Landscape of the Soul, Barry Pearce, Curator Talk
On first seeing this arrangement of Landscape of the Soul yesterday I was quite overwhelmed with emotion. Seeing it altogether like this it has a grand sort of operatic ambience I never dreamed of when selecting it three years ago. This has been brought about by a special coalescence of staff here: Kerstin, creator of this remarkable visual acoustic of architecture; Sophie, a virtual (Madame of course) Toscanini conducting the orchestra; Boe-lin her first violinist; and Jennifer, custodian of the song sheets. What a sublime team!
I don’t know how many of you belong as I do to a majority of Australians revealed by the recent census to reflect a decline in the practice of Christianity. I do remember a happy childhood riding my pushbike to Sunday School in Adelaide, but very soon that habit, sadly perhaps, began to be displaced by alternative interests during growing adolescence. Is this a good or bad thing as the Australian demographic becomes more diverse on matters of faith. Who can tell?
But you know, something here, now, in this moment, stirs a resumption of spiritual thoughts in the splendid cathedral-like spaces of this beautiful new art museum. I haven’t felt quite like it for a long time, transfixed by the sense of a sacred architectural site dedicated to worship of the creative arts with a wonderful Shoalhaven landscape surrounding us adjacent to a river the poet T S Eliot might have declared a strong brown god.
Indeed, I feel I may be on the cusp of giving what amounts to a sort of sermon, as this exhibition returns at last, after a national tour, right back home to its proper spiritual locus.
Landscape of the Soul had its genesis a few years after I retired as Head Curator of Australian Art at the AGNSW when I attended a lecture at the Gallery on the subject of Arthur Boyd’s brother-in-law Sidney Nolan. In the audience was Rachel’s predecessor Deborah Ely, then CEO of Bundanon.
After the lecture Deborah asked me if I was interested in curating the next three-yearly exhibition of Arthur Boyd’s work. My memory is bit flaky on this, but it was prompted I think by an anniversary. The national tour was planned to commence almost exactly fifty years since Arthur was introduced to Bundanon for the first time in 1971.
Of course, I said yes but I confess I was inwardly hesitant. I had curated a major Boyd retrospective in Sydney in 1993 and it totally took the stuffing out of me. I don’t mean that in a bad way. You see, and you may know this already, Arthur was extremely prolific. His output of paintings, drawings, prints and ceramics colossal.
Not quite as extensive as the countless thousands of works produced by Nolan perhaps, but still formidable, and navigating through it all to find an essence that fitted limited exhibition space without becoming claustrophobic – it took at least two solid years – it was very exhausting I can tell you.
And Arthur wasn’t much help. Every time I came to see him here in Riversdale, he had a shoe box of photos of paintings for me to consider. It got to the point when I said Arthur, we simply cannot fit any more in. An exhibition is like a suitcase, I said, in which you only cram so much without ruining the contents. He conceded with a smile, saying Ah yes well I suppose then it must simply have to be a retrospective, rather than the retrospective. Ouch!
However, my anxieties were assuaged this time when Deborah wanted the current exhibition firstly, to have a mostly specific focus on Shoalhaven imagery, and secondly, to be selected principally from the Bundanon collection. I will speak a little further about this, but before that I want to tell you briefly in context a fascinating story about how this particular collection actually finished up being here.
Arthur and Yvonne had been based in England since 1959, and it was when he and his family came to Australia in 1971 after he was awarded a Creative Art Fellowship and stayed as a guest at Bundanon, he discovered the landscape he had long yearned to return to permanently.
As you know, two years later he acquired this property and commissioned an architect, André Probeski, to prepare the old weatherboard homestead and build an adjacent structure as a suitable residence for his family including a new studio. Whilst Back in England, awaiting the completion of Riversdale, Arthur heard from a dealer in Melbourne, Georges Mora, that he had arranged for a large scale retrospective to be staged at the National Gallery of Victoria.
This was a big deal, with the esteem Arthur had received in London, Britain and Europe, he was well due such a grand gesture from a major state gallery in Australia.
On the strength of that news Arthur packed a vast container with thousands of his works of art and set out with it on a boat to Australia. I should add that he never flew anywhere, only travelling by boat or train.
It is recorded in fact he had gotten on a plane just once, to Europe accompanying Nolan, who had talked him into it. A friend asked why the exception, and he replied he was sure God wouldn’t let anything harm Sid so it was worth the risk.
Anyway when this vast container docked at Perth Arthur rang Georges Mora about delivery arrangements. Georges replied in embarrassment that the National Gallery of Victoria had decided not to proceed with the retrospective. Panic is hardly the word. There Arthur was, about to get on a train to cross the Nullabor, and the container ship on its way across the Great Australian Bight towards Melbourne.
He rang a friend, another dealer Joseph Brown, and sought his advice. Joe happened to be on good terms with James Mollison, then Director of the National Gallery in Canberra, and persuaded Arthur to make a benefaction of all the content of the container to the Gallery, and it was accepted in 1975. To sweeten the deal Mollison had been persuaded to purchase twenty tapestries to cover the cost of the weaving.
Well, not everything went to Canberra. Arthur kept a choice selection for himself, including graphics, drawings, a superb group of ceramics, a few paintings and, maybe most importantly, a generous number of paintings and works on paper by his parents and grandparents, and brought them here to Riversdale. It was an assemblage of heirlooms, so to speak, within the collection at Bundanon I confronted and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
The huge cornucopia of a creative life thus had been ready compacted, or edited as it were, and the splendid storage arranged by collection manager Jennifer Thompson on racks and in boxes and drawers made this the most enjoyable exhibition I have ever curated. It was a dream.
Then came the thematic challenge. Of course, considering my brief it was a no-brainer that this would be a landscape exhibition. But exactly what kind of landscape? Arthur had declared in childhood he wished to become above all a plein air painter in the mould of van Gogh. That was a start.
And over the full scope of his life he responded to this theme in two different ways. Fashionable polemic jargon refers to it as pluralism. Or if you prefer, duality.
There was the landscape that he saw, optically and topographically with its seasonal textures, play of dark and light, distance and close-at-hand detail.
Then, as he matured there was the landscape he felt with all the complexities of his inner emotions brought to bear; mystical, melancholic and skewered with subterranean eroticism like a Wagnerian opera, or Mozart’s Magic Flute.
In terms of sheer topography however, the luminous confidence of those earlier Mornington Peninsular paintings is remarkable, boyish genius exuding a freedom
never quite recaptured until half a century later when he began to lose himself once again at will in the heavenly embrace of Shoalhaven. Even though by then the demon of commercial success had endowed him with indelible guilt, regarding the constant pressure to sell as transactional incarceration.
And so this exhibition is perfectly book-ended from beginning to end by landscapes of light, linked in between by an odyssey of rich, sometimes disturbing diversity of vision and self-doubt through which Arthur was finally able to end the way he had started.
During that long odyssey he encountered a variety of personae and worldly art that helped shape the way he saw and felt about landscape: social realist painters such the Polish immigrant Josel Bergner who told him about the German Expressionists; exiled intellectuals who had arrived in Melbourne in 1940 aboard the infamous immigrant ship Dunera and gathered at the Boyd home in Murrumbeena; John Perceval – with whom Arthur discovered the so-called World View landscapes of Brueghel in the State Library – Albert Tucker, Sid Nolan and the Reed circle at Heide; various poets and writers; and when he got to England and Europe revelations of the paintings of old masters he had only seen in books. And so on. Far too much for us to deal with here of course.
Truth be known, Arthur Boyd was the most complex artist I have ever encountered, and though I got to know him well and I loved him, it was like being in love with a deep enigma.
He wasn’t at all verbally loquacious and believed the language of his art should do the talking. He was honest and ethical. He never needed to show off like some of his younger admirers. He challenged classical ideas of beauty with relentless energy, and like Shakespeare was unafraid to confront the ugly side of the human condition, exposing disturbing truths within the mysteries of our very existence.
Born and raised by a family of Christian Scientists and a deeply committed pacifist, if Arthur was alive today he would be utterly appalled at what is happening in the Ukraine and other eruptions of pitiless violence and destruction breaking out on our planet. They would have cut him to the core. Why do we do this to each other? he would have cried.
But we really have to push most that back now and keep things simple, and consider only a few selected beacons in the narrative of Landscape of the Soul as we lead our gaze in and out of the light towards its conclusion.
And it is important to give especial focus to the key exemplars at the very beginning of Arthur’s journey. Those exemplars were his family.
When he was wheeling his little painting cart around Mornington Peninsular he was aware through his artist grandparents Emma Minnie and Arthur Merric Boyd senior that he was following the footsteps of the great Australian impressionists.
Especially significant was that his grandparents had studied under Louis Buvelot, the much loved Swiss-born mentor of those impressionists, giving them first-hand reports of the Barbizon School of landscape painters.
Arthur stayed with his grandfather in Rosebud for three years after Emma Minnie died in 1936, during which, in spite of his adulation of van Gogh though a postcard in possession of cousin Robin Boyd, Buvelot’s pictorial wisdom was impressed upon him thoroughly.
Arthur Senior even paid for an account covering painting materials so his grandson could enjoy the perfect freedom of deciding whatever kind of artist he wanted to be, regardless of the traditional guidelines he was encouraged to follow. It was a freedom without restriction.
And just look at those early landscapes. They are astonishingly sophisticated for a child of 12 to 16 years old, truly prodigious just as Mozart and Beethoven were in music, they even younger. What is the secret? Well, my theory is that Buvelot hammered home to his proteges the importance of tone to which colour was secondary.
There is evidence of this in the compositions by Arthur Merric senior and Emma Minnie in this collection. Walking through the National Gallery of Victoria one day to his art class, Arthur junior noticed a Buvelot watercolour of Bacchus Marsh on the wall and felt it had a mysterious dark resonance which reinforced the advice of his grandparents. He later painted his own version of it.
And you can see throughout this exhibition, although Arthur was never afraid to lash out with strong colour here and there, an anchorage of tone always gives his images an enduring inner strength underpinning the energy of his brushwork. Indeed some his greatest masterpieces are about darkness, as with Goya. Take note all you colourists out there.
But what about the other side of the pluralist equation, the landscape of the mind and inner emotional states?
Again we should look to the family, starting with readings to the Boyd children from the Old Testament in which there was no restraint of the scariest passages and their vivid illustrations. Arthur later re-imagined such biblical themes against backgrounds of the Australian bush, amongst the most brilliant The Expulsion 1947-48 with tense sexual innuendos we can only guess at in the context of its rocks, spiky branches and Naples Yellow sky.
As with the visceral brace of fish beneath the red, nipple-like horn of Pulpit Rock in Peter’s Fish and Crucifixion 1993. Or two lovers consumed by a blaze of lust in Lovers on fire in boat with kite c.1965, a natural heir to The Expulsion theme no doubt. The idea of a watcher, or judgement figure in the sky of Lovers on fire was birthed by an earlier sketch as an ominous black swan. Coalescence of sexual and biblical connotations abounds.
In terms of expressionist painterly language, Arthur’s brother David said that their mother Doris, talented artist in her own right, but underestimated – not surprising with her devotion to raising six children – was a crucial inspiration. With her knowledge of post-impressionism, she encouraged her offspring to paint with an adventurous rigour that broke free from traditional tropes.
You can see her potential explicitly in one marvelous little landscape here: Figure in a stormy landscape c.1928.
And then there was Merric Boyd, Arthur’s father. Merric was considered by his parents to be a peculiar, difficult, square peg in a round hole, highly eccentric and possibly, I suspect, on the spectrum. He finally became, almost perchance, a potter, and a very successful one, just before marrying fellow student Doris in 1915.
Sadly, he finished up a recluse and confined himself to a fascinating, beguiling oeuvre of eloquent haptic drawings, mainly of flora and fauna including strangely zoomorphic tree forms, many related to the decorations he and Doris applied to his pottery.
What added to Merric’s oddness was his condition of epilepsy, not so well understood in the 1920s, during which Arthur as a child witnessed his violent fits without
comprehension. Perspective came later when Arthur read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, but the issue of Merric’s suffering remained indelibly disturbing.
It is indeed painful to try and grasp how conflicted a six-year old might have felt in 1926, the sight of his beloved father beating at the padlocked bedroom door, falling to his hands and knees frothing at the mouth.
It must have seemed to young Arthur that Merric had become possessed by some kind of demonic alter-ego. What he could not have known or comprehended then was that Doris had been told by doctors she would not survive another pregnancy following her last child Mary.
1926 was also the year Merric’s pottery was burnt down, a devastating event for the whole family. And therefore we may look at the potent symbolism of Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king banished to the wilderness by God for his vanity, in a way that is not confined to the biblical context.
Paintings on that theme by Arthur in London during the late 1960s were ostensibly interpreted as a response to the war in Vietnam.
But there is no doubt the figure of Nebuchadnezzar is also an avatar of Merric, a man of sorrows consumed, against turbulent backdrops of nature with waterfalls, rocks and rain-swept skies, by disease and an inexplicable reflex of his libido. Truly, these are landscapes of the soul at their most unstable and distressing.
Interestingly, Merric created his own avatar through the drawing of a kangaroo blackened by bushfire. Arthur painted a version of it here, with terror reflected in the
kangaroo’s eye as it leaps across a hot, glaring sandbank towards the ineffective shelter of a fragile sapling. It is a frighteningly haunting image of helplessness.
Also of interest by the way, is that Merric made a drawing in response to the Buvelot watercolour referred to earlier. The layers of context are endless: son follows father; father follows son.
But I think I have unloaded enough for you to think about. There is so much published about Arthur Boyd’s life and work, and so much interpretation, more than of any other Australian artist I know, thus plenty of literature to peruse if you are up for it. I could go on and on, but I never intended to deliver a heavy academic lecture. If you cannot find this literature in the library, just GOOGLE and all the stories will tumble out.
Meanwhile, time to put away the libretto and let the music unfold in its own right, just as Arthur would have wanted, to help steady his intention of trying to heal himself. I cannot really explain my art you know, Arthur said, It’s just music for the eye teaching itself, if necessary, to unsee certain things.
I think I understand at last what he meant by that. And that is indeed exactly what I should do now, walk one last time around the exhibition, and bid it farewell whilst attuning myself to the pentecostal vibe of this magnificent space.
Barry Pearce, 3 July 2022