This is a splendid, richly detailed biography of the iconic Australian artist Martin Sharp. He was the co-founder and principal cartoonist at Oz magazine, a song-writing partner to Eric Clapton, the producer of many famous pop, and much more.
Joyce Morgan, former Sydney Morning Herald arts editor and journalist, interviewed artist Martin Sharp frequently and intensively during the last decade of his life and unearthed a fascinating, complex man – from his involvement with Tiny Tim and Luna Park to Arthur Stace’s Eternity landmark scrawl, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the Sydney Opera House.
Morgan also uncovers information about Sharp’s part in architect Jorn Utzon’s secret departure from Australia in 1966 and his eventual re-connection with the Sydney Opera House.
Morgan’s book starts begins by creating a vivid portrait of Sharp’s early life. Sharp was an only child who grew up in privilege and attended private school in Sydney. At school his love of creativity and painting was encouraged by a very supportive teacher by the name of Justin O’Brien.
Eventually Sharp pursued art full-time, tranversing both high and low art. With his cheeky, provocative sense of humour he didn’t escape controversy most notably in the early to mid-sixties, when he and his Oz magazine co-founders Richard Neville and Richard Walsh were subjected to two obscenity hearings as a result of which they were briefly jailed.
The resulting courtroom dramas as described by Morgan is viewed as a contemporary social parable of the Philistines of moral conservatives pitched against the artists and heavyweight intellectuals. Amongst these John Olsen compared Sharp to Hogarth.
Sharp eventually left Australia to live in the UK. He arrived in London during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and was able to meet and mix with various celebrity artists and musicians.
At this time he created many psychedelic works, notably Seventeen Minutes to Four and he allowed people to sojourn at his home at The Pheasantry. (Sharp continued this flexible, fluid living arrangement on his return to Sydney, including his final home, Wirian.
Morgan follows Sharp as he jumps between New York recording studios, Kings Cross coffee shops and ramshackle London mansions, sporadically taking a sabbatical to recharge in the Balearic Islands.
His glamorous, sometimes dangerous world included top models and major rock stars , gurus, fraudsters, petty criminals and cultural agitators.
There is also mention of a Japanese woodblock print, which may or may not have been the work of Hokusai, which Sharp discovered in Paris in 1972 and greatly treasured yet was later lost at Tokyo airport.
The 1970s, with Sharp returned to Sydney, saw him collaborate with other Australian luminaries such as Brett Whiteley, George Gittoes, and Peter Weir.
At Wirian, where Sharp lived and worked till his death in 2006, he entertained the likes of David Gulpilil and Princess Eugenie.
Sharp was responsible for repainting the face of Sydney’s Luna Park and the preservation of the site. His association with the amusement park as its artist in residence became a responsibility that weighed heavily on Sharp – he was consumed by guilt when seven people lost their lives on the ghost train ride fire in 1979.
This troubled obsession, coupled with a growing religiosity became evident in his art. In his later years, Sharp blended intense self-examination with a determination to share his conclusions, perhaps sometimes unwisely. Sharp’s legacy – his vision and its impact – remains perhaps capricious, even enigmatic.
Morgan has excellently woven together various events and places Sharp in historical context as well as highlighting the continuing legacy and importance of his work.
The publication is a small-to-medium sized book, rather thick, with both black and white and colour illustrations and an excellent index.
From the perspective of the second decade of the 21st Century Sharp can be viewed as one of the first and finest post-studio, multi-disciplinary artists.
When he died, Sharp was described as ‘a stranger in a strange land who left behind a trail of stardust.’, a fitting description of a mercurial man. Joyce Morgan’s biography is a fascinating insight into the life and times of this singular, iconic Australian artist.