Sunday, December 03, 2006
It must be 50 years since I visited Heide, the home of John and Sunday Reed, just outside Melbourne. It was a home-away-from-home for my parents in the 1940s and, indeed, I was conceived there.
Through my childhood, we returned for visits with the Reeds and I established a strong friendship with their adopted son, Sweeney. None of them is alive today - not even sweet Sweeney, who committed suicide in 1979 when I was still living overseas. By then our contact had become sporadic - but my affection towards him never had dimmed. In childhood, he just a year older than I, he had been a hero to me - a superhero, even, since he liked to take on that guise, wearing a red cape and assuming the role of my protector. When he locked me in the cat house at Heide, the grownups were very upset. I was not in the least perturbed, however. I was in there for safekeeping. Sweeney had put me in there to make sure no harm came to me and nobody could take me away, since it was his intention that I stay with him.
He would, to my shock, sneak into his parents' bedroom and steal money from Sunday's purse - to take me down to the shops and buy all sorts of forbidden sweets which we would devour with unspeakable relish in the shade of the orchard trees. And we would play fleet-footed, highly-imaginative games through gardens and orchards. We would dress up and role play. He would lead and I would follow. With his mop of unruly blond hair, he was the most beautiful boy in the world - and the most daring and dangerous. A wild child. My friend.
To me, Heide is all these memories. I remember the well-scrubbed and busy kitchen with Sun, who seemed so tall and austere and yet was warm and affectionate. I remember John, who was more remote - and his library, cosy and full of talking. They were interesting grownups and I remember quite a few people always seemed to be around when my father came to visit - the exotic, arty highbrow variety of grownups who had always been part of my environment. Wine-drinking, smoking, lively and loquacious grownups.
I also remember cats and gardens and even sitting around the table eating, my mother fussing around helping Sun.
Yesterday I returned to Heide - and there was nothing left.
Oh yes, the old farmhouse still stands. It is called "Heide 1". But it is empty - a shell with polished floors and odd things on the walls, an ugly gallery. There is a particularly cruel portrait of Sunday and another of John which does not look much like him. And white canvases with signatures and bits of quotes hanging on walls. One room was a mass of positively hideous murals!
The library still is walled with books, but I could see none of the period. Not a single book published by John Reed in his own library! How unlikely! How atypical! Reed & Harris were prolific and adventurous publishers in the 1940s, the heyday of that house's illustrious history. That was when Sid Nolan was burgeoning, after running from the army under an assumed name, and where he created a something akin to a maison a trois with Sun and the hapless John.
It was to Heide that John brought my father so that, together, they could produce "Angry Penguins", the modernist magazine my father had been editing in Adelaide...and the house breathed poetry and prose and art - and a very healthy vegetarian diet, which was Sunday's rule. Nolan and my father used to sneak off to the nearest pub to get meat fixes - very secretly. There in that old farmhouse, my father had his special writing place, allocated by John. Sid had his painting place...and used many places. And everyone read voraciously - and discussed in earnest the world that they were changing.
Sunday's kitchen was a heart to that house. But now? In a supposed shrine? It is gone.
What is called the kitchen is nothing like the kitchen. What is called the cat house is nothing like the cat house. I could not find the orchard, or the pond. I did find a lot of carparks.
A friendly volunteer guide took us to a rather well hidden sculpture which is known as "Sweeney's Keepsake". It looked a bit like a gallows hanging a red heart. Sweeney did not hang himself, as I understood it. He took pills. I did not like the memorial. But at least there was one.
There is little else which revives any memory of the people of the house. The same photo of Sun, John, Sweeney and cats is posted in a couple of places.
I heard a woman guide telling her group how Sunday so loved cats that she kept 40 of them. Rubbish. Maybe six or nine I recall. Sunday was not ga-ga. But what would these people know?
The Reed property has been turned over to the celebration of two Angry Penguins painters, Sid Nolan and Bert Tucker. They are the two primary modernists associated with Heide. And, where once they were Angry Penguins painters, they are now "Heide Movement" painters. For there is absolutely no inclusion of Angry Penguins at all in the modern Heide. It has been excised from the history. There were only painters in this version of Heide. Not all the painters, either.
I hunted high and low to find a Joy Hester or a John Perceval or a Vassilieff. I finally found a Vassilieff and some Boyds in Heide 2, the Lloyd Wrightish modern house the Reeds briefly inhabited on the property. This modernist building they sold to the Victorian government not long before they died. They wished it to become a modernist gallery. And it is. But now there is also Heide 3, a harsh, angular barn of a gallery which is filled with a glory of Nolans and Tuckers - some good, some not so good.
There is also a cafe on the grounds - part marquee, with a public convenience beside it. It serves trendy cafe cusine, its token to the Reeds the use of bone-handled knives and apostle teaspoons. But Sunday would shudder at all the meat on the menu. Oh dear.
For several hours I wandered the grounds and buildings, seeking something, anything that would meet my memory. Despite the carefully-kept gardens and the happy parties picnicking in the parklike grounds, I found a souless place - a grotesque theme park of modernist art. The only moment of ease, undestroyed by the Melbourne art machine, was the meandering bend of the Yarra River down in the wild native groves at the end of the property.
To me, the Heide empire is a travesty. It has lost its spirit, the sense of the human and creative vibrancy. It is now just a place.
And I have to wonder by what misguided agenda was Angry Penguins excluded from its history? It was so important at the time, so vital to the emergent arts and ideas. It was one of the significant ingredients of Heide and the birth of modernism in Australia.
They display Nolan's cover for famous Ern Malley edition of Angry Penguins in the gallery - but they do not mention its provenance. Its role with the most infamous journal in Australian history has been censored out. It is just a picture.
So, I suppose I could also say there is a streak of dishonesty in the place.
I will cherish my memories of Heide - but I shall never return.