Roger Kemp, painter and etcher, was born in July 1908 in Bendigo, Victoria, second child of Frank Kemp, who worked at a nearby gold mine, and his mother Rebecca Kemp (née Harvey). The family relocated to the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra in 1913 after Roger Kemp’s father was seriously injured in a mining accident.
In 1929, Roger Kemp enrolled in drawing classes at the National Gallery Art School where he studied alongside fellow artists including John Vickery and Noel Counihan. During 1930-32 he attended the School’s night classes and in 1932 he enrolled in the Working Men’s College (now RMIT). Roger Kemp returned to the National Gallery School in 1933 where he studied for the next three years accompanied by students such as Clifford Bayliss, Nancy Grant and Ian MacFarlane. At the same time, Roger Kemp was largely self-taught, developing his own innovative artistic vision and becoming one of the key figures of abstract art in Australia.
Kemp’s early works of the 1930s were small in scale, figural, reflected the influence of Cézanne and were inspired by the idea of analogy between art and music. His later works drew upon both geometric abstraction and abstract expressionism and were thus composed of considered lines creating geometric shapes as well as expressive, impulsive brushstrokes. After an extended period of time working away from the public eye, Kemp held his first solo exhibition in 1945 at Velasquez Galleries, Melbourne. By the late 1940s his works had grown in size and abstraction. Squares and circles appeared as recurring motifs, often fragmented across a shallow picture plane.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Roger Kemp worked in factories to support himself and his wife Merle Kemp. His profile soon rose when in the 1960s he won the John McCaughey Memorial Prize (1961) and the Blake Prize for Religious Art (1968 and also in 1970). In 1966 he embarked on his first trip overseas at the age of 58 and travelled extensively throughout Europe. From the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Kemp began to experiment with working on paper, producing a series of etchings.
Roger Kemp taught at Prahran College of Adult Education in 1970 and then moved to London where he lived and worked for two years (1970-72) in the studio of the Space, Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational Project (S.P.A.C.E.). In 1972 Kemp returned to Melbourne and maintained a print studio with George Baldessin in Collins Street, Melbourne. (An exhibition of his etchings was held in 1972 at Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney, while the Art Gallery of New South Wales toured ‘Roger Kemp: etchings’ during 1990-91).
In 1978, in celebration of his seventieth birthday, several exhibitions of Kemp’s work were held simultaneously across a number of locations: Monash University Gallery (Early Work c.1933-1945), College of the Arts Gallery (Metaphysical Paintings c.1945-1955), Melbourne University Gallery (Maturity 1955-1975), and the National Gallery of Victoria (Paintings on Paper: sequences 1968-1975). Ninety-one paintings selected by Professor Patrick McCaughey, in consultation with the artist, were exhibited across the four sites, with a fifth site, Realities Galleries, Toorak, showing a further 25 works.
After a substantial and prolific career spanning more than five decades, Roger Kemp died in Melbourne, Victoria, on 14 September 1987. In the same year he was awarded the prestigious honour of an Order of Australia, a significant accolade that complemented the order of the British Empire that he had previously received in 1978.
Throughout his career Roger Kemp received several awards, for example the D’Arcy Memorial Prize for Religious Art (1964), the International Co-operation Art Award (1969) and the Distinguished Artists Award presented by the Australia Council (1973).
The art of Roger Kemp is represented in numerous Australian public collections such the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and the Castlemaine Art Gallery, Castlemaine. His work is also held in the Mertz Collection USA and the Australian Chancery, Washington, USA, as well as private and corporate collections across Australia, the UK and the USA. In the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, and on display in the NGVI Great Hall, are tapestries based on paintings by Roger Kemp and woven by the Australian Tapestry Workshop, Melbourne.