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Posted December 13, 2009


“You thought the leaden winter/would bring you down forever/but you rode upon a steamer/to the violence of the sun…”

If the only contribution to culture Martin Sharp had ever made was the above lyrics to Cream’s Tales Of Brave Ulysses (and The Word Flashed Around The Arms, his hilariously accurate 1960s Oz magazine spoof on Sydney Northern Beaches party culture which could have been written yesterday, as little has changed) he should have been placed on the National Trust’s Australian Living National Treasure list years ago!

But as the long-overdue retrospective of his life and art Martin Sharp Sydney Artist (which has just opened at the Museum of Sydney) attests, my favourite Martin has punched far above his weight for five decades. Count them: from the Oz years of the 60s and the Yellow House, Tiny Tim and Nimrod Theatre 70s to the Eternity and Luna Park years of the 80s, his iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House images of the 90s – and, most recently, his wonderful portrait of David Gulpilil and commentary on our treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters.

Don’t get me started on why Sharp is as important to pop culture as Warhol (and may have predated him in some of his images!) and is a better artist (hell, he does his own work rather than farming it out to acolytes!). Or why it is a crying shame that so few Aussies outside (or even inside of Sydney) seem to know his name, let alone his work!

Perhaps it’s because although he has produced images for a wide range of clients – everyone from bands to theatres to the Festival of Sydney - over the years, Sharp has never chosen to commercialise his work a la Warhol, and rarely sells his original pieces.

Born into a wealthy Eastern Suburbs family (he still lives in the family home at Bellevue Hill, right next to the school where he was sent as a boarder!), he has enjoyed the luxury of having security but not smugness, as the pithy social commentary seen in the many Oz magazine cartoons on show attest. And while he and his fellow Oz mates were an integral part of Swinging London from 1966 onwards, he and they were as capable of taking the piss out of the flower child/pothead culture as they were of politicians and police.

While in London, Sharp provided his one-time flatmate Eric Clapton’s band Cream with two album covers which definitely deserve the over-used term “classic”. Best-selling poster images of an exploding electric Hendrix (based on a Linda McCartney photo) and numerous Oz posters heavily influenced by (and often including images of) his all-time muses Van Gogh and the Surrealists also represent this era.

If for no other reason, visit this exhibition to see them - and take the kids: even if they are too young to pick up on the psychedelia and pop, they will love the collection of vintage Mickey Mouse toys – and a piano to play on! (On the day I visited, a small girl was happily picking out Mary Had A Little Lamb while adults browsed the art around her…)

The most poignant image in the show is Sharp’s cross-shaped tribute to the victims of the Luna Park Ghost Train fire. Sharp (who redesigned the iconic Smiley Face) and colleagues such as the equally undervalued Peter Kingston were major players in the hard-fought campaign to save the Park from being demolished for yet more harbourside high-rise (development pressure a reason, many believe, behind the unsolved fire).

A comparison of his happy Park images and his Moloch horror painting in which the Smiley face is now a Halloween night fright mask, dark and leering as flames lick in the background brings reflection on the still current battle in the Harbour City between devotees and developers, artists and accountants, the public good and political greed.

Brickbats: The only criticism I would make is that the merchandising for the show seems ad hoc and minimal: postcards, a tea towel, but no posters under $600(!) and no catalogue that I could see. There is talk of selling the promotional flags fluttering in the streets around the Museum, but SURELY someone could have come up with an affordable poster celebrating the retrospective, or even a reprint of previous work?

Bouquets: The exhibition runs until the end of March next year – and a little birdie told me Martin has said he plans to regularly change the (minor) exhibits so it won’t get stale. For $10 admission (included in museum entry) I’m planning to be a regular!

The Museum of Sydney at the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets (near Circular Quay) is open Monday to Sunday 930am to 5pm for $10 entry ($5 concession card holders or children) $20 families. Phone 02 9251 5988. Website:


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