Garry Shead's interpretation of Ern Malley


As the years roll on, Ern Malley continues to rise in the cultural  landscape eclipsing his creators and sometimes even his raison d'etre. Surfing the web, one can find emulators and music groups, students of all sorts expressing fascination not always borne of knowledge.

It is mainly good. Max Harris held a profound belief that the brain needed constant tickling and provocation. The legacy of Ern Malley would seem to be just that. The arguments and analyses roll on - still as fresh as hot buttered toast.

From time to time, Ern is responsible for absolutely wonderful things in the way he stirs the cultural juices. There has been considerable meditation over the role he played in the creative life of Sidney Nolan, the artist who was there when Ern arrived. Malley haunted Nolan for the rest of his life and spurred some of Nolan's best art.  This is the old history.

Newsworthy today is the role Ern Malley has played in the creative life of Garry Shead. Shead is  distinctive contemporary Australian artist, an Archibald Award winner with a portrait of Tom Thompson, the very man who is guardian to and publisher of the Ern Malley poems.

SheadAs the synchronicities of life would have it, Garry Shead also has become a definitive painter of Ern Malley. He has produced  an extensive and astutely-observed series of works which thread their way through and around the figure of Ern and the imagery evoked by the poems. As Sasha Grishin puts it, Shead's  Ern is "a crucified saviour poet" .Shead depicts him with sad eyes and a crowned by a laurel wreath. Or are they olive leaves? Perhaps either and both, since Malley was created because Maxie had too many laurels. Malley was the hoaxer's bonfire for Max's perceived vanities, or charisma or IQ. Shead has imbued Malley with much of the look of Max - olive-skinned and velvet-eyed. And  yet he includes a separate Max in the major works - a Max most often carrying a book.

Shead has worked since 2003 evoking an inner life from the poems and creating a dreamily plausible visualisation of both the poems and the poet. The works have strong hints of Arthur Boyd, the artist who illustrated Max Harris's poetry in the famous Australian Letters series of aritsts and poets. There is sometimes a sense of Chagall, sometimes a little Bruegel..

The Apothosis of Ern Malley series of urns created by Lino Alvaraz, pinted by Garry Shead, 2003 (photograph Greg Weight)There are works in oil and ink. There are etchings and ceramics. Sometimes they are together -  line drawings inside a ceramic Ern Malley book. An extraordinary work of secret art hidden within art. Shead's meditations on the theme are so glorious and so expansive that they now are embellished by a definitive art book, a study of Shead's Malley works by art critic and academic, Professor Sasha Grishin.

The Apotheosis of Ern Malley by Sasha Grishin.!ProfessorSashaGrishin!_3120.aspx

The book continues to attract comment. Below are some of the reviews for Sasha Grishin’s The Apotheosis of Ern Malley.

by Larry Buttrose

Garry Shead
Our national yen for literary hoaxes would appear as powerful as ever. The longest-lived - and it would seem, best loved - of our literary frauds however remains that of Ern Malley. The hoax was perpetrated upon the doyen of literary modernism of the 1940s, the dandy Max Harris, by a couple of enlisted poets who reckoned poetry without your traditional rhyme and meter to be fit for little but the settees of poseurs and show ponies.
James McAuley and Harold Stewart concocted the poems as “a serious literary experiment” to see if the modernist push could discern “the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense”. But really it was a joke Joyce, intended to humiliate men in cravats.
Purporting to be the sister of the now-deceased Malley, they sent Harris a group of poems under the title The Darkening Ecliptic. He took the bait down the gullet, splashing news of the new poet Ern Malley across the Nolan-painted cover of his avant-garde journal Angry Penguins.
The gleeful exposure of the hoax detonated a depth-charge in the literary arts of the 1940s so powerful that ripples from it are still being felt today. Peter Carey revisited it in his novel My Life as a Hoax, and last year Griffith Review published six poems by John Stephenson written as new and previously undiscovered Malleys, as a humorous homage.
Artist Garry Shead has long meditated upon the hoax and the poems themselves - and as did Sidney Nolan with the Ned Kelly legend, and later Malley too - and produced a series of paintings from 2000-2006 just published in a book titled The Apotheosis of Ern Malley. (The book was first issued last year, but Shead was disappointed with the standard of reproduction, and it has now been re-released in a new edition.)
Shead - perhaps best known to the literary world for his 1993 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of publisher Tom Thompson as a quizzical Richard III - interleaves the original poems with paintings reflecting on their themes, and upon the act of concocting them by the uniformed servicemen McAuley and Stewart.
His works meld a poignantly passionate lyricism with wry wit and accomplished painterly panache. They are works too of a high romanticism, in which poetic endeavour triumphs over the meanness of the mundane world.
Shead depicts Ern Malley as a poet who, in Poem, 2006, sits enraptured in a poetic trance before his typewriter while a magpie flutters in with his laurel wreath in its beak, and a naked young woman lingers on his bed - an image of Keatsean romanticism down to the screwed up pages tossed onto the floor.
Meanwhile, in The Darkening Ecliptic, 2006, we have seen the uniformed soldier schemers McAuley and Stewart concocting their Malley verses while a woman (the Muse?) stands turned away at the window.
Depicted as a Christ-like figure, Ern Malley with his laurel wreath for a crown of thorns rises from death (and failure) in The Resurrection of Ern Malley, 2004, while the soldiers scarper from the room, and his verses are reassembled on the floor under the gaze of the seeming Muse.
As such, Shead has wrought from the Malley legend a figure of a poet who is mocked by the world, but who in the end triumphs from beyond death (and life) through his works. Bizarrely enough, McAuley and Stewart even presaged this in their own lines, “Now I find that once more I have shrunk/ To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,/ I had read in books that art is not easy/ But no-one warned that the mind repeats/ In its ignorance the vision of others.

To some people, the abiding appeal of the Ern Malley affair is something of a mystery itself, but at its core is a debate which for decades was hotly pursued in Australian artistic circles and has echoes today in various arguments about postmodernism: the entire modernist enterprise. McAuley and Stewart were poets who resented the rush and gush of modernism coming our way from Britain, Europe and US, in all its too-clever allusiveness, and, in the case of some works, its seemingly purposeful obscurantism.
The irony though is that in sending it up and humiliating modernism’s champions here, McAuley and Stewart created poems that transcended their own petty designs. Put bluntly, to many readers the Ern Malley poems are more resonant than any of the “serious” works of McAuley and Stewart. After all, Ern is still being read and discussed: they are not.
Indeed, the poems unwittingly question of the origin of creativity, and it would seem a fair hypothesis that in allowing themselves the liberty to “play”, and bypassing their own stylistic and conventional bonds, McAuley and Stewart penned works of lasting note despite themselves.
As Barry Pearce puts it in his Preface to The Apotheosis of Ern Malley, after quoting one of the poems, “Who cannot be startled by the electric edge of such lines? These pithy, cobbled together phrases plucked randomly from dictionaries, science journals and even throwaway lines by Shakespeare, are as intriguing as fragments of the unconscious aesthetic of nature laid out on a laboratory table and arranged with a fresh, free-associating eye. Something new was made.”
In his Introduction, Sasha Grishin, the Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History at ANU, reflects on the issue of authorship raised through the Ern Malley episode, remarking “What does it mean to be an author? Does it matter that there may be uncertainty as to the exact identity of the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon? Does it matter that none of Shakespeare's original dramatic manuscripts has survived in an autograph copy?” And here of course we come full circle back to postmodernism, to Barthes and his “death of the author” and his “tissue of quotations”.
Thus we have the irony of two “bored Sydney poets” who wrote all sixteen of the Malley poems “on a lazy Saturday afternoon in October 1943”. How could they have known that in spite of their actual intentions they were creating poems which Professor Grishin remarks “are some of the most famous and controversial poems to have ever been published in Australia, and have received widespread recognition internationally.”
The irony is that the larrikins who created Ern Malley were conservatives, not radicals; that they were trying to resist change, instead of creating it. The irony is too that without them exposing their hoax, the poems would have subsided into the pages of an obscure literary journal of 1940s Australia, and, like nearly all poetry ever published, lie forgotten amid its brittled pages.
In engineering the hoax, and then in exposing it, they created Ern Malley, and they made us look at “his” poems. Yet he does not exist - he never did. Who was he then but them, McAuley and Stewart, aspects of themselves they were afraid of, or discounted, even despised; their creative selves who despite themselves conjured the ghost of a “deceased” nonentity, and through his voice uttered their most enduring verses.
What better figure, then, for an artist to invoke in paint, a literary phantom whose works came to dwarf their puny creation? No wonder Shead draws upon religious iconography in some of the works of this book - and little wonder too in its title. No wonder either that some of the most arresting works depicted are Shead's beautifully decorated ceramic urns.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 13-14 June 2009.
Larry Buttrose is  one of the founders of a new online literary publication. THE GROUP is devoted to new writing, fiction and nonfiction, essays and journalism, poetry and beyond. Curated by a roster of some of Australia's best and boldest writers, each edition delivers quality new work from Australia and abroad. Foundation members include John Birmingham, James Bradley, Larry Buttrose, Billy Marshall Stoneking and Mark Mordue. Membership is free and open to all. The magazine appears bi-monthly

Review of Sasha Grishin's book by John McDonald in Quadrant, June 2009:Co-hoaxer James McAuley
A Princeton professor of philosophy, David Lewis found an intriguing link between Ernst Mally and Ern Malley. Mally, he writes, was an Austrian philosopher who worked on Alexius Meinong's theory of non-existence objects and therefore was a non-existent object. Lewis believes the hoaxers, or at least McAuley, may have been familiar with this fairly obscure reference. A theorist of non-existent objects as namesake for a non-existent object.  Mally, who is quite well-documented these days, was of German socialist leanings and was a powerful anti-semite. Lewis does not extrapolate on these facets in his short article, published in Quadrant  in 1995. Quadrant, the Australian literary quarterly, was in fact, once edited by McAuley. Interestingly, the hoaxers more likely could have gained reference to Meinong and non-existence from the precocious young Max Harris  who had, indeed, read the philosophers all. Occasionally throughout his life he opined on the philosophy of non-existence albeit he identified himself among the existentialists - Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Buber and Kafka. They, of course, were part of the path to modernism.


Cordite - the Australian publication of Poetry and Poetics - experienced an historic eruption of Ernery It generated a new legacy in the form of of Ern Malley's fictitious  children. For a sickly man who died young, he was highly fecund, it  seems. The Cordite children are many. And, of course, he also left a cat.

Cordite's explosion of Ern Malleys is the fruit of many sporting poets. They created a litany of fakery which Cordite then systematically exposed. All the literary fun of the fair - and some quite nice poetry.


In 2009, the Heide Art Museum in Melbourne chose to make a celebration of Ern Malley.
A special exhibition has been mounted, arraying Malley-belia from all over the country.

Ern Malley: The Hoax and Beyond curated by Kendrah Morgan and David Rainey ran from July 22 to November 15, 2009.

Heide was the home of John and Sunday Reed, the place where Max Harris spent so much of that feisty Angry Penguins time along with Sidney Nolan. They were the inner sanctum of that period, the Malley core, so to speak. All were deeply affected by the hoax albeit that the Malley poems were not originally sent to Heide but to the Angry Penguins office. This office happened to be in Adelaide where, when Harris was in Victoria with the Reeds and Reed & Harris, it was manned by business manager Mary Martin. Hence, the famous Ern Malley court case was held in Adelaide.

Heide, however, was one of the crucial elements which led to the birth of Ern Malley. That intellectual and arts enclave, that precocious modernist Harris with his friend, partner and mentor John Reed, that hothouse of ideas at that arty farm... These were part of the burning resentments and jealousies of A.D. Hope and the two hoaxers he encouraged.
Hence, Malley keeps a literary foot in that Heide door - and now has his day, more than 60 years later.


Into the new millennium, Ern Malley has come to rest in the front of the national mind whenever the word "hoax" is used. In 2012, when a fairly silly commercial radio prank turned into an international headline  tragedy, the ensuing analyses were swift to bring up the greatest  precedent. This is a very well-written synopsis of the Ern Malley affair in New Matilda by Robbie Swan.