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Prominent Australian artist, Ivan Durrant (b. 1947), spent much of his childhood in an orphanage and on farms.

Ivan Durrant was born in Melbourne on 14 January 1947 to a young mother and a father who was a war veteran. His impoverished family lived in a former army camp,  Camp Pella notorious slum in the middle of Melbourne’s Royal Park where about 3000 people resided during post-war housing shortages.

When Ivan was five years old, the family moved to Gippsland. Two years later, in 1955, his parents separated. His mother struggled to cope on her own and was forced to place Ivan’s two youngest siblings in a children’s home.

My father went to war, New Guinea, and came back completely shell-shocked. He was f—ed and an alcoholic, and my mother had no option of social services, so she left him and put us in the orphanage. (Northover, 2020)

Ivan Durrant and his four remaining siblings were moved to Melbourne Orphanage, where he remained in its evolving iterations for the next nine years. There, in addition to a passion for animals, Durrant developed an interest in drawing and painting, and his abilities in these areas were something he was recognised for and proud of.

Each summer, Durrant was sent to a farm work placement at Katunga or Euroa. By the age of fifteen, he was left in charge of the farms – which included pigs and 70-80 dairy cows – while the farming family went on holiday for a week.

I was almost destined to have cattle. I had cattle when at uni and I’ve still got a herd of cows today. They’re just great things to be around. (Rule, 2011)

Durrant went to live with a friend and his family to complete High School Matriculation, paying his way by slaughtering cows in their abattoir.

In 1969, Durrant completed a Bachelor of Economics, majoring in Macro-economics and Accounting, at Monash University. He had a small stint at working for an accounting firm in 1972 but could only stick it out for a couple of months, when he went back to painting full time.

Durrant’s first solo exhibition was held in 1970 at the Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne. Showcasing family farm life, it was a sellout. However, his high school abattoir experience paved the way for his later performance pieces such as ‘Slaughtered Cow’, ‘Severed Hand,’ and ‘Pigeon Dinner’, which garnered a significant public debate regarding animal rights and hypocrisy.

Between 1970 and 1972, Durrant lived in Flinders, a seaside town south of Melbourne in the Mornington Peninsula region. He describes this as one of his most formative periods as an artist, inspiring his painting series, ‘Landscapes and Horses’, first exhibited in 1972 at Tolarno Galleries in St Kilda.

The landscape was cold and bleak, stripped of trees and sort of had similar curves to that of a horse. It was pretty isolating and there was a bit of menace to it. (Rule, 2011)

In 1975, Durrant attracted further controversy for his performance art. First, he slaughtered a cow in a grazing paddock at Mt Waverley, which now houses the Monash Gallery of Art. As he explains:

I wanted to take a busload of people to the abattoirs but I knew they wouldn’t come. So I had to take it to the public.” (Bosse, 2014)

Then, Durrant deposited the fresh cow carcass on the forecourt of the National Gallery of Victoria, for which he was fined and ordered to pay court costs. His intention was for this act to be…

a public art event…I took it there to have it accepted as a work of art. (Marshall, 2023)

The event, which occurred during the opening day of the important Modern Masters exhibition, quickly became an international media sensation. It earned him the nickname “Ivan the Terrible”;  he, of course, prefers “Ivan the Great”. It left a lasting impression in the minds of the public by confronting viewers to consider the origin of the meat they consume.

Surprisingly, Durrant is not a vegetarian: he wants people to understand the background and consequences of all events before making decisions. The killing of the cow is in some way, a metaphor.  The following year, he hosted a pigeon dinner party where guests had to chop off the head of their pigeon if they intended to eat their cooked bird at the table.

 Sale Yard (2022)

In 1976, he moved to New York City with his wife, Judy, and their two young children, Jamie and Jacqui. His ‘Super Realistpainting series went on exhibition in a prominent SoHo gallery, described by Durrant as:

the centre of the universe for art in the Seventies, and what a great place it was. (Durrant, 2019)

The family spent their first night at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, which he says was a “sleazy dump.”

The corridors were lined with people out to it on heroin, our room had saucers with rat bait in the corner, and some drug-crazed maniac screamed and banged at our locked door all night threatening to kill us (Durrant, 2019).

They moved into a loft apartment the very next day, then spent the next six months immersing themselves in the chaotic, fast-based SoHo art scene, visiting art galleries, attending parties, and socialising with celebrities.

After Durrant and his family returned to Melbourne in 1977, he built a highly realistic diorama of a butcher’s shop. Ironically, it was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria – the very same gallery that rejected his slaughtered cow – to be displayed at the entrance to the restaurant where people without question ordered their steak.

Quality Meats is a free-standing shop where the sculpted meat in the window looks so life-like, or should I say, death-like, that even I’m convinced it’s the real thing. It’s not a patch on the vastness of a real butcher’s shop; nevertheless its honesty in realism compels the viewer to contemplate, and whatever they contemplate is up to them (Durrant, 2019).

Another example of Durrant’s controversy in the art world is his painting of former Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1911-2015). He created Bjelke-Petersen’s portrait by urinating onto a canvas with a catheter inserted into his penis. Durrant then submitted this work for the prestigious Archibald Prize.

I had a nurse holding my cock, pouring the stuff in there. It looked really great, and looked like him, but the portrait got rejected. (Northover, 2020)

Durrant’s more recent subjects have included Australian Rules football matches and horse racing using a style he calls “Supraphotolism”, described as…

…a blur of colour and form… so faithful in its rendering of reality as to make it hyper-real, and therefore strangely un-real. (Bosse, 2014)

Durrant is credited as being the first Australian artist to paint using this style. He was awarded a 2010 prestigious Sulman Prize at the New South Wales Art Gallery with a painting titled: Anzac match at the MCG, which has been recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria.

  Sprint (2013)

One of Durrant’s screen prints: “Overdosed”, acquired by The British Museum, is his response to Brett Whiteley‘s sad and untimely death. Whiteley, a leading Australian artist, died of a drug overdose in 1992.

Durrant’s most recent exhibition, ‘Barrier Draw (2020-2021)’ held at The National Gallery Of Victoria, was a retrospective featuring over a hundred works of his art and spanning the five decades of his artistic career. Human reliance on and interaction with animals is a prominent theme throughout his paintings, sculptures, and short films.

Despite having no formal training as an artist, Durrant is considered one of Australia’s most influential artists. He is also the author of an autobiography (with fictitious names to protect privacy), The Insiders (1995), about his time in the orphanage and work placements.

Durrant has spent much of his adult life working with animals. In addition to working in an abattoir, he has experience as a racehorse trainer, a horse breeder, and a cattle farmer.

Durrant and his wife, Judy, have retired from farming. They now live in the Mornington Peninsula, and have recently divested themselves of their last racehorse.



Bosse, Joanna. (2014). “Ivan Durrant.” Basil Sellers Art Prize. Ian Potter Museum of Art.

“Camp Pell (1946-1956).” Find & Connect, 2019. 

“Ivan Durrant: Barrier Draw.” (2020). Exhibition Labels. National Gallery of Victoria

“Ivan Durrant.” The British Museum.

Durrant, Ivan. “Melbourne artist Ivan Durrant on Super Realist art.” Essentials Magazine, 12 Oct 2019.

Holsworth, Mark. “Ivan Durrant @ NGV.” Black Mark Melbourne Art and Culture Critic, 26 Nov 2020.

Marshall, C. R. (2023). “Risky Business: Ivan Durrant Versus the National Gallery of Victoria.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art23(1), 80–95.

“Melbourne Orphanage (1926-1965).” Find & Connect, 2023. 

Northover, Kylie. “I want people to run out of the f–king gallery: Ivan Durrant.” The Sydney Morning Herald,  20 Nov 2020.

Rule, Dan. “From unholy cows to horses for courses.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb 2011.

Images supplied