Love and Pain Neglected for decades, Joy Hester's art explores human emotions with an unflinching eye

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Joy Hester's images of love and loss still crackle and burn. When art historian Janine Burke first came across Hester's then forgotten work while curating a 1975 show on Australian women artists, "it shocked me," she says. "It was so raw and so powerful and expressive. It took me a while to get used to it. And then, seeing more of it, I was amazed at the integrity of the vision."

Ignored in her lifetime (1920-1960) and neglected until Burke's 1981 retrospective, the art of Joy Hester remains an acquired taste. More seductive has been the frame of her life. "I took one look at this gorgeous blonde and that was it," Angry Penguin artist Albert Tucker recalled of meeting Hester, his future wife, then an 18-year-old art student. "You are father brother lover and husband," Hester later told Tucker, six years her senior. They were the Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes of Melbourne modernism, rubbing shoulders with Sidney Nolan at Heide, the wartime artists' retreat of Angry Penguin journal publisher John Reed and his wife Sunday. Then in 1947, Hester ran off with artist Gray Smith, gave up her son Sweeney for adoption, and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. The impulse to escape, she told Sunday Reed, had been with her "ever since I was a little girl." So Hester fled the pages of Australian art, her work remembered as but a footnote to her life and growing myth. "Joy Hester the person has had a very good airing," says Heide Museum of Modern Art curator Kelly Gellatly.

Enter the artist. With two concurrent shows, Hester's work is coming under the spotlight. To be launched this week by former colleague Mirka Mora, the National Gallery of Australia's "Joy Hester and Friends" seeks to reposition Hester at the center of two artistic movements, the social-realist Angry Penguins of the 1940s, and the figurative Antipodeans of the 1950s. "Leave No Space for Yearning: The Art of Joy Hester," at Heide, meanwhile, is something of a homecoming for Hester, with a newly discovered sketchbook and drawings from the Tucker estate showing her to be a tireless refiner of lifelong motifs and symbols. Together, the two shows reveal an artist of hidden depths, whose best work has an emotional intensity unmatched in Australian art. Says the NGA's senior curator of Australian painting and sculpture, Deborah Hart: "It is really as if Hester's time is here."

What marginalized Hester was in large part her choice of medium. As a student at the National Gallery School, she quickly discovered that painting killed the nervy impulses that electrified her art. For the rest of her life, she devoted herself almost exclusively to drawing-with brush and ink on paper. It was a choice that would seal her immediate fate: artistic suicide. And a predicament neatly summed up in Fun Fair, c. 1946, in which the figure of a woman faints before a Nolanesque Ned Kelly mask. Australian art favored men like Nolan who made big statements about national identity on canvas in paint.

If the Angry Penguins described a social world riven by war, Hester charted more intimate emotions. She wasn't interested in the cities and streets and dark moral clouds that hovered in Tucker's Images of Modern Evil series, but instead zeroed in on the human face. In A Frightened Woman, 1945, inspired by the documentary footage she had seen of the Nazi death camps, all the war's horror cartwheels in the victim's eyes. Hester was unusually attuned to pain and suffering-the world's and her own. The Cocteau-inspired figures from her Incredible Night Dream series, c. 1946-47, with their writhing bodies and distended necks, hauntingly evoke the night sweats that came with the onset of Hodgkin's disease. Her next series typically cut to the bone. With her own face often masked in rubber for radiation treatment, these Faces are reduced to pairs of eyes boldly outstaring death. Hester's was never an art of victimhood.

If Hester confronted death for 13 years, she never stopped questioning life. Like her contemporaries Patrick White and Russell Drysdale, Hester sought salvation in the Australian bush, moving between Hurstbridge and the Dandenongs in rural Victoria. But her artistic search for identity was less mythic and more personal. Where in the Love series, c. 1949-50, her balloon face floats and merges with that of Gray Smith, six years later, in Lovers [II], it cranes and flexes free. Hester would bear two more children, and her images of motherhood are just as ambiguous. In Mother and Baby, 1955, her stalk-like eyes regard her cradled child Fern with a mixture of wonder and wariness-a sense that what is held to the heart could just as easily be snatched away. With Hester's heightened sense of mortality, even Girl Holding Flowers, 1956, takes on a sense of urgency, as if she could be drawing her last breath.

Forty-one years after her death, Hester's drawings still suck the oxygen from the air, providing some of the clearest-eyed images in Australian art. "All the while time stands, to me, still," she wrote to poet Barrett Reid. "Straight up and down like a great white sheet." Across this her brush danced mordantly, sometimes tenderly, always darkly.