Madonna Staunton by Elspeth Pitt
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
As an artist, Madonna Staunton took time to find her way. She began as a painter of expansive gestural works, but as her health failed, she turned to collage. This is largely the art for which she is now recognised.
Untitled 1973 is not typical of her early collage which tends to be smaller in scale and of softer palette. But its implicit energy suggests that by the early 1970s, she had found a form of art‑making that both suited and inspired her. The daughter of an artist‑poet and a book trader, she drew material from her immediate surrounds, perhaps with the idea to make work that spoke candidly of life. Her favoured items—coloured paper, ephemera, objects loved then overlooked—say much about her. In one sense, gathering up the discarded was an act of self‑identification. In another, it was a way to distil the life most essential, the one truly lived as opposed to that desired. Staunton herself described her art as ‘an environment poetical, ironic, wistful … the interplay and relationship of associated objects; the dislocation of association, suggestion, memory and whim’.(1)
Untitled achieves something of this breathtaking embrace of idea and feeling. But as often in her work, there is tension between the world from which she gleans her material and the interior realm through which it is funnelled; while the touch of matter grounds her to start, it becomes something less explicit when held and rotated in her mind. This quality reflects the discord Staunton seems to have felt when moving through the world.
Compelled by love and struggle, her work is tempered. Ideas are established then undercut. Her use of colour gives the impression of joy and spontaneity but persistent looking reveals it as predetermined rhythm. Here Staunton operates in ambiguous terrain, between the whole and the broken, concurrently putting together and prising apart.
Her art has been described as ‘austerely beautiful’ and while giving a sense of sometimes fleeting composure it is rarely polished.(2) In an interview with curator Peter McKay she described the creative life as one ‘full of insecurities and potholes’ in which she constantly feared to tread.(3) Despite this, she went on. In a remarkable poem titled The small garden, she reflected: ‘I wanted above all to be left in peace, alone with my wonderings and speculations, contented as a child folding a square of paper to make a paper plane.’(4) In its best moments, her work attains this sense of freedom, quietude and release.
(1) Madonna Staunton in Elwyn Lynn, Contemporary Australian collage and its origins, Craftsman House, Roseville, 1990, p 148.
(2) Timothy Morell, ‘Madonna Staunton’, at artlink.com.au/articles/2421/madonnastaunton/, accessed 27 October 2019.
(3) Madonna Staunton interviewed by Peter McKay, ‘Madonna Staunton: Out of a clear blue sky’, at blog.qagoma.qld.gov.au/madonna-staunton-outof-a-clear-blue-sky/, accessed 27 October 2019.
(4) Madonna Staunton, ‘The small garden’, in Colours of camouflage, SweetWater Poets, Wavell Heights, 1982, p 17.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Pitt, Elspeth. "Madonna Staunton" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 338–339.
ELSPETH PITT is Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra