When Matisse suggested that if you want to be an artist you must first cut out your tongue, he was acknowledging a fundamental truth: artists spout a lot of rubbish when they talk about their work. Rare indeed is the painter who can discuss his or her pictures in a calm, pragmatic manner, but Sam Fullbrook (1922-2004) had the knack.
“I don’t think I would keep painting – if I couldn’t sell pictures,” he told John Cruthers in a 1985 interview, reprinted in the catalogue of the exhibition, Sam Fullbrook: A Delicate Beauty, at the Queensland Art Gallery. “I would get into something else… I’m not knocking those people that suffer and paint all their life without selling, that’s what they do, but I couldn’t do it.”
Reading these words I recalled Fullbrook’s voice – his rough, drawling, laconic way of turning out a sentence. In conversation as in art, Fullbrook always gave the impression he was pulling your leg. Would he have really stopped painting if he couldn’t sell a picture? Many of his works have a Romantic quality that suggests he was painting for love, not money. He probably had more in common with Van Gogh than he’d have been willing to admit.
Fullbrook parted company with the Dutchman in his eagerness to make a sale. Indeed, I can hardly think of an artist with such a clear sense of his own value, in terms of both talent and cash. Fullbrook exuded self-confidence, whether talking to the press or completing a portrait with a tiny dab of paint that might stand for an eye.
Fullbrook was a natural painter and an enigma. Born in inner-city Chippendale, to a family engaged in “small business”, he would go on to spend much of his youth in the bush, working at labouring and semi-skilled jobs that paid a subsistence wage. When he became successful in later life he bought race horses and property.
While his works display a broad sympathy for the working classes and the underdog, he was contemptuous of left-wing cant. He even felt the word ‘artist’ was rather too highfalutin, preferring to be called a ‘painter’ – a label with an appealing touch of the tradesman.
In 1952 Fullbrook worked his way around the country until he arrived at a settlement in north-western Australia, where Aboriginal stockmen had gone out on strike for better wages and conditions. He didn’t indulge in cheap sympathy or political rhetoric. To him, the stockmen were “aristocrats”. His view was: “spiritually, they all had top hats.”
This attitude comes through in his portrayal of Jacob Oberdoo (1957-60), who would refuse a British Empire Medal, saying that medals were for dogs. It’s a portrait of extraordinary simplicity and dignity, which is especially remarkable considering that we are looking at a bright red shirt set against a pale green sky. Even at this early stage of his career, Fullbrook was full of surprises.
In the catalogue of the last museum survey devoted to Fullbrook’s work, at the National Gallery of Victoria, in 1995, Felicity St. John Moore made a claim so startling I’m surprised the curator of the current show, Angela Goddard, could resist repeating it. St. John Moore said that before he enrolled in the National Gallery Art School at the end of the war, with assistance from the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Fullbrook “had not actually seen any paintings.”
This sounds like a tall – probably self-mythologising – tale, but it reveals how distant Fullbrook was from the art world when he became a student. He would study under the renowned tonalist, Sir William Dargie; alongside classmates such as Fred Williams, John Brack and Yosl Bergner. Fullbrook began with the cleanest of slates, and soon became Dargie’s star pupil. Williams allegedly recalled: “He was the best of us all.”
The auction prices may not support that view, but there is no doubt that Fullbrook was a miraculous painter. Although he remained a tonalist for his entire career, his work was the antithesis of Meldrum’s dogmatism or Dargie’s earnest stodge. Fullbrook was an adventurous colourist whose work often veered close to abstraction, with a style that was a unique mixture of ‘science’ and intuition. He may have sworn it was all based on sound technique, but his paintings are disconcerting in their originality. It makes for an interesting comparison with a near-contemporary and equally original painter, Ken Whisson, who claimed to have spent his life trying to avoid “good technique”.
Fullbrook’s pictures are very slow to reveal all their subtleties. Take, for instance, Ernestine Hill (1970), one of this country’s great portraits. At first glance it looks unfinished, as if Fullbrook had merely sketched in the shape of the writer’s dress, dashing in the hands with a few flicks of the brush. We are drawn in by the red gash of the mouth and the dark dot of the subject’s right eye. The face is all personality, looking intelligent, shrewd and haughty. There is a crackling energy in the way the dark yellow spots of the dress seem to float in air, with the background rising up to enwrap the figure like smoke. It’s a triumph of the alla prima technique Fullbrook learnt from the old masters, in which careful layering is sacrificed in favour of spontaneity.
As usual with Fullbrook’s portraits, the face is the most basic of likenesses but the picture is completely persuasive. Ernestine Hill is the high point of Fullbrook’s work in this genre, but his portrait of the jockey, Norman ‘Whopper’ Stephens (1974) which won the Archibald Prize, is another masterpiece of bravura and simplicity, setting a red sash against a white shirt, on a murky green background.
The “delicate beauty” in Fullbrook’s paintings often teeters on the brink of cuteness or kitsch. His Mermaid as bride (1971) shows a pale pink nude, apparently swimming with a bridal bouquet in one hand. The mouth is the familiar red line, the eyes two dark pinpricks, and the nose non-existent. It’s that absence of a nose, of hands and lower legs that saves the work from incipient Pre-Raphaelitism. Fullbrook provides only the bare minimum of detail. This tendency is even more pronounced in his drawings, made with thick sweeps of pastel.
If Ernestine Hill ranks high among Australian portraits, this show has convinced me that Pike’s farm at Haden (1982-87) deserves a place in the pantheon of great Australian landscapes. There is a huge variety of colour in this work, but a predominant impression of brown and green. The planes interlock like a patchwork quilt in a ragged, asymmetrical arrangement. Everything seems to be shifting and changing shape. It’s not clear exactly what we are looking at. Is this an aerial perspective? A view of scrub or undergrowth? Are there living creatures concealed in this composition? Light seems to emanate from within the painting, illuminating a patch of red that lends warmth to a picture that could easily have been dull and muddy.
It’s pleasing that the QAG has done something to honour a painter who spent a good part of his life in Queensland, but disappointing that the show is so small, consisting of only 28 paintings and 11 works on paper, displayed in a single room. The gallery’s last Fullbrook show was held in 1976. The NGV’s 1995 survey was bigger, but didn’t travel outside of Melbourne. Sydney has never had a comprehensive look at Fullbrook’s work, although the Art Gallery of NSW has given surveys to many lesser figures.
If Fullbrook remains an underrated painter, it’s partly because he has been treated so shabbily by our public galleries. His unfashionable pursuit of beauty, combined with an idiosyncratic approach to subject matter that ranged from jockeys to koalas, and included many private jokes, was never calculated to appeal to contemporary sensibilities.
Fullbrook was an individualist who cannot be slotted into any school or movement. He had that distaste for authority, the contempt for pomp and pretense that we associate with Australian characters of the 1890s – but he could play the businessman or the racing personality when it suited him. When so many artists spend their lives reflexively following trends, it’s a pleasure to celebrate the work of a great non-conformist.
Sam Fullbrook: A Delicate Beauty
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 10 August
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 17 May, 2014