Favourite quotes: from the artist Hans Heysen

I started this little Favourite Quotes series some time ago, with a specific purpose in mind, but it fell by the way-side in the busy-ness of life. However, I regularly come across statements that I’d love to document somewhere useful so that I don’t lose them – and so I am resurrecting this series with a broader ambit.

This new plan was inspired by my visit to the Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art Exhibition this week, at NGV Australia, Federation Square, in Melbourne. Their art is very accessible and a joy to see, but also offers much to think about. Hans Heysen (1877-1968) focused largely on landscapes. He particularly loved gums – woo hoo – and has been described, in fact, as an early conservationist. His daughter, Nora (1911-2003), focused more on still lifes and portraits. She was also Australia’s first woman war artist. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted recently on Nora. Both were significant Australian artists. Hans won our prestigious landscape prize, the Wynne Prize, nine times, and Nora won our top portrait prize, the Archibald.

However, my goal here is not to review the exhibition, but to share two statements made by Hans Heysen which I think can apply to all art – not just the visual arts.

Quote 1

… while as an artist I love Australia, art has no country, but is in essence cosmopolitan.

Droving into the light (Hans Heysen, 1914-21)

Much of Hans Heysen’s work seems quintessentially Australian in content but his technique – obvious when you look at his work – is strongly informed by 19th century artists and movements, by, for example, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists, the Romantics like Turner, and artists like Van Gogh. Anyhow, I like his argument that, in essence, art is bigger than “country”. The Exhibition argues that Heysen disavowed nationalism, which is not surprising given the tough time that he, as a German-born Australian, experienced during World War 1. The label for “Droving into the light” argues that “not so much nationalist as pantheist, Heysen’s landscapes do not refer merely to what it is to be Australian but rather to explore what it is to belong to nature in a more holistic sense.” So, for example, Heysen biographer Klepac says that Heysen was “inspired by the light and the landscape of Hahndorf and the Adelaide Hills, which he transformed into an Arcadian vision that can still haunt us with its sense of timeless beauty”.

I like these interpretations of his work, and would argue that taking a broader perspective is the aim of many creators, regardless of how specific their settings are.

Quote 2

I am trying only to paint as truthfully as I can, and that which my eyes see and perhaps what I unconsciously feel. Truth to Nature after all is the goal, but Truth interpreted through temperament.

Hans Heysen wrote this to his artist friend Lionel Lindsay in 1919. I like his clarification that while his aim is “Truth”, it can only be a truth that he sees and feels. I may be drawing a long bow – and perhaps even mixing up different meanings of “truth” – but it reminded me that although “truths” can be universal, they are also individually interpreted. Why else, I suppose, would we keep looking at art, reading literature, listening to music, and so on? It would be pretty boring, if not meaningless, if everyone expressed these “truths” the same way. Just compare Heyson’s Australian landscapes with those of other artists and we can quickly see how differently the “truth” of the landscape can be conveyed – one seeing it as Arcadian (idyllic), for example, and another as Gothic (terrifying.)

Anyhow, the aim of these posts is to share some interesting ideas, rather than become too bogged down in explication. Hopefully, you can see why I wanted to “keep” these quotes?

14 thoughts on “Favourite quotes: from the artist Hans Heysen

  1. Thanks for sharing these quotes, Sue, and for the heads up on the exhibition, which I’ll aim to visit soon. I like that both Heysen quotes apply equally to ‘my’ field of literature as they do to visual art.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I always find it fascinating to get into the mind of an artist. I particularly like the second quotation. To a great degree, it is the way that I think about art.

  3. Hi Sue, I love quotes. A few words can say so much. I just borrowed from the library, Nora Heysen – A Portrait, by Anne-Louise Willoughby. I hope to see the exhibition this Friday.

  4. Hi Sue, I had a great day yesterday. Went to the Dog Lover’s Show and patted some beautiful, cuddly dogs. Had lunch with a friend and then we went and saw the Nora and Hans Heysen exhibition. Wonderful, the light of Hans Heysen paintings are beautiful, and Nora’s flowers I could have picked. Both were ‘true to nature’ Anyone in Melbourne should go and see. I am still reading Nora Heysen’s book, what a woman. I topped off the day by seeing Collingwood defeat Port Adelaide.

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