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The Human Calculator

JW Power
John Wardell Power was an Australian artist whose geometry-inspired paintings saw him join the avant-garde scene in 1930s Paris, after giving up a career in medicine in 1924.

The artist JW Power wrote that when he was “too worried to draw or paint”, he “got hold of an algebra book and a penny notebook and worked at the binomial theorem and exponentials”.

Power studied mathematics as part of his medical degree at the University of Sydney, and retained a love for the discipline throughout his life. He graduated as a doctor in 1905, two decades before becoming a modernist artist in Paris. When his remarkable bequest to the University was announced in 1961, it was accompanied by a gift from his widow, Edith Power, of more than 1000 of his works, from which most of these works are drawn.

All works are by JW Power, born 1881 Sydney, lived England 1906–20, Paris 1920–29, Brussels 1920–39, died 1943 Jersey, Channel Islands, UK. Unless otherwise indicated, all works are from the Edith Power bequest, 1961, University Art Collection.

Power was fascinated by geometry, particularly by how certain rules of proportion informed visual perception. In his art you see instances of limbs, torsos and costumes teased from a series of broken triangles and circles that demarcate the underlying structure of a painting.
Dr Ann Stephen, Senior Curator, University Art Collection

Featured image (top of the page):  J.W. Power, Ogee panel (geometry) c.1930, oil on board, 45.7 x 94.7 cm, Edith Power Bequest 1961, The University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art.

Object Matters podcast

Curator Dr Ann Stephen discusses JW Power's Femme à L’ombrelle (woman with parasol)

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