Shepparton Art Museum. 14th September – 24 November 2019.
Have you had any lessons? The enquiry came from a woman and her friend who had been loitering behind me as I painted en plein air in a local park. It seemed a particularly stupid question, especially considering the genius that was unfolding on the canvas. But even artists have never quite settled this amongst themselves. Is intellect or imagination more important? My interlocutor seemed blessed with neither.
Arthur Boyd and his circle chose imagination. Formal study, they held, sapped vitality. This was the view of the Angry Penguins, a group of Melbourne’s mid-twentieth century figurative artists which included Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Boyd himself. Primitivism, surrealism and expressionism nourished their artistic vision. A position more remote from today’s conceptual gridlock can hardly be conceived.
Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul is an exhibition selected from work donated by the artist and held by the Bundanon Trust. It begins not with Boyd, but with paintings by his grandparents Arthur Merric and Emma Minne Boyd. Two of their exquisite watercolours let us in on the fact that Arthur Boyd may not have needed art school. The Boyd family is Australian artistic royalty. My out of date copy of the Encyclopedia of Australian Art lists nine Boyds, and there have been a couple more generations since it was printed. Boyd grew up immersed in art and artists. He took lessons as it suited him – six months of night classes at the National Gallery school, occasional life drawing, and etching classes with Jessie Traill (who had studied with Frank Brangwyn).
The earliest works by Boyd himself are landscapes painted in his teens. Arthur’s Seat on a misty morning (1936) is delicately observed in finely muted tones and muscularly worked in impasto. Orchard with Cherry Blossom (1939) flirts with vibrant colour and expressive brush-stroke evoking Van Gogh. The next room jumps us forward by a decade. Rhythmical forms replace directly observed nature in A’Beckett Rd, Harkaway (1949). The change to oil and tempura gives a smooth and glossy surface. The landscape has become darker, and colour is suppressed. He seems to have turned inward. The war has intervened between this work and the last.
Boyd’s jumble of repertoire is extraordinary. He works variously with observed and imagined landscape; his pictorial space can be surreal, stylised, or conventional. Just when he seems to be heading in one direction, he diverts off into another, and then doubles back. The waterhole, central Australia, 1954 is close to Nolan in colour (but much better in composition), akin to Drysdale in sensibility and presages Tucker’s drought series. It’s a seriously good painting. This cannot be said for many of Boyd’s narrative landscapes in this exhibition, which became the larger focus of his work. Weighty with either foundational human anxieties, or contemporary social inequities, their quality varies widely. The expulsion (1947-48), a large oil and tempura work, depicts the angel driving Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. The impossibility of either finding or making paradise on earth could have been moralistic or terrifying. Boyd paints it like a child’s story – the figures are naïve, the angel clumsy, almost comical. A melancholic longing pervades the image.
Commentary throughout this exhibition presents Boyd as a somewhat tortured soul. Perhaps he was, but it is not in these works. The mood of his paintings is ingenuous. Comparisons to Goya are completely without foundation.
Moving to London in 1959, Boyd’s first exhibition held at Zwemmer gallery, was predominantly his Bride series. Based on Aboriginal and white relations in the outback in the 1950s, these works are not represented here which is a serious limitation of the show. Instead we have the Nebuchadnezzar paintings, begun in London from 1966. These are said to have been a response to the Vietnam war and wall texts here also link them to his father’s epilepsy and unusual parental celibacy arrangements. Whatever the origin, there is a sense of powerlessness and futility in some of them. Others are over-sized and jarringly unsuccessful. Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall (1968-69) pushes the naïve style past its limit. A flaming frog like figure catapults through a pastel yellow, blue and pink sky over a sketchy gorge. It is hard to sense what Boyd is trying to communicate. His whimsical melancholy descends into farce.
More effective is Red Nebuchadnezzar fallen in a forest with lion (1968-69). The landscape is no longer a place but a state of mind. Tree forms draw together at the top of the picture plane, ominously leaning in to frame a tiny sky. A bright crimson-and-black rudimentary head floats before the ‘lion’, a cylindrical yellow form with a gaping mouth and two blobs for eyes. The striking thing is the pathos of the image. Neb looks resigned to his fate. There is no malice in the lion.
Etching brings a quite different mood to Boyd’s work. His Narcissus series are upbeat and delicately drawn. The clarity of the black and white print tempers the surreal qualities of the imagery. Narcissus looks quite bacchanalian in his revelry with goat, horse and seabirds.
Boyd’s return to Australia around 1979 brought a reappraisal of the observed landscape. The southern margin of NSW is called the Sapphire Coast for good reason. Settling into the bush environment of Shoalhaven, jewel-like colour became the key note of his later work. Landscape ceases to be background and his painting is the better for it. A deep ultramarine blue sky is set against a pink, white and ochre bank in Shoalhaven as the River Styx (1996), with a mere calligraphic black brushstroke denoting a boat and figure.
Boyd’s imaginative worlds can leave the viewer stranded. He was at his best when his feet touched the ground. Towards the end of his life, his fusion of place with narrative gave his work a power which imagination alone had not been able to conjure. Here endeth the lesson.