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.
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 …