Murray Bail, Arthur Boyd, Art and Landscape

Last year, I attended the National Library of Australia’s two-day seminar, Writing the Australian Landscape, and wrote three posts about it, here, here and again here! In the first post, I wrote about Murray Bail’s somewhat provocative keynote speech. What I didn’t mention in my post was Bail’s reference to Arthur Boyd’s painting, titled “Interior with Black Rabbit” (which you can see at the National Gallery of Australia: BOYD, Arthur | Interior with black rabbit.)

I was reminded of this reference when I visited the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition prior to the Griffyn Ensemble Concert because, on the label for this artwork was a quote from Murray Bail, which I recognised as being from his address at the seminar. I’d like to share it with you now. Bail introduced the painting, which he showed on a screen (presumably with copyright approval), by telling us that its subject is “the difficulty of being an artist in this new, largely empty place, Australia”. He then described the painting, thus (and this is the quote on the National Gallery’s label):

It shows the dilemma of the painter. It could just as well be the dilemma of the novelist in Australia, or the poet, or somebody composing a piece of music. Perhaps above all the dilemma faced by the painter and the novelist.

The painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture. And here culture is represented by chicken wire. Utilitarian, crude, provisional. And in the darkened room the artist is on his knees, trying to capture something of this, via the rabbit – and the rabbit is an animal that is always out of reach.

This view of the landscape is, of course, the view of a “distant sensibility”. I don’t imagine that the traditional owners of the landscape see it as “glaring, pitiless, empty”. One of the concerns in the audience that day was Bail’s Euro-centric focus. That was fair enough, in a way – he is, after all, like most of us were in that audience, descended from distant sensibilities – but some greater recognition of indigenous sensibilities would have been appropriate. Putting this aside, however, Bail is right about one thing, which is that landscape “is always viewed through culture”. This is particularly evident in Australia, where responses to landscape can vary immensely depending on your origin – indigenous, “settler” or settler ancestry, or recent immigrant. Certainly, landscape is a powerful – and complicated – force in both Bail’s and Boyd’s work.

Hmm ... what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

Hmm … what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

So, how does it play out in their work? For Bail, there is still clearly a tension between his (our) European heritage and this place we are in. Indeed, in the talk I attended he said that

I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys, all of them….. My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness.

He’s right … at least there are elements of this, surprisingly so at times, in the three novels of his I’ve read, Eucalyptus (less so), The pages and The voyage.

I’m not sure how much Bail himself hotfooted it out of here, but Boyd sure did. He lived in London from 1960 to 1971. On his return, he bought a place, Bundanon, in the Shoalhaven region (only a couple of hours from where I live). The Wikipedia article on Boyd suggests that at first he found the landscape “rugged and wild” but that he gradually “befriended the formidable landscape”. In fact, he befriended it so much that, as I wrote in my Griffyn Ensemble post, he donated the property to the Australian people. In Zara Stanhope’s Arthur Boyd: An active witness (Bundanon Trust, 2013) he is quoted:

I want it to be accessible to any Australian whose life can be enriched by the beauty, the history, the landscape, the environment and by the energy and stimulation from social interaction with Australian creative artists.

In the book, Stanhope says that Boyd wrote in a handwritten letter that he want the property to be used as “a base for research by practitioners in music, drama, literature, visual arts and science”. Phew … that answers my question in the caption above! Stanhope also discusses briefly in the book Boyd’s engagement in the natural world, saying that:

From being a compositional vehicle and a carrier of emotions, the landscape came to offer multiple meanings.

Those meanings include spiritual or abstract ones dealing with our relationship with or connections to the environment, metaphorical ones to do with our attitude to the natural world (including his series on animal research), and practical ones about preserving the environment. Boyd did also paint a series – the Bride paintings – expressing his concerns about conditions of indigenous people and the need for reconciliation, but these were earlier in his career after a visit to outback/central Australia.

I have no conclusion to all this – but just wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having, connections I’ve been making. It just reminds me that in Australia at least, we can’t divorce ourselves from considerations of landscape, no matter what Bail said in his talk. Not only is it a presence that demands notice, but it defines our relationships – indigenous-nonindigenous, east-west, national-international, inland-coast, mainland-island – which in turn define our culture, who we are, how we see ourselves. No wonder we keep talking about it, writing about it, painting it, composing about it …

29 thoughts on “Murray Bail, Arthur Boyd, Art and Landscape

  1. It is really interesting what he writes. I was thinking after reading it that when I lived in U.S.A. between Michigan and Florida for almost 40 years I never really thought about landscape. Maybe because I was younger, maybe I didn’t notice it. But not in Tasmania, for the past 25 years I see landscape all around me and when I did a long scooter trip up into outback Qld three years ago the landscape was all I thought about. It is just so awe inspiring in Australia. I always thought it was because one can go to beaches or through miles and miles of land without seeing another soul. Is it the lack of people? the largeness? the colours which are certainly different from anywhere else. I can’t say but I am glad it is a part of me now as I grow older.

  2. My initial response to the Boyd quote, about how to live a rich life, was “how patronising”. From the particulars of his own life (and loves for art, music, etc) he is generalising to everyone else. Whether or not a life is rich can surely only truly be decided by the person living it? Yes, literature enriches my life. But children, friends, gardens, etc are life enriching too. If someone believed a motorbike/elephant/career in architecture/whatever enriched their life, who could argue with them?

    And I must be feeling grumpy because I then took issue with Bail’s description of the painting. How could he leave out the fact that the rabbit is an introduced species, and the layer of complexity that adds to the representation of landscape being captured via the rabbit? I must go and read some reviews of Eucalyptus and see if my own (long-ago) reactions to it (negative, mainly) were felt by anyone else.

    Luckily I was rescued from incipient surliness by WG’s lovely final paragraph. yes yes yes.

      • Oh no, I loved it, Jane. It still gives me the shivers. I’m guessing it’s the gender issue you don’t like Jane? For some reason, I read it as “fairy tale” and not through other prisms. Not sure why, but I must say Bail does confuse me, the more I read and hear him.

        • That’s interesting Jane (and MST) – I have heard this before … however, I thought the daughter subverts the father’s plans for her and finds her own love. At least that was how I read it at the time, so I didn’t take offence. I need to read it again I think because it’s become clear to me in recent years that not everyone say it that way.

      • Bad case of emperor’s new clothes. If Eucalyptus had been written by a woman and she used that fairy tale trope so clumsily, I believe the book would have been treated far more dismissively.

    • Oh yes, MST … I must say I thought it was a bit patronising too and nearly didn’t include it, but decided that there were other things about it made me decide to keep it. And yet, Bail’s rabbit interpretation intrigued me too. I think Boyd used rabbits in a few ways … He also used them in paintings about animal research.

      There was so much in these two comments to explore … That I could have gone on, as in “but this, and then that, so does that mean this then …”

      So, thanks for engaging … And taking on board all those competing, confusing ideas!

      • Oh I hope it was clear that I was grumpy with the quotes themselves – not with you for including them. I’m glad you did. I really enjoyed your post, which is gloriously thought-provoking.

        • Oh thanks MST. Yes, I did think that was what you meant. You were clear. It was more that I felt I should have made that point myself re the Boyd comment because I thought it – it’s pretty prescriptive – but decided not to go off on a tangent. (I’d love to know the tone intended by the final line. I suspect it is serious but there might be a little self-awareness there?).

          I’m very glad that you made the comment – and am glad that you enjoyed the post.

  3. Isn’t serendipity a wonderful thing?
    Your discussion about the fundamental importance of landscape for Australian artists, (visual and otherwise), is very similar to a conversation I’ve been having with my friend, the poet and novelist Joan Kerr. We’ve been talking about how, in some frontier societies (America and Australia for Europeans), the social fabric they understood was stretched so thin they were forced to confront what lay outside, and everywhere around it. For some, the confrontation led to egotistical myth-making and the will to conquer, but for others it really was an existential challenge, an invitation to efface, or re-define the ego – and still is, in my opinion.

    • Oh, I’m glad you say that, Dorothy, because I’ve been thinking about whether it still is too – and I agree with you, I do think it is. It’s so very layered in meaning and implications for us – and I don’t think it is something we can easily escape or ignore.

      Egotistical myth making? Do you think all myth making is egotistical?

      And yes, I love such serendipity.

      • Jeanine Leane makes a good point about Australian response to landscape in art and literature as being a settler one, not the only or perhaps most coherent one. I suspect a country like Australia might have a response to landscape that is a bit more primal than in a densely settled European landscape.

        • Yes, I think it does Ian … Though the moors in Wuthering Heights are pretty primal! Seriously though I do think that the landscape does impinge more here, the landscape and nature. I think most Aussies are very conscious of our landscape in a way that I suspect many Europeans may be more conscious of perhaps architecture and the built environment.

  4. Gosh. Fabulous post and great comments from people afterwards.
    I will attempt to do as you have done, and just add thoughts without necessarily drawing any overall conclusions:

    – Dorothy Johnston’s comment is magnificent, and ties in beautifully with Ian Darling’s. I think the European (and British and Scandinavian and so forth) experience of ‘place’ is more fragmented, or perhaps more cordoned-off and separated from each other than it is in Australia. And I think the experiences are more dominated (and more separated by each other) by socio-economic and climactic factors. Forbidding cold, poverty in the midst of industrialisation, and gentility/nobility figure in the Australian consciousness too, but I would argue that they are perhaps less prominent here than in Europe. And by now, of course, both Europe and Australia have fallen under the spell of the upwardly-mobile-swelling-middle-class-economic model that America pioneered during the Wars and after.

    – Regarding ‘hot-footing it out of here’, Bail certainly spent a period of his early adulthood in London, and possibly elsewhere, like many of his creative and intellectual countrymen. But I don’t know how long he was away for.

    – All of this reminds me of Bail’s withering tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of Russell Drysdale’s “The Drover’s Wife.” Not to mention characters like Johann Voss and Stan Parker. And Randolph Stow’s “Midnite”, which was a clever parody of colonial Australia packaged as a children’s story, complete with a German explorer in a desert (and a reef of gold!)

    – Recently the WA Art Gallery held an exhibitions of the work of Guy Grey-Smith, who is best known for various renditions of outback landscapes. One of the explanatory blurbs drew a distinction between Grey-Smith’s representational imperatives, and those of artists like Boyd and Sidney Nolan, who sought to construct a visage of a national identity out of the places and scenes (and characters!) they depicted (happy for anyone to take issue with that interpretation – it isn’t mine, as such.)

    Thanks again for this ‘shaft of sunlight’.

    • Thanks Glen for engaging in the discussion. I’ve heard of Bail’s Drover’s wife. I should read it, shouldn’t I.

      A visage of a national identity. It’s hard to avoid that assumption with Nolan and his Kelly series, in particular. I haven’t read enough about Boyd (and I believe he didn’t talk a lot about his work) but much of his work “feels” to me more personal, more interior, or at times commentary. But, it’s probably true that his imperative wasn’t representational! I haven’t heard of Guy Grey-Smith. Must chech him out.

  5. What an interesting discussion and so many excellent comments too! I think the landscape looms large in the U.S. too and having just read a Willa Cather short story collection in which character after character is beaten down by or escapes from a harsh life on the plains, it is woven into the fabric of life so tightly that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It generally takes the eyes of art or an outsider to point out just how important it is even if we disagree with Boyd or Bail, or whoever, such observations force us to examine and re-examine, a good think I think.

    • Thanks Stefanie … oh yes, Willa Cather. The landscape is a powerful presence. And probably in western (and midwestern) writers in general. I suspect in the US the main theme is more one of conquering the landscape, of pioneers and settlement, whereas I think in Australia it is more fraught and it may have carried through to contemporary work more than in the USA. But this may just be to do with my familiarity. We do have quite a lot in common in terms of settler communities and vast landscapes.

      • This is why I love Dorothy’s comments about the existential challenges of landscape. I don’t know whether the respective pioneers in North America and Australia had somewhat different attitudes to the lands they were entering, and how much the physical differences between the two continents impacted on that. But I have a sense that, in the Australian case, the wilderness was less easily grappled with as a competitor. The language is telling here – in America the West was known as a ‘frontier’, something to be breasted, beaten back, tamed. But Australia is flatter, drier, and more arid than North America, and in our white-settler sensibilities it’s the ‘outback’, the ‘Great Australian Emptiness’. It’s a slippery thing full of ghosts and myths, and it closes in on all sides. The American frontiersman tended to die in battle – against the mountains, against the native tribes, against outlaws. In Australia the vastness could easily consume you, swallow you whole, like a giant labyrinth of sun-seared space, losing you completely in its timelessness. Burke and Wills were found in the end, although their privations had killed them. But Leichardt was never seen again.

        Your earlier posts on the conference (which I’ve just read) prompt me to reiterate that existentialism is, of course, a Western concept that grew out of understandings of individual subjectivity. We have to remember that such an experience was probably quite alien to indigenous Australians, because they saw themselves as merely extensions of the land’s consciousness. As I read your descriptions of what the various speakers had to say, I had the sense that ‘country’ and ‘person’ were separated only by the thinnest of membranes in the way indigenous Australians saw themselves.

        Incidentally, I haven’t read any Willa Cather. I’m sure the landscape does indeed ‘loom large’ as you say, Stephanie. I just believe that in the Australian colonial/invader experience, it’s a different kind of looming.

        • Interesting comment re language Glen. I think there are points of connection between our two countries as well as points of departure.

          And yes I think you are right in terms of the indigenous view of country and personhood in indigenous culture. I have clearly got across the sense I got at the seminar.

          Do try Cather. My Antonia is a good one because it also incorporates the idea of immigrants. It’s part of a trilogy.

  6. No, I don’t think all myth-making is egotistical, WG.

    I was thinking primarily of the ‘heroic’ myth-making of settler or frontier societies, invented to justify theft on a grand scale. To me, this kind of myth-making is a clear strand in the history of responses to landscape in Australian and American literature and art. In my earlier comment, I was trying to get at something opposed to this, and much harder to define.

    I feel privileged to take part in this discussion, because there are so many thoughtful comments and examples. Thank you for your examples, Glen and Stephanie. I agree with you about Willa Cather. I think Voss is a very interesting case.

    Given my values and preferences, i’m prone to take attempts at constructing a ‘national identity’ with about a pound of salt. (And I remember White’s scathing comments about it when interviewed on TV once.)

    • Thanks Dorothy for clarifying. I assumed that’s what you meant but wanted to make sure I understood. And yes, the opposite is much harder to define. I’m glad you’re finding it so too! Sometimes I worry about posts like this because of their loose “fresh air survey” style. Anyhow, I do think you got to the nub by describing it as something more existential, that forces us back on ourselves, demanding a rethinking or re-evaluation of beliefs and assumptions.

      We could also look at Bail’s statement about viewing landscape through culture, which makes a lot of sense in terms of this myth making – the settler conquering the landscape etc – but it could also be turned back on itself, in the sense that the landscape can force a rethinking of cultural (not to mention more personal psychological) assumptions.

      Voss has popped into my brain quite a bit as I’ve been thinking of this topic … I’ve promised myself to reread this soon as I was away when my reading group did it.

  7. ‘distant sensibilities’ what a thought provoking phrase. I’m afraid where I am is a little like the vast Australian landscape. Other than the Rockies, which offer some lofty sentiments, what we have are flat prairies and in particular, for us in Cowtown Calgary, the very symbol of our city is the 10-gallon cowboy hat. To add to the complexity, I for one is from another ‘distant’ origin, the far off Eastern shore. So, where do we seek ‘identity’ and ‘inspiration’? Instead of stereotyping and framing a cultural tradition, I’d say, let the innermost voice speak out, in whatever language (metaphorically speaking) it feels most comfortable using. We always have this ‘problematic’ issue, what makes our ‘Canadian identity’? Instead of seeking a national or immediate geographical landscape to determine our orientation, why don’t we allow the artist to freely roam and fly cross boundaries… that’s the purpose of art, isn’t it?

    • Good point Arti … I guess the issue is what we think artists are doing and/or what they say they are doing. The thing that bothers me about the current separatist movements is this withdrawing into a narrower identity rather than embracing a wider one. I guess this is off on another tangent, but something you said made me think of it!

      Bail would agree with you regarding not seeking a national or geographic landscape to define our orientation. I think that’s a fair approach. However I’d also say that the purpose of art is more about self expression and that may mean exploring or crossing boundaries or it may mean completely rejecting them?

  8. Reblogged this on storie | diane simonelli and commented:
    “Bail is right about one thing, which is that landscape “is always viewed through culture”. This is particularly evident in Australia, where responses to landscape can vary immensely depending on your origin – indigenous, “settler” or settler ancestry, or recent immigrant. “

  9. Pingback: Core of My Heart, My Country by Maggie Mackellar | Adventures in Biography

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