This evening, George Gittoes receives the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize award and presents the annual Sydney Peace Prize lecture in the Sydney Town Hall. This is the first time this Prize, Australia’s only international prize for peace, will be awarded to an artist. Significantly, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney holds the most important collection of Gittoes’ early works – centred around Gittoes’ renowned Yellow House Puppet Theatre.
The Sydney Peace Prize
Since its establishment in 1998, the Sydney Peace Foundation has encouraged people to think about the meaning of peace, justice and alternatives to violence, presenting an annual Prize for contributions to (a) the achievement of peace with justice; (b) the promotion and attainment of human rights; (c) the philosophy, language and practice of non-violence.
This year, David Hirsch, Chairman of the Foundation affirmed, ‘George Gittoes is daring, brash and irreverent – qualities Australians identify with. He is also generous, open-minded and compassionate – qualities … which have been in short supply in recent years.’
The Peace Prize jury citation notes: ‘For exposing injustice for over 45 years as a humanist artist, activist and filmmaker, for his courage to witness and confront violence in the war zones of the world, for enlisting the arts to subdue aggression and for enlivening the creative spirit to promote tolerance, respect and peace with justice.’
Yellow House Puppet Theatre collection
The Yellow House opened to the public on April Fools Day 1970. Gittoes started creating the Puppet Theatre in 1969. Operational from 1969 to the beginning of 1972, activities peaked during the Spring Show of September 1971. The vibrant, polychromatic Theatre (recreated in 1990 for the 20th anniversary) features painted walls, ceiling and floor in an Islamic psychedelic style. It was one of a number of ‘art rooms’ created for the Yellow House artist collective located at 59 Macleay Street, Potts Point, Sydney.
‘My sole aim at the Yellow House was to create total art environments with the all round impact of an Islamic mosque. I wanted the ability to link symbols, colours, shapes and ideas, to have them flow around and over the viewer, inseparable from one another. I became Kadir, the Sufi puppeteer and worked there with mimes and clowns to entertain audiences.’ (Gittoes, 1990)
The Museum’s collection reflects activities in the House and Gittoes’ abiding passion and interest in figurative and expressive art. It features the Theatre reconstruction, photographs, over 20 paintings (including self portraits like that shown above), the Hotel Kennedy Suite etching series, puppets and props. George’s mother, ceramicist Joyce Gittoes, helped make the puppet costumes and created surrealist ceramic forms for the House. I interviewed George when the works were acquired into the collection in 2009 and he reflected back on activities at the Yellow House Puppet Theatre.
‘When I created the Puppet Theatre, I called it ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell after Blake’. The puppet trunk was incredible. I made the lid. It’s got a lion’s head at the front made out of fibreglass, a tail and also hands – like puppeteer’s hands on the side. The puppets were kept in it. Often Julian the mime used to get inside, open the lid and come out of the puppet trunk.’ (Gittoes, 2009)
During the heyday years, puppets were used on a daily basis in the Theatre. Many were two faced. Importantly the plays reflected Gittoes ongoing interest in tragedy and conflict.
‘I love history. I’d done ancient history at school and it always fascinated me – this conflict between the Persian world and the Greek world, the Peloponnesian wars and all that stuff. I love mythology. I love Greek theatre. The Perseus myth is really important to me. At High school I started studying Islamic art and by the time I hit the Yellow House I had read Islamic literature like Rumi and the great poets. It delighted me that Sufi’s did teaching stories with puppet plays.’ (Gittoes, 2009)
The ABC made a film in 1971 titled ‘My puppeteer’ showing Gittoes and his girlfriend Marie Bower performing a puppet show titled ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
‘I was doing about three shows a day. I did a series of shows about artist’s wives. They were the most popular shows of all. One famous story was Joy Hester – the one Australian wife story I told. She had a tragic story. Everyone was talking about it because she committed suicide. It was kind of tragic for me too because my girlfriend (Marie Bower) at the time also committed suicide.’ (Gittoes, 2009)
Many of Gittoes early paintings and artworks drew on personal experience. Others, like the small decorative Islamic-inspired works, were studies or mediations on how to create the Puppet Theatre. In the end though, Gittoes felt the Theatre itself was far better than any of the paintings.
‘It developed, it became more figurative, and the paintings were exhibited in the Yellow House on the wall outside the Puppet Theatre.’ (Gittoes, 2009)
Gittoes is an ‘edge walker’. His work is often confronting. These days, as a recent press release notes, as well as holding painting retrospectives and producing films in zones of conflict, Gittoes undertakes peace-promoting activities in Afghanistan through the Yellow House Jalalabad: ‘At great personal risk from the Taliban, he has established this new Yellow House artists collective modelled on the original. Its mission is to bring peace and positive social change, not with weapons of war but with a broad range of creative media and strategies.’
Word on the ground is that the main dance during the Sydney Peace Prize lecture will not necessarily be Gittoes on stage, but a huge War puppet endeavouring to destroy a Peace puppet.
Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator
G Gittoes, ‘The Yellow House 1970-1972’, AGNSW, 1990, p.50.