Guy Grey-Smith returned from England in late 1947 having survived the shooting down of the aircraft of which he was the pilot, the associated injuries, four years as a prisoner of war and tuberculosis complicating it all. Yet he came back determined to advance modernism within Western Australian art. His first solo exhibition was held in 1949 and his third, in 1951, was held in Melbourne. Unequivocally, his aimwas to be seen – and judged – by a national audience.
Grey-Smith was good friends with Leslie and Bill Anderson who ran the Rottnest Island Hostel (subsequently known as the Lodge) from 1953 to 1960. Undoubtedly, then, he was a regular visitor to the island making sketched during his visits that he later used as the basis for a series of oil paintings. One of the Rottnest series – Longreach Bay (1954) – is held by the Art Gallery of Western Australia; another – Rottnest (1954-57) – sits in the collection of The University of Western Australia.
Of particular interest is that Grey-Smith and his family returned to England in September 1953 and did not head back to Perth until February 1955. Like the ground-breaking Longreach Bay, the work on offer is also dated 1954 and was almost certainly executed in England using sketches and notes taken from home. This perhaps explains some of the slightly unexpected features of the painting.
With trees as a typical reference in the foreground, Grey-Smith accurately depicts Rottnest’s low shrubbery using characteristic and spontaneously produced blocks of colour. The salt lake further identifies the location while the bright pink and crimson mid-ground probably reflects the influence on his art at the time of Matisse and Fauvism more generally.
Yet the horizon presents a deep blue, mountainous sky quite unlike Rottnest. For Grey-Smith, however, any perceived dissonance would have been little note as he was primarily concerned with self-expression through painting and note with literal reproduction of scenery. From the moment, while still a prisoner of war, that he saw an image of a Henry Moore sculpture and absorbed its modernist message – that art could and should reflect his own response to his environment – his paintings sought to describe that response rather than portray precisely what he had seen.
This striking painting is a rare and early example of Grey-Smiths oeuvre, heavily influenced as he was at that time by the works and philosophy of Cezanne but already confidently portraying his own unique artistic language.
Grey-Smith was a pivotal modernist influence in Western Australian art. He achieved early and sustained national recognition for his distinctive style. Without doubt, his works are amongst Western Australia’s most critically acclaimed and sought after. In March 2014, he will be the subject of a major and long overdue retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Along with Elise Blumann and Howard Taylor and, later, with other members of the so-called Perth Group (Robert Juniper, Brian McKay and Tom Gibbons) Guy Grey-Smith led the advancement of Western Australian art into its post-war future. He was awarded numerous prizes during his lifetime and his works are held in every major Australian Gallery and by every major Australian corporate collection. He is arguably Western Australia’s most influential artist. The current work is at once distinctive and evocative, beautiful and scarce.