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

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