Looking at this year’s dismal selection for the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, I couldn’t help thinking that the most average landscape by William Robinson, who won the prize in 1990 and 1996, would have murdered everything else in the room. As we all know – after last year’s debacle when Sam Leach took out the prize with a copy of a Dutch old master – the Wynne is awarded for “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery” or “the best example of figure sculpture”.
Making another of their famous perverse decisions the Trustees awarded this year’s prize to Richard Goodwin, for a ‘figure sculpture’ that consisted of a brand new motorbike upended in an old Chinese tricycle. Not only is this a dubious representation of the figure, it is barely a sculpture. In its combination of two pre-existing objects the work is best described as a ‘readymade’ in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal or bottle rack, although the title, Co-isolated slave, is a reference to Michelangelo.
This is almost as daffy a choice as last year’s winner, and it shows an alarming degree of insensitivity to landscape on behalf of the Trustees. Whatever the virtues of Richard Goodwin or Sam Leach, whom I have no desire to belittle, their winning entries have demeaned the stature of the Wynne, which is the oldest running art prize in Australia. This is not the fault of the artists, it is all down to the judges, who performed credibly with this year’s Archibald but have kept up the bad work with the Wynne.
As for the Sulman, allegedly chosen by artist Richard Bell with the toss of a coin, this Prize has plumbed new depths. The Sulman is routinely treated as a farce by the AGNSW, but when a professional stirrer such as Richard Bell was appointed judge it was obvious what would happen. Turning the prize into a stage for one man’s larrikin humour shows complete contempt for the artists who paid their entry fees in the sincere belief that works are judged on merit. They would be justified in applying for a refund.
Having waded through the wastelands, I’m now ready to attempt the towering peaks. This year it will be hard to find a more breathtaking exhibition than William Robinson: The Transfigured Landscape, at the QUT Art Museum and the William Robinson Gallery, at the Queensland University of Technology. In honour of the artist’s 75th birthday, QUT curators, Vanessa Van Ooyen and Megan Williams, have put together a comprehensive survey, encompassing landscapes, portraits, interiors and even still life.
I went into this show feeling that I was already familiar with Robinson’s oeuvre, but was not prepared for the impact of seeing so many masterful paintings in such close proximity. The portraits and other works assembled in old Government House, now transformed into a permanent Robinson gallery, show the breadth of the artist’s wit and invention. But the landscapes at the QUT Art Museum seem to defy all limitations. Taken one by one, each painting has its particular merits; taken en masse, the effect is staggering.
The show outshines all previous Robinson surveys, including the Queensland Art Gallery’s touring retrospective of 2001. Not only is there a decade’s worth of new material, the curators have also managed to secure important works absent from the retrospective, such as the five-panelled Creation Landscape: Darkness and Light (1988), from the Art Gallery of WA. The compositional variety in this epic painting gave the earliest indications that Robinson was breaking new ground in Australian landscape. It was impossible to imagine how rapidly this vision would escalate.
Robinson was a notoriously slow starter, who didn’t find his feet until he was almost fifty years old. In the early 1990s his solo exhibitions with Ray Hughes became eagerly awaited events on the art calendar. With every show he grew more ambitious and accomplished. The paintings evolved but never in a predictable way. As they expanded in scale they also manifested an extraordinary depth. Like the German Romantics, best exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich, Robinson sought a spiritual dimension in the landscape.
At a time when the cynical era of Post-Modernism was spluttering to an end this was a colossal anachronism – a fact of which Robinson was entirely conscious. From his farm-yard pictures of the early eighties to his controversial win in the Archibald Prize of 1987, Robinson was portrayed as some kind of hillbilly painter – Queensland’s answer to the Douanier Rousseau. This was partly due to his own reticent, self-mocking persona. If the media wanted to see him as a country bumpkin, Robinson would not venture to contradict. How could he explain that he had lived in the city most of his life, and worked almost exclusively as a full time art teacher? It would have spoiled the comedy.
It was only later, as Robinson’s stature as a landscapist emerged, that the charge of being a naïve painter was used to distinguish him from all those conceptual geniuses who were being collected by public institutions and put into overseas touring shows. They were presumed to be irreproachably sophisticated while he was a bit embarrassing.
Looking back on the nineties it now seems clear that most of the art which seemed so hip at the time was only a provincial echo of the equally superficial work being made in Europe and America. Robinson’s landscapes, however, have taken their place in the galleries devoted to historical displays of Australian art.
By nature, Robinson is a cautious, reclusive man. His knowledge of art history is exceptional. He is devoted to music and plays the piano like a virtuoso. As a painter his talent for composition has never been equaled in this country. Try and dismantle one of his epic landscapes and the complexity soon becomes apparent. In the handsome book published to coincide with this exhibition, there is a preliminary sketch for Creation landscape: the dome of space and time (2003-04), which resembles the kind of diagram a physicist might draw, complete with double helix.
It is this capacity for pre-planning that enables Robinson to cover enormous canvases using small brushes, working systematically from the bottom left corner to top right. Upon learning about this method most artists will tell you that paintings made in such a manner can’t be any good. The evidence to the contrary is all over the walls of the QUT Art Museum.
One can understand the skepticism. An overwhelming painting such as Creation landscape: The ancient trees (1997), is so full of dark, turbulent emotion that it seems unbelievable it could have been produced in so methodical a fashion. When this picture was called a “masterpiece” in 1997 it made headlines. Now the label sounds uncontroversial. It is simply one of the biggest of many masterpieces in this show.
Reading the essays in the new book confirms me in the opinion that the best paintings are resistant to verbal analysis. The more complex the painting, the less amenable it is to description, even the descriptions of an eloquent writer like Deborah Hart. Neither can the best photographic reproductions convey any idea of the experience one has in front of such works.
This is not intended as a cop-out, in fact it’s almost a platitude. But at a time when paintings are viewed, bought and sold over the Internet, it needs to be reaffirmed that an artwork can never be fully appreciated unless it is viewed at close range.
With an artist such as Robinson one must defer the descriptions and concentrate on underlying meanings. As a practicing Christian the spiritual underpinnings of his paintings are readily discerned. One can also trace autobiographical elements, such as the ‘dark period’ around 1992, after the Robinsons had lost two of their children in the course of a year.
But perhaps the most interesting line of inquiry is Robinson’s relationship with music, discussed in an essay by Bettina and Desmond MacAulay. If there is a secret to Robinson’s success, this is where it lies: in his total immersion in the world of music, both as a pianist, and as a knowledgeable listener.
The great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, once surprised an interviewer who asked about the major influences on his work. “Dostoevsky and Tolstoy” was his reply. One suspects that if Robinson had to answer the same question he would nominate J.S.Bach. Although he has always professed admiration for artists such as Bonnard and Turner, there is no painter for whom he has a comparable affinity. The mixture of technical brilliance; logical, precise structure, and deep emotion found in Bach, is echoed in Robinson’s landscapes. One might analyse his paintings as musical compositions, looking for evidence of counterpoint, discord, and fugal forms. Stand in front of these paintings of the Australian bush, and the soundtrack that springs to mind is Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
William Robinson: The Transfigured Landscape
QUT Art Museum & William Robinson Gallery, Brisbane,
April 7- August 14, 2011
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, May 14, 2011