Art as a means of self-perfecting
2020, 76x76cm, Digital collage on fine art paper
“For lucid Ern, ye penguins, weep no more:
Henceforth he is the genius of the shore”
‘The True Discovery of Australia’, 1944
The Ern Malley hoax, also called the Ern Malley affair, was Australia’s most famous literary hoax. Its name derives from Ernest Lalor “Ern” Malley, a fictitious poet whose biography and body of work were created in one day in 1943 by conservative writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart in order to hoax the Angry Penguins, a modernist art and literary movement centered around a journal of the same name, co-edited by poet Max Harris and art patron John Reed, of Heide, Melbourne.
Imitating the modernist poetry they despised, the hoaxers deliberately created what they thought was bad verse and mailed sixteen poems titled ‘The Darkening Ecliptic’ to Harris under the guise of Ethel, Ern Malley’s surviving sister. Harris and other members of the Heide Circle fell for the hoax, and, enraptured by the poetry, devoted the next issue of Angry Penguins to Malley, hailing him as a genius. The hoax was revealed soon after, resulting in a cause célèbre and the humiliation of Harris, who was put on trial, convicted and fined for publishing the poems on the grounds that they contained obscene content.
In the decades that followed, the hoax proved to be a significant setback for modernist poetry in Australia. Since the 1970s, however, the Ern Malley poems, though known to be a hoax, became internationally celebrated as a successful example of surrealist poetry in their own right and are now more widely read than those of his creators.