Clifford Bayliss was born in 1912 in the blue-collar suburb of Footscray, Melbourne, and despite a childhood marked by poverty, he enrolled in the National Gallery School in 1931. In 1935 he was awarded the school’s illustrious travelling scholarship. Under the terms of the scholarship, his painting Garden scene, 1936–40, a stylised depiction of people socialising in a public park, was presented by the artist to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1940. In 1936 Bayliss travelled to England, Germany and France, where he studied at the Académie Lhote and with the sculptor and painter Paul Jouve. Two years later he settled in London, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
Now considered an important Australian Surrealist artist, Bayliss did not work in a Surrealist manner when living in Melbourne or in his first years overseas. This shift in style coincided with his service at a fire brigade based in St Giles during the London Blitz, where he was exposed to the horrors of war during this period of unrelenting bombings of the United Kingdom by Germany between 1940 and 1941. Choosing a reclusive expatriate life meant his work did not have the same exposure as that of other artists, and when he died in 1989 his work was essentially unknown in Australia. Bayliss held only one solo exhibition during his lifetime – at Leveson Street Gallery, Melbourne, in 1965 – and oddly it appears he never exhibited in England. Instead, his income came from his work as a photography studio assistant and production assistant for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
The Surrealist movement was founded in Paris by André Breton in the 1920s and involved various artists, such as Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Henri Magritte, as well as writers and poets who all sought to convey through their art the imagination as revealed in dreams. This untitled painting by Bayliss was made during the 1940s, at the time when Surrealism had spread beyond France and was having a significant impact in England and Australia. Bayliss’s imposing and unsettling work depicts a naked woman in an interior of purple walls and cyan floor, her grey, despondent body in stark contrast to the intensely coloured room. Using one of the motifs we associate with the Surrealist style – the figure disguised – the woman’s face is masked by masses of long, dark hair, strangely transforming her exposed nipple into a substitute eye. A sheet wraps around her thighs and twists away from her body; on the table beside her lies an engorged, oversized hand reaching towards her, the fingertips hidden behind the wound-up sheet. This painting is closely related to a body of drawings that Bayliss produced throughout the 1940s and 1950s, which are characterised by a female nude entwined in sheets and feature an ominous and threatening masculine presence, bringing together Surrealist themes of the psychosexual and the female body within interior spaces.
This painting, along with a group of Bayliss’s works on paper, was owned by Antony Burrow, a London-based writer who ran a small literary magazine called The Glass. Burrow and Bayliss were not close friends; however, they frequented many of the same establishments and Burrow purchased Untitled, 1940s, from Bayliss after seeing it hanging on the walls of the Caves du France in Soho, a bar patronised by many artists and writers.
Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)