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?
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.
‘Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions 31 August 2018 – 28 January 2019, NGV
Published in ‘Troublemag’ and ‘Jackdaw’
Prolific, intense and successful, Whiteley’s art and life have been difficult to separate. Twenty-six years after his untimely death, his work lives on as part of our present whilst his colourful life story fades into the fabric of history. Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions at the National Gallery of Victoria (until 28.1.19) is a chance to reassess. Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin, printmaker of figurative expressionist etchings, were born in the same year but there is little else to tie them together and I will leave Baldessin to another time.
The Whiteley works span his entire oeuvre – from his 1956 travelling scholarship win and early abstracts to his late Sydney Harbour pictures, stopping by his London Christie works and his New York period on the way.
The earliest paintings – tentative, evocative, nuanced – are heavily influenced by Lloyd Rees and Russell Drysdale; the latter was the judge of Whiteley’s scholarship win. In Sofala (1958) earth-rich reds, warm greys and creams are woven into a flattened and simplified image of a country town. The horizon line sits up close to the top edge of the painting – we are immersed in a sparse domestic world clinging to life on a harsh but harmonious crimson land. Shades of Nolan, Drysdale and Tucker infuse Whiteley’s sensibility at this stage. His later rococo line is absent, pre-dated by the pared and scraped back forms more consistent with the drought and angst-stricken images of Australia that had begun to make such an impact on London, chiming, as they did with the mood of post war existentialism.
What we see is mediated by what we are looking for and that is specific to our time and ourselves.
We have an ongoing love affair with the landscape in Australia. Landscape forms both our imaginative and physical worlds and seeps inexorably into our literature and art. It doesn’t nurture. It is mercurial. Water, the most essential element of life, is severely limited. Despite its whims, we are obsessed with its beauty.
In looking at art, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. That moment when the object you encounter resonates with eye and mind and takes you somewhere strangely new. The latest incarnation of the Geelong Contemporary Art Award is no exception. Hurry on down. If you are looking for a quiet place away from the crowds; this is it. A sunny Queen’s Birthday Monday afternoon – the third day of the exhibition – had the public staying away in hordes.
And why not? Given the frog to prince ratio we have come to expect in contemporary art shows, even the June seaside weather is more reliably rewarding. I feel a bit like a punter before a pokie machine. Will this show give me anything for my invested time, my careful perusal of painting and statements? Or should I be at the beach? Like a gambling addict I am willing to give it a try.
Seeing the world as more than a backdrop or stage-set for unfolding narratives is the basic premise of landscape painting. It requires sensation rather than symbol to be the dominant motive. This is at odds with the corrosive didacticism of much academic art which looks for the obvious moral in every artwork. The recently set up Hadley’s Art Prize – a $100,000 prize for an Australian landscape painting, is a case in point. It has been called a landscape prize when what they really require is history painting, and a certain kind of history at that.
Hobart hotel owner Don Neil has launched one of Australia’s richest art prizes, with an annual $100,000 award for landscapes…. and this year invites artists to address the theme “history and place”.
Artist and curator Julie Gough, who is one of the judges, says the award encourages artists to think beyond European concepts of landscape as depictions of sublime nature. “History is about story, and the entrants have to consider that as much as things such as vegetation and landforms,” says Gough. “It will be interesting to see how people push that theme.”
The Australian 27th Jan 2017
And here is Ben Quilty, judging the 2017 Glover Prize for Australian landscape painting and commenting: