Bruce Armstrong, Sculptor – Captivating Creatures at the NGV

Bruce Armstrong 1
Bruce Armstrong 1

Bruce Armstrong in his studio, Photo: David Hurlston

Now on show at NGV Australia, Federation Square in Melbourne until January 29, 2017, is an anthology of strange creatures all created by Australian born artist Bruce Armstrong, they are completely captivating.

Armstrong has been a master of great sculptural works for public spaces from 1970 to 2016.

Bruce Armstrong 2

Bruce Armstrong Noir Bird Man 2 2007, painted Cypress, 200.0 x 100.0 x 100.0 cm Private collection, Melbourne © Bruce Armstrong

He has an extraordinary ability to reveal the inner essence of his subjects, giving birth to beauty of form from his creative ideas, which are very appealing.

Gaining a glimpse of the sculptor’s process will be revealed through the preliminary models of Armstrong’s works on display.

The exhibition is a major survey of Bruce Armstrong’s imaginary and mythological figures, which have many precedents in history from gargoyles to gryphons, from heraldry to folklore. This is a show for the whole family, and it’s FREE entry.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, ‘Armstrong’s sculptures are at once commanding and playful, contained yet expressive’ he said.

He observed that ‘This will be a rare opportunity for visitors to walk amongst so many of these other worldly creations by one of Australia’s most acclaimed sculptors.’

Eagle Large

Bruce Armstrong Detail: Eagle (Bunjil) 2002, Red Gum, aluminium, steel, fibreglass, 2260 x 350 x 450 cm, Collection of the Victorian State Government (Places Victoria) © Bruce Armstrong

Bruce Armstrong’s ‘Eagle’ (2002) today stands some seven storeys high (25 metres) and is located at rest overlooking the busy Docklands area of Melbourne.

It is the largest of his public sculpture commissions to date and much admired.

Eagle Long

Eagle (Bunjil) 2002, Red Gum, aluminium, steel, fibreglass, 2260 x 350 x 450 cm, Collection of the Victorian State Government (Places Victoria) © Bruce Armstrong

While its form adheres to the notion of a simple aesthetic, in reality its monumental physicality is an extraordinary display of power.

The eagle’s mastery of the birds of the skies has always meant he has through history remained a symbol of authority.

He has the power to garner our attention and to make us pause and reflect on how to tap into our own inner strength and fortitude.

He is a nice metaphor for this landmark show. There really hasn’t been anything quite like it before.

Melbourne based, born and educated in fine art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Bruce Armstrong is represented in collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, and the NSW and Victorian state art galleries.


Bruce Armstrong Guardians, maquettes 1986, Red Gum (a-b) 28.7 x 42.4 x 19.3 cm (each) Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Bruce Armstrong

His pair of ‘beasts’ fashioned from Red Gum in 1986, which used to flank the entrance to the NGV’s main gallery are now in its ‘backyard’ sculpture garden and sure to gain many new visitors after they view the working models.

His Crocodile (2000) made from painted Cypress could nearly be described as cute, which is far removed from what the reptile itself is. Perhaps he caught it on a good day.

Bete Noir

Bruce Armstrong, Bete Noir 2012, bronze, 156.5 x 63.5 x 67.5 cm, Collection of the artist, Melbourne, © Bruce Armstrong

His Bete Noir (2012) another interesting and more recent work, is fashioned from bronze the preferred material of ancient sculptors.

This reveals an aspect of all his work, embracing opposite emotions.

It depicts a bear like creature hugging a human being from behind, which besides being menacing, is also welcoming and could be said to be ‘protective’ too.

It’s an interesting aspect of museum’s today that visitors are not encouraged to touch works at all.


Bruce Armstrong Guardians 1987, Red Gum, (a-e) 204.4 x 307.3 x 118.4 cm (overall) (f-j) 171.0 x 307.5 x 137.4 cm (overall), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Presented by the Bardas Family as the winner of the Bardas Family Sculpture Commission, 1987 (S11.a-j-1987) © Bruce Armstrong

This is because the oils we contain in our fingers can build up and damage great art over decades.

Bear & Honey

Bruce Armstrong, Speculum (or Bear) 2012, painted Cypress, gold leaf, 140.5 x 52.0 x 74.0 cm, Collection of the artist, Melbourne, © Bruce Armstrong

People are known to react to Bruce Armstrong’s timber works giving them a fond pat, or stroking them much like they would a favoured pet.

For Armstrong’s timber models however this would mean exactly the opposite, because the danger for timber is just like a good piece of antique furniture, when the timber they are made from loses the moisture content that helps to keep it viable, the grain shrinks. By giving into their temptation to touch his timber works, visitors could be said to have in many ways contributed to helping preserve his figures for posterity.

It’s perhaps lesser known Bruce Armstrong was a finalist in the Art Gallery of NSW Archibald Prize in 2005, with his self portrait holding a falcon on his arm. An idealisation of himself, while austere and calm it’s also enigmatic; showcasing his ability to display a duality of emotions.

Armstrong 2005

Bruce Armstrong, Self portrait 2005, oil on composition board, 192.0 x 129.0 cm, Collection of the artist, Melbourne, © Bruce Armstrong

If this is Bruce as he was at that time, for me it speaks to him emerging from a difficult period in his life he wanted to leave behind. A way to do this would be to come to terms with ‘knowing thyself’ so that you can come out from behind the mask so many artists feel compelled to wear, in order to operate in the real world.

It’s a well-known trait or characteristic if you like especially of performance artists, who find it easier to change into a ‘character’ role by putting on a wig, or make up or some other aspect of clothing for the personality they are to portray.

Bruce Armstrong’ strange creatures are his contribution to his own after life, and it seems no co-incidence to me that he uses sculptural techniques honed in Ancient Egypt to produce them.

Bruce Armstrong Sculptures at NGV Australia

Installation view of Bruce Armstrong: An Anthology of Strange Creatures at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 26 August 2016 – 29 January 2017. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Indiana Jones would dearly love them as indeed I do… sculpture for me, being at the pinnacle of what is possible.

Think I will hop on the next tram.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

Installation 2

Bruce Armstrong at Bruce Armstrong: An Anthology of Strange Creatures at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 26 August 2016 – 29 January 2017.

Bruce Armstrong: An Anthology of Strange Creatures
August 26, 2016 – January 29, 2017

NGV Australia
Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square


The exhibition will be accompanied by a lavishly illustrated publication featuring insightful texts by exhibition curator David Hurlston, and Ted Gott.

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