Art Essays


Published March 1, 2009

By Murray Bail
At what point does a revised edition become a different book? Novelist Murray Bail published the first version of this monograph on Ian Fairweather in 1981. It became an instant classic, partly due to the extraordinary nature of the artist’s life, partly because of Bail’s engaging prose – so very different to the detached style of an academic art historian.
When I asked Bail about the revision last year he said the new book would be “one hundred thousand times better” than its predecessor. Exaggerations aside, it is certainly a big improvement, but it does not completely negate the first version. Take the reproductions: seventy-nine have been added to this new edition, but fifty have been removed, as if the author’s advancing connoisseurship compelled him to banish those artworks now judged unworthy. One probably needs both books for a comprehensive overview of Fairweather’s achievements.
In 1981 Bay Books took considerable pains to get good quality reproductions of paintings that refuse to reveal their subtleties to the camera. Yet the reproductions in the new book are palpably superior, with the major works given as fold-outs. While this should satisfy that depressingly large group of people who only buy art books to look at the pictures, admirers of Bail’s fiction will recognise a familiar authorial voice.
There are now nineteen chapters rather than fifteen, and much new material, including extracts from previously unavailable letters by Fairweather, but the basic structure of the book remains intact. Indeed, the some crucial segments have undergone only the slightest alterations.
Take the opening paragraph, where Bail tells us that Fairweather felt no need to paint the “Australianness” of the landscape, unlike Roberts, Streeton, Nolan, Drysdale and Fred Williams. This is the first step in establishing that Fairweather is unlike any other Australian artist. For Bail, he is the greatest of the lot, but not in so many words. This opinionated but oblique opening has barely  changed – the sentiments are exactly the same as they were in 1981.
As we read on, the sly digs at other artists; at the false priorities of art historians, critics, curators and public, percolate through the text. Bail builds his case by insinuation, in a strange confiding manner that feels as though he has just sidled up to you in a crowded room and muttered something behind his hand. Try to argue with him and he disappears.
No one in Australian literature has ever chiselled away at his sentences with more obsessive dedication than Murray Bail. He has never aimed to create classical, seamless prose – he is more of a Cubist. The text is full of small, jagged interruptions that take us out of the story and force us to focus on the words themselves.
What are we to make of a sentence like this: “Kangaroos were on Bribie Island.”? Ninety-nine percent of humanity might have written: “There were kangaroos on Bribie Island.” On another occasion we read about paint “stroked on in the guise of fingers to make in an interesting way a figure fidgety.” This is too awkward to be accidental – it is a deliberate ploy to suggest the quasi-abstract, hard-to-grasp nature of Fairweather’s style – itself a paragon of sophisticated clumsiness.
If I were feeing uncharitable I’d call this an affectation, but for every obstacle in this unfolding story, if one looks to left or right there is something to admire, and think about. Bail is teasing and provocative. His narrative has an inner life that is unique among the shelves full of books devoted to Australian artists.
I won’t try and summarise Fairweather’s career, which is as restless and abstract as one of his own late paintings. He was born in Scotland in 1891 but could hardly be said to belong anywhere. During thirty years of travels that took him to Norway, Canada, China, India, Bali, the Philippines and Australia, he experienced the most extreme conditions of poverty and loneliness. He was even thrown off trams and buses in China and the Philippines because of his tramp-like appearance.
For an income Fairweather would work at various labouring or clerical jobs. Works sent back to his friend H.S.Ede, in England, were exhibited at the Redfern Gallery, attracting sales and positive reviews.
Fairweather was indifferent to his occasional successes. The only exhibition of his own work that he ever saw was the 1964 retrospective hosted by the Queensland Art Gallery, which left him in a “subdued” frame of mind. He was equally careless about the materials he used, often working on cardboard or newspaper, with the cheapest paints. His worst disaster was when an entire exhibition arrived at the Redfern in one congealed lump, allowing nothing to be salvaged. Never a year went by without paintings crumbling, or being irreparably damaged.
The turning point in a nomadic life came in 1952, when the artist built a raft in Darwin and set sail for Bali. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl, and with only the most rudimentary knowledge of navigation, Fairweather drifted for two weeks in the Timor Sea. He could not stand up on the raft, he ran out of food and water, and was accompanied by hopeful sharks. Miraculously, he washed up on the island of Roti, the westernmost point of the Indonesian group. Although he was sun-dried, starved and hallucinating by that stage, the Indonesians interrogated him as if he were a spy. In Australia, his obituaries had already appeared in the newspapers.
The raft voyage exorcised Fairweather’s wanderlust. After he made his way back to Australia in 1953, following a forced, unhappy return to England, he settled on Bribie Island, and built his first hut. He set to work and produced Monastery in 1961; Monsoon, Shalimar and Epiphany in 1961-2; Turtle and Temple Gong in 1965. These are masterpieces on which everyone can agree, but many people still have affection for the dry, early paintings on Chinese and Balinese themes.
More than most artists, Fairweather’s biography and work are closely entwined. He lived a life that made Gauguin look like a holiday-maker at Club Med, and when he died in 1974, it was as this nation’s most revered “artists’ artist”. Bail unfurls long lists of artists who owned works by Fairweather, and those who have been influenced by him.
In a text which is a labyrinthine mixture of old and new, one comes across a few startling additions. One idea tossed off with amazing casualness is the thought that Fairweather may have been schizophrenic. There is no clinical evidence to back this up, although it is not implausible. At the very least one has to admit that Fairweather was a pathological outsider, a wayfarer on the margins of civilization, who may also have been an artist of genius. Somewhere in this novelist’s portrait of the willful outsider who rises effortlessly over the heads of the common herd, lies Bail’s ideal Romantic template for the artist’s life. It is a story that is much easier to write than to live.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, March 2009
By Murray Bail
Murdoch Books
Hardcover; RRP: $125.00; 280pp.