“I found de Stael’s painting gave me an avenue of freer individual development – the simplification of form and the simpler movement of action … on a canvas.”
As the 1950’s came to an end, Guy Grey-Smith had already established himself as Western Australia’s leading modernist painter and an artist with an emerging national profile. His impressionist style and bold, Fauvist use of colour were already clearly recognisable and undeniably popular. Yet, at this same time, he was drawn to the distinctive, impasto style of the Russian-born, French artist Nicolas de Stael whose impact on European art had been cut short in 1955 by his suicide at the age of 41.
At first, Grey-Smith struggled to find the optimal balance between the figurative and the abstract with this technique. But his assured use of colour and the inspiration he drew from the Western Australian landscape ultimately proved ideal when applying the thick, geometric slabs of oil and bees wax emulsion that characterised his new work.
By 1962, he had settled into the style in which he was at his most confident and composed, and for which he would ultimately be most widely acclaimed. His works of the mid-1960’s remains his most emblematic and sought after. Figure on the Beach (1966) exhibits the cardinal elements of this important period in Grey-Smith’s artistic life.
The clearly defined, rectangular slabs of paint are divided into four quadrants by the abstract yet plainly recognisable object of the painting. There is no intention to identify this individual; rather the central figure serves primarily to draw our attention to the landscape itself and to provide a focal point around which the slabs of colour compete and combine. The horizon is drawn in thick, purple paint providing depth and orientation; the intensity of the blues and turquoise to one side and the mauves to the other reminds us of Grey-Smiths abiding passion for facility with colour.
A similar though smaller work “Figure (on the beach) 1965) is featured in Andrew Gaynor’s biography of the artist¹. That work employs similar and more symmetric slabs of paler colours, evoking bleaching effect of the intense mid-summer light. In re-visiting that theme just one year later, Grey-Smith creates a more complex and dynamic work, rounding off what was undeniably the best period of his career.
Figure on the Beach (1966) is an outstanding and archetypal example of Grey-Smith’s finest works. It exudes the confidence that the artist felt in this style and medium and reminds us of why he remains one of Western Australia’s most nationally regarded and critically acclaimed artists.
¹ Guy Grey-Smith: Life Force, Andrew Gaynor, UWA Publishing 2012.