Arthur Boyd review (NGA, Canberra)

Time, Bob Dylan groused, is a jet plane — it moves too fast.

We saw the Arthur Boyd show in Canberra shortly after it opened in early September, and it’s already mid-October. It’s children who get to travel time on a boat, for them a frustrating and stately pace, while adults get seated on faster and faster jets the closer they get to their final destination. We’re not waiting for Godot, we’re screaming helter skelter into his arms.

On the left, the well-known self-portrait at 17 (in the show); and the self-portrait at 65, which seems predicted by the teenage picture. Even at 17 Boyd looks like he had already boarded the jet.

Flying not like a jet plane but an eagle, another poet reckoned that time keeps on slippin’, slippin’ into the future. But, surely it is the reverse? This is what we mean when we say: Your time has come, followed by, Your time is past. Boyd died in 1999 but already he seems very old hat, and I’d say, not much looked at so that people have a view of his work without having reallyviewed it; rather like having opinions about celebrated books we haven’t really read.

I wrote an earlier version of this post but after various discussions filed it away. People I talked to, I mean art folk, people who like art, didn’t care much for Arthur Boyd. He remains famous but has become thoroughly unfashionable; I was shocked that his work can be so casually disdained. “Ugly” is a frequent descriptor.

 The Good, the Boyd and the Ugly

Indeed, I consider much of the ugliness in Boyd’s work a virtue. I read something once about a certain kind of macho Latin temperament which prided itself on being both serious and ugly — Don’t look pretty for anyone; get serious, get ugly, get heavy. Boyd’s figures are often, even mainly, ugly and clumsy, spoilt by life and original sin. In contrast his landscapes are almost invariably rendered in their raw prime, virginal or edenic.

Early in the show: the heartbreakingly pristine vision of the Mornington Peninsula, Boat Builders, Eden. Boyd was just 28 when he made this gorgeous latter-day borrowing of Breughel.

The other day I was asked by a friend if I had seen the Boyd show as he was keen to go. Prompted by his interest I uncorked my enthusiasm. Agony & Ecstacy, (which younger folk may not realise refers to a biography of Michelangelo, and the grandiose movie, too, where Mikey is played by a filthy and hothead Charlton Heston at work on the divine ceiling), selects for the figure and the metaphysical — though in Boyd’s case that’s just cherrypicking his entire oeuvre.

The Harkaway mural fragment: His startlingly precocious early works — vivid and passionate — includes a stunning, enormous fragment of theHarkaway mural, which I had not seen before. Embedded in a crushing slab of concrete is the most tender rendition of the prodigal son returning. Here, Boyd is the lovechild of Brueghel and Rembrandt, boldly taking up the Western inheritance; he was still 28. Though just a small portion of the demolished wall it is 2.3m square — looking up into the dusky woodland scene it’s clear the young Boyd moved in Biblical realms of feeling; its empathy is profound. But the painting sure ain’t pretty.

His wonderful and “exquisite” (the wall text claims) suite of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ etchings are on display. I’ve got the book somewhere — theetchings illustrate Peter Porter’s poems on the famous tapestries from the Middle Ages. The prints foreground another aspect of Boyd’s unfashionable qualities. He was a virtuosoic and hardworking technician. He could draw and paint like anything, but he never chose to make it beautiful — exquisite he might do, charm he was unwilling.

Among the plenty are two bunches of effortlessly bold ink drawings, the wildNebuchadnezzar paintings and a last roomful of large, unappealing tapestries of Boyd’s unappealing sequence about St Francis. (Why do people make tapestries from paintings? What a redundancy of transposition, and unfruitful intercourse of media. Check out the Boyd-based 20m wide Great Hall Tapestry in the Parliament building — it looks like a regurgitated Blue Poles, plus it has an unfortunate rectangle cut into it to allow for doors. Compare the Lady and Unicorn tapestries in Paris, where every stitch insists on being.)

The caged painter

But let me finish with a picture that really sang to me in all its sublime ugliness. In a room near the end hang thirteen paintings in ‘The caged painter’ series, which culminate in the enormous Paintings in the studio:`Figure supporting back legs’ and `Interior with black rabbit’, a lynchpin of the NGA’s permanent displays (I used to admire it without reserve; reservations I now have more than a few.) They were inspired by Boyd’s 1971 residency at the ANU (he had been living in London since 1959). This was soon after his retrospective at the NGV and Boyd was just entering his fifth decade.

(I’ve taken the following quotes from the illuminating ANU catalogue Three Creative Fellows (PDF) which also has reproductions of ‘The caged painter’ series. The essay on Boyd is by Mary Eagle.)

Boyd said: ‘I put myself in the cage … instead of talking, I had my brushes.’

The series was about a creative crisis: ‘The painings are about coming to a dead end, or thinking you’ve come to a dead end, and then making use of the fact to rekindle the batteries.’

He spoke of wanting to be free of “Australian” and “Expressionist” labels.

And yet he explained: ‘The whole series…is about a painter painting in a landscape, and exclusively an Australian landscape.’

You can look at the series here. The one I kept coming back to is Kneeling figure with canvas and black canIt’s about 1.1m square. Reproduction doesn’t do it any favours.

One of the most striking aspects of this and the series is Boyd’s combination of the deep blue sky and the blown out ground, like a white beach. It’s always looked to me unlike any other version of the Australian bush.

His wife Yvonne described them as ‘the first of the blond landscapes with blue skies.’ They were staying in the suburb of Garran and five minutes from their apartment ‘took him into the country where a remarkably blue sky rose endlessly above white-grey pastureland on which shadows were etched in black.’ A southern boy, Boyd joked, ‘I still can’t get the blue skies right … the blue is so intense compared to the Victorian.’

Here’s a thing: it only becomes apparent on close inspection — the blaze of the white ground is off-white paint smeared over the gessoed canvas, much of which is showing through: the dazzle comes from the close tones of near-white on white.

Another thing — throughout this series (and I think, his entire career) he dashes off superlative depictions of the bush. Boyd remarked that all art is ‘essentially illustrative in nature.’ As illustrations of nature few painters have matched the quality of his observations. His gum trees are superb — anyone who has looked closely at the Heidelberg crew will know how tricky it is to carry off the look of the foliage; it is exceedingly hard to make it look believable while keeping the brushwork unlaboured.

As a painter Boyd was unmistakably “Australian” and “Expressionist”; as an autodidact his painterly fluency is stunning — but the strokes aren’t just drawing attention to themselves as ravishing and sensuous abstractions, they are mostly verbs — doing, or telling.

Bravura markmaking, obscurantism and mystery

I am blown away by Boyd’s sheer bravado — having made a barren landscape with offhand conviction he then attacks the setting with a fearless brush, stroking in a painter figure (a “painter-bride” as Mary Eagle has it) surmounted by a black dog in a muzzle. No guesses as to what they are doing. The colour in the figure’s leg and the ground beneath are literally scrawled — this is impetuous markmaking without a safety net; you can’t fake the verve can’t be faked, and a wrong move can’t be rescued. Picasso mentioned that he had spent a lifetime learning to draw like a child again, to be able to access the recklessness of nothing to lose. In this picture we see it all come together — control, technique, freedom, letting go and letting out.

Modern-period and contemporary artists love to talk about the mysterious, and how they want their work to surprise themselves, because if you know what you are about to make, what’s the point of doing it? But it seems to me that often it’s an excuse for obscurantism. Obscurity willfully refuses engagement — it witholds its secrets. Mystery is like a koan — it plucks at the edges of your understanding, and you may be able to penetrate its sense if not its logic.

This picture is mysterious —  we can see the stage and the characters and what’s going on even if we don’t quite know why. But we are given the key by the paint  — its transmission of feeling. One does have to be acculturated to parse paintings, and this is not an “easy” picture; it is not obvious like, say, a Streeton landscape, but the marks also shows the open hand of the child, a freedom of expression we all know how to read. I can only say I find it exhilirating — it’s the way it embodies the tension between control and abandon, figuration and abstraction, meaning and mystery. This is indeed an image of the artist in extremis, agonised in content, ecstatic in form.

Notes: The excellent website of the exhibition where you can view all the pictures via the “Galleries” tab. (But they are not very big to look at, alas.)

See Janet McKenzie’s standard Arthur Boyd, Art & Life, Thames and Hudson 2000.

2 responses to “Arthur Boyd review (NGA, Canberra)

  1. thank you, one of the best pieces of art reviewing i’ve read in some time. long may arthur remain unfashionable. this assumes his posterity is secure. i find the st francis pictures more than appealing, but that’s an irrelevance. the appreciation of the craftsmanship in the service of profundity is very welcome.

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