Art Essays

David Boyd

Published September 8, 2012
David Boyd's painting from his Murrumbeena series.

If one had to nominate a director to make a movie about the Boyd family, it would be hard to go past Wes Anderson. After watching his new film, Moonrise Kingdom, I imagined what he might do with the eccentric childhood of David Boyd and his siblings at their Murrumbeena property, Open Country.
One painting in the exhibition, David Boyd: his work, his life, his family, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, shows a naked, long-haired child with his head in his hands, being assaulted by the whole school yard. Playtime 1930 (1968) is only a slight exaggeration of the trauma David experienced on his first day at school, when he discovered that he and his family, in the immortal words of the Kinks, were not like everybody else.
While most of the schoolboys were close-cropped, David wore his hair long. His clothes were also different to the norm, leading to the perennial schoolboy insult that he was really “a girl”. It was a crash landing after an idyllic home life.
His parents, Merric and Doris Boyd, were fiercely religious, seeing all forms of creativity as a way of paying homage to their God. David was the fourth of five children, following Lucy, Arthur and Guy, and preceding Mary by two years. Merric was one of Australia’s most celebrated potters, and Doris an enthusiastic amateur artist. Merric had inherited his artistic leanings from his parents, and saw it as the most natural thing in the world to bring up his own children in this manner.
For David it came as a shock to learn that all families weren’t busy drawing on the walls and making pots. What was normal to the Boyds was freakish in suburban Australia of the 1930s, when most people led a hand-to-mouth existence, and the arts were a rare luxury.
It would require a Wes Anderson to capture the sense of wonder that permeated the Boyd household, with two saintly parents and a group of children who lived in their own imaginings. In such a setting it was the real world that must have seemed fanciful (and much less attractive), than the small domain of Open Country, where painting, pottery, sculpture, music and literature were pursued with steadfast determination.
This exhibition is chiefly devoted to David (1924-2011), younger brother to the more famous Arthur (1920-99), but finds room to show works by four generations of the dynasty, starting with Arthur Merric (1862-1940) and Emma Minnie Boyd (1858-1936), and extending to the paintings and sculptures of present-day Boyds carrying on the family traditions. It should be no surprise to learn this is a very mixed collection, although there are some turn-ups, notably Doris Boyd’s engaging, naïve watercolours of family life at Murrumbeena; a 1944 genre painting of a Melbourne tram by Yvonne Boyd, and an accomplished self-portrait by Hermia Boyd, aged 14.
The show was in preparation when David died in November last year, and it is sad that he did not live to see this retrospective.
While Arthur often seemed shy and withdrawn, David was gregarious. A man of great intelligence and charm, he made friends easily and kept them for life. David was a passionate humanitarian who saw it as the duty of the artist to respond to all forms of injustice. This aspect of his personality, which is worthy of the deepest respect, was also his undoing as a painter. Over the years David must have grown weary of people comparing his work unfavourably with Arthur’s, but it’s an unavoidable problem.

One need only consult Darleen Bungey’s biography of 2007, Arthur Boyd: A Life, to realise how complicated the elder brother was. The family story is fleshed out a little more in David Boyd’s newly published memoir, An Open House.
There is something about Arthur’s best painting that is almost feral – a strange Gothic element that springs from a deep part of the unconscious, moulded by instinct rather than logic. David, by contrast, was a thinker, a game-player, who sought out striking images that would tell a story or make a point – often in a satirical manner.
Although David was a man of many passions, he was far less likely than Arthur to surrender to the frenzy of creation. In all his work we feel the presence of his intellect.
Both brothers drew on a language of symbols, but Arthur’s were consistently more disturbing. Think of the cripples; the ramox (an imaginary cross between ram and ox); the half-cast brides; Nebuchadnezzar – part-man, part-beast, king and outcast.
David’s symbols were more ponderous. He painted judges in their wigs; stony, mask-like faces; Aborigines who looked like the deities of Easter Island; angels and cockatoos; fruit and flowers.
Neither Arthur nor David could forget the Old Testament stories that played such a dominant role in their childhood. One of David’s religious paintings, Blind Isaac (1967), was deaccessioned from the National Gallery of Australia at the beginning of the 1990s – a time when the same institution was busy collecting hundreds of pieces by Arthur. Deaccessioning is always controversial, but this was almost an act of refined cruelty.

Blind Isaac was acquired and sold by the Eva Breuer gallery, which has been a major supporter of David’s reputation, and the prime mover behind the catalogue for the S.H.Ervin show – an anthology of the artist’s paintings, punctuated by comments and reminiscences. To state an interest, I’ve contributed a brief preface, but this volume is more of a tribute than a critical evaluation. It may be too early to make any definitive judgements on David Boyd’s artistic stature, although the current exhibition is a good place to start.
Where the work gathered at the S.H.Ervin gives a slightly misleading impression is in the preponderance of painting over ceramics. For many years, David and his wife, Hermia, were primarily known as prolific and innovative ceramic artists. David learnt the art of pottery from his father, and was renowned for these skills before he ever began exhibiting his paintings on a regular basis.
The problem, one suspects, is that pottery did not provide sufficient outlet for all the thoughts and issues that teemed through the artist’s mind. Even with Hermia’s skillful embellishments, the pots remained anchored in the realm of the decorative arts.
One sees David champing at the bit in the large-scale ceramic sculpture, Ned Kelly (c.1956), in which a totemic impression of the bushranger is constructed from a series of ceramic components covered with drawings relating to his life. The work is a mixture of pottery, sculpture and the graphic arts that reads like a three-dimensional history lesson.
Ned Kelly is full of meaning but not at all elegant, and this preference for content over form is characteristic of Boyd’s later work. So eager is he to make a point that he seems to rush through one painting after another, as new ideas keep bubbling to the surface. Too many pictures have those vague, quickly daubed backgrounds that are a matter of convenience not necessity. Boyd’s brushwork reveals a similar impatience, devolving into a mass of choppy, swirling marks that give the impression of energy being expended to no great purpose.
As a colourist, Boyd’s major vice was to fall back on high impact contrasts such as blue and gold, which seem to leap up to meet the viewer’s eye, and fizzle out just as quickly. There is scant attempt at modulation or a careful distribution of tones. In most of these works we tend to focus on one or two areas where the action unfolds, with the rest of the picture acting as a crudely painted backdrop.
Boyd never hesitated to take on the grandest themes. His lengthy series, The Trial, was begun in 1960 and continued for another two years. These works reflected his view of the legal system, namely “that it is not a court of justice but of law, which has been made to suit those with economic and political power.” He may have come to reconsider this position in light of later events such as the Mabo judgement. Nevertheless, for three years he was indefatigable in painting images of granite-faced judges, suggesting that the legal system was nothing more than a mask of institutionalised inequity.
Series about the early explorers and the Tasmanian Aborigines were equally grim, but his later work became more cheerful, even lyrical, although subject to many of the problems outlined above.
If one picture in this busy exhibition stands out from the crowd it is Soho stripper (1968), a study of a seedy London club with a dumpy, listless dancer going through the motions on stage. This painting has a freshness that is entirely at odds with the portentous themes of Boyd’s more considered work. It suggests there was another artist inside David Boyd. Instead of a moralist wanting to reform our sins, it would have been good to see more of Boyd as the sardonic observer, willing to accept the shabby state of the world and record it with a lighter touch.
David Boyd: his work, his life, his family, S.H. Ervin Gallery, August 17 – September 23, 2012.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 08, 2012