Obituary: Arthur Boyd

Bryan Robertson
Thursday 29 April 1999 00:02

THE DEATH of Arthur Boyd in Melbourne, Australia, in his 79th year is a great loss to Australian painting and a special sadness for those who have some knowledge of the richness and diversity of Australian painting in this century and have witnessed, if only at the irregular intervals of his London shows, the tremendous contribution to that richness made by Boyd during the past five decades.

Boyd was born with an imaginative conscience that was first galvanised into life by the mass slaughter and sheer evil of the Second World War. His early work in the late Thirties when he was only in his late teens, and in the early war years, consisted of fulsomely painted canvases showing densely packed crowds of people with mostly wretched expressions on their faces, often with biblical or legendary titles and connotations. There were also some strongly felt and expressed landscape paintings.

Later, came some hauntingly lovely paintings of Adam and Eve, set in a lushly Australian Garden of Eden, but even this homely paradise had dark shadows; one version shows a rapacious-faced, vindictive male figure in scarlet robes spying triumphantly on the lovers: Peeping Tom. Rubens, Bosch, Brueghel and Cranach were among Boyd's lodestars, seen mainly through reproductions.

The need to translate visual and emotional experience in Australia into myth was shared by at least one other painter, also from Melbourne: Sidney Nolan, who explored Australian history - the outlaw Ned Kelly, the explorers Burke and Wills, and other themes - in visual terms of myth or legend with great eclat. In Boyd's own early years, given his background of an unselfconsciously religious family, he turned mainly to the Bible for inspiration and he fused, with comparable brio, themes and situations from the Bible with a personal vision of war and present-day suffering.

Boyd's family was not only religious; he was surrounded by art and every kind of culture, for the Boyds, for several generations, have all been painters or potters, and the family included at least one writer and a distinguished architect.

Boyd was born in Murrumbeena, Victoria, and his home, Open Country, was full of paintings, hand-thrown pots and ceramic sculptures of every description. His grandfather Arthur Merric Boyd and his grandmother, born Emma a Beckett, lived nearby and were established painters. His father, William Merric, was a potter and his mother, Doris, an artist. Arthur was the second of five children: his elder sister, Lucy, and his two brothers, Guy and David, and one younger sister, Mary, were all painters or potters. Family life for Arthur was extremely important, not only for its creativity and as a sympathetic and supportive environment but also because of the continual flow and exchange of ideas and knowledge. Artists and writers passed continually through the family home.

The 1939-45 war made its presence felt in Melbourne not only through blackouts, ships and servicemen but also through a number of European exiles. The young Boyd read Dostoevsky and Kafka and loved, mainly through reproductions, the paintings of Rembrandt, Rubens and Brueghel.

Apart from his early and dramatic figure paintings and crowd scenes, Boyd's landscapes were from the beginning alive with human presence: landscapes that had been lived in and witnessed violence and endurance. This may have been partly a desire to humanise the beautiful but often harsh, empty and intractable Australian bush, so that it became the equivalent of those humanised, peopled, landscapes always to be found, so affectionately registered in the backgrounds of Florentine, Venetian and Sienese painting.

When Boyd arrived in London in 1959, he spent days on end in the National Gallery, entranced by the paintings of Poussin, Veronese, Tintoretto and Rubens and the key works of the Venetian, Sienese and Florentine painters. A little later, in Venice, the discovery of Giorgione and, above all, Tintoretto, were profound experiences.

At the National Gallery, Boyd was enchanted by the mysterious Mythological Subject by Piero di Cosimo, in which what appears to be a dying nymph dressed in a flowing white garment is watched by a satyr and a melancholic seated dog; in the background is an estuary landscape with sparse trees and plants and some isolated birds. Boyd used this despondent dog as a repeated motif in sequences of turbulent and tragic paintings made in the early Sixties. One of the earliest and best of these paintings was bought from his Whitechapel retrospective in 1962 by John Sainsbury, our future benefactor for the National Gallery's new wing.

Arthur Boyd's retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1962 caused as much of a sensation as his younger friend Sidney Nolan's show back in 1957 at the same gallery. In the late Fifties and through much of the Sixties, when so many good Australian artists were living and working in London, Australian painting was a fresh factor in our awareness of contemporary art. Russell Drysdale had exhibited memorable paintings of the Outback in the early Fifties at the Leicester Galleries, with great success; and Nolan's spectacular Whitechapel exhibition had been preceded by a sell-out show at the Redfern Gallery in 1953 of raw, red paintings of Australia's arid Central Interior: vividly uncompromising pictures to match an awesome place. Kenneth Clark, Nolan's earliest European supporter, bought one of these Outback paintings, which later found its way into the Tate Gallery collection.

The Nolan 1957 retrospective at Whitechapel was followed, at the same gallery, by a full-scale survey of the livelier elements in Australian painting in 1961, to offset a more conservative Tate Gallery survey, and then Boyd's retrospective followed.

Australian art at this time not only aroused the attention of a good many distinguished collectors, there was an unprecedented amount of space devoted to it in the popular press and on television and radio - only to give place gradually to the emerging excitements of American art. Some aspects of Boyd's painting could be said to have been marginally affected by American art, notably Abstract Expressionism, but Boyd's allegiances were as direct to European art as his roots were in the splendid Austrialian impressionism and plein-air painting of the Heidelberg painters who had worked near his birthplace.

The greatness of Australian painting in the 19th century, as we see it in the work of Fred McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and a handful of other exceptionally gifted painters working before and just after 1900, is still not known in England (and the same is true, of course, of our ignorance of American painting before 1945).

Boyd's London retrospective showed clearly a progression from the more tightly, if often quite sensously, painted works of the earlier period in Australia to a more directly expressionist mode of painting, which his experience of Europe seemed to require. His preparations for the exhibition were devastating: Boyd proved to be an astonishingly hard worker, capable of producing perhaps a dozen paintings of exceptional quality in about 10 days. His output was prodigious all though his life, ranging from drawing to painting, to print-making and ceramics, often on a vast scale and including at least one ceramic mural. This output was uneven but essentially there were always works of high quality.

During his time in England, Boyd designed a notably brilliant set and costumes for Stravinsky's Renard, choreographed by Western Theatre Ballet, first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 and then at Sadler's Wells. In 1963, he designed very strong scarlet, black and white sets and costumes for Robert Helpmann's somewhat over-powerful ballet Electra for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, using Malcolm Arnold's music.

His retrospective was preceded by a formidable exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in Charing Cross Road, London - in the premises now occupied by the Oxford University Press - under the distinguished direction of Michael Chase. The show was formidable because the paintings were immensely tough in figuration and structure and dark in mood. This was the first disclosure of his cycle of paintings devoted to the theme of the aboriginal and his bride, in flight from persecution or oppression or from the squalid ravages of urban living, in the bush, making love, floating in streams, crossing rivers, sleeping under the stars.

The paintings were unlike anything London had ever seen, a Faulknerian darkness and intensity, like scenes from Light in August.

After seven or eight years living in London in Highgate, and exploring art and landscape in Europe - he refused all his life to fly in planes, travelling by ship and train to and from Australia - Boyd returned to Australia, but eventually settled for a working life shared between a home in Suffolk and a new home in Australia, at Bundanon, New South Wales, by the Shoalhaven river, a place which he was to make famous through a beautiful and intensely poetic sequence of light-infused paintings over many years. This site by the river with rocks, trees and flashing light on water became very dear to Boyd's heart and eventually he presented the place, a very considerable property, to the Australian government, as a centre for artists and conservationists.

In 1993, Barry Pearce organised at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney the second and most sizeable and complete retrospective of Boyd's work, to great national acclaim and to the great pleasure of the artist.

Arthur Boyd was a modest, self-effacing and very quiet man, slender, with sparkling and shrewd eyes and a shock of hair like a schoolboy's, kind, gentle, friendly, often grinning at life's absurdities, and although inarticulate to the point of speechlessness could be drily comic on occasion. His friend and, unexpectedly, future brother-in-law Sidney Nolan was far more worldly and sophisticated, a born charmer in fact.

Back in the Sixties, in some late-night debauch of talk and drinking at the artist Charles Blackman's house, also in Highgate and in the inevitable presence of the very young Barry Humphries, Al Alvarez, Tom Rosenthal and Brian O'Shaughnessy, all Boyd aficionados, I remember Sid Nolan delicately delivering some breathtaking lesson in one-upmanship and worldly sleight- of-hand and, after a long, dumbstruck silence from everyone, Boyd saying with a soft-voiced but smiling humility which we couldn't tell if mock or not: "Thank you for being my friend . . ."

Arthur Merric Bloomfield Boyd, artist: born Murrumbeena, Victoria 24 July 1920; OBE 1970; AO 1979, AC 1992; married 1945 Yvonne Hartland Lennie (one son, two daughters); died Melbourne, Victoria 24 April 1999.

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