GFL’s Communications Manager Olivia Gardner discusses the highlights of our Spring 2015 Fine Art Auction, including works by Guy Grey-Smith, George Haynes, Robert Juniper, George Bourne, Donald Friend and Alexander Colquhoun.
Margaret Dunn Crowley would say of Orban in her memoir “I learnt more from him than any other teacher” and considering the quality of teaching Dunn Crowley had received, that was an impressive endorsement.
Desiderius Orban was a most important painter and influence in the Australian art world. He arrived in Australia in 1939 after leaving Hungary following the Nazi invasion of Poland. He was 55 years of age and had established a successful career in his homeland where he was a member of the “The Eight,” a group of painters that introduced modern painting techniques into Hungary.
His early years in Australia were difficult and it wasn’t until 1943 following a successful exhibition at the Notanda Gallery in Sydney that he commence teaching. His first students included Margot Lewers, Oscar Edwards and Yvonne Audette. Others to pass through his classes were John Olsen, George Laszlo and John Coburn.
Orban had a profound understanding of matters related to art and was responsible for writing three influential books. They were A Layman’s Guide to Creative Art (1968), Understanding Art (1969) and What is Art All About (1975).
He considered that the basic principle of art teaching was to influence the student as little as possible and impart to the student the method to discover themselves. The main failing of academic teaching he believed was to stifle creativity in all but the genius.
Orban was a person with a strong opinion and according to him the difference between the painter and the artist was that the painter is someone who tried to make a pictorial copy of reality, whereas the artist uses the elements of reality to make a new creation.
This work Fruit and Palette was painted in Australia in the 1950’s and exhibits Orban’s interest in cubism and its use of familiar objects in creating new imagery. In his early years in Paris Orban came into contact with Picasso and Braque and the exposure to those artists influenced his style though not his creativity. He was constantly experimenting with new materials and his technique moved away from cubism to a more formal abstract expressionism in his later years.
The winner of many awards including the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1967 and 1971, he also conducted summer schools at the University of New England from 1957 to 1967 and gave armchair chats on ABC radio.
His work is included in the collection of every major gallery across Australia and the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.
Orban was 101 years of age upon his death in Sydney and he had put most of those years into the development and assisting of others to appreciate and understand art.
Like so many artists working during the turn of the 20th century, few records have been kept to indicate much of the intricacies of their lives in Australia. All that remains as a testament to their time here are the artworks that resurface, few and far between, and in diminishing numbers as they are well sought after by the major galleries and institutions in the country.
George Bourne is one of these artists and this rare and sizable work of his of Bunbury Harbour is only matched in quality by three watercolours that have been acquired by the National Maritime Museum in Canberra.
Records indicate the Bourne arrived in Fremantle from England aboard the Daylight on the 16th of August 1876 and that he worked most ports between there and Adelaide. He was a resident at Esperance Bay 1897-98 and in Albany c.1900-02 and has been identified as the harbourmaster of Bunbury in 1909. His trade was the maritime industry and he divided his time between working aboard ships and painting scenes of these ships and ports.
Aside from this record and a smattering of newspaper articles alluding to the nature of his character (a series of jaunts at the local courthouse), little has been uncovered about the artist whose delicate landscapes offer a timeless account of life in Western Australia during a period of settlement, burgeoning trade and colonialism.
While watercolour is the obvious medium for a professional ship portraitist due to its quick drying qualities, this oil painting by Bourne would have taken some time and consideration.
From the almost pinpoint couple standing at the waters break to the coastal train rocketing towards the length of the jetty that reaches out to a bustling mooring of three-mast ships, to a lone fisherman floating in the bay as a steam ship passes the breakwater – behind which stands the reconstructed Bunbury lighthouse – we can see that this is a thoughtful composition by Bourne that draws the eye well around the canvas.
Not only does this painting allow the viewer an intricate reconstruction of Bunbury harbour at the time, it also offers a glimpse through the eyes of a working man whose life and livelihood, like many other settlers at the time, was deeply reliant on the ocean and seaborne trade.
The capricious titles that often accompany George Haynes paintings tend to deflect from the effort and technical know-how that had gone into their making. Up Down and Over the River on a Sunday Afternoon is such a title – a light-hearted one for an intricate depiction of East Fremantle from North Fremantle, with the Swan in between and the span that is Stirling Bridge joining them.
It is a picturesque day with the river sparkling and a gentle breeze driving a sailboat before it. A couple hand in hand stroll on a pathway and a young man rests in the shade of the bridge surveying all that is before him. A powerboat casting a wake speeds up river and the buildings that are East Fremantle appear pristine and glow in the midday sun. It is an idyllic summer’s afternoon on the banks of the Swan River that isn’t a river at all – it’s an estuary.
The moored boats, some with masts, face into the breeze all spaced and positioned to aid the vertical and compliment the horizontal of the panorama. The water is choppy to make reflection minimal and not interfere with the order of the design, which ensures our eye does not wander outside the perimeters Haynes has set us.
As we gaze across the panel from left to right (or east to west if you are a local) we notice a change in the tone and length of the shadows. To the west of the bridge the sky takes on an afterglow as the sun sinks into the ocean. The sandy edge of the river has changed from warm to cool and the buildings are no longer bathed in bright light, there is haziness as we peer into twilight. Suddenly it’s realised – there’s a bit more to this work, this isn’t just a scenic expanse of the river using a wide lens profile, it’s a length of day picture.
Haynes has painted the subtle changes of light we experience during the course of an afternoon. He has progressed time from midday to sunset across the width of the panel and the change of light has been introduced so gently and skilfully that it has hardly been detected, just as a day can slip quietly away when we are relaxing or enjoying ourselves with some other temperate activity.
Haynes likes his audience to look at his pictures and see them as well – he believes the longer you look the more you see and he is often reluctant to give a literal explanation of his intent. With all good works there is pleasure in discovery.
Through this picture Haynes is able to combine all the elements of picture making at which he excels, and then he teases us with the title to disguise his purpose. The subject of his picture is not East Fremantle or the Stirling Bridge or the Swan River and its attendant activity; it is the change of light during day. The scenery, while entertaining and topographically relevant, is really a bonus – it’s a prop to aid with the effect Haynes was seeking.
Others may have titled the work, “The Disappearing Day” or “Metamorphous from Noon to Twilight” but then they would be far too literal and the élan that is Haynes would be lost.
Donald Friend’s Night Fishing is an intoxicating blend of myth and landscape, the figurative and the fanciful. It is both as whimsical and self-aware as the prose that fills the pages of Friend’s perceptive publication Donald Friend in Bali, of which the artwork – in its vibrant detail – wraps around the inside covers.
On what was supposed to be only a visit to Bali, Friend decided to stay. He made a place for himself there, not only through his intimacy with the lifestyle and the locals but also through his place within the landscape. It was said that the gods reside in the mountains and the sea is home to the demons, Friend took advantage of this local belief and was able to secure prime waterfront property in Sanur where he built a grand house and striking garden.
He was known as Tuan Rakshasa or Lord Devil because his residence overlooked the place in the ocean where a ferocious demon lived. One could imagine him delighting in the notoriety of his local persona – his nature was to engulf those around him, be they family, friends or acquaintances, and to be referred to as a devil, let alone Lord Devil, would have caused him no end of mirth.
Friend was able to live an opulent lifestyle on Bali, the sales of his works excelled and enabled him to maintain and support a conspicuous lifestyle that included houseboys and gardeners. He became a collector of paintings, bronzes and artefacts, many of which ended up in Australian museums and galleries.
In addition to painting and drawing, he produced a number of manuscripts for books, some of which were published, Donald Friend in Bali and Bumbooziana being the better known and both displaying his wit, skills of observation and talent as a writer.
Friend wrote of the night fishermen,“… The tide is low. You can see the lamps and flares of a hundred fishermen wading ankle-deep in dark water, netting prawns and small fish. Their lights meander slowly over the shadowy shallows like a festival of stars, incandescence is fragmented in placid ripples. As always, music sounds somewhere near, and a yelp or two from some damned scavenging village dog, and the sound of someone laughing.”
Night Fishing was painted in Sanur when it was mainly a fishing village and superstitions were strong. Friend has drawn on a local legend as the subject of his painting and completed it in his unmistakable style. The demon in this image is most probably the fanged Djero Geide Metajaling who lived on the island of Nusa Penida which was visible from Donald Friend’s house – night was the time the demons were active as their strength was at its most heightened.
Joseph Brown, the doyen of Australian art dealers, was the founding adviser to many great collections of art. Wesfarmers and numerous other high profile collectors consulted him in the early years of their collections development and his mark is indelibly imprinted on their holdings.
His judgement was impeccable and he was instrumental in encouraging his clients and state collecting bodies to re-visit and buy Australian art. His enthusiasm generated energy and interest in a market that had languished for years and was considered to be a buyer’s playground.
Brown rarely made mistakes when cataloguing and his gallery’s well respected research staff could be exhaustive in their efforts to find previously unknown information. No stone was left unturned in the quest for provenance and his catalogues were always full of important information.
In his 1980 auction catalogue something went astray with this picture by Alexander Colquhoun, he catalogued the work as being by Alexander’s son Archibald. Perhaps Brown had relied upon the previous owner’s recollections of the author or maybe he had acquired the work from a local auction house without provenance.
When the painting was offered again in 2004 the error had not been corrected. It wasn’t until the work had been sold at the auction that the correct artist, title and exhibition history was uncovered. Alexander’s son would have been five years old when A Spring Morning was painted.
As it was revealed, A Spring Morning was exhibited at the Victorian Artists Society Exhibition of 1899 during the period known as The Golden Age of Australian Impressionism – when the Heidelberg School became famous. The painting was illustrated in the VAS catalogue and was priced at twenty guineas (£21) – artists were paid in guineas and tradesmen were paid in pounds.
The Heidelberg School remains the most admired and respected in Australian art and Alexander Colquhoun was a member of that group, though his prominence had remained largely unknown.
To correct the oversight, a survey exhibition – Alexander Colquhoun 1862-1941 Artist and Critic – was held at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum in 2004. This exhibition caused Colquhoun’s importance within Australian art history to become better acknowledged. A Spring Morning was included in that exhibition.
The Castlemaine Gallery director Peter Perry noted that Colquhoun had been overlooked in the published histories of the Heidelberg School though his association with the founders was well known.
Colquhoun, Roberts, Streeton, Abrahams and McCubbin were all members of the Buonarotti Club which was a Melbourne institution considered to be instrumental in the development of the Heidelberg School. As an advocate of bohemian ideas the membership was composed of mainly professional artists, writers and musicians, and while there were many other clubs in Melbourne their numbers were generally made up of amateurs. Although the Buonarotti Club was short lived (1883-1887) its influence on Melbourne’s artistic life was profound.
A mother and child in the orchard are typical of the Heidelberg School subject and A Spring Morning was probably painted in the area. Colquhoun lived in Heidelberg for a time and was to write; “Old Heidelberg…. the beauty spot of outer Melbourne, yielding in its sheltered valleys and smiling orchards something of the peace and charm of a Sussex village.”
Colquhoun was 14 when he arrived in Australia with his parents and he studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1877-1879 and again from 1882-1887. He became a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1936-1941 and was highly regarded as a critic, writing for The Melbourne Herald from 1914-1922 and The Age from 1926-1941. He served as the Secretary of the Victorian Artist Society from 1904-1914 and is also credited with writing the first monographs on Frederic McCubbin and William Beckwith McInnes.
He was an influential figure in his time and his work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery in Canberra.
“I found de Stael’s painting gave me an avenue of freer individual development – the simplification of form and the simpler movement of action.”
Guy Grey-Smith was a painter and a potter and it was his practice as a potter from which his painting technique evolved. His works in oils and clay could be described as having a refined-coarse quality and being quintessentially Australian. And while (by his own admission) de Stael may have sewn the seed, Grey-Smith shaped the final result to suit his needs as a painter and to contain the ruggedness of the Northern Australian landscape as a subject.
There’s a timeless quality to his works that have roots in the recent past and branches into the future. His paintings provide a constant source of intrigue as they are more complex than they first appear. The nuances in the primary colours, that he uses to telling effect, and the variation in paint quality to represent the different surfaces on show are uniquely his.
The physical act of painting was a performance he enjoyed and in this work Nullagine all of his talents and knowledge of making exciting art is on display.
In an interview with Laurie Thomas in 1969 Robert Juniper said, “I think it is a painter’s duty if not his goal to be himself – to paint from his own experience, what’s inside him and not from the glossy magazines.” Thomas considered that Juniper had a poetic feeling for the Australian landscape, though Juniper considered that his interest was more localised than the broader description of Australia. “I feel that I’m developing what I feel is an indigenous thing – indigenous to Western Australia – because I don’t feel any strong influence from anywhere else,”
Juniper was accurate in his self assessment. His work is free from the outside influence of others though his influence on others is recognized. If anyone could lay claim to having an effect on his work, it was probably Sam Fullbrook. On his initial exposure to Fullbrook’s paintings Juniper would say “Fullbrook’s paintings then pulsated with the heat of the north and showed me for the first time a vision beyond the verdant rim, that hot gut of the Australian landscape.” He was to put Fullbrook’s colour guide into sound use though he was never to embrace his glissando technique of painting. Juniper was much more enthused about texture and paint quality to restrict himself to colour unaided.
Moonrise over Gwalia is a major example of Juniper’s unique interpretation of the Western Australian landscape. It is an exotic image that can revive the memories of people that have lived and worked within the region and satisfy the yearnings of those that haven’t made the journey. This is a personal and romantic record of his visit to Gwalia. A quiet time at a bewitching hour as his companion and his Rhodesian Ridgebacks wander quietly among the ruins of the once prosperous town.
The full moon rises and casts subtle shadows across the land, the middle distance takes on the glow of reflected moonlight as the sun retreats below the horizon. Juniper’s colours imitate the hour and to add the personal touch, he introduces himself into the composition with his trademark Stetson and Cuban heeled boot.
The viewer is in no doubt that Juniper has experienced this scene and recreated the memory in his unique style.
“I advise no girl to marry an artist who hasn’t been an artist herself … otherwise you cannot credit the focus an artist has on his own work.” These are the words of Carl Plate’s widow Jocelyn during an ABC interview in 2011.
Carl Plate was an important post war painter in Sydney and was one of the first exponents of abstract expressionism in Australia. He held one man exhibitions of his work at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1959 and the Knapik Gallery in New York in 1962 – he also held exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne.
Abstract painting in Australia had little market in the post war era as Australians were wary of the non-figurative theory that was sweeping the international art world. The art buyers were also being cautioned by the traditionalists to treat the new works as fraudulent. Those new works included artists of the stature of Pollock, Rothko, Warhol, Motherwell, De Kooning and Nicholson.
Added to the derision of the establishment, a group of well regarded young Australian artists signed the Antipodean Manifesto declaring that their work would remain true to figurative art, irrespective of what was happening overseas. The ideals of the Antipodeans touched the standards of the locals and the abstractionists were shunned as a consequence.
On his return to Australia in 1940 and to provide an income, Plate re-opened the Notanda Gallery in Sydney which became the hub of artistic action. Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend were regular visitors in addition to Lloyd Rees and Desidarius Orban – Notanda was the only gallery in Sydney where people could see reproductions of modern European art in colour and the gallery provided a war weary public some light relief from the incessant headlines of death and destruction.
Though the mainstay of sales was books, post cards and reproductions, art exhibitions were also held but as Plate would only exhibit works that he was interested in they weren’t regular events. Notanda was the first gallery in Australia to exhibit modern English art which included pieces by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. A critic at the time said that Nicholson’s work would make a nice design for a place mat.
For over two decades Notanda Gallery remained a cultural landmark in Sydney and it has been claimed that Carl Plate’s art was overshadowed by the success of his gallery. Jocelyn Plate thinks differently – “he was absolutely focussed on being a painter and was only interested in art” she said.
Carl Plate’s works are included in every major collection throughout Australia.
Stacha Halpern would spring into his painting with an energy and vigour that didn’t cease until they were completed. They leave an indelible impression in one’s mind and irrespective of the feeling towards them – they are not easy to forget.
He lived and worked in France for 15 years and developed a reputation as a significant painter. He is considered to be the only Australian artist to make a real contribution to European art and regularly exhibited in solo and group shows in Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and Florence. Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Helen Frankenthaler were some of those he exhibited alongside and he was represented by the prestigious Galerie Blumenthal in Rue Du Faubourg St Honoure.
A witty and generous man he entertained many of the young Australian painters visiting Europe including Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Jan Senbergs and Len French. The welcome mat was always out at the Halpern home and many enjoyed his hospitality and friendship.
He returned to Australia in 1966 but the reception he received was disappointing. Those that he entertained and made welcome in France were not reciprocal when he returned to Australia.
The differences between the followers of abstraction and the Antipodean group was still topical and though he had a successful career in France, the Australian public wasn’t ready for an expatriate whose images seemed to have a foot in both camps – figurative with the antipodeans and abstract expressionist with the others.
His lack of sensation was also linked to his brief exposure to the Australian market which was explained by his contemporary Stan Rapotec upon being referred to as an overnight success “…. I firmly and strongly believe now, that to build up an artist in any field you need twenty years of struggle – struggling, battling, performing, experimenting, exercising and, yes, exposing oneself in one’s work to the full brunt of criticism.”
Stacha Halpern had achieved prominence and success over the fifteen years he lived and worked in France, but that didn’t count in Australia, he had to start all over again to receive the accolades he was due. Unfortunately he died through heart disease in 1969, three years after his return.
Halpern’s position and effect in the International art scene of the 60’s is finally being respected in Australia as his work becomes better known and appreciated across a better informed public.