Once upon a time John and Sunday Reed, champions and patrons of Australian contemporary art in the mid-20th century, established an artists’ community on their 15-acre property at Heide. Many of Australia’s most prominent artists spent time there: Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sydney Nolan, and John Perceval to name a few. I like to think that when I put my hand on the worn timber of the newel post at the farm house I am connecting with these people and the lively artistic and intellectual world they lived in.
The main exhibition, Charles Blackman’s “Schoolgirls”, is very apt: Rosemary and I have been friends since the early days of primary school. The paintings are striking, almost geometrical, and the colours strong even when the palette is limited. I’m immediately drawn to the painting of a girl on a pushbike in which I recognise my self, or at least my view of young self, tentative, slightly timid, but venturing nevertheless. It ignites emotion in a way that rarely happens for me in front of a painting.
Many of the other paintings remind me of the twins: the intentness, the physicality, the games. Most delight, but some present the schoolgirls as frighteningly vulnerable. There are stories critics use to explain the mood of some of these paintings: his first wife’s blindness; his own unhappy, isolated childhood; two murders of young women, one a schoolgirl. The backgrounds are often semi-industrial Melbourne, and a slew of later ones use a collage of advertisements. (Presenting them like this needs apology I think, but it allows me to share a lot more of the images, even if some of them are cropped.)
The Blackman exhibition is not the only pleasure of Heide. A smaller exhibition presents paintings of a landscape familiar to both of us – and to Germaine Greer: the Springbrook area in south-eastern Queensland, with its waterfalls and rainforest. The artists are Albert Tucker, a member of the Heide household, who painted the first collection, and his friend Fred Williams, whose exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia I visited three times.
Panel paintings are typical of Williams, his way of showing many layers of a complex scene.
A longish train journey, and two exhibitions. It must be time to pause for lunch, and a contemplation of a few of the outdoor sculptures, all within sight of the cafe.
After lunch, we visit the house where everyone lived, Heide 1: here we see the vegetable garden with thriving kale (another form of modernism); more paintings; the library; cats; household goods; and the interior of the house itself.
But the day’s not over yet. We head down the hill to Heide 2, more gallery than home, and quite uninviting with its limestone walls and dead ends, except for a vast fireplace. There are however intriguing paintings by Denise Green, again cropped a bit for economy.
By 3 o’clock our stamina is waning. There’s no time to visit the corrugated iron cows and other sculptures scattered through the grounds. We pass a ginkgo in glorious golden leaf and head back to the bus and the 2-hour trip home, where we relish arancini bought at the Queen Victoria markets.