There is one painting in Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination at the National Gallery of Victoria that should strike a chord with every true artist. The Swimmer (1995) shows a small figure battling his way through dark, choppy waves, with no shoreline in sight. It conjures up those moments in the studio when inspiration disappears, a painting isn’t working and everything seems too hard. There’s a sense of futility and despair, but still the swimmer pushes onward. When everything seems meaningless one can only keep going.
I thought of Rembrandt’s Artist in his Studio (c.1628), a picture dominated by a large easel which we see only from the back. Facing us from the other side of the room is the artist, rendered minuscule by perspective. In one image we see how daunting it is to bring a painting into the world.
For Senbergs (b. 1939), nothing seems to have come easily, while every hint of facility has inspired distrust. He gave up the medium of screen-printing in 1979 when he felt he had become “too confident”. Up to that point he owed his reputation to an innovative use of screen-printed imagery on large canvases. It’s a pattern repeated throughout this exhibition, so astutely curated by Elena Taylor. We see Senbergs working purposefully through one series after another until he feels he has exhausted a subject.
Senbergs came to Australia at the age of ten, as a refugee from war-torn Latvia. He received his first art training at Richmond Technical College, where he was taught by artist, Leonard French, who would become an important influence.
Early pictures such as The Whipper or The Tower (both 1961), are painted in an abstract style that owes a debt to the older men who were Senbergs’s mentors at the time – French, Roger Kemp and Len Crawford. Yet the underlying subject was straight out of Kafka, revealing a predilection for dark fantasy that has remained one of the constants in his work.
Whereas most artists begin in a figurative mode and evolve into abstraction, Senbergs took the opposite route, perhaps signifying a contrariness in his character. At a time when the art scene was dominated by movements such as Hard-Edge and Colourfield abstraction, he began working with recognisable imagery. This was partly because he disliked the way so many of his peers had surrendered themselves to the views of New York art critic, Clement Greenberg, who exerted an influence on advanced taste in a way no critic is ever likely to repeat.
Senbergs felt Greenbergian formalism, which encouraged the dogmatic belief that a work of art stood only for itself, was too narrow for his tastes. Where did this leave unquestionably great artists such as Goya? Did the historical progression of styles mean that all political and social comment was to be excluded from so-called progressive art?
When the National Gallery of Victoria opened its new building on St. Kilda Road in 1968 with a landmark survey of Australian abstract art called The Field, Senbergs was among those excluded. The silkscreen paintings he was making at the time had abstract elements but were mainly images of buildings and fractured monuments. These pieces were interpreted as political allegories of an Orwellian persuasion.
The silkscreen works were the subject of a survey at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008, so I won’t dwell upon them here, but they established Senbergs as an artist with an original vision. The culmination of this period came with the High Court Mural in Canberra (1977-80), a massive public art work. He collaborated with a factory to burn his images into sheets of aluminium.
In 1977 Senbergs’s first marriage ended and he found himself living alone in Port Melbourne, then a rundown industrial suburb. It was a time of new beginnings, as he scaled down the screen-printing and took up drawing with a passion. Although his paintings always had a strong graphic aspect, Senbergs had never felt he was a good draughtsman, perhaps because of his lack of an art school education. This anxiety would be definitively laid to rest in the 1990s, when drawing became an all-consuming preoccupation. During the 1980s, Senbergs would become more hands-on, no longer feeling comfortable with the idea of simply transferring an image from a photograph.
The first paintings of note were the Mt. Lyell landscapes, which captured the scarred, battered likeness of a famous Tasmanian mining town. This subject, which Senbergs drew and researched, allowed him to exercise his taste for monumental themes, ruin and decay. There is nothing quite like these industrial landscapes that capture the destruction wrought by mining, but still manage to convey a heroic aspect to the enterprise. A painting such as Copperopolis – Mt Lyell (1983) is a glimpse of Hell, but also a fascinating labyrinth, as we chart the way the hills and gullies have been carved up by the miners and transformed into a sci-fi dystopia.
The 1980s was a brilliant decade for Senbergs. He followed the Mt Lyell work with a series of paintings made after a trip to Antarctica, and a further series based on the remote regions of Western Australia. No picture is more memorable than Bea Maddock being lifted onto the Icebird – Heard Island (1987). It records the eerie sight of fellow artist, Bea Maddock, wrapped up like a mummy, being hauled off the ice after breaking her leg. It seems no less fanciful than the historical work, Borchgrevink’s Foot (1987-88), which shows a moment in 1895, when an ambitious seaman leapt out of the landing boat before anyone else, thereby becoming the first man to set foot on the Antarctic continent. In Senbergs’s painting the offending foot has become as large as the boat itself.
The level of research Senbergs undertook for his paintings of the 1980s demonstrates an unfashionable ambition to be a contemporary history painter. The Blue Angel of Wittenoom (1987), commemorates a visit to the notorious asbestos mining town in Western Australia. The “angel” hovering over the landscape is both the angel of death, and a Wandjina, an original spirit of the land.
In the 1990s this tendency was continued in allegorical paintings such as News (1991) based on the new media environment of the Gulf War. Alongside a great, sinister-looking machine stands a figure whose head and torso have taken on the form of a camera. It is as though mind and heart have been transmuted into a news-channelling apparatus, with no capacity to judge right and wrong.
In typical fashion, at this time Senbergs seems to have stood back from the increasingly portentous nature of these works, and decided a change was in order. This was the moment when he returned to drawing with new gusto, producing an incredible large-scale depiction of his new studio, a former night-club in North Melbourne. Instead of dealing with literary or philosophical themes, Senbergs was now intent on capturing a spontaneous impression of an interior or a tribal sculpture. The meaning or message was created by the subject itself, and by the expressive vigour of the mark-making.
In the years that have followed, Senbergs has extended that objectivity into a series of large map paintings which give a detailed – albeit partly fictional – overview of cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. The maps are without parallel in Australian art, but one might seek their origins in the topographical profiles drawn by the early explorers. Two hundred years on, Senbergs has gone back to the same areas, and sketched the cosmopolis that has grown up on the site of a struggling outpost.
Throughout this overview of more than 50 years’ work, one can only be impressed by Senbergs’s consistency. Even allowing for his changes of direction when he reached the limits of a particular subject or medium, he has remained true to himself in a way that not many artists can match. It’s not because of his supreme self-confidence. On the contrary, Senbergs’s sense of doubt has been no less chronic than Cézanne’s. The achievement lies in his ability to confront each crisis, each blank moment, and emerge with a powerful, new solution.
Jan Senbergs: Observation – Imagination
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
until 12 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 14th May, 2016