This weekend sees the launch of the 20th Biennale of Sydney, the most high-profile event in the Australian art calendar. As usual I’ll devote two columns to this mega-exhibition, but in the meantime there is one very different show that has waited a little too long for attention.
Lloyd Rees: Painting with Pencil 1930-36, at the Museum of Sydney (MoS), celebrates a unique moment in local art history, and a crucial period in the oeuvre of one of Australia’s best-loved artists. In a long sequence of landscape drawings Lloyd Rees produced a vision of Sydney and surrounds that can only be compared with the works of the Old Masters.
Many will remember Rees (1895-1988) as the very image of an Old Master – with sparse grey hair, failing eyesight, and trademark beret. By the 1980s he not only looked the part, he even sounded like an elderly sage, full of worldly wisdom and good humour. As his body aged Rees became Australian art’s spiritual father-figure. While his actual vision grew clouded, his paintings were flooded with light. These late pictures, so reminiscent of J.M.W.Turner’s last paintings, are very moving, but they are only the final flourishes of a long and varied career.
The MoS show looks at a period of 5-6 years, during which time Rees committed himself exclusively to drawing. It was a voyage of self-discovery that enabled him to find his way as a painter. When he had so thoroughly internalised the lessons of drawing that it seemed he was “painting with a pencil”, he returned to his brushes with renewed confidence and energy.
Although he would live to be a grand old man Rees experienced many serious health problems. In his early twenties he came down with Bright’s disease and thought he was going to die. This thought returned throughout his life, precipitating attacks of nervous debility and depression. In 1926 he married Dulcie Metcalfe, only to lose her the following year when she contracted septicaemia following the birth of a still-born child.
Rees’s grief would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown. The two lynchpins of his recovery were Marjory Pollard, whom he would wed in 1931, and the act of drawing. He was able to date the beginning of his “drawing period” to one day in 1930 when he had been visiting Marjory in Pennant Hills, and was forced to wait for the Parramatta bus. To pass the time he took out a book of “ivory smooth” drawing paper and set to work with a soft pencil.
It was not a combination he had previously favoured, believing such paper only suited for pen and ink work. The results were a revelation. “I became aware of the remarkable power of line to suggest the essential character of objects,” he wrote, “more so than most renderings of light and shade.” The first results of this breakthrough may be seen in Sketch at Pennant Hills (c. 1930), which feels amazingly simple alongside some of the densely worked pieces that would follow. In this show the first drawing that stopped me in my tracks was Trees (1933), which takes fine detail to a new plane.
From 1930 onwards painting was put aside, as Rees became preoccupied with the analysis of form. In these painstaking studies he would work out an overall design, then lay in the details piece by piece. He took such infinite care over the smallest of lines that one can scarcely credit his reserves of skill and patience. These drawings are exhausting simply to look at. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine the artist scratching away at them for days and weeks, pausing only to sharpen his pencil in order to keep that tight, precise line.
The landscape drawings established Rees as one of Australian art’s premier draughtsmen, but they form a very specific body of work. Like other talented draughtsmen, such as George Lambert or William Dobell, Rees was capable of looser, more expressive drawing, but for more than five years he practised the most exacting discipline. In seeking precedents one must look outside of Australia, to artists such as Dürer, Goltzius, Ingres and Menzel.
There is a classical nobility about Rees’s drawings but also a recognisable sense of the Australian landscape. A work such as The Bridge, South Coast Landscape (1936), has all the elements of a Claudean view of the Italian campagna – the distant hills, a river with a stone bridge, even a tall building at the top of a mountain that could be a monastery or a castle. It is the relative sparseness of the trees, a very un-Italian house, and a spindly wooden fence that tells us we are in rural Australia.
Rock Formation, Waverton (1934), would not be out of place in a work by Giovanni Bellini, but once again it is the fence, the houses and the gum trees that bring us back home.
One of the reasons many of Rees’s drawings feel so otherworldly is that they depict the Sydney of 80 years ago when the suburbs were still punctuated by bush and paddocks, and the city had no building that might be considered high-rise by today’s standards. The catalogue tells us that in 1933 Sydney had a metropolitan population of only 1.2 million.
The 1930s were marked by the Great Depression (1929-32), which put urban progress on hold and saw many workers lose their homes and their livelihoods. It doesn’t take much imagination to find echoes of these times in a drawing such as Sydney Harbour, McMahons Point (1932), with its lonely figure of a swagman set against a glimpse of the harbour. The same melancholy atmosphere is present in The Hillside (1934), another picture in which a solitary figure strolls along a dirt road, with the shadowy forms of the city looming in the distance.
In interpreting such drawings one must be wary of Ruskin’s “pathetic fallacy”, which imparts one’s own sentimental feelings onto the landscape. Yet with Rees such thoughts seem justified because – regardless of their mind-boggling precision – these pictures are full of feeling. One can see this in his many versions of the rocky outcrop of Ball’s Head or the gnarled, heroic fig trees that stand like sentinels around the harbour. These are not mere records of local scenery, but symbols of resilience. “I had a great sense of belonging with the figs and Balls Head,” he wrote. “I felt like embracing them to me.”
As the old tree had withstood generations of wind and rain, so too will people withstand the privations of the Depression – even the homeless who gather at Balls Head in makeshift humpies. So too would Rees overcome his grief and illness, and find his vocation as an artist.
In the book that accompanies this show it is often noted that Rees did not simply draw what met his eyes. He allowed himself the freedom of selecting and combining, omitting details that distracted from the composition. “I have never been exactly topographical,” he modestly explained.
Although he drew like Ingres, by temperament Rees was a Romantic. This is made clear in his preference for depopulated views of a city that must have been swarming with people. There is a deliberately antiquated feel to these pictures, which concentrate on aspects of nature and the silhouettes of distant buildings rather than the life of the streets.
Rees was born and raised in Brisbane, but few artists have been more acutely sensitive to Sydney’s attractions. It was love at first sight when he gazed at Sydney Harbour from a boat bound for Melbourne in 1916. During his many years living in the city he explored its foreshores and by-ways with a thoroughness few artists could match. His admiration for Sydney’s fig trees has been shared by every generation who protest fiercely whenever one of these monoliths is cut down.
Rees is the laureate of the fig tree, which takes on a monumental presence in drawing after drawing. He loved these trees not only for their sculptural qualities but as metaphysical entities. In his own words: “I’m constantly thinking of the miracle of endlessness, and I look upon every bit of nature as a symbol of eternity.” Perhaps the lesson in these remarkable works is that an artist can connect with the cosmos through the most rigorous attention to the natural world.
Lloyd Rees: Painting with Pencil 1930-36
Museum of Sydney, until 10 April.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19th March, 2016