Bulleen, 1940-something. Behind the facade of a humble farmhouse, a key movement in Australian art history was underway.

The house, known as Heide, was the home of John and Sunday Reed. Sidney Nolan painted some of his finest work in the dining room there. Joy Hester and Albert Tucker often visited. Poetry was written. A garden was tended. Extramarital lovers came and went. The tight-knit artists’ circle would later be known unofficially as the Angry Penguins. The name comes from a young poet, Max Harris, who was editing an irregular journal with the unusual name in Adelaide. Harris got involved with the Heide set and would visit the Reeds often. Angry Penguins turned into an essential record of the emerging Modernist movement in Australia.

Heide’s show, called simply Making History: The Angry Penguins, charts the Modernist movement in Australia and the Reeds’s involvement. Heide in the ’40s is a much-told story, but this exhibition expands on it. It was a period of artistic and literary experimentation, and the Heide house was right at the centre of it.

The house is an exhibition space showing works from the Angry Penguins collection. It was startlingly new at the time: a glimpse at an alternative Australia free from the constraints of traditionalism. The horror of the geographically distant war permeates each work.

In the dining room there are Arthur Boyd and John Perceval’s pieces depicting lovers, cripples and performing dogs in an elongated, chaotic nightmare. Further into the house, Joy Hester’s explorations into the naive and primitive – almost always rendered in ink and wash – are startling and unnerving; Albert Tucker’s paintings turn vaudeville into horror; and Sidney Nolan opens up landscapes from the confines of reality into bright vistas.

The work stands on its own, but the setting brings it to life. Seeing some of the works in the very place they were devised and painted gives the show a depth of time.

On display alongside the artworks are original editions of Angry Penguins, and books and photographs that colour in the period. Albert Tucker’s photography is candid and varied, giving us a much better picture of the period than the usual bland portraiture. Aside from the handful on show here, there’s a complementary exhibition of Albert Tucker’s photographs in Heide III, the latest, most imposing building on the site.

Making History: The Angry Penguins is open until November 6, 2016.

heide.com.au/exhibitions/making-history-angry-penguins

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