Robert MacPherson: As if by the hand of a ten-year-old

 

1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014 comprises 2400 individual drawings, all deliberately executed as if by the hand of a ten-year-old. Over a 20-year period, Robert MacPherson made these in the guise of his alter ego, Robert Pene, a grade 4 student at St Joseph’s Convent, Nambour, Queensland. Each sheet includes a portrait and a name, sometimes a caption added in Pene’s uncertain script. The project is dated 14 February 1947, and each sheet is stained to give it an aged patina.

Robert MacPherson, Australia 1937-2021 / 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. (details) 1996-2014 / Graphite, ink and stain on paper / 2400 sheets: 30 x 42cm (each) / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Robert MacPherson

Robert Pene has an obsession (like many ten-year-olds) but it is not with dinosaurs, cars or aeroplanes: he endlessly catalogues boss drovers in portraits that vividly evoke the resilient, determined spirit of the rugged individuals responsible for moving thousands of livestock and teams of stockmen and cooks along the great pastoral stock routes of Australia, travelling over vast distances from station to market, or finding feed and water in times of drought.

Pene brings the individual characters of the boss drovers to life. There is Nat ‘Bluey’ Buchanan, aka ‘The Veteran’ (2363), the first to take cattle into the Kimberley, crossing Victoria River country with 4000 head of cattle to the Ord River Station in 1883, and the pioneer of the Murranji track; there is the Aboriginal boss drover Ruby De Satge (317), who drove cattle throughout Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. Granddaughter of prominent Australian pastoralist Oscar De Satge, Ruby was denied her inheritance due to her Aboriginality, and documented her encounters with many injustices against Aboriginal people in her memoirs.1 As a young man only a few years older than his alter ego, MacPherson spent time working on the land. 1000 BOSS DROVERS… is a deeply felt weaving of interconnected stories, like the arteries of stock routes across the country, and appears simultaneously as an enormous landscape and sea of undulating faces.

Robert MacPherson, Australia 1937-2021 / 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. (details) 1996-2014 / Graphite, ink and stain on paper / 2400 sheets: 30 x 42cm (each) / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Robert MacPherson

The historical record tells of some more unsavoury aspects of many a boss drover’s life: newspapers note incidences of cattle stealing, assault, failure to produce stock permits, and desertion of wives.2 Cattle thief Harry Readford, aka ‘Captain Starlight’ (2400), stole 1000 cattle from Bowen Downs Station near Longreach, Queensland, in 1870 and drove them 2400km through very difficult country, pioneering the Strzelecki Track.3 Boss drovers Harry Wilson (685), Charlie Edmonds (196), Charlie Hall (1207) and James Stirling (2095) had documented brushes with the law, but there are also stories of redemption — William ‘Bill the Fiver’ Horton (2346) arrived in Australia as a British convict in 1832. A free man from 1839, he worked as a boss drover before becoming a successful publican of the luxurious Royal Bull’s Head Inn at Drayton, near Toowoomba.

All the boss drovers’ names are those of real people, whose histories are known or documented. However, not all of their faces are derived from photographs or images of the actual subjects; in many cases no records are available. These drawings are therefore often imaginative; some include collaged elements taken from popular magazines: the eyes and nose of Edward Kennedy (2399) are unmistakably those of the Prince of Wales, while the nose and mouth of John Archer (2394) and the eyes of William ‘The Wild Irishman’ Cameron (2205) are taken from a photograph of the late American actor James Gandolfini. Robert Pene’s drawings memorialise the drover’s life and labour no less poetically than the jingoistic verse of AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson. The 1000 BOSS DROVERS could also be seen as a representation of the Australian landscape, but in an alternative and no less grandiose register to the nationalist paintings of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts.

Robert MacPherson, Australia 1937-2021 / 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. (details) 1996-2014 / Graphite, ink and stain on paper / 2400 sheets: 30 x 42cm (each) / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Robert MacPherson

The Pene drawings, which are each dated 14 February 1947 — the artist’s tenth birthday — form part of MacPherson’s long-running series of ‘Frog Poems’.4 This term sprang from a group of works that juxtaposed objects with the Latin names of frogs and thereby suggested in some way the frog’s characteristics. It has evolved to refer to the unreliability of descriptive systems to capture the diverse reality of their subjects. In fact, one might see 1000 BOSS DROVERS… as MacPherson’s lament for the disappearance of the specialised knowledge, language and history that these working people carried with them, but instead of Latin, we find the humorous nicknames from the Australian bush such as ‘Bluey’, ‘Paddy’ and ‘Rusty’.

Drovers have declined in numbers to the point of obsolescence in the contemporary world thanks to the B-double and B-triple road trains that now populate Australia’s rural highways. With this work, MacPherson keeps alive a very particular history. This major work, an extraordinary high point in the artist’s career, has never before been shown in its entirety. The immense ambition and scope of the project represents 20 years of thought and deliberation by the artist. The sheer scale of 1000 BOSS DROVERS… reflects Australia’s diversity, history and complexity, and it exemplifies the best of MacPherson’s work — his conceptually driven practice, his unfettered wit and larrikin edge, with a local, specific narrative at its heart.

Angela Goddard is former Curator, Australian Art to 1975, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1  Ruby de Satge, ‘I was born on the banks of the Georgina River’, in Bill Rosser, Dreamtime Nightmares: Biographies of Aborigines under the Queensland Aborigines Act, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1985, pp.11–64.
2  See http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/36900423?searchTerm=drover%20court&searchLimits=l-state=Queensland, accessed April 2015.
3  The inscription on this drawing reads: ‘Sister, Mr Readford was also known as Mr Redford. Mr Readford was a notaurious [sic.] poddy dodger’ (a cattle thief who steals unbranded calves).
4  Other ‘Frog Poems’ relating to droving are “DRY RIVER: 20 FROG POEMS, IN MEMORY OF ALEX WILSON MASTER HORSEMAN” 1998, also in QAGOMA’s Collection and “MURRANJI: 15 FROG POEMS, A KEENING” 1996–97, collection of the artist.

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Robert MacPherson, Australia 1937-2021 / 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014 / Graphite, ink and stain / 2,400 sheets / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation, Paul and Susan Taylor, and Donald and Christine McDonald / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of Robert MacPherson

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Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach

 

Robert MacPherson: The Painter's Reach GOMA

Robert MacPherson: The Painter's Reach GOMA
Installation views of ‘Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach’

The Gallery presents a long-awaited major exhibition by Robert MacPherson, one of Australia’s most respected and senior artists. MacPherson has a 40-year exhibition history, including several Sydney Biennales and many international exhibitions. Guest curated by Ingrid Periz — a former Harkness Fellow and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and New York University — ‘Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 18 October 2015 includes works from the broad scope of four decades of the artist’s practice.

Robert MacPherson has long examined the role of the artist in the art-making process, through both modernist and conceptual forms, and his practice combines wide-ranging contemplations on the act of painting with a reverence for the local and the everyday. ‘The Painter’s Reach’ looks at how these relate within his practice. The Gallery has significant holdings of works by MacPherson, and the recent acquisition of 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014 has greatly enhanced the Collection.

The exhibition begins with MacPherson’s 1970s works, in which he explores painting as process using sets of rules and limits with gestures and marks to the scale of his own body. While resembling high-modernist painting, the artist’s early works are better described as conceptual and process-based. The text accompanying MacPherson’s 1975 exhibition at the IMA read as follows:

An awareness of modern art history, a belief that all good art comes from previous art, my rules are formed within this context.

An awareness of the means. I have no wish to subvert the means, the rectangle or negate the object.

Juxtapositioning of means (surface, handling and ground) is content.

My work makes no assumption beyond itself — then you have response, and that’s another story.

An awareness of formal principles remains. Things happen in process and are left; I am surprised.1

This use of a polemical typewritten page became of primary importance to MacPherson’s practice, but here it sets out a manifesto-like position, explaining his motivations. The act of shaping the canvas to his own body size and conventions was of key significance within this series of MacPherson’s work and the corporeal relationship of the artist to the work, and the corresponding physical relationship to the viewer continue to be important throughout his practice.

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Installation view of 17 FROG POEMS (FOR G.N. & A.W., [WHO BY EXAMPLE] TAUGHT THE KINDER WAY) 1987–1989 / Metl-Stik on wood with wood and canvas stretcher beds / Purchased 1999. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist
In 1993, MacPherson himself articulated his interrogative practice as a ‘search for a container’:

. . . about 1973 I hit on the idea that I was confronted by the container all the time in the canvas rectangle, this rectangle was shape and container and all I needed to do was to cover this rectangle container in some manner or another.2

By 1982, MacPherson had moved to the point of musing on the ubiquity of painted surfaces throughout everyday life. Bending to polish his shoes with a brush, he realised “My Shoes Are Paintings!!!” This epiphany resulted in MacPherson’s ongoing ‘Frog Poems’ series, structured around naming and categorisation. Often taking the form of an object — perhaps a chainsaw, shovel or beehive — paired with a Latin species name, the ‘Frog Poems’ use a feature of the object somehow implicated by the name. For example, the 17 canvas stretcher beds of the Gallery’s “17 FROG POEMS (FOR G. N. & A. W. (WHO BY EXAMPLE) TAUGHT THE KINDER WAY)” 1987–1989 are paired with the names of 17 burrowing or hibernating or ‘summer sleeping’ frogs.

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Robert MacPherson: The Painter's Reach Official Opening
Installation view of 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014

Soon after showing the first ‘Frog Poems’, MacPherson showed some drawings (also called ‘Frog Poems’) created by his alter ego, Robert Pene — a grade 4 student at Saint Joseph’s Convent, Nambour, in 1947 — which later enabled his magnificent work 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014. Completed over two decades, it takes up the large wall of the Long Gallery. This work also forms the core of the commissioned interactive project for the Children’s Art Centre, ‘Swags and Swamp Rats’, where children can go on a journey through the exhibition, learning about the people, places and objects that inspire the artist.

Through many serial works, MacPherson’s practice has evolved idiosyncratically, from painting to object-based ‘Frog Poems’ musing on denotative meanings, to poetic painted texts such as the ‘Mayfair’ series, investigating the formal and connotative qualities of language. MacPherson’s text piece ‘I ALWAYS BUY MY LUNCH AT THE MAYFAIR BAR’ underpins his roadside signage works, which could be seen as landscape paintings in situ. Instead of trying to capture something of the Australian landscape into one image, they are sited ‘in’ the landscape, often offering local produce or activities local to their situation and season — Bethonga Gold pineapples, Lebanese cucumbers, kebabs, fishing gear — employing evocative slang and vernacular language. These works introduce a lightness and playfulness; playing with language and meaning while still exploring painterly concerns such as colour relationships, formal interactions and surface ‘incident’. MacPherson often returns to concerns and subjects identified earlier in his works. His most recent series, “MAYFAIR BAR REVISITED”, returns to the Mayfair Bar text in series of colorful monochromes and abstract paintings relating to the various routines, rituals and productions of the sandwich shop.

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Robert MacPherson, Australia b.1937 / MAYFAIR: (PEERLESS) 3RD GROUP 4 S.F. (detail) 2002–2007 / Collection: The artist / Courtesy: Yuill | Crowley, Sydney / © The artist

Similarly, MacPherson’s ‘PEERLESS’ series returns to the scale of his own body. Peerless Dry Cleaners is MacPherson’s local drycleaner in Brisbane. The artist’s shirt widths determined the size of the canvas stretchers, and MacPherson takes the drycleaner’s list of colours on his receipt to determine the colour of the canvas. As Ingrid Periz notes:

If the 70s paintings can be understood as process-oriented — how the paint fell from the brush — these works can be understood as procedurally driven, with MacPherson using the cleaner’s procedure for handling laundry as the means of generating work while distancing, if not removing, the role of artistic choice.3

IN “MAYFAIR: (PEERLESS) 3RD GROUP 4 S.F.” 2002–2007, MacPherson acknowledges Brisbane colorist Sam Fullbrook in his dedication, and hangs a group of short-sleeved men’s shirts with a weeping breast pocket, the swathes of colour fall as if created by a leaking pen.

Discussed and exhibited in a multitude of artistic contexts, Robert MacPherson continues to inspire and influence successive generations of Australian artists with his highly intelligent and rigorous yet expansive and inclusive practice, which invites us all contemplate the processes by which art is made, and the ways we create meaning.

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Robert MacPherson, Australia b.1937 / SCALE FROM THE TOOL (detail) 1976–1977 / Acrylic on canvas / Purchased 1996. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The artist

Angela Goddard is former Curator, Australian Art to 1975, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1  Robert MacPherson, artist’s statement from Bulletin, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, vol.1, no.1, 1975, unpaginated.
2  Robert MacPherson, A Proposition to Draw [exhibition catalogue], University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 1993, unpaginated.
3  Ingrid Periz, ‘The painter’s reach’, in Robert MacPherson: The Painter’s Reach, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015, pp.15–49.

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The Painter’s Reach‘ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) explored the work of Robert MacPherson and included paintings, installations, ephemera and works on paper, showing how the artist’s reach begins with the particular and extends far beyond.

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John Peart ‘Shoot point’

 

Shoot point 1967, whose acquisition was generously supported by James C Sourris, AM, is a major work from a pivotal point in Peart’s career, and an important addition to the Gallery’s holdings of 1960s Australian painting.

John Peart displayed remarkable artistic talent from very early in his life. Born in Brisbane in 1945, Peart commenced his studies at the Brisbane Technical College in 1962, his only formal training, and left for Sydney to pursue his career the following year, while still a teenager. By 1965 he had held his first exhibition at Watters Gallery in Darlinghurst, where he continued to show throughout his career. As he explored various styles and approaches, Peart maintained an unwavering focus on abstraction. His move to Sydney coincided with an increasing public and critical appreciation for colour field and geometric painting, and he brought an individual approach to various modes of abstraction.

John Peart ‘Shoot point’

John Peart, Australia 1945-2013 / Shoot point 1967 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 183 x 118cm (irreg.) / The James C Sourris, AM, Collection. Purchased 2014 with funds from James C Sourris, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of John Peart

During the late 1960s, Peart’s work became increasingly refined and monochromatic. His interest in Minimalism and painted objects grew and this striking shaped canvas, Shoot point 1967 (illustrated), can be attributed to this brief period, which lasted for only a few years. Shoot point and the other six works in the series were shown together at Watters Gallery in 1967, and all depended upon a central triangular canvas to which three parallelogram extensions propelled outwards in an angular Y formation. Each was painted in a single flat colour, including pink, yellow, blue, orange and white, which added to their pronounced physicality and energy. A selection of these important works was recently brought together at Charles Nodrum Gallery in Melbourne. In 2004, Peart described the thought processes behind his excursion into shaped canvas works:

. . . the canvas could be stretched over any kind of shape and became a painted object rather than a flat surface. I felt I was dealing with a ‘reality’ of space and volume rather than illusions of depth. Illusionistic space is inevitable with paint on a regular flat surface.1

In 2004 curator John Stringer wrote: ‘In design, these works continued to explore the centrality, radial dynamic and sense of rotation that characterised his previous paintings’.2 However, Shoot point is unique within this brief series as it also indicates a direction towards Peart’s subsequent group of works, which also engaged with Minimalism and came about, as he described, from ‘the need to clear the decks’.3

Shoot point was included in the artist’s 2004 retrospective touring exhibition and his encounters with Minimalism were discussed in the catalogue by John Stringer, who suggested: ‘Peart’s mature work has to a great extent been disciplined, clarified and conditioned by his early encounters with the rigours of Minimalism’.4 The series of works exhibited the following year, from which Cool corner II 1968 (AGNSW collection) and Corner square diagonal 1968 (NGV collection) were selected by Stringer and Brian Finemore for inclusion in the renowned National Gallery of Victoria 1968 exhibition ‘The Field’, also exhibited an interest in rotation around a central axis, but returned to the square canvas format and retreated from colour in favour of gradations of white, suggesting a radiating light from within. Following his inclusion in ‘The Field’, a watershed exhibition of Australian abstract painting, Peart secured several major art awards and grants, enabling him to travel to New York and then on to England, where he remained for six years.

Peart’s exposure to Abstract Expressionism while overseas charged his work with a new pictorial energy, and the period spent in England was one of assimilation and resolution. Returning to Australia, Peart taught painting at the National Art School, Sydney from 1978 to 1986 and later between 1993 and 2002. Peart was among a group of artists, including Roy Jackson, Joan Brassil and Elisabeth Cummings, who lived and worked on a 25-acre block of land bequeathed to them by Barbara and Nick Romalis in the 1970s in Wedderburn, near Campbelltown, in New South Wales. In 1997 he won the Wynne Prize and later in 2000, the Sulman Prize.

Tony McGillick ‘Arbitrator’

Tony McGillick, Australia 1941-1992 / Arbitrator 1968 / Synthetic polymer paint on shaped canvas / Four pieces / Purchased 2007 with funds from the Estate of Vincent Stack through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © estate of Tony McGillick

Robert Hunter ‘No. 4 untitled painting’

Robert Hunter, Australia 1947-2014 / No. 4 untitled painting 1968 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / 158.4 x 158.4cm / Acc. 1987.144 / Purchased 1987 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Robert Hunter/Copyright Agency

Shoot point is a major work from a pivotal point in Peart’s career and is an important addition to the Gallery’s holdings of 1960s Australian painting, complementing not only other shaped canvas works such as Tony McGillick’s Arbitrator 1968 (illustrated) and Normana Wight’s Untitled 1970 (illustrated), but also the cool subtlety of Robert Hunter’s white paintings (illustrated). The acquisition of this major work acknowledges and honours the life and work of this esteemed artist, who passed away suddenly in October 2013.

Angela Goddard is former Curator, Australian Art to 1975, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1  John Peart interview with Sumana Viravayong, in Renee Porter (ed.), John Peart Paintings 1964–2004, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown, New South Wales, 2004, p.16.
2  John Stringer, ‘Radiant Haze’, in ‘John Peart Paintings 1964–2004’, p.28.
3  Porter, p.16.
4  Stringer, p.29.

Normana Wright, Australia b.1936 / Untitled yellow-green 1970 (installed far right) / Screenprint on canvas / Six panels: 76.7 x 91.5cm (irreg., each); 76.7 x 550cm (overall) / Acc. 2012.465a-f / The James C. Sourris AM Collection. Purchased 2012 with funds from James C. Sourris AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Normana Wright

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Conrad Martens: Insights into Queensland’s history

 

The watercolour The bark hut on the plain, Darling Downs, Qld., Mount Sturt from Glengallan c.1850s by Conrad Martens (1801–78) provides new insights and connections to the colonial history of Queensland’s Darling Downs.

In late 1851 the Sydney-based painter Martens arrived in Brisbane from Sydney via sea, and for the next few months travelled on horseback across the Great Dividing Range to the Darling Downs, moving south through New England to Sydney. En route he stayed with squatters and pastoralists, filling his sketchbooks with drawings of their houses and properties, his aim being to obtain commissions from property owners for watercolours that he would complete upon his return to Sydney.

Martens’s plan succeeded and he was eventually commissioned to paint over 70 watercolours, many of which are known today. Martens was the first professional artist to paint in Brisbane, and ‘his paintings are the earliest comprehensive visual records of the area’.1 His skill in acute observation had been developed between 1833–34 as a ship’s artist on HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy, upon which he befriended Charles Darwin and recorded specimens, landscapes and climatic conditions in images of scientific precision.

Conrad Martens

Self portrait by Conrad Martens on board the H.M.A.S Beagle 1834. When Martens drew this portrait, he had been on board the Beagle since Decemeber 1833 / FL3235258 / Courtesy: State Library of New South Wales

The Gallery holds watercolours by Martens of many of the major stations taken up by squatters from the early 1840s on the Darling Downs, including ‘Coochin Run’, ‘Franklyn Vale’ and ‘Canning Downs’. Until now, the Gallery did not hold any views of the Glengallan property outside Warwick.

Although Martens occasionally painted in oil, his greatest skill was with watercolour and The bark hut on the plain, Darling Downs, Qld., Mount Sturt from Glengallan (illustrated) exhibits the artist’s great technical facility for rendering topographical features and a striking sense of scale and drama. The painting shows an old slab and bark shepherd’s or servant’s hut with a lone rider setting off in the foreground, conveying something of the hardship and the isolation of colonial settlers. The middle ground’s vastness evokes the artist’s extraordinary journey in the heat of a Queensland summer through the Downs, which had been home for thousands of years to various clans of the Wakka Wakka language speakers: the Keinjan, Giabal, Jarowair and Barunggam Aboriginal people, also known as the Gomaingguru, ‘men of the Condamine’, or Gooneburra, ‘fire blacks’ (from their habit of frequently firing the grasslands), who practiced a burning season to manage the grassy plains, which once resembled the prairies of North America and the steppes of Mongolia.2

RELATED: Documenting Queensland’s history

Conrad Martens, England/Australia 1801-78 / The bark hut on the plain, Darling Downs, Qld., Mount Sturt from Glengallan c.1852 / Watercolour and gouache / Purchased 2014 with funds from the Honourable John C Moore, AO, through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
Pencil sketch by Conrad Martens of Mount Sturt from Glengallan. March 4, 1852 / nvg8Nrp1 / Collection: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales / The sketch was used as the basis for the watercolour The bark hut on the plain, Darling Downs, Qld., Mount Sturt from Glengallan c.1952 on Martens return to Sydney

These fertile grasslands brought great prosperity to the early squatters of the Downs, and the Glengallan property became famous for both merino sheep and shorthorn cattle. Some 15 years after Martens’s visit, an impressive two-storey homestead in the plantation style was built with stone quarried on the property in 1867 at a cost of £12 000. The grandest of the Darling Downs houses, the Glengallan Homestead (illustrated) featured a ballroom, specially commissioned furniture and a bathroom with the most modern amenities including running water pumped from the Condamine River.3 Furniture was supplied by the Brisbane cabinet maker Joshua Ebenston to complete the interior, including the commanding ‘Glengallan’ sideboard 1868 (illustrated) in the Gallery’s Collection.

The field drawings from which this remarkable watercolour is composed are unique records of the country only a decade after white settlers introduced cattle and sheep, and before changes to vegetation became obvious. Martens conveys the spare elegance and rich history of the great plains of the Darling Downs, and this work adds greatly to the Gallery’s important representation of colonial Queensland.

Angela Goddard is former Curator, Australian Art to 1975, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1 Joan Kerr, The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.514.
2 Maurice French, ‘The indigenous peoples of the Darling Downs’, Northern Journey: Conrad Martens in early Queensland (exhibition website) Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2001, http://www.visualarts.qld.gov.au/content/martens_standard.asp?name=Martens_Introduction, accessed 23 December 2014.
3 Dianne Byrne, ‘The ‘Shepherd Kings’ of the Darling Downs’, Grass Dukes and Shepherd Kings: Aspects of 19th Century Pastoral Life on the Darling Downs (exhibition catalogue), State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, 2012 (unpaginated).

Glengallan Homestead

Photographer unknown / Glengallan Homestead, From ‘Views of Queensland’ Photograph Album, c.1875 / Collection: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Glengallan sideboard

Joshua Ebenston, Australia c.1835-1877; Matthew Fern, Australia 1831-1898 / ‘Glengallan’ sideboard 1868 / Cedar, carved / 198 x 242 x 70cm / Purchased 1995 with funds from the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts Society (Brisbane) Inc. through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation and the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant. Celebrating the Queensland Art Gallery’s Centenary 1895-1995 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

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Ian Fairweather: Late works

 

After a restless early life, in 1953 artist Ian Fairweather (1891–1974) consolidated his home and art in a hut on Bribie Island, in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. The following 20 years saw Fairweather achieve the summation of his life’s labour as a painter and the works from this period brought him enduring fame.

From his hut, Fairweather transformed his immediate surroundings and his memories into complex, layered paintings, remarkable in their light, colour and vision. They convey the settled, almost comfortable state he’d achieved on Bribie, as well as some of his lingering anxieties and their disquieting effects; Fairweather’s past recurred in his compositions, with images and experiences haunting them. Works that illustrate his leap into complete abstraction are around 1959–60. Despite the enduring appeal of his earlier works, these later compositions define Fairweather’s place in Australian art history.

RELATED: Ian Fairweather

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Pumicestone Passage

Ian Fairweather, Scotland/Australia 1891-1974 / Pumicestone Passage 1957 / Gouache on cardboard / 48.5 x 56.4cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

The landscape Pumicestone Passage 1957 is among the few paintings Fairweather made in Queensland that depicted a specific place. Even so, the Glasshouse Mountains — which can be seen in the distance from the site of the artist’s hut on Bribie Island — are shown with only a token of topographical accuracy. Depicting the channel that separates Bribie Island from the mainland, the pale, chalky colour scheme recalls some of Fairweather’s Chinese paintings of the 1930s, with their fresco-inspired palette.

Trotting race

Ian Fairweather / Trotting race c.1956 / Gouache on cardboard / 57 x 50.6cm (irreg.) / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2011. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

Other works may have been inspired by local sites and events: the interest in the movement and dynamism of horses seen in Trotting race 1956 may have been inspired by a visit to Redcliffe or Brisbane, where harness racing had been popular for many years. First exhibited at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1957, the painting is from a series created in 1955–56, in which Fairweather combined human and animal figures, embodying movement and energy. He returned repeatedly to the subject of horses: in Chinese culture, the steppe horses depicted in Tang-dynasty (618–907 AD) pottery evoked freedom and power. The bright, ultramarine pigment has been identified as ‘Reckitt’s blue’, a cheap and easily obtained colour, once used as a laundry whitening agent.

Composition 1

Ian Fairweather / Composition I 1962 / Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on hardboard / 67.6 x 83.5cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

The progressive stylisation and abstraction of figurative elements can be perceived in Fairweather’s works from the 1930s onwards, but his venture into non-objective abstraction began in late 1958, reaching its peak with an exhibition held at the Macquarie Galleries in 1962, in which Composition I 1961 was included. This was a major break from the compositions being produced by other prominent Australian painters of the time, such as Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. Fairweather himself seemed equivocal about the pictures, writing that ‘they really refer (mostly) to nothing in particular — sort of soliloquies I suppose will have to come under the heading of abstracts’.1

Aspects of Fairweather’s art at this time were drawn from his past life in China and his abiding enthusiasm for its language and culture. He had developed this interest when he was a prisoner of war during World War One and had later travelled to China, where he worked, painted and learned Mandarin. This passion, and the influence of the linear grace of the Chinese art of calligraphy, is discernible throughout the rest of his life and works. Fairweather signed paintings he thought to be particularly successful with the Chinese characters meaning ‘auspicious’.

The Drunken Buddha 1965. Published by the University of Queensland Press, Brisbane; translation and illustrations by Ian Fairweather

An important episode during Fairweather’s Bribie Island years was his translation of the The Drunken Buddha, which honoured his time in China and his respect for the country’s intellectual tradition. Fairweather completed the laborious translation using a dictionary, by the light of a hurricane lamp. The Drunken Buddha was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1965 and illustrated using 12 of Fairweather’s paintings: one of these is QAGOMA’s Chi-tien drunk – carried home 1964, accompanied by the playful Chi-tien stands on his head 1964, from the University of Queensland collection. The novel, based on a story well known in China, follows the life of the monk Tao-chi (1148–1209), also known as Chi-tien, who was renowned for his unorthodox behaviour. Both works have the wavering border which is so characteristic of Fairweather’s works throughout the last two decades of his life, and become a feature of his series of abstractions.

Chi-tien drunk – carried home

Ian Fairweather / Chi-tien drunk – carried home 1964 / Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on paper on board / 91 x 71cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

Chi-tien stands on his head

Ian Fairweather / Chi-tien stands on his head 1964 / Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on hardboard / Collection: The University of Queensland / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

According to Fairweather, the publication proved a lengthy and challenging task and the subsequent transcription and editing was completed with the assistance of a number of typists. If you’re very lucky, you can still come across this publication in second hand book stores.

Bus stop

Ian Fairweather / Bus stop 1965 / Gouache on cardboard on board / 72.5 x 97.5cm / Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: The University of Queensland / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

A sense of Fairweather’s daily routine can be glimpsed in Bus stop 1965, in which passengers quizzically peer out at the world. First exhibited in the Easter exhibition of 1966 at Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries, writer Murray Bail described the work as ‘an exploration of relationships and a comment on an everyday but ritualised event’.2 In a note of 15 March 1965, Fairweather commented that ‘the bus (Stop) is part of the landscape as seen from the beach outside the grocery over my daily bottle of milk’.3 For an ostensibly secluded artist, and one who fulfils the popular stereotype of solitary genius, Fairweather was remarkably communicative, as can be seen in his letters. His correspondence is filled with observations of daily life on Bribie, even with his complaints, suspicions and paranoias.

Angela Goddard is former Curator, Australian Art to 1975, QAGOMA

Endnotes
1 Letter from Ian Fairweather to Treania Smith, 11 November 1959, Bribie Island, Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives, Sydney.
2 Murray Bail, ‘Ian Fairweather 1891–1974’, in Ian Fairweather [exhibition catalogue], Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 1984, p.20.
3 Letter from Fairweather to Treania Bennett (nee Smith), 15 March 1965, Bribie Island, Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives, Sydney.

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Modern Woman

 
Leonetto Cappiello | Folies Bergères, 1900 | Pastel on paper | Gift of Monique Cappiello, 1979 | Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris | Photograph: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

For art to be truly modern, the French writer Charles Baudelaire urged in 1846, it must reflect its own time.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, the artists featured in ‘Modern Woman: Daughters and Lovers 1850–1918: Drawings from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris‘ turned away from traditional subjects and techniques that had dominated French and European art for centuries.

Influenced by political upheaval and the seething urbanity of Paris, they fixed their attention on scenes of everyday life, from the dynamic and rapidly changing urban environment and quiet recesses of the private home, to sites of leisure far beyond the sprawling city.

These artists also strove to capture the changing nature of encounters between men and women of different social classes, the exhilaration or solitude of feeling lost in a crowd, and the new anxieties thrust upon the modern individual.

One subject served as a crucial vehicle for navigating the unfamiliar terrain of modernity: depictions of women. Previous academic conventions had relegated women in art to being virgins, saints or idealised allegorical figures, and notions of femininity were now being challenged in life as well as art. In this exhibition, we will see the multiple aspects of women, from the elegant ‘Parisienne’ to women in the workforce and the independent ‘new woman’, to mothers, sisters and lovers. Often pictured in contemporary dress, the figures in these drawings are glimpsed in private spaces, but also city streets and cafes. Daringly erotic or hauntingly enigmatic, such portrayals speak to the complexity of the modern world, and the new social relations emerging within.

The image of woman, in all its ambiguity and diversity, becomes the face of modernity, and in the unrehearsed immediacy of these drawings we can glimpse a sense of the fleeting sensations that characterised La Belle Époque.

‘Modern Woman: Daughters and Lovers 1850–1918: Drawings from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris’ opens at the Queensland Art Gallery on Saturday 24 March and can be viewed until Sunday 24 June. The exhibition has been curated especially for Brisbane and many of the works have never been seen together and most probably will never be seen together again, so don’t miss this rare opportunity. The accompanying publication is available from the Gallery Store or online.

Edgar Degas | Seated dancer leaning forward, massaging her left foot c.1881–83 | Pastel, brown paper backed with cardboard | Caillebotte bequest, 1894 | Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris | Photograph: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Emile Lévy | Portrait of Madame José-Maria de Hérédia 1885 | Pastel on beige paper mounted on cardboard | Acquired 1973 | Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris | Photograph: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Albert Besnard | Portrait of a woman 1900 | Pastel | Bequest of Jules Maciet, 1911 | Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris | Photograph: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Louise Breslau | Two young girls sitting on a banquette 1896 | Grey paper, pastel | Acquired from the Salon of 1897 | Collection: Musée d’Orsay, Paris | Photograph: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski