Sydney Morning Herald Column

Encounters with Bali & Une Australienne: Hilda Rix Nicholas

Published June 14, 2014
Une Australienne 1925, Paris, oil on canvas , 103 x 81cm. J. B. Hawkins Antiques, image courtesy Mosman Art Gallery

It would be fascinating to know how many art collections begin with an epiphany. The term, immortalised by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, refers to a sudden revelation, a moment of heightened consciousness. For Dr. John Yu that moment arrived one day in the late 1970s, when his eye was captured by a piece of blue cloth in the window of Nomad Galleries in Liverpool Street.
The obscure object of desire turned out to be a tie-dyed cloth called an ikat from the island of Savu. It was the start of an interest in Indonesian textiles that would become an absorbing preoccupation for Yu and his partner, Dr. George Soutter, who would spend the following 30 years travelling to Bali, piecing together an outstanding private collection.
Two of Sydney’s leading paediatricians, Yu and Soutter established a reputation for their patronage of arts and welfare organisations. In addition, both men spent a huge amount of their time sitting “on all the boards that don’t pay”, as John Yu once described them to me. The annual trips to Bali allowed the opportunity to escape the pressures of work and pursue a shared passion. In time they would accumulate hundreds of textiles and other artefacts. Encounters with Bali at the Mosman Art Gallery brings together a selection of the best.
George Soutter passed away in 2011 and this show is dedicated to his memory. It concludes with a series of very competent prints on Indonesian themes made by a retired doctor reborn as an enthusiastic amateur artist.
Australians have a mixed relationship with Bali, which is known chiefly as a mass tourist destination. The bulk of visitors rarely stray far from the beachside resorts but a significant minority seeks a different kind of cultural experience. Yu and Soutter travelled between towns and villages such as Ubud, Kuta, Sanur, Denpasar, Klungklung and Tenganan, hunting for new acquisitions.

MAN’S JACKET (baju pilih) Sarawak, Borneo. Cotton, natural dyes. Supplementary weft weaving Early 20th century 60 x 43 cm
MAN’S JACKET (baju pilih) Sarawak, Borneo.

In the course of their travels they became well acquainted with local dealers and communities. They backed up their first-hand experiences with extensive reading, transforming themselves from consumers into connoisseurs. The aim at all times was to collect for pleasure not profit, resulting in a collection in which rare and valuable specimens sit alongside inexpensive contemporary pieces.
There are many other collectors of Indonesian textiles in Australia who have followed a similar path of self-education. It demonstrates that the most important quality for any collector is curiosity – the desire to know more about a particular topic or object. Although the initial attraction may be purely aesthetic, the growth of specialised knowledge adds immeasurably to the thrill of the chase.
This holds true for every field of activity. One cannot be a true collector without this sense of dedication, which makes a mockery of those who buy works of art for “investment”, with no knowledge – or interest – in the subject. Those who have an emotional connection with the works they buy inevitably end up with a more valuable collection than the investor. They are also less likely to fall for the hype, the fibs and the ruses that occur at all levels of the art market.
Guest curator, Siobhan Campbell, writes that Yu and Soutter’s collection should be seen as “a bridge to understanding the heterogeneity of Indonesia” – and that is the dominant impression one takes away from this display. Along with classic Balinese ceremonial cloths (eg. cat. No.3), there are many strange and surprising works. A piece that stands out for its sheer simplicity is a shoulder cloth from Sumatra (cat. No. 34), which resembles a minimalist painting. Then there is a skirt cloth from Cirebon (cat. No. 21) that draws on a distinctive Chinese cloud motif.

One soon becomes aware these textiles are not simply decorative artefacts. Most have ceremonial functions to do with religious observance, marriage and funerary rites. There are older head cloths that relate to the days of tribal head-hunting, and many representations of mythical stories or everyday activities. Despite their local characteristics, these pieces have travelled from island to island through trade networks of which Bali is the epicenter. Many recent pieces might not exist if it wasn’t for the demands of a thriving marketplace.
When it comes to Indonesian textiles it would be presumptuous of me to pretend to an expertise I don’t possess. There is little I can say about individual pieces beyond what is written in the catalogue, and it would be very dull to parrot all the scholarly data. This is, however, no impediment to appreciation. It’s a pleasure to sample a distinguished private collection and share some of the excitement the owners must have felt at the instant of first discovery.
Mosman’s other show of the moment is Une Australienne: Hilda Rix Nicholas in Paris, Tangier & Sydney. This is the latest instalment in a resurgence of interest in this artist’s work. It is the third survey in four years, following shows in Bendigo and Canberra, yet I’m afraid it’s a surge driven by sentiment rather than art historical necessity because it’s not easy to make a case for Rix Nicholas (1884-1961) as a major Australian artist.
To say as much one has to take the long view of Rix Nicholas’s career, as the small details are seductive. She was one of a handful of indomitable Australian female artists who made their way to Paris in the early years of the 20th century and carved a niche for themselves in the local art scene. She arrived in 1907 with her mother, Elizabeth and sister, Elsie, at a time when Post-Impressionism was beginning to exert an influence on Salon painting. Matisse and the Fauves had made their controversial debut at the 1905 Salon d’Automn, lending a tame complexion to much of the art that had formerly been seen as radical.
Like almost every other Australian artist, Hilda Rix instinctively avoided the avant-garde fringe and dabbled at the edges of Post-impressionism. She had a fresh, confident approach and a love of colour that comes through in works such as Grand mere (c. 1914), with its heavily textured floral background.

Her flirtation with modernism reached its apogee on a trip to Tangiers, echoing the experiences of Emmanuel Philips Fox and Ethel Carrick, who found that Morocco encouraged them to paint in a free manner with a high-keyed palette. Pictures such as Through the arch to the sea (1914) are sparkling exercises in plein air painting, filled with a typically Australian exhilaration at being back in the sunshine after the grey skies of Europe.
There is a wonderful photo in the catalogue that shows the artist painting in a Tangiers street surrounded by frowning Arabs. She is wearing a broad-brimmed hat and an even broader smile – poised, stylish, a study in self-assurance. She looks like she would have been great fun to know.
Hilda Rix Nicholas sketching in the marketplace, 1914
Hilda Rix Nicholas sketching in the marketplace, 1914

Hilda’s life would change with the First World War, which saw the death of her sister from illness, followed shortly by her mother. She met and married an Australian soldier, George Matson Nicholas, who was killed at the front five weeks later. She kept the name and made paintings and drawings in his memory.
On returning to Australia in 1918, and settling in Mosman, she was feted as a celebrity. Although her paintings were praised, she soon reverted to a more academic, illustrative style in deference to conservative local standards. This was probably an accurate reflection of her own inclinations rather than a cynical choice. The works are always attractive but pedestrian in character. View from the garden, Mosman (c.1920) represents a rare moment of freedom amid the constrained realism she practised at the time.
There was another life ahead, with a return to Paris and a final settling down in the Monaro where, at the age of 46, she gave birth to her only child. It’s another remarkable fact about a remarkable personality. One can only regret that Rix Nicholas was to quick to settle for a manner of painting in which she felt comfortable. Had she kept pushing against her own limitations, as all artists must, she had the talent to startle the dreary guardians of local taste.
Encounters with Bali: A Collector’s Journey
Indonesian textiles from the Collection of Dr. John Yu, AC & Dr. George Soutter, AM.
Une Australienne: Hilda Rix Nicholas in Paris, Tangier & Sydney
Mosman Art Gallery, until 13 July.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14  June, 2014