Ann Thomson at Ninety by Terence Maloon

“Painting is a medium in which the mind can actualize itself. It is a medium of thought. Thus painting, like music, tends to become its own content.” – Robert Motherwell[i]

“Vital organisation is the frame of all feeling.” – Susanne K Langer[ii]


Ann Thomson celebrated her ninetieth birthday in October 2023. Born in Queensland in 1933, the daughter of a prominent Brisbane bookseller, she was genteelly brought up but was given plenty of leeway to express her natural physical exuberance. At her school, Somerville House, all of her art teachers (Caroline Barker, Patricia Prentice, June Meek, Betty Churcher) were practicing artists; they not only stood as role models for their young pupil, they recognised Ann’s talent and encouraged her to consider art as her life’s pursuit. In Anna Johnson’s monograph on Ann Thomson there is a photograph of the teenaged Ann leaping down the side of a sand dune – an image that reveals the high-spiritedness of her character. Such physical vigour has come to define her painting idiom, an idiom that has never stood still, never lost its momentum or intensity, and has grown more robust and fearless with the passing years.[iii]

The French painter Jean Bazaine believed that painters were born old and only achieved the quality of youthfulness as a reward for the devotion of their labours: “Youthfulness in painting is slowly attained. It is granted as a reward to the old-timers who merit it. You need to drink long and deeply of the milk of life before it starts to go to your head.”[iv]

There is an interesting gloss on Bazaine’s statement by the Swiss polymath Valérie Zuchuat, who wrote the following: “The painter is not old because of his or her memories, but above all because of rules followed and lessons learnt, all the forms of defence – the ultimate in education – erected against the fear of losing oneself in the throes of creation… Gradually liberated from these constraints, the painter allows what he [Bazaine] calls ‘the genius of childhood’ to emerge. What is this genius? Desire? An innate disposition to create? An instinctive openness to the world? A talent one doesn’t yet know? No doubt it is something of all of these at once.”[v]

That makes perfect sense in regard to Ann Thomson’s extraordinary achievement over the last decade and a half. Manifestly able to “lose herself in the throes of creation,” she also manages to regain and to re-impose her composure and lucidity quite infallibly, seeming to land true time and again, apparently with the minimum of struggle and effort. “Painting is composition,” she says matter-of-factly, and what we witness in her work is composing-in-action, composing in the heat of the moment, as performed by an inveterate and virtuosic improviser.

At the age of ninety she certainly qualifies as a young artist according to Bazaine’s and Zuchuat’s criteria. In fact it was around 2008 that one began to notice signs of change in her work, which was growing wilder, freer and stronger. And not just that: those paintings of hers were resoundingly well resolved and unified, impressive not only in their bursting vigour, but in their abundant surprise and delight. To my eyes Ann’s paintings were becoming younger than ever. I hope that the trajectory traced by this survey exhibition will convey this realisation to our gallery visitors.


“Painterly painting,” “action painting”, “abstract expressionism”, “painterly abstraction”, “painterly improvisation”, “gestural painting” – these are time-honoured art-historical terms that are associated with Ann Thomson’s idiom, all of them implying that, before we see anything else in a painting, we will notice the medium; we will appreciate its materiality; we will see the masses of colour and tone, distinct brushmarks, rhythms, pulsations…. and while those attributes may not always be representational in intent or in effect, sometimes they are.

Heinrich Wölfflin was the Swiss art historian who first defined the painterly mode in his classic study, Principles of Art History published in 1915. Here Wölfflin distinguished the painterly from a linear mode. Neither could simply be ascribed to an artist’s stylistic choice –because, he argued, each mode corresponded to a particular world-view. The painterly mode relates to a state of affairs where “everything is in transition” and the constituents of a painterly image sometimes have “an unbounded character [like] the unfettered elements in a wild game.” Details and local centres of interest are deliberately de-emphasised in the painterly mode so that the vibrancy of the picture as a whole can command a viewer’s full attention.[vi] Ann Thomson exemplifies “painterly painting” for our time and place, just as Velásquez and Goya, Monet and Cézanne, Pollock and de Kooning did for theirs.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Ann Thomson’s teachers – Jon Molvig, John Passmore, Godfrey Miller and John Olsen – were charismatic figures who had a lasting impact on her outlook and orientation. Individually and collectively, they promoted a painterly sensibility in what was then an “advanced” modernist idiom, an idiom analogous to and receptive to contemporary developments taking place abroad. Ann’s sporadic visits to Ian Fairweather on Bribie Island and her conversations with Tony Tuckson (who was an occasional visitor to the East Sydney Tech when she was a student) served to reinforce the courage of her convictions and to confirm the direction her art was taking.[vii]

If we compare/contrast Ann Thomson’s lifetime achievement with those of her teachers and mentors, her independent qualities and strengths become toweringly apparent – especially in regard to her recent works, where there seems to have been a quantum leap between then and now, as well as between them and her.The dynamism and the impression of immediacy conveyed by her paintings, her excellent judgment of scale, the rigour and clarity of her approach to composition, the visceral intensity (the sheer gutsiness) of her idiom, her fluency, the variety and lively unpredictability of the results… all these qualities serve to emphasise the magnitude of her independent achievement. In addition, there is what Jean Bazaine called “the genius of childhood” which is writ large all over her studio walls in a teeming abundance of works on paper which exude the freshness, quirkiness and spontaneity of kindergarten drawings, yet are ultimately the work of someone with a canny, sophisticated eye for composition.

It is a striking fact that among some of Ann’s teachers and mentors there was a deep ambivalence towards abstraction and even a dread of it. In Murray Bail’s monograph on Ian Fairweather, he cites Fairweather’s dark mutterings to the effect that abstraction was a bridge too far, a dangerous pitfall for a painter – yet Bail does not question the reasoning behind those statements, nor does he acknowledge their puzzling absurdity – because Fairweather was more or less categorically an abstract painter and, historically speaking, the emergence of abstract art – or, more significantly, the emergence of an abstract way of seeing was one of the defining conditions of “modern art.”[viii]

It may be that Fairweather’s nervous mistrust of abstraction arose from his objection to “purism” – i.e. to the notion that abstract art was not just non-representational but was anti-representational, hyper-formalist, excessively “intellectual”, etc. This line of thinking bore a similarity, perhaps, to Picasso’s much-publicized broadsides against abstraction in the 1950s, notwithstanding the fact that Picasso’s art, like Fairweather’s, was obviously informed by and predicated upon an “abstract way of seeing.” Strange to say, both artists chose to denigrate and obfuscate the very factor that made their paintings distinctively modern, and they were far from alone in doing this.

Ann remembers Fairweather telling her that, “I always start with a subject,” from which she deduced that for him a “subject” could be a simple pretext in making a start to a painting or drawing, and that it could sink into unintelligibility and irrelevance once “the painting took over.”[ix]  John Olsen is also on record having said: “I have never painted an abstract picture in my life… To begin with, I always have a subject.”[x] Yet content and subject-matter are not the same thing in painting, as the American critic Clement Greenberg pointed out: “Every work of art must have content, but subject matter is something the artist does or does not have in mind.”[xi]  Subject matter is something consciously chosen, it is a priori, and it persists when the work is completed, whereas a painting’s or a drawing’s content may be discovered in the process of creation: it is something that can only be known and shown “after the fact”. The philosopher Susanne Langer is virtually unique among her peers because of her superb understanding of the role of abstraction in artistic creation. She emphasised “the importance of abstracting the form, banning all irrelevancies that might obscure its logic, and especially divesting it of all its usual meanings so it may be open to new ones.”[xii]

Sweeping movements of the brush become the main compositional forces in Ann Thomson’s recent paintings. Generally speaking, all of the structural elements relate to the gauge of her brush and each brushmark links up with the other brushmarks and with the developing image as a whole. The essential element in these paintings functions as a kind of hyphen. The French word for hyphen is “trait d’union” – a line that links. For Ann Thomson the art of composition involves the multiplication of such linkages, sowing the maximum interconnectedness in bringing an image together. (“The whole thing is to put in as much rapport as possible,” Cézanne famously explained.)[xiii] Much of the subtlety and skill of her art consists of achieving the maximum integration of parts while avoiding gridlock, retaining a sense of spreading light and circulating air, of spaciousness and ease. After all, an image needs to breathe.

Among Ann’s most influential predecessors and interlocutors, it was John Passmore and Tony Tuckson who were least apprehensive when it came to making something out of nothing. They were fearless at the prospect of throwing themselves into the void and losing themselves in the throes of creation.  No doubt both would agree with the contention that painting is a medium of thought which tends to become its own content. For Passmore and Tuckson – as for Ann herself – representation and abstraction could never be antagonistic terms, because there is a continuum stretching between them. Along the continuum, abstraction is a matter of degree, a matter of emphasis.

Ann’s communication with John Passmore continued long after she ceased to be his student. He would invite small groups for evening conversation to his little flat in Challis Avenue. We know from Yvonne Audette, another of Passmore’s high-achieving students, that Passmore conflated “subject” and “content” in his theoretical ideas about art. He encouraged his students to “consider the subject of their paintings not only a connection of rods, but also a collection of facets and a creation of geometrical shapes and ratios.”  Always returning to his role model, Cézanne, he proposed that tone and structure were not just a painting’s content but could be its legitimate subject.[xiv]

Passmore based many of his aesthetic convictions upon his decades-long study of Cézanne, especially focussing on Cêzanne’s watercolours and late landscape paintings. Many of the late landscapes that Passmore admired were “unfinished,” yet were in a thrilling state of suspended development, having a freshness and vibrancy that could knock most other paintings into the shade. Despite their being unfinished, or maybe because of it, some of these compositions had a formal cogency and an air of sufficiency and completeness which would have convinced Passmore (as it did many others) that they were a kind of proto-abstraction.

The afterglow of Passmore’s formative influence on Ann, as well the inspirational DNA he channelled from Cézanne seem to have re-surfaced in a significant way, still very much alive and kicking in Ann’s recent work. Pinned to her studio wall is a postcard of Cêzanne’s River Bank 1904, from the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design – exactly the type of Cêzanne painting that Passmore would have adored. There are no lines, no explicit drawing, no independent entities, no objects and no details in this painting. The composition is entirely developed out of a mesh of brushmarks which creates a polyphony of silky, radiant, singing hues.

Late in life, in 1896, Cêzanne met Joachim Gasquet, the son of one of his old schoolfriends. Gasquet published a famous memoir in 1921 in which he reconstructed one of Cézanne’s conversations:

“A motif, you see is that,” said Cézanne, holding up his hands and weaving his fingers together. “There can’t be any weak link [in a composition] that will allow the emotion, the light, the truth to escape. Try to understand this: I work the whole canvas at once, altogether. I gather everything that is scattered in one co-ordinated sweep. I take from left and right, from here and there — from everywhere – colours and nuances, and I fix them, I relate them to each other. They make lines. They become objects – rocks, trees – without my intending them to do so [sans que j’y songe]. My canvas is a joining of hands: it is true, dense, full… Art is a harmony parallel to nature.”[xv]

Every point in this conversation that might have struck Cêzanne’s contemporaries as most outlandish, misguided and crazy has turned out to be among the sanest, most down-to-earth, most prophetic things he ever said. The method of composing he described to Joachim Gasquet is precisely how legions of twentieth-century artists who came after him have approached their paintings.  The most striking aspect of Cêzanne’s declaration is, of course, the revelation that representational aims were so much played down in his creative process: they were deferred and suspended to the point that the description of features of the landscape became a more or less inadvertent by-product of his procedure: rocks, trees and other entities would coalesce “without my intending to do so.”

The philosopher Susanne Langer has said that, in Cézanne’s case, “the transformation of natural objects into pictorial elements took place in his seeing, in the act of looking, not in the act of painting” – which is surely correct. “In his analysis of the object seen he expresses the principle of space construction to which his paintings bear witness… Cézanne was so supremely gifted with the painter’s vision that to him attentive sight and spatial composition were the same thing. Virtual space was his mind’s habitat.”[xvi]

Given the overwhelming abundance of proof that surrounds us, we are forced to acknowledge the fecundity, the longevity, the profound creativity, the beauty and excellence that have arisen from the historical implantation of an abstract way of seeing – whose consequences continue to generate plenty of new evidence for our eyes, pending our appreciation and understanding.

In Maria Stoljar’s video, “Ann Thomson in her ninetieth year,” Ann muses about “creativity” and how it remains a mystery to her:

“Creativity: it’s that possibility of taking yourself further and going into the ‘other’ – that’s what I call it… If I have a painting that I can change, it starts to give me a direction, it starts to do itself.”

“It’s really the way I look at landscape, some of it: not looking straight at things, but looking down and up and through … under water.”

“I think my work comes from imagination and memory.”[xvii]

[i] Robert Motherwell in Dore Ashton and Joan Banach eds: Writings of Robert Motherwell, University of California Press, 2023, p 32.
[ii] Susanne K Langer: Feeling and Form (1953), Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited, 1973, p 126.
[iii] The photograph of Ann leaping is in Anna Johnson: Ann Thomson, Tim Olsen Editions, 2012, p 35.
[iv] Jean Bazaine: Le temps de la peinture, Flammarion, 2002, p 150.
[v] Valérie Zuchuat: “Jean Bazaine: le regard d’un peintre sur la peinture,“. Équinoxes, Brown University, Providence, Spring/Summer 2004. Also online:
[vi] Selective quotes and paraphrases from Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, trans Jonathan Blower, Getty Research Institute, 2015, pp 104, 110, 144.
[vii] Ann discusses her visits to Ian Fairweather on Bribie Island, accompanied by her husband, the photographer Robert Walker, on Maria Stoljar’s podcast Talking with Painters Ep 36: Ian Fairweather (part 2): Ann Thomson,

Ep 86: Ian Fairweather (part 2): Ann Thomson

She remembers going for dinner at the Tuckson home in Wahroonga and being shown paintings in the studio at a time when Tuckson was still an “underground”, non-exhibiting artist.
[viii] For the historical development of “an abstract way of seeing”, see Terence Maloon et al, Paths to Abstraction, exh cat, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008.
[ix] Recounted in Maria Stoljar’s podcast, see endnote viii.
[x] John Olsen quoted in Graeme Sullivan: Seeing Australia, Views of Artists and Artwriters, Piper Press, 1994, p 105.
[xi] Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940) in John O’Brian ed: Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism (4 vols 1986-1993), University of Chicago Press, vol 1, p 28.
[xii] Susanne K Langer: op cit, p 59.
[xiii] Paul Cézanne, letter to his son, 14 August 1906, in Paul Cézanne Correspondance, ed John Rewald, Bernard Grasset, 1978, p 321.
[xiv] On Passmore and Yvonne Audette, see,and%20structure%20onto%20his%20students.
[xv] Joachim Gasquet: Cézanne (1921), Cynara, 1988, pp 130-31.
[xvi] My italics – “virtual space” is a key concept that Langer develops at length in her book. See Susanne K Langer: op cit, p 78.
[xvii] See the video “Ann Thomson in her ninetieth year”,

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