Travelling to the Flinders Ranges last year with a group of artists, I read my way through Colin Thiele’s Heysen of Hahndorf (1968) the standard biography of Australia’s most celebrated gum tree Meister. Sir Hans Heysen (1877-1968) was the first artist to make Australians aware of the rugged beauty of the Flinders region, with a series of paintings that have taken on iconic value.
As I read ever more deeply into Heysen’s life, and imbibed his earthy wisdom, a portrait emerged of a serious, generous, good-natured man who seemed completely devoid of a sense of irony. It wasn’t that Heysen couldn’t laugh at himself, it was simply that he never did anything even vaguely laughable. For year after year he churned out pictures of heroic gum trees, horses, cattle, and hard-handed bushmen. For relaxation he might paint a very stiff, correct still life or interior. When Heysen discovered the Flinders Ranges in 1926, it brought a surge of new vitality to his work, but soon he settled into the same conscientious rhythm, only now he was devoted to barren peaks and gullies instead of towering eucalypts.
There is currently a best-selling book with the intriguing title, What Would Keith Richards Do? I imagined a similar volume: What Would Sir Hans Heysen Do? One can be fairly certain that Sir Hans and Keith would take very different approaches to a particular problem, although I’m unable to think of any problem they might have had in common. Sir Hans probably never had to conceal his drugs stash from the police, while Keith never grappled with the issue of how to paint shadows in full sunlight.
On the whole, we may feel assured that Sir Hans would have taken a sensible and patient approach to any dilemma. If he had groupies he would have been very nice to them and corrected their drawing.
Apologies for all this frivolity, but there is something about Heysen that generates rebellious impulses, even if one is fully cognisant of his abilities and his important contribution to Australian art. In a contemporary art scene that is completely soaked in irony; that puts little value on personal skill and sees shock tactics as the best way to reach an audience, Heysen’s work seems like a relic of a vanished civilization.
This retrospective has been put together by the Art Gallery of South Australia to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Heysen’s death – which may be less noteworthy than a fiftieth, but it seems they couldn’t wait another decade. Heysen remains a great favourite with the general public, and the under-funded AGSA needed a hit. The show, currently at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, will be seen at no less than seven venues, finishing its tour in Newcastle in November.
The previous Heysen retrospective was held in 1977, and this show adds little to the picture of the man and his work put forward at that time. Consisting of barely more than eighty works, this is a compact survey of an artist who was been credited with revolutionizing Australian landscape painting. By contrast, the NGA’s 1987 retrospective of another great landscapist, Fred Williams, included 417 works. If the latter was too big, the former seems just right. Heysen was conscious of his own repetitious tendencies and embraced the new stimulus of the Flinders Ranges as a way of reinventing himself.
The highlights in this show are pretty much what anyone would expect: major paintings such as Mystic Morn (1904), Red gold (1913), Droving into the light (1914-21), plus a selection of delicate watercolours and consummately skilful drawings.
It is perhaps as a watercolourist that one sees Heysen at his very best. His brilliant study of turkeys, Bronzewings and saplings (1921) is far superior to an oil painting of the same theme. Gums under mist (1917) is a miracle of pale translucent washes, while in Flinders works such as Aroona (1939) or Land of the Oratunga (1932), we find him drawing close to the flat, decorative, Modernist approach that he normally eschewed.
To see Heysen in his entirety one needs to visit The Cedars, his home in the Adelaide Hills just outside of Hahndorf, where he lived and worked for 56 years. The house has been beautifully preserved, and Heysen’s purpose-built studio, with its implements and sketches, its easels and worn carpet, gives the impression that he has just stepped out and will be back at any moment. The Cedars is a monument to domestic and professional stability – the place where Hans and Sallie Heysen raised a large family, entertained visiting celebrities such as Nellie Melba, and met the trials of life with stoic endurance.
To visit The Cedars is understand a great deal about Heysen. Another key to understanding is to look at the stop-start career of his talented daughter, Nora, who showed at times that she could be just as skilful and more imaginative than her famous father. All Heysen’s assistance and encouragement never enabled Nora to fully realise her abilities. There was something smothering and ponderous in the way her father tried to aid his daughter while actually stifling her.
This was most apparent when Nora was living in London, and Heysen sent her to see a number of pompous academicians whom she found patronizing and depressing. This did not diminish Heysen’s respect for these paragons of orthodoxy. He was a life-long respecter of conventions, titles, achievements. His own lack of guile, vanity and opportunism made him blind to these faults in others.
This may be why Mystic Morn, painted while still in his early twenties, remains Heysen’s most original contribution to Australian art. At this time he had only just returned from four years’ intensive study in Europe, and was still fired up by everything he had seen. Consequently, there are elements of Symbolism and Art Nouveau in Mystic Morn, with its ghostly saplings twisting and turning in the crisp, dewy atmosphere of the breaking day. When Heysen comes to paint his later masterpieces such as Red gold, he has sacrificed style for a more exacting form of observation. Yet there is still an idealised, heroic dimension to the work, as if the mighty gums looked down upon humanity like primordial sentinels.
Heysen’s chief preoccupation was the play of light in the trunks and branches of the trees. As his career progressed, it was this mastery of light that distinguished his art, down to the clear, bright skies painted in the Flinders. Compared to these pictures, Mystic morn seems claustrophobic – the work of a young artist who was still living in his own head. Heysen cured himself of this early penchant for interiority, and left a body of work that has become emblematic of the Australian bush to successive generations of viewers.
If he also inspired a legion of less talented imitators, slavishly devoted to the cult of the gum tree, this was not his fault. Heysen comes across as a painter of the most unflinching integrity in a century that placed progressively less value on art’s links with the observable world. He was rooted to the earth as effectively as one of his mighty gum trees, while everything else was in flux.
Another incentive for visiting chilly Canberra at the moment is Marion Borgelt’s Mind and Matter: a 15 Year Survey at the Drill Hall Gallery. Like Heysen, Borgelt (b.1954) is an artist who has grown increasingly preoccupied with light. There the resemblance ends, because this show also documents a tendency to move away from pure painting into the world of sculpture, object-making and installation.
When one thinks of the raw, expressive pictures Borgelt painted in the 1980s, the work of the past fifteen years seems incredibly slick – cerebral, optical, designed with exacting precision. It would be pointless though to question this choice of direction. The overall effect is impressive: a show that feels like one big installation, moving between different but interrelated themes. Borgelt deliberately blurs the boundaries between microcosm and macrocosm, creating abstract works that seem poised always on the brink of revelation. What looks like a view of the cosmos might just as easily spring from a glance into an electron microscope; the symbols of science might also relate to mystical cults, or the folk wisdom of many different cultures. What could be simultaneously more rational and more spiritually suggestive than geometry?
With all these cultivated ambiguities, light is the unifying factor, even when Borgelt is creating solid objects that play out rituals of transformation, changing their appearance depending on the spectator’s viewpoint. She dramatises the disjunctions between what we see, what we think we see, and what may actually be happening. This is antithetical to the commonsense empiricism of an artist such as Heysen. In these elegant, teasing works Borgelt aims to take us beyond the visible to a place where the distinctions between art, science and spirituality no longer apply.
Hans Heysen: A Grand Vision: Strong forms and bold light, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, May 14– July 11, 2010
Marion Borgelt: Mind & Matter: a 15 year survey, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, may 27- July 14.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 20, 2010