist Norbertine Von Bresslern-Roth. Bresslern-Roth’s dynamic and inventive colour linocuts, often featuring birds and exotic animals, were exhibited in Sydney and left a profound impact on Griffin’s approach to using birds as ideal subjects for his colour linocuts.

Griffin took a more dedicated approach to printmaking in 1932, expanding his technical skills and rapidly establishing a solid reputation for his work. Griffin’s prints were not only striking in their size and vibrant colours but also significant in their multifaceted approach. The hallmark of Griffin’s linocuts was his unique technique of cutting away blocks after each colour application, ensuring the edition’s limited production.

He combined the features of modern relief printing – colourful, decorative, and highly designed works – with complex tonal representational images. This innovative approach appealed to both modernists and traditionalists, catering to a broad inter-war market.

He introduced his first set of colour linocuts to the public at Seddon Galleries, Melbourne, where he received a notably positive response. Motivated by this, Griffin delved further into perfecting his skills in the medium. His dedication paid off and within a short span of five years, his prints had earned their place in the collections of three state and two regional galleries.

When World War II commenced, Griffin’s artistic activity was interrupted. He was appointed an official war artist and sent to Malaya. Griffin was taken as a prisoner, where he took part in the sixteen-mile march of prisoners to the Changi Point area. It was at Changi where Griffin spent the remainder of the war, documenting the day-to-day activities and the ingenuity of the prisoners in surviving the appalling conditions. While his linocut production briefly paused during this tumultuous period, it resumed with renewed vigor after his return to Australia as a celebrated artist.

MURRAY GRIFFIN (1903-1992) Bird of Paradise c.1970, linocut, ed. 13/30, 34.5 x 45.5cm
PROVENANCE: The Estate of Murray Griffin

After the war, Griffin’s dedication to printmaking continued, and his depictions of birds became even more pronounced in his post-war prints. What set his compositions apart was his take on the subject matter, often featuring off-centered single birds or pairs, partially cropped – a wingtip, claw, or tail feathers hidden. By doing this, he skillfully maintained intrigue and prevented the image from descending into an illustration. As he stated, his prints were, “not illustrations of birds because if they wanted pink tails I gave them pink tails and they probably didn’t have it.”[1] An example of these distorted hues is especially seen in ‘Bird of Paradise’ (lot 30, November Prints and Multiples 2023)

Griffin’s influence extended beyond his prints as he continued to exhibit both prints and paintings from the 1950s to the 1980s, adhering to his pattern of showcasing them both separately and together. The most significant event in advancing recognition for prints and printmakers came in 1963 with the ‘Australian Print Survey’, organised by Daniel Thomas from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This comprehensive examination of printmaking in Australia toured extensively across state galleries. It was during this exhibition that an example of Griffin’s ‘Blue Parrots’ (lot 28, November Prints and Multiples 2023) was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, marking a pivotal milestone in his career.

Murray Griffin’s innovative contributions to linocut printing and the endurance of his artistic legacy have earned him a well-deserved resurgence of interest in recent years. Through exhibitions, permanent displays, and the expansion of institutional collections, Murray Griffin’s artistic brilliance and remarkable journey continues to shine as an indelible part of Australian art history.

HANNAH RYAN, Prints and Multiples Specialist

[1] Bunbury, A., 1998, The Graphic Journey: Murray Griffin Linocuts, Vol. 1, Chapter 3, Colourful and marketable art works, p. 46

Banner Image (detail): MURRAY GRIFFIN (1903-1992) Bird of Paradise c.1970, linocut, ed. 13/30, 34.5 x 45.5cm.
PROVENANCE: The Estate of Murray Griffin | $1,600-1,800

November 2023