Art Essays

Elisabeth Cummings

Published January 21, 2012

A recent press release from the National Gallery of Australia announces an exhibition of 200 years of Australian landscape to be held at the Royal Academy, London, in September 2013. This is a long-overdue event, and it is to be hoped the NGA takes the opportunity to make the show something more than a historical survey. By all means tell British audiences about Glover and Von Guérard; Streeton and Drysdale, Nolan and Fred Williams, but please don’t neglect the present day. By this I don’t mean only obligatory inclusions such as John Olsen and William Robinson, nor Aboriginal artists, who might all be classed as landscapists.
Take a glance at Australian painting today and it is a simple matter to nominate a dozen or more artists who have made – and are making – an original contribution to the landscape genre. Look, for instance, at Idris Murphy, Euan Macleod, Jenny Sages, Philip Wolfhagen, Mary Tonkin, Richard Wastell, or the woman many would consider the most obvious candidate of all: Elisabeth Cummings.
If one examines the way these artists are represented in the collections of public galleries, there is little indication that contemporary landscape is taken seriously. With the exception of Philip Wolfhagen, none of the artists named above seem to have a painting in the NGA collection. If they are represented it is through prints, acquired by that indefatigable accumulator, Roger Butler.
This neglect is not confined to the NGA, it is repeated in virtually every public collection. While galleries have been queuing up to buy works by a handful of fashionable artists, they have treated landscape painting as if it were a purely historical phenomenon. The latest video, the latest silicone sculpture are greeted with breathless excitement, and forgotten just as quickly. There is no interest in artists who have been painting landscapes at a high level for ten, twenty, maybe forty years, even though this is one of Australia’s major contributions to world art.
I know this is a familiar, sad, old song, but it would be reassuring to think that our curators of Australian and contemporary art might take a peek at Luminous: The Landscapes of Elisabeth Cummings, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. This show has been put together with almost unseemly haste, allowing barely two months between idea and realisation. Although this left no time for a catalogue, the exhibition itself is a marvel. Maybe some shows benefit from a rapid preparation time.

Elisabeth Cummings, Edge of the Simpson Desert, 2011

It has been more than fifteen years since the last survey of Cummings’s work, seen only in Campbelltown and the Gold Coast. Now, at the age of 77, she is finally getting a survey in a reasonably central location, although not at the Art Gallery of NSW. From 51 works in this show the vast majority have been painted in the years following that 1996 survey. They are so superior to the earlier works that one could be looking at two different artists.
The painter of pictures such as Minerva waterhole (1977) was an earnest trier who seemed determined to fill in every bit of the canvas as if it were a particularly difficult jigsaw puzzle. It is a bush landscape with abstract overtones, in which each form stands out from the next. Five years later, the same subject is given a more thoroughly abstract treatment. The work is larger and more ambitious, but it still feels laborious, with each transformation of the motif being handled in a way that betrays the mental effort involved.
A gradual loosening appears in works such as the gouache on paper, Shimmering light on the swamp (1992), but the first piece in this show that reveals Cummings as a confident, masterful painter is After the fires, Wedderburn (1994). Living in the bush at Wedderburn she watched the bush-fires come right up to her doorstep. Venturing back into the forest she observed the changes in the familiar landscape. The result is a painting that feels dark and sooty, but also strangely damp, as if a little rain has fallen. There are hints of new life in the undergrowth and a new freedom of invention in her drawing. Suddenly she is no longer devoted to appearances, but to the feelings generated by a place.
The paintings that follow, such Bird in the bush and Bird over Stradbroke (both 1995), are breakthrough pictures. In the latter, she uses a bright yellow line to cut right across the composition. In the former, it is a dirty yellow that arches across a predominantly grey-green canvas, mimicking the flight of a bird. In these pictures she stops trying to make every bit of the composition work together in a spurious harmony. These paintings are full of discords, jagged lines and loosely brushed areas of colour. There is nothing predictable about these works, which never let the eye settle.
Cummings turned seventy in 2004, and has since gone on to make the paintings of her life. She is the outstanding exception to the unwritten rule that Australian artists tend to lose their way as they get older. Every recent solo exhibition seems to have produced at least one great painting, brought together in this survey.
When Arkaroola landscape was rejected from the Wynne prize in 2004, it towered over everything else in that year’s Salon des Refusés. Barry Pearce, the recently retired Curator of Australian Art at the AGNSW, fought to acquire the painting for the collection, even though this tacitly acknowledged the poor judgement of the trustees who ignored it in the first place.
Elisabeth Cummings, Arkaroola Landscape, 2005

The picture still looks good today, with its complex meshing of shades of orange and red. But alongside paintings such as After the wet, Elcho Island (2004), Riverbend (2008) and At the edge of the Simpson Desert (2011), it seems remarkably subdued. Not only are these paintings much bigger than Arkaroola landscape, they take more risks with colour and texture, they display more subtleties. In brief, they are the works of a more accomplished painter.
Riverbend, in particular, is a uniquely original picture. Suffused with pale light, it is almost formless but still suggests a scene of water, leaves and sunshine. The title echoes that of a famous polyptych by Sidney Nolan, but the reference is merely coincidental. It is impossible to imagine the Cummings of the 70s-80s attempting such a work, which seems to have been painted purely by instinct.
In Riverbend Cummings uses veils of colour to create diaphanous effects. By contrast, in At the edge of the Simpson Desert, she takes a bold, up-front approach to the colours and shapes of a stark, arid environment. This dynamic landscape is also one of the most recent works in this exhibition, indicating that Cummings is in the prime of her career right now. In fact, she has yet to peak.
I can’t think of a younger Australian artist who could pull off a large-scale work with comparable verve and confidence. It’s somehow more exciting to think of such a picture being made by an older artist rather than an up-and-coming prospect. It feels like the realisation of a life’s efforts, rather than a promise of future triumphs that may or may not eventuate.
While the landscapes are being shown at the S.H.Ervin, Cummings’s dealers, King Street Gallery on William, have organised an exhibition of her monotypes, depicting interiors and still life subjects. These works are modestly sized, uniformly priced, and demonstrate many of the same qualities as the large-scale landscapes. They are, if anything, more playful; perhaps more pleasurable for the artist after the intense concentration required by the bigger pictures.
Thinking again, I wonder whether there is anything too intense about Cummings’s working methods. While the smaller pieces seem fresh and spontaneous, the larger ones have a meditative quality. One imagines her coming back to these works time and again, thinking about them over several months; only returning to a canvas when she feels she is in the right frame of mind to take it to the next stage.
Cummings inspires feelings of partisanship because – apart from being an outstanding painter – she is a retiring, modest person in an art scene that favours aggressive careerists. The pay-off is that she spends the time in the studio that others spend on the social circuit. The results speak for themselves, the only difficulty is to get the would-be tastemakers in our public galleries to make the very small effort required to come and take a look.
Luminous: The Landscapes of Elisabeth Cummings, S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 12 Feb.
Elisabeth Cummings: Monotypes: Interiors, Tables and Other Pieces, King Street Gallery on William, until 4 Feb.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 2012