Leon Pericles, one of our State’s best-loved artists, has had a dream run lately.
As most of his followers know, Leon was recently honoured with an AM (a member of the Order of Australia). The news came just as he was readying to fly to Italy on another prestigious first; the opportunity to exhibit his works in Bologna. Its prominent art school, Accademia di Belle Arti di Bologna, was keen to learn how Leon, 74 does his editioning (the process of making a small number of his prints available).
The Starfish called in to see Leon – who in his lengthy career has hosted more than 160 solo exhibitions – at his East Perth home, just as he was readying to head south for the annual Margaret River Region Open Studios event.
(In 2019, ABC documentary Storm In A Teacup followed Leon and beloved wife Moira, his business partner for much of his career, who now has Alzheimer’s disease. Leon has raised more than $100,000 for the Australian Alzheimer’s Research Foundation and Dementia Australia.)
Leon, hi, what a year you’re having!
It’s been an incredible few months; amazing.
Tell us about the Bologna event?
It happened after received a letter from the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, inviting me to do an exhibition. How could I say no?
How were you treated when you got there; like a rock star?
Yes, it was nice, it was lovely! I spoke to the students in the most intimidating room; a 17th century church attached to the school.
You’ve exhibited in a few places but it was a first in Italy?
Yes. About 18 works were crated up and sent over.
The tradition of editioning is that each work has to be precisely the same – the same plate, the same everything. But you’re a bit more flexible with that concept. You paint and glue and the students hadn’t seen this before?
The students had not been taught or seen the concept that they might be able to alter their edition.
After seeing my works, some of the Bologna lecturers would say, ‘this is edition-able?’ They’d say, “We understand the etching is edition-able, but how are you getting these objects here? You don’t have 100 of these objects do you?” I’d say, “yes I do: I either get objects made up, or make them up myself.”
There’s a medical etching of mine called An Apple a Day, with an artificial heart – the world’s first artificial heart. I wanted it to be amusing: there’s pipes and bandages wrapped around it for a leak and all sorts and a passion-injector. That little thing’s got nuts and bolts; 30 or 40 little bits and pieces that had to be put together. I was asked, “are they all editionable?” I said, “yes, everything’s supposed to go in the same place.” And there’s badges and printing things and enamel clock faces and all sorts of faces and things.
So you collect lots of special items for your editions?
Yes, and some have been here since the 80s. All sorts of treasures. A couple of hundred tiny skulls, for example!
The students must have been fascinated. You’re an artist of many decades, how gratifying is it to suddenly have these honours thrust upon you?
This is the year of being feted. The medal and this! It’s an extraordinary thing to receive an AM, an amazing thing.
Tell us about the etching you did in honour of your wife, Moira?
This little etching we decided to sell, for the cause of dementia. I said, “Moi, this is an etching for you. The lighthouse represents you, how strong you are and how you are able to handle all of life’s traumas, including me.” The clouds are full of her music; she’s passionate about her classical music. The lighthouse is still on. Then down the side of the lighthouse is nautical code flags that spell Moira. The tree at the back represents continuing life. The little clothesline represents all the extra work wives and mothers always end up doing.
The flowers floating on the waves represent her capacity not to sink into depression.
So that went out at my retrospective exhibition in 2018. The edition sold out within 24 hours.
In a typical day, are you always creating?
Yes, always. I have so many things I want to do. I don’t ever sit down and ponder, “what will I do now?” Lately I’ve been preparing for Open Studios in Margaret River, frantically running around, and working on a biggish piece – which just needed a few bats on it! When I have an exhibition, I like it to have some really fresh, wonderfully exciting pieces of artwork.
Would you say your popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades?
There might have been a few dips! When I started, it was with a real bang, at the Parmelia Hotel back in 1970. I was still a student, painting these huge abstract pieces.
How did this come about?
I thought, I’d really love to do a big landscape exhibition, and at somewhere grand! At the age of 21, I made an appointment to see the manager of the brand new Parmelia Hilton, advertised as one of the world’s greatest hotels.
I walked in there, really anxious. There was this German fellow behind the table, quite cold and non-communicative. His name was Ralph Voigt.
I said, “I’d like to have an exhibition at the hotel.” No response. I said, “We’d like a certain number of works in your grand ballroom, so the whole place opens up to its full size.”
I said, “You’d need lighting and hanging rails and everything. And this equipment would be incredibly useful to you for other ventures in those rooms.”
But he heeded you?
In the end he did! Then Ralph Voigt asked, “Who would you be inviting?’”
I assured him, with confidence, “They’ll all be lawyers and doctors and professional people.” He said, “Where are you going to get them from?” I said, ‘The phone book!’ Back then, even this category of professional people, many had never been to an art exhibition. There were only five or six artists in Western Australia. I knew every one of them. Bob Juniper, William Boissevain – most of them are all dead now. This was back in 1970. We had Rose Skinner’s gallery, that was about it.
Did many of the works sell?
Yes! I was painting really romantic, heavily glazed oil paintings, all gold and yellow. It was a total sellout. The dancer Sir Robert Helpmann was staying at the hotel and he even came and checked it all out, with his entourage. At one stage he grabbed me and we danced together!
So right from the outset, fanfare?
Yes, it was a real hit. I had a great deal of problems tending to all the paperwork, and I’ve only recently found at that this was because I have dyslexia. Moira was the only one who knew. She was my big support.
Now you know you have dsylexia, do you think that’s affected the way you position things in your art, somehow?
I wouldn’t be surprised. I fill the space up with bits and pieces. I came on the scene just as Australiana did; people were being invited to “advance Australia.” There were huge programs to put Australia on the map. It was suddenly really out there, support Australia, buy Australia, and I just happened to be on that wave. Mums and dads were keen to buy something Australian.
And now, more than half a century later, you’re still going strong! But always surprising us.
Murray Mason, the former art critic for the West, once wrote “Would the real Leon Pericles stand up! Who are you?” It was because I’d painted so many styles. Some artists paint variations of the same thing all their lives. That’s not me.”
Well congrats on your successful year! Looking forward to seeing your work at Margaret River.