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Roland Wakelin was a New Zealand born artist who came to Australia in 1912 at the age of twenty five. One of the main reasons for his migration was to enrol in the art classes conducted by Datillo Rubbo at the Royal Society School in Sydney. He attended these classes for three years from 1912-1914. Fellow students included Roy De Maistre, Grace Cossington Smith and Norah Simpson. De Maistre and Simpson were to prove important associations within the context of Wakelin’s future career as a painter.
It was Simpson who was responsible for introducing Wakelin to the works of the French Modern Masters. During a trip to London, studying at the Westminster School in 1912, she had become friendly with artists of the Camden Town Group, including Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman and Charles Ginner - these artists had in turn educated her in the paintings of the modernist movement in Paris. On her return to Sydney she had circulated prints of Modernist French Painting through the classes run by Rubbo at the R.A.S.. Wakelin was greatly influenced by this contact with French painting - in particular he fell under the spell of Cezanne who was to be the seminal aesthetic inspiration for the course of his life.
Wakelin’s association with De Maistre was to provide for one of the most important collaborations ever in the history of Australian art. Both artists held a fascination for the work of Cezanne and the French Impressionists. As early as 1916 De Maistre had exhibited impressionist paintings concerned with the effects of light. In 1917 De Maistre had met Dr Charles Gordon Moffit from the Kenmore Hospital at Goulburn, with whom he worked devising a "colour treatment" for shell shocked soldiers by putting them in rooms painted in soothing colour combinations. This led to an interest in "colour-music"; the relationship of colour harmony to musical harmony. De Maistre shared these ideas with Wakelin and they worked together to devise a "colour-music" theory which led to their ground-breaking 1919 joint exhibition, held in Sydney, titled, "Colour in Art". This exhibition has since been recognised as being the first manifestation of pure abstract painting in Australia.
From 1922-1924 Wakelin lived in London, working in advertising. From London he made three trips to Paris where he was able to further his interest in Modern French Painting first hand. Returning to Sydney in 1925 he held an exhibition, largely influenced by Cezanne, at the Macquarie Galleries. He was to hold regular exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries for the rest of his life. Wakelin joined the Contemporary Group on its foundation in 1926, where he exhibited in their first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, Sydney, in the same year. The Contemporary Group was established by George Lambert and Thea Proctor to help counter the prevailing local taste for academic art, early members included De Maistre, Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston.
Roland Wakelin was an iconic figure in the Sydney Modernist Movement. He had a long career, exhibiting regularly at the Macquarie Galleries and the N.S.W. Society of Arts. He was also honoured with a large retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1967. Held in all major Australian collections, his paintings are much loved icons of modern Australian art.