Rupert Bunny’s mother gave him some sage advice at a young and impressionable age: that he must never be a bore. So well did he heed his mother’s words that one might forgive Bunny (1864-1947) almost anything. He was the most personable of artists – charming, well-read, a good conversationalist and a musician of exceptional ability. Of course I’m relying on the testimonies of his friends and acquaintances, but there is a remarkable unanimity in these accounts.
Bunny is one of the great enigmas of Australian art: by turns distant and familiar, acclaimed and neglected. He spent almost fifty years of his life in France, where he enjoyed a familiarity with the Parisian art scene unequalled by any other Australian artist. He was also the first Australian to receive an honourable mention at the Salon – a feat he achieved in 1890 for his mythological painting, Tritons.
During the course of his long career Bunny enjoyed some extravagant praise from both French and Australian critics. The influential Gustave Geffroy called him “a brilliant and spirited artist.” Paul Haefliger, writing in this newspaper, saw him as “perhaps the best artist yet produced by Australia,” and hailed the landscapes he exhibited in the 1940s as “the finest achievement in Australian art to date.”
Today it’s hard to reconcile such enthusiasm with the rather tame, gentle pictures that hang in the final room of this exhibition. Compared to Bunny’s earlier work his landscapes are modest to the point of timidity. Put alongside the more ambitious paintings of Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen, they could justly be called ‘non-descript’.
At first it seems puzzling that the same – or very similar – landscapes, were greeted with critical hostility when shown in Australia ten years earlier. In the contrasting reception one can see how the Australian art world had changed, as the intensely conservative, nationalistic mood of the thirties had given way to a more cosmopolitan approach. Australian artists and critics were beginning to embrace modernist ideas and reject the isolationist mentality that had dominated local art institutions.
Somewhere in the middle there was Bunny. His age and his associations with the Paris Salon made him a natural ally of the conservative forces, but his temperament drew him towards the progressive crowd. In 1939 he rejected Robert Menzies’s invitation to join the proposed Australian Academy of Art, and became Vice President of the Contemporary Art Society.
Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, at the Art Gallery of NSW, is a tribute to an artist who simply won’t go away. While his reputation has fluctuated over the years, Bunny has withstood the test of time more effectively than most of his peers, largely because of his ability to reinvent himself whenever he felt his work was growing stale or predictable. He was not a painter of timeless masterpieces, but a versatile professional, ever alert to the changing currents of art fashion.
Bunny was born into a cultured, upper middle-class household in St. Kilda. His British father was a judge, his German mother was a music teacher who counted Clara Schumann among her friends. At the age of nine, Bunny and five siblings were taken to Europe for two years, and returned speaking fluent French and German. Bunny studied art at the National Gallery of Victoria School alongside artists such as Fred McCubbin, Aby Altson and John Longstaff. In 1884 he left for London, and then Paris. It would be 27 years before he revisited the land of his birth.
Bunny’s early Parisian paintings might be classified as Symbolist or even Pre-Raphaelite in inspiration, with subjects drawn from classical or Christian mythology. Shortly after the turn of the century, he becomes a painter of beautiful women immersed in a life of indolence and pleasure. Ten years later he revives the mythological themes, making a radical shift into a flat, decorative style inspired by the innovations of the Ballets Russes, and perhaps by Matisse and Bonnard. Upon his return to Australia in 1933, he paints landscapes of the south of France from memory, and spends much of his time composing music.
Trained in academic principles of tonal modelling and sound drawing, Bunny had to go against his instincts when he succumbed to the lure of the modern style. In 1911, on a return trip to Australia, he told reporters that Matisse was nothing but a humbug. As a member of the selection committee for the 1914 Salon d’Automne, he grumbled about the same artist’s “atrocious drawing”.
But even as he shook his head, Bunny could sense the new spirit that was surging through art in Paris. He adapted to the changes, revealing himself to be a pragmatist not an ideologue. In this, he took the opposite path to many of his Australian contemporaries who preferred to totally ignore the modern movement or fulminate loudly against it.
In this show it is fascinating to watch Bunny’s shifts and changes, although there is a pervasive feeling of brittle artifice. He seems to have treated art as a game of skill, a perpetual masquerade. He is never really fluent or convincing, even in his highly finished Salon pieces. The drawing is slightly stiff, his surfaces are chalky, the compositions a little forced. Nothing seems to have come easily to him. In his later – more spontaneous – works, the colours are lurid and the figures resemble cartoons. In her catalogue essay, curator, Deborah Edwards, raises that dreaded word: “camp”, but doesn’t labour the point.
Edwards has given us the most complete portrait yet of this elusive artist. Although the retrospective misses a few significant works, notably Saint Cecilia (c.1889), from Philip Bacon’s collection, and the large Bathers (1906) from the Queensland Art Gallery, the selection provides an excellent overview of Bunny’s career. She has rightly omitted the terrifying kitsch of Towards Cythera (1906), from the National Gallery of Australia, and included the Musée d’Orsay’s Apres le bain (c.1904) which has never previously been shown in this country.
One of the best aspects of this show is the level of research it has commanded. For the first time we are able to read extracts from the journal of Zsigmond Justh, a Hungarian art student who was one of Bunny’s closest friends during his early years in Paris. Justh’s writings all but confirm that in those days, the young Bunny was in a homosexual relationship with the British art student, Alastair Cary-Elwes. This is not a great surprise, but it does help to solve the riddle of Bunny’s secretive personality. It also casts a different light on Bunny’s marriage, at the age of 38, to the French model and artist, Jeanne Morel. As the subject of so many of his elegant Edwardian pictures, Morel has been romanticised as the artist’s eternal muse.
Such discoveries make Bunny seem mortal, much less like a character from a novel. It is curious that he reversed the usual gay logic, which sees heterosexuality as merely a phase that young men go through. As a student of the classics, Bunny seems to have followed the ancient Greeks, experimenting early before settling into marriage and middle-aged respectability.
While nobody could criticise Deborah Edwards’s thoroughness as a curator, reading her prose is always hard work. This time, she has developed the strange tic of constantly using the word “image” as a verb. For example: “his pictorial fantasies of women had imaged the real.” Although “to image” is probably in plenty of dictionaries nowadays, it would be better reserved for computer manuals.
Bunny might have raised an eyebrow at such an infelicity, for although he was capable of occasional crimes against good taste, at his best he is the most elegant and sophisticated of stylists. He is especially refined in a beautiful, Whistlerian portrait of the Japanese actress, Mme Sada Yacco (1900); but also in pictures of feminine beauty such as Endormies (c.1904) and The Sun bath (c.1913).
The figures in these sumptuous paintings are clearly modern women playing out roles borrowed from classical sources. Bunny wants us to know that these are models, not mythical nymphs. It adds a modern touch, a hint of titillation, to compositions that resemble exquisite set designs. Yet he is detached from his subject in a way one never finds with artists such as Picasso, Rodin, or even Degas. He paints a woman with the same objectivity that another artist might render a vase of flowers. He has an acute understanding of beauty, but invokes the element of eroticism as sparingly as a master chef might use truffles or saffron. One of the lessons of this show is that Bunny is at his strongest when he is most restrained. If this is not a universal principle it’s a point that all artists might consider.
Published in the sydney Morning Herald December 19. 2009
Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, The Art Gallery of NSW, November 21, 2009-February 21, 2010