Art Review / National Gallery Canberra

Review: Arthur Boyd at the ANG in Canberra until 9 November

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Birth of Narcissus 1976, oil on canvas, 152.5 x 122.0 cm, National Gallery of Australia

By Simon Holberton

On a recent visit to Canberra I managed to spend some time at the National Gallery of Australia where a retrospective exhibition of Arthur Boyd is currently on show until 9 November. Sorry for such a late notice; there’s only a week to go. Boyd left his collection to the ANG in a series of gifts beginning in the mid-1960s. This bequest eventually numbered in excess of 7,000 works of art. The current exhibition shows just over 100 pieces, including ceramics and tapestries. This isn’t really a review but a number of (un)connected observations, and, as always, if you click on the thumbnails they’ll open in a separate window for more detailed viewing.

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The prodigal son 1948–49, from the Harkaway mural casein tempera, powder colour on plaster on mortar 230.0 x 227.0 cm National Gallery of Australia 

Influences

Although small in scale the exhibition seeks to present Boyd’s development as an artist. So what does one learn? The first thing that struck me was how susceptible he was to influence, and how that directly played out in his painting. He was taught to paint by his father (Merric) and uncle (Penleigh)—the latter, one of the most gifted ‘minor’ landscape painters of early last century, tragically killed in car accident in his early 30s.  Arthur’s landscapes from 1937-1939 underline his gift. That talent for landscape painting never left him and resurfaced from time to time, culminating with his final years at Shoalhaven after his return to Australia from Britain in 1975. These seem to me to bookend Boyd’s career as a painter. Between those bookends is an heterogeneous body of work.

Boyd’s first big influence outside his family was Yosl Bergner, a central European artist who came to Australia in 1937, bringing with him a sort of socialist expressionism. The joy and colour go out of Boyd’s palette and these mostly figurative works are dark. The contact with Bergner had an immediate impact on the young Boyd and one detects a lasting influence right through to the Bride series of the late 1950s.

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The mining town (Casting the money lenders from the temple) c.1946 oil and tempera on composition board 87.4 x 109.4 cm, National Gallery of Australia

In the late 1940s Boyd’s uncle Martin, a celebrated novelist, commissioned him to paint the interior of the Boyd family country house, The Grange, at Harkaway near Berwick. These murals, known as the Harkaway murals, were destroyed in the 1960s to make way for a quarry and shamefully they survive only in fragments. One such fragment shown in the exhibition is part of a larger mural depicting The Prodigal Son (it is missing two figures, and a lot of landscape). Boyd here is under the spell of Italian 16th century renaissance masters. Around the same time he fell under the spell of Breughel too. Picasso in the 1920s looked at and drew inspiration from classical art, but not with the degree of literalness of Boyd.

And then there is Chagall. Boyd likes to follow Chagall and paint faces in profile where the nose is continuous with the forehead. He seems, to this observer at least, to like Chagall’s colours as well, especially in the Bride series.

Series

Speaking of which, Boyd, more than any other comparable artist, loved to produce pictorial cycles. One of his earliest is Love, death and marriage of a half caste, which dates from the early 1950s, also known as the Bride series. At the end of the 1960s he produced his Nebuchadnezzar series, and a Life of St Francis which became a tapestry series. There is also the Potter series, illustration for Lysistrata, and in the late 1970s the Lady and Unicorn series of graphic work. Boyd’s penchant for working in series is discussed only tangentially in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, although it strikes me as one of the artist’s defining characteristics. Boyd clearly liked working with narrative and within narrative constraints; perhaps this was because he was relieved of an aspect of decision making and free to pursue other more painterly aspects of the subject matter. One could make an argument for his Shoalhaven paintings being yet another (unfinished) series.

Religion

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Nebuchadnezzar being struck by lightning 1969, oil on canvas, 174.3 x 183.2 cm, National Gallery

Walking around the exhibition galleries one thing stood out: even more than Boyd’s susceptibility to influence, was his interest in religion—another aspect of his work given short shrift in the exhibition catalogue. Is the academy embarrassed to talk about religion? From the cycle of religious paintings for his uncle Martin through to the Life of St Francis it is blindingly obvious that religion held a special fascination for Boyd. His most interesting series of pictures, based upon the life of Nebuchadnezzar as related in the Book of Daniel, is a tremendous achievement and one of the thrills of this exhibition. The catalogue tells us that it was Blake’s watercolours of Nebuchadnezzar that inspired Boyd, while his commitment to Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s anti-nuclear agenda is present in some. Yet here we have the Lear-like figure of Nebuchadnezzar condemned to seven years of wandering in the wilderness, suffering the nemesis that surely follows the hubris of assuming god-like airs. It is a masterful study of abjection, humiliation, and destitution. Boyd wisely kept himself to himself, offering on very rare occasions the odd Delphic utterance. Apparently he didn’t believe in God. Who knows? If so it only makes his religious work all the more interesting.

Lastly, the show is called Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy. Quite why the title of Irving Stone’s potboiler biography of Michelangelo (later made into an unintentionally hilarious film staring Charlton Heston) should have been co-opted for this exhibition is entirely lost on me. This association alone should have started warning bells at ANG. The title is just naff.

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