Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Smallest Visitors

The Smallest Visitors

Small visitors are an art in themselves
they come into this space at full tilt,
hover on tiptoe, all eyes and eagerness,
a rapid consultation, point – that
way! – and away at a run
chittering like squirrels
and ignoring the good-natured
hushing of their teacher
as they animate the place with their pleasure.

            A quiet girl has branched off on her own
            to craft her answer to an assignment
            unawed by her chosen
            400-year old Byzantine icon.

Meanwhile the main tide flows
around where I sit, old man with a pen,
as if I am an exhibit not sufficient
to warrant their notice and I am reminded
of my own son years ago at eight or so
going up to a grim attendant at a National
Gallery somewhere and asking politely:
Excuse me, are you real?

Small visitors are an art in themselves
they animate the place with their pleasure.

-Barry Breen, May 2013

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Nolan’s Burke - The idea of narrative art

An interesting afternoon spent mainly in front of Sydney Nolan’s Burke 1964 – starting with a visit from an old actor friend of mine, John Bolger.

We looked at the Nolan and he commented on: nakedness and vulnerability, the sense of being lost, sense of an aboriginal figure almost. I saw an interesting contrast between sharpness and blurred outlines and various other pictorial elements, too numerous to go into here.

Then I wrote: “The background is more than background, it is integral to the story. There is a narrative here. The face is detailed enough to attract our interest (too anonymous and the viewer turns off).”

I wrote a lot of notes on the colours used – ochres, blues, yellows, red.

Sidney Nolan, Burke, 1964, enamel on composition board, 128.5 x 128.5 cm
Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gift of Reginald and Laura Gregory, 1978

A lady joined me and pointed out the blood-red colour on the camel’s neck and in the water. She knew the story very well and had been to the DIG tree, her husband (who joined us later) being something of an expert on the whole Burke and Wills story. Their comments were valuable and interesting.

The painting insists that you be involved in the story – I found myself reasoning that it depicts a point in time when Burke has turned around (the horizon suggests that we are looking west, so Burke is heading south again on his way to die at Cooper’s Creek).

Burke’s stance is slightly effete – hand on hip – Europeanised. He is ironically naked and completely without all the ‘civilised’ accoutrements he set out with. He seems to have given up looking for help – ironically help was nearby if he had realized that the aborigines knew how to survive in this country and that Cooper’s Creek itself was full of fish.

You see how it is – we have turned the painting (which is one of a series on Burke and Wills) into a story, about which we already know most of the details.

The artist, in this sort of painting, selects a pivotal moment in a well-known, or clearly visible, story and presented it as representative of the whole narrative.

There are various other narrative paintings in this gallery; David Davies’ Under the burden of the heat of the day is more than a landscape with figures, it tells of the hardship of the life of itinerant workers in the bush; Tom Roberts’ Wood splitters also tells of a way of life; in another part of the gallery, look for 19th century historical paintings, or even the portraits of mayors and politicians tell a story, as does Noel Counihan’s On the steps of parliament house recently featured in an article in The Australian newspaper.

But, back to Nolan; I spent the next week researching, finding, for instance that the artist himself disagreed with my take on Burke, who I saw as a rather silly example of European arrogance – Nolan wrote that he regarded Burke as heroic. He sees fortitude where I see arrogance.

In my poem below, I stick to my own reading of the painting. Here’s the poem as it stands at the moment – after all that work, it’s a short poem (maybe there’s a ballad to come?):

Nolan’s BURKE (1964)

Burke lost, going nowhere now,
going in his nakedness to die,
his camel half submerged
blue water spoiled with blood
on either side rich browns
and strident yellows, while Robert
O’Hara Burke, laid back and loose,
hand on hip, glancing up
and away from it all, affects
the nonchalance expected of the white man.

I do welcome comment, either on this blog or when I am at the Gallery on Wednesday afternoons.

Cheers - Barry Breen
May 2013

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Dickerson and Blackman

I’m looking at two paintings, hung side by side – Robert Dickerson’s “Wynyard Station”, undated but around early 1950s, and Charles Blackman’s “Street Scene”, 1960.

Charles Blackman, Street Scene, 1960, oil on masonite, Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, The William, Rene and Blair Ritchie Collection. Bequest of Blair Ritchie, 1998 © The artist

There are clearly similarities between the two paintings, similarities of construction particularly, but there are also differences, in fact contrasts.

Five figures in each, but in the Blackman the rather fashionable ladies are unconnected to each other; in the Dickerson his working-class people (or four of them) are huddled together defensively looking out at the passers-by.

I decided at some stage to write a single poem about the two, making the contrasts. But before I come to that, the Dickerson subjects reminded me of the “displaced persons” of my youth, just after the end of World War 2, the refugees from war-torn Europe.

 Robert Dickerson, Wynyard Station, not dated, oil on hardboard, Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Purchased, 1960 ©The artist

Here’s the resultant poem.

DPs – 1950s

(After contemplating Bob Dickerson’s “Wynyard Station”, 1950s)

Displaced persons they were called, DPs
and we felt sorry for them
but they were, well, different
you wouldn’t expect your sister
to bring one home
or dad would have had a fit
we lived in a decent suburb they
were cramped in inner-city streets
in houses a couple of paces across
and hardly room for a dunny out the back.
We’d see them on summer evenings
as we drove through sometimes
sitting out on the footpath for god’s sake
some sort of crazy continental idea
before they went back in for their
spaghetti and garlic
                                                sitting drinking top shelf stuff
they probably made themselves out in the washhouse
look at them

having a hell of a time of it.

On this theme it will be interesting to have a look, at a later date, at Yvonne Audette’s 1955 painting, “Refugees”.

Meanwhile, here is the ‘pair of paintings’ poem, as it stands at the moment. Notice that I felt, in paintings like these, that it was interesting to put yourself in the place of the artist, that is, in the eye of the observer.

A Pair of Paintings

(Robert Dickerson Wynyard Station, c. 1950
Charles Blackman Street Scene, 1960)

Together on a wall, five figures in each one
but so different. Makes you wonder
where the artist is in each painting

in the street scene here he is (you might think)
behind a shop window
                                                            looking through
at five fashionable ladies fashionably
apart each in her own preoccupation
of variously sadness, confidence, contemplation,
concern and misty resignation
two sharp faces closer to the imagined glass then
a fading face, a faded face, the back
of a head . . .
                                                            in Wynyard Station
they sit, working class folk, four of them
huddled together like wood swallows
looking or not looking at the artist
who is walking past and catching
a glimpse, caught in the act of
catching a glimpse – What’re
you looking at? That other bloke
walking away he stared at us too!

The ladies in the street don’t care
one way or the other even when hands
reach out they don’t reach out to touch

the working people are refugees
from all that they just want to get home
to where no one is going to ask any more questions.

-Barry Breen Mar 2013

Sunday, 5 May 2013

On Fred Williams

Fred Williams, Upwey landscape V & Landscape with Red Fox in the Powell Gallery.

What do people see when they look at the two Fred Williams landscapes in the Powell Gallery?

Do they see smudges for trees and colours that suggest that blue-black is green and the land is rust? Smears and stabs of vague colour, randomly placed? Who ever heard of blue-black trees and rocks dissolving from the centre out?

Do they wonder briefly and walk away?

Of course most people who come into a gallery would know that Fred Williams is an absolute icon of Australian art and that these two landscapes might be worth a couple of million each. 

That alone would make them stop and look.

And when you stop and look you realise, as I wrote in the first of two poems on Williams:

Upwey V, 1965

The land has entered his head
And re-appeared
As a Fred Williams landscape
And will remain that
For as long as paint endures
And people can see.

In other words, as John Brack said at Williams’ funeral, “Fred . . . changed the way we see our country.”

These two are early landscapes, both from the time when Williams and his wife Lyn were living in the Upwey area near Melbourne, but already they show the techniques that the artist was to keep, and develop, throughout his too-short career (he died of cancer at the age of 55).

There is the sense of looking down on the land from above, the way the trees seem to sit on the land as if they have just blown there, the distant horizon suggesting vast spaces and the vague suggestion of shapes within the landscape – as I describe in my second poem from that day.

The Red Fox
(Landscape with Red Fox, 1967)

Did the red fox emerge uninvited
Demanding to be outlined sharp and fast
In this red-hard country

Where an old skull dissolving near
A waterhole suggests a danger
That the red fox is skirting

With his lithe lightning-flash of speed
Heading for the flat far-off horiuzon’s
Unlimited possibilities?

You see, I looked at that fox and I wondered whether it had begun life as a mere shape that suggested a fox to the artist and became definitely one when he outlined the shape in clear, sharp lines.

I would love to have been able to ask him but, despite the fact that we had mutual friends, I never met him.

Finally, just a couple of notes that I made and subsequently did not use in the two poems above.

Colours: ochres, brown almost khaki (uniform) and blue-black. Above the fox as close to a burst of colour as W. will allow – gold berries and a smear of red repeated more subtly where the bushes show against the sky . . .

The land rusty with age
and flattened packed down
and bearing lightly
the burden of its trees.

-Barry Breen April 2013

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Gravedigger

Though I was mainly concentrating on the two Fred Williams landscapes (see next blog) I found it hard in that small gallery room to ignore the graphic Jon Molvig painting, The Gravedigger.

Jon Molvig, The Gravedigger, 1962, oil on composition board, Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest, 2008

The image is very simple and would be sparse if it were not for the solidity of the objects – the gravedigger and his shovel.

Again I found myself writing a poem that responded directly to the painting.

Here’s the poem, as it stands at the moment.

The Gravedigger, Jon Molvig, 1962

The gravedigger is immense
    threatening the elements
        threatening even death itself
with his sharp shovel-spear that slices the earth
    with the bludgeoning weight of his hand
        and – ready to blot out the sun
            the vast shovel-blade of his face.

Another thing I’ve noticed since is the clay colour, not, as you might expect, of the earth, but of the grave digger himself, a very rich, strong brown.

There is nothing tentative or unsure about this painting.

Cheers – Barry Breen April 2013

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mainly Tucker

The overwhelming detail in Boyd’s The Golden Calf (see my last blog post) meant that some diversion was needed on that afternoon. One distraction that offered itself was, right next to the Boyd, an Albert Tucker Girl, painted in 1951.

Albert Tucker, Girl, 1951, oil on plywood, Collection: Art Gallery of Ballarat, Purchased, L.J. Wilson Bequest Fund and the Caltex Victorian Government Art Fund, 1982 © Barbara Tucker

Now Tucker, I knew, had in wartime spent some weeks in an army posting that had him drawing the faces in the Facial Reconstruction Unit at Heidelberg Repatriation hospital – a distressing job that didn’t last long, but that no doubt coloured his art for a long time afterwards.

A little later, in 1947, he was in Japan recording the devastation of the US bombings of two years before – another distressing role.

Then he came home to find that his wife, Joy Hester, had left him. No wonder, after all this, that a portrait of a girl would carry elements of seediness and immorality – as here on this wall, a Picasso-esque depiction of a young girl.

Here is the resulting poem with some additional notes, which show how one thing can lead to another as I have to restrain myself from sailing off into French poetry and its influence on English.
Girl by Albert Tucker

The girl as prostitute
see the rouge
see the painted smile
see the brazen buttocks
the upraised breasts
the dark vague bush
of lust implied there
the long luxurious black hair
the body cut up and reassembled
and is it an angel or the sun’s
golden glow shining down on her
or just the blue light on a police car
and the accusing glare of its headlights?
 Note: Tucker was much influenced by Eliot’s disillusioned view of the world as well as by Picasso’s disintegrating and distorted figures.
Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.
(T. S. Eliot, 1919)

Which derives from:

Carmen est maigre – un trait de bistre
Cerne son oeil de gitana.
Ses cheveux sont d’un noir sinistre,
Sa peau, le diable la tanna.
Carmen is thin – a bistre track
Gives her gypsy eye a hint of evil.
Her hair is of a sinister black
And her skin has been tanned by the devil.      
(Théophile Gautier, 1852, translation by Barry Breen 2013)

-Barry Breen March 2013

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Golden Calf

February 21 was my first full afternoon ‘shift’ as Poet in Residence and I immediately showed my ignorance by plonking myself down in from of Arthur Boyd’s The Golden Calf. I did this because I know Boyd’s work well and I’m familiar with his favourite images – but I should have considered that his biblical paintings in particular are dense and full of characters and actions.

Arthur Boyd, The Golden Calf, 1946, oil and tempera on composition board, Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest Fund and the Ferry Foundation, 1995  © Bundanon Trust

Eight pages of notes later I had an overlong, unendable series of lines describing the painting.

This putative poem had started off:
Ah Boyd, such a conglomeration of shapes
a hill becomes people, people
become ants. An ant hill.
The calf so golden/on his makeshift stage
the naked lovers so lit up by spotlight…
Some of this poem survived in one or other of the two poems that I finished with.

The complexity of the task I had set myself should be apparent from the two pages (out of eight!) from my notebook reproduced here:

The more I look at The Golden Calf, the more detail I see and the less likely it will be that I can write anything all-inclusive.

I have been debating the merits of the prose poem with my friend, the poet E. A. (Anne) Gleeson - perhaps I could actually write a prose poem (even if I’ve argued that the two words are contradictory) that will represent the complexity of this painting by referring to items that stand out.

 Here is the result, deliberately unpunctuated:
The Golden Calf 2

The calf so golden on his makeshift stage ignored almost entirely by the manic figures around him the lovers cuddling or chasing each other the old man picking up sticks the ladders to nowhere where a man (is it Jacob?) climbs to that nowhere the coupling animals the cock the bird of paradise the man dozing against a tree a Christ down from the cross being carried off tenderly his bared legs an ironic echo of the naked lovers on either side or of the dark praying bridegroom figure by the edge of the scene the biblical clothes red for power browns greens blues for the earth gold for idolatry and maybe anger people are sometimes detached heads or anguished faces people are shouting crying making love carrying away a dead curly horned ram clambering big-eyed climbing harvesting coming out of a cave surging down from the hill towards us a man is counting on his fingers children are clinging to the golden calf’s uncertain platform and away from it all a hay-wagon fully loaded in an unmown field with mangroves in the distance two horses one black one brown grazing two workers two other dark figures further away to the left up to mischief or not and on the other side thick scrub impenetrable where another ram menaces a man who cringes behind a tree-trunk two men gesture at white birds and an eagle is carrying off something blurred and undefined there is so much too much a chaos around the golden calf that leaves it abandoned and unprotected everyone clawed by the twisted limbs of the Australian scrub and above it all a red clad figure lying serene with a white bird close above its head like a halo or like hope.
I then added this note:
Painted early in Boyd’s life, when he was about 25 or 26, one of several bible-themed paintings, this iconic painting contains just about every one of the multitudinous symbols that Boyd used for the rest of his illustrious career. Many are detailed in the prose poem above. (My main reference is Arthur Boyd A Life by Darleen Bungey, Allen & Unwin 2008.)

Meanwhile, back at the Gallery, a group of school children gathers round, upper primary, I would say. I tell them what I am doing. Any questions?

“What is the most interesting thing to you about the painting?”

I’ve got to think fast. I answer that it is the composition, the triangular hill with the figures flowing down the hill towards the viewer.

What will I do with my notes?

I’ll write a poem. Maybe a triangular poem.

How long will it take? Hours. I have to check a number of things about the artist. I have to shape the poem, decide what to put in and what to leave out. I have to write, edit, polish…

Here’s the triangular poem:
The Golden Calf 1

such a con-
glomeration of shapes
a hill becomes people people
become ants an ant hill flowing
down towards the viewer threatening to spill
out into the gallery and engulf us all in reds and blues
browns and golds in greens in light and shadow and in flight

The last entry for the day in my notebook is: Don’t always feel that you must describe the work.

-Barry Breen, March 2013