Max Meldrum (1875-1955), was a Melbourne artist whose portraits won the Archibald Prize on two occasions.
Meldrum established the Australian art movement that became known as ‘tonalism‘, in which light and shade were deemed to be as important as colour itself.
This article is about a very special piece of work created by Max Meldrum in 1921.
Unlike his Archibald prize entries, it was designed to create the least public interest possible.
When World War I veterans returned home, many had to cope with battle scars, both physical and psychological. For those with severe facial disfigurement, fitting back into society was an enormous challenge.
The repatriation hospitals did all they could to help. One man who assisted was Mr Bertram Nathan, an ex-serviceman himself. His own legacy of service was deafness, caused by chronic ear infections. Before his medical discharge at the end of the war Lance Corporal Nathan was granted extended leave in London to undertake training in the making of spectacles and ocular prosthetics.
In 1921 Nathan was called in to assist an ex-serviceman who had lost his left eye and almost half his face in a shell burst. A mask of the lightest, galvanized copper possible was moulded to cover the wound. It was then enamelled, An artificial eye was fitted. The man’s own eyebrow was then shaved off and reassembled on the copper.
No doubt because of his reputation for tonalism and portraiture in general, Max Meldrum was asked to colour the enamelled copper to match the remining part of the man’s face as accurately as possible.
When the work was complete, both Meldrum and Nathan walked down Melbourne’s busy Collins Street on either side of the soldier, who was wearing the mask for the first time. It was an emotional experience for all three. They reported that not a single passer-by looked at the man twice.
One of the pioneers of cosmetic masks was American born artist Anna Coleman Ladd, who worked with French soldiers. The following photo shows an assistant doing a final fitting at her Red Cross studio. The masks were held in place by a mixture of natural suction, unobtrusive strings and sometimes… spectacles.
The solution of a mask, even with the deft touch of an accomplished artist, would be considered crude by today’s standards. Thankfully there has been incredible advancement in facial reconstruction and plastic surgery. However in 1921 the combined skills of science and art gave a disfigured soldier self-confidence, dignity, and a chance to pass in the crowd.
In 1948, 72 year old Meldrum spoke out against those who valued artworks only by their price tags. He said, ‘Artists are like doctors – they price their work according to the need for it and the ability to pay. If someone just wants to boast that they have a Meldrum they jolly well pay for it. If they really appreciate my work I’m not fussy about the price. If I hadn’t been forced to earn my bread I would never have sold a single picture to vulgar collectors who don’t understand art. They would have been gifts to people who appreciated them. (News, Adelaide, March 11 1948)
Well, the ‘portrait’ the artist painted on copper for that wounded WWI soldier would have been appreciated as though it had been an Archibald Prize winner.