Noel Jack Counihan (1913-1986), artist and revolutionary, was born on 4 October 1913 at Albert Park, Melbourne, and registered as Jack Noel, second of three sons of Victorian-born parents John Henry Counihan, salesman, and his wife Jessie Pritchard, née Evans. Conflict between his Catholic father and Protestant mother, caused in part by differences over religion and in part by his father’s drinking habits, resulted in an unhappy childhood. In 1921-27 he attended St Paul’s Cathedral School and sang in the choir. A year at Caulfield Grammar School followed, after which he found work as an office boy.
At age 16 Counihan joined the evening classes at the National Gallery of Victoria’s drawing school. He became associated with the left-wing `painters, writers, journalists, musicians, teachers, medical students and doctors’ who met in the workshop of William Dolphin, a talented stringed-instrument craftsman; the group included Herbert McClintock, Judah Waten, Roy Dalgarno and Brian Fitzpatrick. Counihan later described the circle as `the final expression of old Melbourne’s bohemia’. He recalled that as a chorister he had been required to sing on special occasions, `Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us’. Because he was on the worst possible terms with the father who had begotten him, Noel came to regard Bill Dolphin as his `spiritual father’, and he absorbed the older man’s `profound hatred of all that was mercenary and predatory in society’.
Young Counihan read Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Gorky, Bukharin, Marx and Engels. Appalled by his politics, his father burnt many of his books. Noel left home and his job, and `dossed down’ in the Workers’ Art Club. He drew pencil-portraits and caricatures for a living, joined the Communist Party of Australia as Noel Cunningham, and took part in political demonstrations. On the evening of 19 May 1933, locked in a cart to impede arrest, he addressed shoppers in Sydney Road, Brunswick, on the sufferings of the unemployed. Arrested and convicted, he appealed, won on a technicality and was released. The event became legendary in the fight for free speech during the Depression.
In 1938 Counihan was a foundation member of the Contemporary Art Society (Australia). Next year he sailed for New Zealand intent on selling drawings to the press and saving for a trip to Europe. He obtained employment as a clerk and, following the outbreak of World War II, became involved in the local anti-conscription campaign. On 21 May 1940 at the registrar’s office, Wellington, he married Percivale Mary Patricia (Pat) Edwards, a graduate of Victoria University College and a fellow communist. In June he was arrested and deported to Australia. Between November that year and Easter 1941 he was a patient at the Gresswell Sanatorium, near Melbourne, recuperating from tuberculosis.
Encouraged by Josl Bergner, Counihan began to paint. Early works, such as `The New Order’ (1942), carry a potent, anti-fascist message. But, dissatisfied with such a direct approach, he turned to personal recollections of the Depression, as portrayed in his masterly `At the Corner of Nightingale Street’ (National Gallery of Victoria). His `Miners working in Wet Conditions’ (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) won first prize in a major exhibition, Australia at War, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1945. Next year he, Bergner and Victor O’Connor exhibited at the Myer Art Gallery as `three realist artists’, seeking to affirm their social realist position and their discontent with trends then prevailing in the Contemporary Art Society.
In 1949 Counihan was an Australian delegate at the World Congress of Peace held in the Salle Pleyel, Paris. He arranged for a message, signed by Picasso, Pablo Neruda, J. D. Bernal, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Marcel Gromaire and André Fougeron, among others, to be sent to Australian intellectuals urging them to support the conference. Addressed to Vance Palmer, it was never received.
Counihan assumed that it had been intercepted by Australian intelligence authorities and destroyed. Between May and October he visited Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, where he worked for some months as a graphic artist and befriended the American artist William Gropper. Moving to London, he lived with his wife and their two boys for two years at the Abbey Art Centre, New Barnet. He drew caricatures for the Daily Mail and, later, cartoons for Public Opinion. He also produced a notable series of linocuts, published— with related poems by Jack Lindsay—as War or Peace (1950?). In 1951 Counihan held an exhibition of his drawings at the Irving galleries, Leicester Square.
Back in Victoria from 1952, Counihan lived in the Dandenongs and painted in Tom Roberts’s former studio at Kallista. In 1956 he visited the Soviet Union. While there he met many younger Soviet artists and criticised the older academicians for vulgarising realism. Home again, he and his family settled at Canterbury, Melbourne. He won the (George) Crouch prize for 1956 with `On Parliament Steps’ (Ballarat Fine Art Gallery). Two years later he started painting local `pub’ life, winning (1958) the John McCaughey memorial prize with `After Work’ (National Gallery of Victoria). In 1960 he visited the Soviet Union again, for an exhibition of Australian realist art which also included work by McClintock, O’Connor and James Wigley. During the 1960s he painted many pictures based on the condition of Australian Aboriginal people. He also produced a series of mother-and-child paintings, an image he used to express his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1969 he toured North America and Europe; in Mexico he met the artist David Siqueiros and in Poland found new inspiration in folk carvings.
On returning to Australia in 1970 Counihan began a series of self-portraits. These and his `Laughing Christ’ paintings brought a new expressive force to his work as revealed in a major exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute Gallery, London, in 1973. Earlier that year Eric Westbrook, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, had mounted a large retrospective of his oeuvre in the face of criticism from the staff and trustees either that it was insufficiently `modern’ or that its subversive nature might bring the gallery into disrepute. Westbrook found an ally in Professor (Sir) Joseph Burke, who opened the exhibition and whose opinion carried weight with most trustees. Counihan’s acceptance as a major Australian artist was further enhanced by the decision of Melbourne University Press to publish (1974) Max Dimmack’s monograph on him.
In 1980 Counihan and his wife spent some months at Opoul, near Perpignan, France. There he produced a memorable series of drawings of peasant life, later transformed into lithographs. The Opoul work, exhibited in September 1981 at Realities Gallery, Toorak, demonstrated that his realism had lost none of its force and had gained greater subtlety of expression. During the show he was asked to talk about his art: `My work is … my personal response to life and it involves response to shape, form, colour, living people, human relations, nature in toto … my problems became more and more complex as I went on’.
John Hetherington described Counihan as a tall, slender, active man who gave the `appearance of wiry strength’; he had `searching blue eyes, a long upper lip, a tight mouth, and a chin with an aggressive tilt’. Counihan died on 5 July 1986 at Canterbury and was cremated. His wife (d.2001) and their sons survived him. Over three hundred friends attended his memorial service at the Camberwell Civic Centre. The Moreland City Council established the Counihan Gallery at Brunswick in 1999