‘Hokusai Morning’ – Maslin Beach, South Australia.
Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis is a two-act play that was first performed in London on 1993, and subsequently won a number of awards. The Adelaide Repertory Company’s production, directed by David Sims, is the Australian premiere of this thoroughly enjoyable, moving, challenging and unique play. My litmus test in regard to seeing theatre and films these days is whether or not it has moved me emotionally. In the case of Our Boys it did most profoundly and in a way that caught me by surprise. Set in a military hospital in the 1984, we follow the trials and tribulations of 6 war veterans. On the surface, especially the first act, the play is full of crude, smutty and vulgar British humour, similar to other hospital drama-comedies such as Carry on Doctor (1967) Peter Nichol’s The National Health (1969).
Some may dismiss this play as just another case of ‘men behaving badly’, nonetheless, something else is at work here. Underneath all this, and is partly the motivation for such behaviour is genuine fear – and specifically the fear of impotency. I’m finding it difficult to think of other dramatic works that concentrate on masculine impotency – a taboo topic that few men would even discuss let alone admit too. In a theatrical world that is often led by feminist ‘equality’ issue this play is a sober reminder that there are tragic contemporary male stories to be told as well; in a way it makes the play unique in contemporary theatre.
Our Boys, however, does join rather a long and brilliant heritage of other war and/or post-war traumatic stress dramas. This includes – R. C. Sherriff’s Journey End (1928) and W. Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (1932). There are also William Wyler’s Academy Award Best Film winner The Best Years of our Lives (1946) and Fred Zimmerman’s The Men (1950), which was Marlon Brando’s debit film. Speaking of Brando it is an often neglected factor in regards Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) that one reason why Stanley and his buddies are so violent is partly associated with 2WW experiences. Other works include Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959), John Frankenheimer’s brilliant and unsurpassable The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barry England’s Conduct Unbecoming (1969), David Rabes’ Sticks and Bones (1971) and Streamers (1976), Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade (1977), Hal Ashbey’s Coming Home (1978), Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Simon Stevens’ Motortown (2006) and Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006). Closer to home, there are such Australian dramas as Sumner Locke Elliott Rusty Bugles (1948), George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), John Power’s The Last of the Knucklemen (1978), and Bill Bennetts’ A Street to Die (1985). However, the film that has the most immediate impact on Our Boys is the Michael Cimino’s devastating brilliant The Deer Hunter (1978).
Towards the end of Our Boys first act, in an attempt to cheer up the wheel-chair bound character of Lee, who is often inarticulate due to being shot in the head, the men stage a beer drinking competition called ‘Beer Hunter’ after the film The Deer Hunter. The drinking game parallels with devastating and highly memorable Russian roulette game in the The Deer Hunter. It is due to this game and the celebrations that the men find themselves in trouble, facing military discipline for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and expulsion from the army. With their self-esteem and sense of potency already vulnerable this new attack on their individual security brings forward issues of class warfare and scapegoating. The resident officer is blamed for being a back-stabbing informer – but he is innocent. The actual informer is one of their own, and without giving it away, is the character who has the most to lose. He betrays his friends and lies, blaming the officer; when the truth is finally revealed the sense of betrayed loyalty becomes violent in its retaliation. Surprise, surprise – not.
Our Boys as well as the works cited above all involve “men behaving badly”, physically and emotionally, often due to past or current war experiences. The individual stories and characters highlight struggles for self-esteem, power and potency. In this masculine rationale if you do not have these things then you don’t have an identity and viability to make positive and active contributions to society. Whilst ‘feminists’ may rage, nonetheless, masculine identity, health and well-being is still firmly tied to these issue, which are generally the domain of the work-place. Men still are (too often) defined by the work place and what they do (or not do) for a living. What does one do when self-esteem, power, potency, viability, credibility and identity is taken away by things that are beyond your control by murderous violence – physical and/or psychological? Does one resort to the betrayal of loyalties, revenge, in order to satisfy delusional prejudices and self-preservation? In Our Boys these issues rise to the surface, especially in the second act. Ironically, there are good outcomes for some of the patients in Our Boys – but by no means not all – such is life. This mixture of fateful and fortuitous endings only serves to add to the overall greater complexity of the play
Throughout this admirable and ultimately extremely moving production the voice of Margaret Thatcher (post-Falkland War) is heard, stating things like ‘we must take care of our defenses in order to prepare for any situation’. But how can you prepare for sudden and inexplicable violence? One could argue, perhaps, that these men are in the military and subsequently are trained for the violence of war. But this is not necessarily so; not all military personnel are trained for and do active service; and yet are still targets for violence. Nor do all military personnel, especially when working in a domestic and local world, necessarily expect sudden violent acts of internal terrorism. The final scene of Our Boys attempts to articulate the ‘horror’ of home-front terrorist violence. It is the most moving as well as frightening moment of the play. The harrowing experience and subsequent trauma of home-front terrorist violence is stunningly realized in the final confession by Joe, the patient who has been in hospital the longest, and beautifully acted by Adam Tuominen. Joe has an inexplicable disease that has resulted in the removal of one of his fingers. This mysterious disease, however, could be read as metaphor for HIV/AIDS – or other cancers – as it seems as if it will never be cured. Or is it the disease inside his brain, the never-ending post-traumatic disorder due to the incredible violence he experienced. Joe’s story is partly based on a real-life event in a bombing in London by the IRA. As the story unfiled I found I was gasping and shaking my head with the sheer horror of the violence. How could anyone get over such things? The thing is – like an incurable disease – you don’t.
Congratulations to the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, David Sims, and all the actors involved in this terrific production – Adam Tuominen, Patrick Martin, James Edwards, Lee Cook, Nick Duddy and Leighton Vogt. Thank you for providing an opportunity to see this truly unique and moving modern play. It has remained with me, as it did with my Asian-Australian companion last night, who is studying English here in Adelaide. Admittedly, some of it went over his head, and I was a bit concerned as the Asian imitations in the ‘Beer Hunter’ scene, nonetheless, this was the scene he liked the most. Go figure. He also, like myself, was very impressed with Adam Tuominen’s Joe and Patrick Martin’s Lee. Thank you.
The South Australian Theatre Company‘s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Geordie Brookman, has some truly terrific moments, and some not so terrific moments. Set in a ‘wasteland’ of an abandoned and derelict modern basement, reminiscent of the set for the horror film classic Saw, the play begins with Lady Macbeth giving birth to a featureless child. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin with the opening lines of the 1st and 2nd Witch in Shakespeare’s play, and then the psychic lines of the 3rd Witch (and the rest) are taken over by the child. ‘When shall we three meet again’, the opening line of the play is teased out to involve and include this unholy threesome of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and their demon child who remains on-stage throughout the rest of the drama and is instrumental in all the subsequent bloody deaths.
It was like watching a contemporary Spanish horror film, like Mama; indeed, I kept thinking that this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was very much like Saw meets Mama. Nonetheless, from an academic point of view this interpretation attempts to address one of the most important questions posed in regards to Macbeth by Shakespeare scholar L. C. Knight in his seminal essay How many children had Lady Macbeth? (1933). Lady Macbeth states that ‘she has given suck’, in other words had a child, but this child does not appear or is ever mentioned again in the play – a mystery. In this production, however, the mystery is interpreted in rather an interesting way. When Lady Macbeth delivers this line to Macbeth it hits home and Macbeth is emotionally weakened. This particular interpretation, of the Macbeth’s being somehow haunted by their demon child, may be a distortion of Shakespeare’s original play – but it was interesting nonetheless. Furthermore, distortion has always been a factor in the story of Macbeth.
The play was probably first performed by the King’s Men in 1606 with Richard Burbage as Macbeth. The play’s subject matter, themes, location and characters were deliberately chosen to please the King’s Men’s new patron, James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland and now, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I of England. Furthermore, not only was James a descendant of Banquo, but James had also published a book on witchcraft. These elements in the play are more aligned with the King’s Men appeasing and playing to the known tastes and predilections of their new royal patron than the actual truth of Macbeth. Shakespeare may have read about Macbeth in Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles but the story Shakespeare tells is far from the truth.
Macbeth, King of the Scots, ruled from 1040-1057. Macbeth was Lord of Moray, a part of modern day Scotland, whose troops killed King Duncan I of Alba (Scotland), when Duncan invaded Moray. Subsequently, Macbeth became King. He was married to Grunoch, wife of the previous Lord of Moray (who he may have killed), and they had no children. Macbeth ruled Alba peacefully for 17 years. From 1054-57 he was faced with invading armies from England, and was eventually killed in the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057 by troops loyal to Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who became King Malcolm III in 1058. Macbeth was buried on the mystical (and ghostly green) island of Iona, the traditional burial place for the Kings of Scotland. You can visit his supposed grave on Iona – and I would encourage you to do so as Iona is truly wonderful.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been one his most consistently performed plays over the past 400-odd years. All the great theatre actors and actresses have tackled the challenging roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with varying degrees of success. Macbeth has also been adapted for film numerous times, the most successful version being Akira Kurosawa’s extraordinary Throne of Blood (1957). I don’t know how many productions of Macbeth I have seen – but it is quite a few; the best being the famous Trevor Nunn RSC production with Judi Dench and Ian McKellan in the late 1970s, with an equally exceptional supporting cast, and on a relatively bare stage in a small intimate theatre. Brilliant!!! However, in many ways it has spoilt seeing other productions; ‘comparisons are odious’ (Shakespeare), but nonetheless when one does see greatness in the theatre it is unforgettable.
There is a touch of greatness in this current SATC production – the actor Peter Carroll who plays Duncan, as well as the Porter. Peter Carroll is a bit of an Australian acting legend with a truly remarkable career. His Duncan is dignified and touching. His Porter is sheer brilliance – the best I have ever seen. Usually one smiles agreeably at the Porter and his obscure jokes; a bit of sardonic light relief after the murder of Duncan. Here, however, Peter Carroll gets a laugh out of every single line in the Porter’s speech about ‘equivocation’ and welcoming the audience to hell. He was hilarious and completely deserving the round of spontaneous applause at the end of this brief scene. If you are a Shakespeare nut, like myself, it may be worth the price of admission to see this terrific performance.
Geordie Brookman is a clever director with a keen academic mind and a wonderful theatrical sensibility. There is, however, a relative inconsistency that is discernable at times in his direction of actors. When it does all come together, such as in the ‘apparition scene’ in this production of Macbeth the results are thrilling. Part of the problem of inconsistency in this production lays with the direction of virtually all the male characters as passive-aggressives. The generalised bleating emotional tone of ‘Feel sorry for me’ dominates the performances, with the occasional flashes of choleric anger. This is often in opposition to the text. For example, the scene in which Macbeth seduces the two men to murder Banquo. Macbeth actually says that he is ‘making love’ to them; there wasn’t much love going on here. The worst example was unfortunately my favourite scene in the play, Act 4.3 between Malcolm, Macduff and Ross. The Machiavellian complexity of this dynamic scene was completely overwhelmed by excessive emotion from the very start, with Malcolm and Macduff basically just shouting at each other. Subsequently when Macduff hears from Ross that his whole family has been slaughtered, which is the actually emotional release of the scene, you felt nothing. The passive-aggressive dominant tone, particularly from Macduff from the very beginning, robbed the characters of any true dynamic strength. I’m not sure Shakespeare intended us to sentimentally ‘like’ or ‘understand’ these characters as modern sensibilities tend to dictate. These are not necessarily likable characters, and their dynamic power is reduced by generalised sentimentality and continual emotional bleating.
Maybe it had something to do with the overall pace of the production. Scenes and speeches that should be delivered ‘trippingly on the tongue’ (i.e. quickly) were slow, whilst others were rushed, such as the Malcolm, Macduff and Ross scene that is deliberately placed to slow the pace down before the final climax. Furthermore, theatrical affectation occasionally takes over, such as when Ross, played by a woman, dressed and acted as a ‘whining schoolboy’, steps forward and suddenly vomits on stage when told of the murder of Duncan. Why? Another issue involving the character of Ross, who is a continual presence throughout the play, is that in this production he/she takes over the role and fate of Young Siward and is slain by Macbeth, adding to the ghosts who haunt the stage. Finally, there are the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that also happen on stage, but are not in the original play. These deaths are, however, understandable in light of the overall production and interpretation, being directed by the demon child. Nonetheless, they are a distortion. Significantly, although not necessarily theatrically acknowledged, the roles that Shakespeare wrote for Richard Burbage that climax with a battle, such as Richard III and Macbeth (both regicides), the character is actually killed off-stage. This may suggest a kind of vanity on Burbage’s side in that being a master-swordsman he didn’t wish to be seen as defeated in a one-on-one fight with an opponent.
In conclusion I should state that overall I enjoyed and appreciated the performances of Nathan O’Keefe as Macbeth, and particularly Anna Steen’s Lady Macbeth. They both had some electrifying scenes and moments, especially at the beginning of the production. Their final scene together, however, was disappointing, with Macbeth unaccountably sexually groping Lady Macbeth, when it is the emotional, physical and psychological distancing of her that drives her mad. Also – I loved Elena Carapetis dry and modern interpretation of Lady Macduff. She may have perhaps unintentionally got a few laughs, like the dry delivery of ‘Your father’s dead’ to her precocious son, but it was an excellent performance. However, as previously stated, the real triumph of this production was Peter Carroll’s brilliant performance as the Porter. This alone, plus the overall interpretation of the Macbeth’s being haunted by their demon child, is well worth the price of admission.
Charles Conder (1868-1909) is regarded, along with friends and colleagues Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, as the finest Australian Impressionist artists. Born in Tottenham, Middlesex, U.K. Charles Conder was a bit of a rebel. His strict civil engineer father disapproved of his artistic bent, and sent the 16 years old Charles to Sydney in 1884 to work for his uncle as land surveyor. Charles Conder, however spent more time drawing landscapes than surveying them, and in 1886 he left his uncle’s employ and started working as an ‘artist’ for Illustrated Sydney News. After meeting Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he moved to Melbourne, sharing a studio with Streeton and Roberts. Arthur Streeton, ten years Conder’s and Robert’s senior, was a significant influence on both. Whilst the time they all spent together was relatively short, just 18 months, nonetheless, this type of artistic collaboration produced many of their best works. Despite early studies of beach scenes in Sydney it is A Holiday at Mentone that marks not only the first major success of the then 20 year old Charles Conder but also the beginning of Australian artists capturing the unique beauty, splendour and light of Australian beaches. A Holiday at Mentone has often been called a ‘celebration’. This is not only because of its light ‘holiday’ theme and tone but also because it was painted and exhibited as part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 1888. Furthermore, the painting is highly regarded for its composition and colours. The influence of the American artist James Whistler is possible due to the white and mauve bridge that effectively cuts the painting into two halves; but there is so much more to be gleaned when examining the painting closley. There is also the discernable influence of the then popular Japanese Aesthetic Movement, as well as popular Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. The Japanese influence can also be seen in the up-turned red parasol, and as art critic Jane Clark has noted, the calligraphically-like seaweed. However, despite all this brilliance, as well as the celebratory nature of the painting I find there is something a little disturbing about this painting. Despite the brightness the respective characters are not in summer clothes. Furthermore, no one seems to be actually communicating. The seeming asleep man at the centre of the painting seems more dead than asleep; the discarded red paper, like the red parasol, hint as something lost than something gained. Furthermore, the couple at the front of the painting are distant – an argument perhaps? The figures in black add to this unsettling tone. The elderly couple nearest the gentleman are watching the couple – concerned parents? Whilst the remote black woman with a child behind the woman reading could be a nanny with the couple’s offspring. The seaweed hints at something fractured rather than ordered. The painting, for me, starts to take on a similar complexity to Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), or Stephen Sondheim‘s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) with the expectation that any second someone is going to state – ‘It’s hot up here!’
Sydney Long – The Spirit of the Plains (1914)
Sydney Long (1871-1955) is one of the most unique Australian artists. This is mainly due to his particular poetic and lyrical vision of the Australian bush, which is combined with classical European imagery and characters. Born in Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, he trained at the New South Wales Art Society in 1890. His first major work By Tranquil Waters (1894) caused a scandal, but was bought by the New South Wales Art Gallery.
The controversy brought Sydney Long to the attention of Julian Ashton. Eventually Sydney Long joined Julian Ashton as co-head of Ashton’s Sydney Art School, a position he enjoyed until 1910. The popularity and sale of his works allowed him to travel and studying London, where he stayed until 1925, with a brief return to Australia in 1921. Long continued working and exhibiting. He won the Wynne Prize in 1938 and 1940, and was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1938-1949. He returned to England in 1951, and died in London in 1955. Whilst Sydney Long produced an immense body of work it is, however, his work from the late 1890s and early 20th Century that marks him as unique. His vision and artistry in this period stands in marked contrast to his ‘Heidelberg’ contemporaries Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin. There is an erotic sensuality in his work from the 1890s and early twentieth century, which has a similarity Norman Lindsay. This form was labelled as a new school of Australian art called ‘Australian Paganism’. Virtually all the galleries in Australia display works by Sydney Long. There are two in the Art Gallery of South Australia – The Valley (1898) and The West Wind (1909). These combined with to two other works by Sydney Long in this article – By Tranquil Waters (1898) and The Spirit of the Plains (1914) exemplify the uniqueness and sensual beauty of the art of Sydney Long – making the ordinary extraordinary. Sydney Long – The West Wind (1909)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was born in Rome to English parents, who returned to England in 1854. Waterhouse, nicknamed ‘Nino’, studied at the Royal Academy of Art and began regularly successfully exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1916. Waterhouse belongs to the ‘Pre-Raphelites’ who also include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. He is also known as the ‘modern pre-Raphelite’ partly due to the influence of the ‘Impressionists’ on his painting. Waterhouse’s work is characterised by his subject matter, which is generally based in classical myths and history, including ancient Greece, Rome as well as Arthurian legend. Waterhouse’s works are exhibited in numerous galleries and museums around the world, and Australia is blessed that the respective state galleries have some of his best and well-known work. The Art Gallery of South Australia has The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883) as well as Circe Invidiosa (1892). The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius shows the Emperor in his throne room, preferring to concentrate on his birds than attending to business and his waiting councillors. The drama of the scene is heightened by the spacial arrangement and particular use of colours – the dark reds and crimsons being the domain of the Emperor, contrasted with the paler colours associated with the councillors.
John Brack (1920-1999) is one of the most important and influential Australian artists of the 20th Century. Born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Brack rose to prominence in the 1950s. He was a member of the group known as the ‘Antipodeans’ who reacted against the then popular form of ‘abstract expressionism’. Brack later became Head of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1962-68. Like many artists Brack went through particular periods, re-inventing and experimenting with new forms, genres, styles and subject matter. He is an artist who makes the ordinary extraordinary. This painting – The Lift dates from 1954 and is currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In many ways it is characteristic if Brack’s major works – a very distinctive and deliberate composition; dull, drab and muted colours, his most common colour being brown. On first glance t would seem that this painting is somewhat quite ordinary and mundane. The Lift, however, is a response to the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. As described by the gallery – ‘Rather than making an anguish or impassioned response to this subject, Brack has exercised immense restraint. The unnerving quality of this work comes from imagining that the steps leading up to the seemingly ordinary lift are analogous to the tragic fate suffered by the Jewish people led to their deaths in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany’. Extraordinary.
Dorrit Black (1891-1951) is one of the most unsung heroines of Australian Art. Born in Burnside, Adelaide, she trained at a number of art schools, including the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, and Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. In 1927 Dorrit Black went to London and attended the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, and later at Andre Lhote’s Academy in Paris. Influenced by the Modernist and Cubist art movements Dorrit Black returned to Australia in 1929. In 1930 at the Macquarie Gallery, Sydney she held her first of six one-woman exhibitions, the final one being in 1949. Dorrit Black was determined to create a studio and gallery devoted to Modernism. She opened the Modern Art Centre, in Margaret Street, Sydney, amongst the first women in Australia to create and operate an art gallery for the benefit of others. Throughout the 1930s the gallery became of enormous importance and influence for artists such as Grace Crowley and Grace Crossington Smith. Perhaps the most well-known painting by Dorrit Black is The Bridge (1930).
Construction of The Sydney Harbour Bridge began in 1923 and was completed in 1932. Many artists were inspired by the building of bridge, which until 2012 was the world’s widest long-span bridge. It is still the world’s tallest steel arch bridge. Throughout 1930, and coinciding with Dorrit Black’s return to Australia, the two halves of the single arch gradually came together, finally joining 19 August 1930. It is today, however, perhaps difficult to appreciate the impact and importance of Dorrit Black’s The Bridge. Not only does it capture this particular moment in time, but is one of the first examples of Australian cubist art. Furthermore, the cubist modernist vision allows for a freedom of expression – a beautiful echo of the historical past blending harmoniously with the present, exemplified by the old world five mast sailing ship in front of the left half of the steel arch representing the modern world. The chosen colours, particularly the respective shades of blue, green and grey, perfectly capture the unique beauty of Sydney Harbour. Truly extraordinary. The tragic element to all this, however, is how Dorrit Black was regarded by her own countrymen. She returned to live in Adelaide in the late 1930s and whilst she continued to work and exhibit, as well as become an active member of the new Australian Labor Party, nonetheless, she was also relatively ignored or dismissed by many. She died 13 September 1951 in Royal Adelaide Hospital after suffering a car accident. In the Adelaide newspaper, The News (22 September 1951), the respected Australian art critic Ivor Francis wrote of Dorrit Black that whilst, ‘deeply respected by the more informed section of Adelaide artists. She has so consistently been artistically cold-shouldered and ignored since her return here about 20 years ago that it is amazing how she maintained the courage to fight on against so much prejudice and misunderstanding. Regarded as not sufficiently “advanced” by one section, and too “modern” by the other, it will be many years before her exceptional talent can be properly appreciated in its right perspective, as it most certainly will be’. The Art Gallery of South Australia mounted a major retrospective of Dorrit Black’s work in June 2014.
ARTHUR BOYD (1920-1999) is one of the most important and unique Australian artists of the 20th Century. His range of work is extraordinarily vast in scope, size and subject matter, ranging from impressionistic landscapes to biblical and historical matters.His works are always incredibly dramatic and eye-catching. Invariably the characters in his works are somewhat devoid of emotion, reminiscent of ‘mannerism’ art in the late 16th Century. The four works by Arthur Boyd are currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia and are representative of particular periods of his extraordinary work.
Arthur Boyd was born at Murrumbenna, Victoria, into an artistic family. When he was 14 years old attended evening classes at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, where he met Jewish artist Yosi Bergner who introduced him to the the works of Dostoyevsky and Kafka and played a major role in influencing Boyd’s humanitarian and social values. Boyd then spent several years living on the Mornington Peninsula with his grandfather, Arthur Meric Boyd, who influenced Arthur Boyd’s particular talent and skill in landscape painting. He then moved to in the inner city of Melbourne painting urban cityscapes. In 1941 he was conscripted and served with the Cartographer Unit of the Australian Army during WW2 until 1944. His paintings of this period, of people deemed unfit for service are startling, and reveal an interest in ‘outsiders’, which was to become a major feature in his later works.
The painting, Figures by a Creek, from this period of Boyd’s life is relatively disturbing and turbulent, almost apocalyptic. A range of human expressions are evident in the painting, including love and grief. It is however, the soulless vacant eyes and naked abandonment in this prison like terrain that is unsettling.
Figures by a Creek (1944)
In the 1940s he became a member of the ‘Angry Penguins’, whose aim was to challenge conventional art and literature in Australia. and introduce a new radical and modern perspective. In the 1940s and 1950s Arthur Boyd traveled extensively through outback Australia. He was profoundly influenced by the landscape as well as indigenous culture. His series of The Bride, a half-caste who was also an ‘outsider’, was painted during this period and became his most successful works.
The paintings Persecuted Loves and Bridegroom going to his Wedding date from this period.
Persecuted Lovers (1957)
Bridegroom going to his Wedding (1958)
In 1959 he was a founding member of the ‘Antipodeans’, which presented figurative work rather than abstracts that were the dominant form at that time. Other ‘Antipodeans’ included John Brack, John Perceval, Charles Blackman and Clifton Pugh. He and his family then moved to London where he remained until 1977. Boyd’s work during this period reveal another evolution. His Nebuchadnezzar series of painting are his responses to the VietnamWar, whilst overall there is recurrent theme of ‘metamorphosis’. He also worked within the theatre, designing sets for opera and ballet. Boyd’s Lovers under a tree with weeping head (1963) is a work painted on a ceramic tile, and aspect of Boyd’s work in the years he was living and working in London. The subject matter of ‘lovers’ and a ‘metamorphosis’ that is apparent in the work and exemplifies his artistic concerns in this period.
Lovers under a tree with weeping head (1963)
Boyd returned to Australia and he and his wife Yvonne bought over 1000 acres of property in Bundanoon on the Shoalhaven River, not far from the town of Nowra, New South Wales. They later gave this property to the Australian Government for the use of artists. He also gave the copyright to all his work to the ‘Bundanoon Trust’ that was set up to care and manage the property.
A truly great Australian artist.
The Art Gallery of South Australia has a diverse ‘International’ collection that contains work from the ‘East’ and ‘West’. The following 5 works of European art range from the late 16th to the early 19th Century and contain works by Bartolomeo Passarotti, Peter Brueghel II, Claude Lorrain, Angelica Kauffmann, and Theodore Gericault. Whilst some may not consider these as ‘major’ works of the respective artists, nonetheless, they are beautiful in their own right. Furthermore, they stand as excellent representatives of the individual artist’s work as well as the period and genre from which they come.
BARTOLOMEO PASSAROTTI – The Coronation of the Virgin, with Saints Luke, Dominic, and John the Evangelist (c. 1580)
Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592) was born in Bologna from where he primarily worked throughout his life and career. He exemplifies ‘Mannerism’, a style of art that evolved in the later years of the High Renaissance from approximately 1520. Passarotti belongs to the second period of ‘Mannerism’, with contemporaries that include Giorgio Vasari and Agnolo Bronzino. Vasari described the period as ‘la maniera moderna’ (in the modern style). However, ‘mannerism’ is not easy to clearly define. Taking the later works of Michelangelo as a source of inspiration, ‘high maniera’ is characterized by deliberate exaggeration and ornamental elegance, which is often quite colourfully vibrant. Subsequently, it is often regarded as prefiguring ‘Baroque’ art. Furthermore, in ‘high maniera’ the figures often have a relatively unemotional gaze that is ‘cool’ and ‘aloof’. In Passarotti’s painting, however, there is a suggestion of smiling benevolence and happiness from the three saints, as befitting the subject matter, the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’; although the bull, on which sits The Bible looks with his central single eye a bit alarmed. Meanwhile, the naked cherubs supporting the Virgin in the middle of the painting seem to be having a rollicking good time.
PETER BRUEGHEL II – The Village Lawyer – or – The Tax Collector’s Office (c. 1615)
This small painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), is a terrific piece of satiric art. Peter Brueghel II was the oldest son of Peter Brueghel the Elder. After the death of his father (1569) and mother (1578), Peter and his siblings went to live their maternal grandmother in Antwerp, were he studied under the landscape artist Gillis van Coninxloo. By 1589 he was operating as an independent ‘master’. His large studio in Antwerp made numerous cheap reproductions of his father’s work for local sale and export. Despite the studio’s success he was often in financial difficulties, probably due to excessive drinking. Peter Brueghel II painted landscapes, religious works, and village scenes, often in the style of his father. The above painting is one of his original and most popular works, and has a rather intriguing history. For a start is has a number of titles, including – The Village Lawyer, The Tax Collector’s Office, The Payment of the Tithe, The Lawyer of Bad Cases, and The Notary’s Office. Arguably, The Village Lawyer is more accurate as the figure behind the desk is wearing a lawyer’s bonnet, and all the papers on his desk look like requests and decrees. The peasants lining up have chickens and eggs for their payment, which was common practice, but generally, tithes (taxes) we paid in grain. What is truly wonderful as well insightful are the respective characters in Brueghel’s almost cartoonish satiric portrait of this aspect of contemporary village life. The detail is terrific – the nervous peasants, including the one hiding behind the door on the left; the notary who is just writing and not paying attention to anything else (the figure of calm in this mini-storm); the woman bending over, face hidden, and looks like she is holding something in her mouth as she searches for something in her basket; the old man and his companion holding out a piece of paper (a bribe?) to the sturdy man standing at the right who is scrutinizing the peasant energetically explaining something in the lawyer’s ear – the painting is full of drama and hidden possibile narratives. That this is a room full of secrets and hidden agendas is clear by the number of characters whose mouths are obscured. There is also the strange arm and hand right in the middle of the painting that seems to be reaching for the basket of eggs, but judging by the position of the arm as well as the single booted leg with a red stripe, they don’t seem to belong to the peasant standing behind. Is there another character hiding? All this only adds to the wonderful mystery and drama of the painting.
CLAUDE LORRAIN – Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum (c. 1634)
Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682) is generally regarded as one of the finest landscape painters of all time. Considered French he was actually born in the independent Duchy of Lorraine. He spent little time in Lorraine or France, but lived most of his life in Italy, mainly in Rome. He was quite prolific with his paintings, watercolours, drawings and engravings. By the late 1630s he had established himself as Italy’s premiere landscape artist with a secure and highly profitable international reputation and demand. His popularity remained high for the rest of his life. Stylistically Claude Lorrain belongs to the ‘Baroque’ period of ‘Western’ Art. By the beginning of the 17th Century landscapes had gone out of fashion. Whilst not singular, Claude Lorrain re-invented the form and genre, and in a way that is unique to himself. In virtually his work there is a particular serenity and grace. The English ‘Romantic’ artist, John Constable, who was very influenced by Claude Lorrain, describe him ‘as the most perfect landscape painter the world has ever seen’, and that in his landscapes ‘all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart’. In regards to the above painting, a ‘Capriccio’ is an imaginary landscape. Lorrain uses the ruins of the old Roman Forum to create an ‘arcadia’, a romantic ‘pastoral’, a glimpse of ‘A Golden Age’. The figures are dressed in contemporary 1630s clothes, and are either relaxed or getting on with their business amidst the Roman ruins – all is serene in this setting sun.
ANGELICA KAUFFMANN – Diana and her nymphs bathing (c. 1778-82)
Ever since I read Germaine Greer’s seminal work The Obstacle Race my knowledge, appreciation and respect for female artists from the past has grown. This has been considerably enhanced by the increasing number of such works that are now displayed in numerous art galleries around the world. Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) may not be as well known as her contemporaries and friends Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, nonetheless she was highly regarded in her own time, and was one of the two female founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768; the other being Mary Moser. Born in Chur (Graubunden), Switzerland, she was trained by her father, Joseph Johann Kauffmann, and by the age of 12 she was regarded as a talent child prodigy. She was also multi-lingual being able to speak German, Italian, French and English. After her mother’s death in 1754 she and her father moved to Milan. She travelled throughout Italy gaining considerable success and increasing popularity. It was whilst she was in Venice that she met Lady Wentworth who persuaded her to come with her to London. In 1765 her work was on display at an exhibition by the Free Artists Exhibition, and one of her first commissions was for the the celebrated English actor David Garrick. Lady Wentworth introduced Angelica Kauffmann to London’s high society. She became extremely popular, especially with members of the royal family. Her personal life, however, was not without scandal. In 1767 she was seduced by a Count Frederick de Horn, who proved to be a complete imposter and fraud. It is also possible that she and Jean-Paul Marat had an affair whilst he was living in London at this time. Nonetheless, owing to popularity and friendship with Joshua Reynolds she became one of the founding members of the Royal Academy., and was an annual contributor from 1769-1782. After the death of her first husband in 1781, with whom she had long been separated from she married the Venetian artist Antonio Zucchi. They moved to Rome where she was to remain the rest of her life. It was whilst living in Rome that she became great friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who she painted, and who regarded her one of the greatest artists of the age. She continued working right up 1797, and died in Rome in 1807. She was awarded a special funeral that was under the direction of the famous sculptor Canova.
THEODORE GERICAULT – Head of Youth (c. 1824)Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) was an extremely influential French painter and lithographer, and stands as a bridge between ‘Neoclassicism’ and ‘Romanticism’. He was born in Rouen and studied under such notable established French artists as Pierre-Narcisse Guerin. The young Gericault, however, was a rebellious, impulsive and free spirit. He stopped formal studying and between 1810-1815 he was at the Louvre copying and learning from the works of Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. He also spent a great deal of time at the stables at Versailles studying the anatomy of horses. His first major work, The Charging Chasseur was displayed at the Paris Salon in 1812, and was received very favourably. It revealed the influence of Rubens as well as Gericault’s passion to present work based on contemporary subjects. His next major work, however, Wounded Cuirassier (1814) was less well received. Crushed by the disappointment Gericault enrolled in the army and served in the garrison at Versailles. He continued to work through self-imposed study of figure study and construction, gaining a unique and powerful dramatic force. In 1816-17 he travelled to Rome and Naples and was inspired by the work of Michelangelo to attempt large epic paintings. This resulted in his most well-known work, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). The young Eugene Delacroix posed as one of the dying figures on the raft. This painting was based on a real life scandal. It created considerable controversy when it was shown in France, but was more favourably received in England. Gericault suffered from chronic tuberculosis. His final works, however, continued to display his dramatic flair and attraction to controversial and unconventional subject matters. This includes his portraits of the insane, as well as preliminary sketches for more epic and monumental works. Unfortunately his deteriorating health, coupled with some riding accidents, resulted in a long and agonizing decline; he died in Paris in 1824 at the age of 32. This beautiful painting, Head of Youth was a study that may have been part of an intended larger work. It was painted during the last years of Gericault’s life, somewhere between 1821-1824. It reveals the strong influence of Michelangelo, yet is also distinctly a work by Theodore Gericault; unique as it is representative of his position between ‘neoclassicism’ and the relatively new movement of ‘romanticism’ that was to dominate the first part of the 19th Century.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey from 16th Century ‘mannerism’ to 19th Century ‘romanticism’. As with any labels they are merely convenient and conventional descriptors. The real pleasure is, as Robert Hughes articulated, is to be able to actually stand in front of these works of art and allow them to effect you. They are just some of the many wonders on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia.