With thanks to my artist friend Annette who enriched this exhibition with her conversation and insight
On Saturday I spent a whole day mesmerised by the works of Australian artist Arthur Boyd. I encountered his Shoalhaven landscapes a few years ago during a visit to his home at Bundanon, since bequeathed to the nation, a place of workshops, artist residencies and pilgrimage. His more apocalyptic and slightly surreal paintings I decided I didn't like much. Then, Artonview, the magazine of the National Gallery, featured Nebuchadnezzar being struck by lightning and I was suddenly interested enough to go to Canberra for a vast exhibition of Boyd's work entitled Agony and ecstasy. And so I spent an unprecedented whole day in an art gallery, without suffering from appreciation fatigue, or even leg fatigue.
What did I see? Paintings by Boyd at 17: a self portrait showing insight and technical skill; landscapes with sheep that are mere blobs close up, and display definitive sheepness from a distance. “The brothers Karamazov”, painted when he was 18, showing the beginning of a strand of the grotesque in his representation of people, often people who are deformed in some way. The recognisably Australian landscape, even when it is only peripheral like the cliffs in the terrifying “The king”. Then a complete change of light and style in “Boatbuilders Eden” and “The mining town – casting the money lenders from the temple” where I feel again my childhood pleasure in little details: the toppling runaway pigs, the figure heading to the outhouse, the lovers on the bench.
One thing I was particularly eager to see was a hunk of the mural recovered from the Boyd family home by embedding it in concrete when the house was demolished to make way for a quarry. It is a very gentle portrayal of the prodigal son returning home, and maybe a slight dig at expatriate Uncle Martin, who had finally and briefly returned to Australia.
Ceramics were a new side of Boyd for me. The exhibition included tiles, glossy and luminous, my favourite a diving figure and a frog; and three ceramic sculptures, one of Ned Kelly in full tin armour riding a judge.
Just when I thought infinite variety was exhausted I walked into the room filled with the unicorn etchings and aquatints, created to illustrate a poem by Peter Porter, graceful compositions and a magical unicorn. The last room was filled with the St Francis tapestries, based on Boyd's original pastel drawings, and woven in the tapestry workshop in Portalegre, Portugal.
All this richness and variety, but my favourite room, against all my expectations, was the room of the Nebuchadnezzar paintings. I spent a lot of time with my nose up against the thick paintwork, enthralled by the paint patterns in a small patch, and stepping back to see the whole, as a Lear-like king, reduced to a four-legged animal, ate grass and made his way though lightning and rain and blindness and greed.
This is by no means all. I'll be going back for another close look at the artworks I missed this time, and to revisit favourites.
Go to “Galleries” for the exhibition online, from which I've extracted the images on this post.
For a few Shoalhaven paintings and their influence (along with that of Fred Williams) on my photography have a look at