Sydney Morning Herald Column

Nora Heysen

Published November 28, 2009
Nora Heysen, Corn cobs, 1938, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 51.3cm

Millions are spent nowadays in futile efforts to combat the aging process, but Nora Heysen (1911-2003) seemed to grow more stylish as she got older. Look at the earnest, stolid young woman in her self-portraits of the 1930s, then at the photographs taken in later life. The younger Nora habitually wears her hair pulled back, braided and tied up. With the elderly Nora the hair is still pulled back, but is now worn like a silvery halo. There is also something about her expression: the anxious, uptight girl is replaced by a woman both confident and worldly. It is as though she began as a character from a Jane Austen novel and ended as Marlene Dietrich.
In her eighties Heysen was positively glamorous. Never more so than in those photos Sage took for the Australian Financial Review in 2000 that have ended up in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. She began smoking at the age of fifty, and was rarely seen thereafter without a fag. Yet she could smoke a cigarette like a Hollywood movie star.
It’s not a bad way to be remembered, especially if you were as comprehensively ignored as Heysen was for forty years. Lou Klepac sparked a late revival in the artist’s fortunes when he published a small book and organised a retrospective at the S.H.Ervin Gallery in 1989. In 2000 he was curator of another retrospective for the National Library of Australia, and now Jane Hylton has put together a third: this one billed as “the first major retrospective” since the artist’s death. The show was initiated by Carrick Hill in South Australia, and can be seen at the S.H.Ervin until shortly before Christmas.
By any reckoning, three retrospectives within a decade is a lot. Frustrated artists might take this as proof that the curators and the art museums have a conscience after all. When everyone suddenly began to notice that Heysen was a talented painter it is as though a ripple of guilt ran through the Australian art world.
Lou Klepac summed up the situation in 1989: “In almost sixty years she has had only eight individual exhibitions, because she has never gone out to look for one… In over fifty years of living in Sydney she has never had such an exhibition because no one has ever asked her.”
Heysen’s neglect may be attributed to many factors. She was a woman in a male-dominated art scene, in which the successful female artists spent a lot of time knocking on doors. She was terribly shy in her early years, and always preferred to work in the studio rather than go to the social gatherings. In the debate between modernists and traditionalists that raged from the 1930s to the 1950s, she was firmly in the traditionalist camp.

Finally, and most significantly, she spent much of her life trying to fight free of the shadow of her famous father, Hans Heysen (1877-1968). The great landscapist had dominated Australian art throughout the twentieth century, and Nora often wondered whether people bought her paintings just because of the Heysen name. The fact that Hans had been a loving, supportive parent and an artistic mentor meant that Nora could not simply reject him and go her own way.
It is only in retrospect that we can see that her fears were largely unfounded. From an early age she set out on a different course from her father, concentrating on portraiture and still life, not competing at all as a landscapist. Her early work is precise and academic, but four years’ study in London brought about a change of approach, when she learnt to trust her instincts and eschew the stiff-necked criticisms of the Royal Academicians that Hans admired. When she returned to the family home in the Adelaide hills in 1937, she was painting in a freer style, using broken brushwork and fresh, high-keyed colour. Her father could not condone the changes and Heysen departed for Sydney in early 1938.
That same year she became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, with a portrait of Mrs. Elink Schuurman, the wife of the Dutch consul. This success brought her a measure of fame and a few commissions, but she never enjoyed the routine of painting portraits on demand. Some of the portraits in this show, such as the rapidly sketched likeness of Private Gwynneth Patterson (1944), are more sensitive and incisive than her Archibald Prize winner.
Heysen’s other notable ‘first’ was that she was the first Australian woman to be appointed an official war artist. In October 1943 she was accepted into the service with the honorary rank of captain, and would spend two exhausting years in far north Queensland and New Guinea, producing 170 works, of which 152 became the property of the Australian War Memorial.
In New Guinea, Heysen met her future husband, Robert Black, a specialist in tropical medicine. The couple would travel to Europe and the Pacific before purchasing a house in Hunters Hill in 1954. She would spend the rest of her life in this house, sinking into comfortable obscurity. She worked mainly on still life subjects, but also painted and drew from the figure, sharing a model with friends such as Judy Cassab and Margaret Woodward.
Nora Heysen: Light and life is a relatively small show and one wishes it were bigger. It misses out her early still life, Eggs (1927), which is one of the highlights of the Howard Hinton Collection in Armidale. It also omits The Transport driver (1945), one of her most popular war pictures, which shows a woman lorry driver in khakis and lipstick.

There are, however, enough impressive works in this selection to demonstrate Heysen’s abilities. A brilliant drawing of gum trees from 1932 suggests that had she persevered with the Hahndorf landscape she might have given her father some stiff competition. In later years, no matter how free she may be with the brush, this expert draftsmanship is the foundation of all her work.
Having seen the touring retrospective of Hans Heysen in Ballarat recently, I’m tempted to reflect on the differences between father and daughter. Perhaps the major one was that, although he did not lack feeling, Hans always seemed to be painting in the heroic manner. He was the complete professional who approached each subject with meticulous care.
Nora began her career in much the same way, but came to value feeling over form. Her work has an intimacy that is rarely found in her father’s canvases. This is best seen in her still lifes, which have great warmth and personality. Whenever Hans ventured into this genre the results were cold, fastidious and academic. His paintings feel like public performances, whereas Nora’s are essentially private. It took a large gum tree to get Hans excited.
Nora Heysen is at her best in a painting such as Corn cobs (1938), which glows with a golden light, as if in celebration of the artist’s return to Australia. She has used a crumpled blue cloth as a backdrop that also resembles a mountainous landscape. It is a transitional painting, much looser and brighter than her early works, but more rigorously composed than her later flower pictures which owe much of their appeal to surface effects.
As a painter of still life Heysen has few peers in Australian art. It is a form of painting that keeps being renewed from one generation to the next, even though it has rarely been treated as ‘serious’ art. The Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery is trying to repair this situation with their annual Eutick Memorial Still Life Award (EMSLA), which runs until January. This is the third year of the prize, and the third time I’ve been part of the same judging panel. It’s good to report that each year the award has gone to a very different style of work, with this year’s winner being John R. Walker with Brush fetish, a study of three very ordinary paintbrushes on unprimed canvas. Further prizes went to north coast artists, Deb Mostert and Vicky Hersey.
The variety of entries that go into the EMSLA competition show how flexible this genre can be. One can understand how Nora Heysen could sit quietly in Hunter’s Hill, painting one still life after another while the years passed her by. Every still life is a world unto itself, a tiny cosmos arranged and recorded by the artist. It is a place where one may concentrate on the object and forget about everything that represents life in motion.
Nora Heysen: Light and life, S. H. Ervin Gallery December 14-November 20, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 28, 2009