Progression of Art
This landscape, painted in muted greens, blues, and browns, represents an experimental stage of Boyd's earlier years. Still a teenager, he was living with his paternal grandfather, Arthur Merric Boyd, also a landscape painter, on the Mornington Peninsula not far from the Cape. Boyd made frequent trips to the local bushland, and on one of these trips he met fellow painter Wilfred McCulloch. The two artists became fast friends, as they shared a strong interest in the work of the French post-impressionist painters. Together, Boyd and McCulloch made frequent excursions to an artist's camp near Cape Schanck, where they painted en plein air.
Boyd once stated "My whole background has been that painting outside, plein air painting, was a kind of picnic. You went outside to absorb and take in, and be swamped, in a sense, by the landscape". Boyd experimented with his palette-knife technique, first introduced to him by his grandfather, which he used to create many landscapes and seascapes, and which would become his signature style of painting. He was particularly fond of this more tactile approach to painting, and also wished for audiences to enjoy art in the same way, once even instructing a gallery to "let them [the viewers] touch the paintings!".
Oil on canvas
In this surrealistic work, executed through rough, expressionistic brushstrokes, two figures, representing fear and foreboding, are seen standing outside of a hacienda-like building. The smaller figure stumbles and cowers, clutching his face as blood appears to flow from his eye sockets. The larger figure, a crutch under left arm, with eyes closed, and arms stretched out and upward, faces three large gargoyles perched on the building. All the gargoyles, mouths wide open, look beyond the frame across the barren landscape. According to Boyd, the creatures are warding off evil, but are struggling to keep up with all that is happening in the world.
Around the time that World War Two broke out, Boyd moved to Melbourne's inner city where he saw and met many European refugees on the streets. He produced several works inspired by these, and other "un-heroic", individuals, and the writings of great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who was famed for capturing the psychological complexity of his characters). These paintings, writes artist Sue Smith, included "images of cripples and those deemed unfit for war service, [and] were considered painful images of the dispossessed and the outcast". Raised as a pacifist, wartime was psychologically challenging for Boyd since it emphatically brought home the precariousness (and preciousness) of life. As the artist Margaret Pont summed up: "The dynamic treatment in his compositions" of this period conveyed the artist's "agonized sense of desperation".
Oil on cotton gauze on cardboard - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
A mass of figures dressed in vividly-colored clothing crowd around a naked crucified Christ figure wearing a crown of thorns. The scene is set under an ominous sky, in a scrubby, wooded area (based on the landscape to the south of Melbourne). The figures all bear distressed expressions, with many embracing and comforting one another, and others openly weeping. As in Boyd's other paintings of the 1940s, the work reveals the influences of Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, and Social Realism, with a painterly style that intensifies the sense of mental anguish in the figures.
While the world took to the streets to celebrate the end of hostilities, Boyd drew on the examples of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch as a means of working through the moral chaos that the war had given rise to. This painting was one of a series of about fifteen biblically themed works executed by Boyd between 1945-48 after he was discharged from the war service. The painting was his specific response to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps as revealed to the world through emerging newsreel films. Boyd's friend, Austrian art historian Franz Philipp, wrote of The Mourners (and others in the series, such as, The Mockers), that "Boyd depicts mankind rather than man, mankind in the historical fullness of its fallen state (man as historico-political animal), man as crowd, as chorus of hatred without protagonists, and with the victims so far removed that destructive frenzy is without object and self-devouring".
In his assessment, the Australian art critic Christopher Heathcote added that, "This is Australian modern art in its most intense, emphatic form. A perplexing complex composition, the artist uses it to work his way through deeply-felt fears that the entire world had succumbed to corruption and festering evil". Yet Heathcote also singled out Boyd's inclusion of symbols of hope, such as the cockatoos that fly overhead, which here serve as a national symbol of peace and spiritual presence (the cockatoo replacing the dove in Australian culture). Also, the two lovers (a bridal couple) laying beneath a dead tree at the upper left symbolize "renewal, fertility and the restorative qualities of divine love". Says Heathcote, "[Boyd's] message is direct: love will conquer evil".
Oil on composition board - Private collection
In this work, another in his series of biblically themed post-war paintings, Adam and Eve are placed center frame, cowering as they flee from the Garden of Eden. Adam clutches his head in his hands, and Eve attempts to protect her modesty with a twig, as a large red-haired "angel", who floats above them, appears to holler in his attempt to drive them out of Eden. The Garden of Eden is represented here as the Australian wilderness, though Boyd renders the landscape in a style that recalls early Renaissance painters like Masaccio.
The Expulsion is generally believed to have been inspired by a particular event, during which Boyd and his new lover (and future wife) took some army blankets, and spent a night camping under the stars. When they awoke, they discovered that they had been sleeping dangerously close to a crevasse, which frightened Boyd. Adding to his woes, the army charged Boyd with stealing the blankets, which merely catalyzed his detestation of the military and all that it stood for: destruction, death, and invasion of land and the personal lives of individual citizens. Said Boyd, "I see lovers as victims [...] They suffer from being unprivate, watched. Love becomes guilt because it is frustrated".
Oil on hardboard - Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Boat Builders, Eden
In this work, a group of men build boats in Eden, a coastal town in New South Wales, known for its beautiful scenery and its forestry and fishing industries. Visible in the scene are a number of boathouses and workshops, as well as recognizable landmarks like the fishing wharf of Eden's Twofold Bay, and, further in the distance, Lookout Point Lighthouse and Mount Imlay. This work, with its overt biblical reference, contains elements inspired by Bruegel's religious paintings, such as The Gloomy Day (1565) and Tower of Babel (1563).
In sharp contrast to his more morose wartime paintings, this work, with its vivid color palette, offers an emphatic sense of hope and positivity. Here, the boat builders - who call to mind Noah and his family building the arc - symbolize rebirth and reconstruction of society, or rather, the building of a better world, following the devastation of a second world war. As opposed to the painterly aesthetic of his earlier wartime paintings, in which the rough strokes of oil paint add to the sense of pictorial anxiety, Boyd opted instead to use egg tempera for this work, carefully layering the semi-transparent pigments to create a shimmering surface and an overall sense of calm, tranquility, and, as curator Ron Radford put it, "peaceful activity".
Oil and tempera on composition board - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Established in Murrumbeena in 1944 by Boyd, John Perceval and Peter Herbst, AMB Pottery (translating to Arthur Merric Boyd in honor of Boyd's grandfather) emerged as one of Australia's most innovative post-war potteries. The workshop made a vital contribution to the twentieth century Australian ceramic arts and directly influenced a new generation of dynamic earthenware potters who emerged in post-war Melbourne. This pot, one of Boyd's later works, has a simple rounded shape, and is painted with yellow pears and green leaves. Boyd learned about pottery-making at a very young age from his father who taught him that "The first impulse of the maker of hand-pottery is to obtain pleasure in making and decorating an article, and making that pleasure intelligible [...] the use of our own fauna and flora is of the first importance". Indeed, indigenous Australian vegetation and animals such as kangaroos frequently appeared on Boyd's pottery.
The founding of the workshop coincided with the post-war demand for functional domestic wares (like ramekins, bowls, saltshakers, cups, dishes, and mugs), however, by the late 1940s, the focus of the collaborative workshop shifted to the production of more experimental and vibrantly colored earthenware pieces, including coffee and tea sets, bowls, carafes, plates, jugs, decanter sets, vases, and tiles. The generic AMB pieces were mainly unsigned or inscribed on the base with the "AMB" stamp, however, handmade works by Boyd, Perceval, and Herbst were signed with their names or initials. By 1955, Boyd parted ways with Perceval and Herbst, and in 1958 he closed the workshop for good, although he continued to experiment with pottery-making and ceramic painting throughout his life.
Terracotta - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Reflected Bride 1
While visiting central Australia in 1951, Boyd encountered Aborigine communities for the first time and was shocked at the sight of their basic living conditions. The former director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy, described a specific incident in which Boyd was travelling the road to Alice Springs and "witnessed a truck carrying a group of Indigenous brides, whose white wedding finery contrasted sharply with the rudimentary vehicle normally used for transporting cattle". This event was the impetus behind Boyd's "Love, marriage and death of a halfcaste" [sic] series - better known as the "Bride" series - which became, in Kennedy's words, "an elaborate morality tale of an Indigenous trooper, a half-caste, and his half-caste bride" that touched on the themes of alienation, courtship, marriage and death.
Between 1955 and 1958, Boyd painted 31 Bride paintings, of which ten, brought to mind the paintings of Marc Chagall. Part of the series, Reflected Bride 1 was "a remarkable and memorable image, reminiscent of the story of Narcissus, condemned to fall in love with his own reflection". As Kennedy observed, Boyd was "certainly aware of [...] Chagall's haunting and beautiful paintings of a levitating bride and groom" and that Chagall's "bridegroom also had a green jacket with brass buttons and dark trousers". But whereas Chagall's work was decorative and poetic, Boyd's painting carried "a pervasive magical and somewhat menacing atmosphere [in which] the figures and the landscape are one. The bride rises from the stream, an Ophelia caught by a groom whose foot hooks a tree. The bride is staring at an absurd mask-like white bride's head which appears to glow out of the forest. This is a surreal wilderness, a strange place of nightmarish dreams".
Kennedy, notes that Boyd's painting became part of "a contemporary trend among artists and writers who argued in favour of improved conditions for Australian Indigenous people", and that Boyd, and others such as Yosl Bergner, Noel Counihan, James Wigley, Peter Graham and Russell Drysdale, "sought to make a moral issue of the desperate plight of Indigenous people". Kennedy also suggests that the Bride series was very likely a response to Charles Chauvel's feature-length movie, Jedda (1955) - a romantic tragedy that tells the story of an Indigenous girl adopted by a white family who is courted by an Indigenous outsider - which was the first to give leading roles to native Australians. Boyd's series also sat next to Sidney Nolan's "Eliza Fraser" (a shipwrecked white woman who is adopted by an Indigenous community) paintings, and Patrick White's Voss, a book also dealing head-on with the difficulties facing people in mixed raced relationships. Kennedy concluded that "The 'Bride' paintings are among the greatest expressions of conscience by an Australian artist. Brilliantly executed and of sustained quality, Reflected bride 1 speaks to contemporary Australia, beseeching reconciliation, understanding and a tolerant, compassionate meeting of old and new cultures".
Oil and tempera on composition board - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Nebuchadnezzar on Fire Falling over a Waterfall
Coming from a series the Art Gallery of New South Wales called "the most sumptuously executed paintings of his career", this somewhat abstract, expressionistic, work, shows a fiery red and yellow form - the biblical figure of Nebuchadnezzar - crashing down from the sky onto a scrubby landscape with a waterfall at its centre. Recalling the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to the earth in flames, the work belongs to Boyd's Nebuchadnezzar series which comprised thirty-four paintings made between 1968 and 1972 while the artist was living in London. In the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king (Nebuchadnezzar) grows increasingly self-involved, proud, and arrogant. As punishment for his hubris, God turns Nebuchadnezzar into a madman, reducing him to an animal that crawls around the earth on all fours ("driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws" (as the Old Testament tells it)).
According to historian Veronica Angelatos, by "Projecting his Nebuchadnezzar with Lear-like characteristics, Boyd embarked upon many more versions of the theme [and the] series was, and still remains, his most sustained [body of work]". Angelatos notes also that the Nebuchadnezzar series was produced during the height of the Vietnam War when the world was being assailed with mass media images of death, torture and human suffering. Boyd, whose opposition to the war was well documented, was doubly traumatized by an act of a self-immolation (a protest against the Vietnam War) on London's Hampstead Heath which occurred close to his North London home.
T.S. Boase (quoted by Angelatos) suggested that story of Nebuchadnezzar was "a subject that leads immediately into Boyd's preoccupation in many other works with the fusion between man and natural forces [and] the involvement of man and beast". Indeed, one sees here a second major influence on the series which related to his own father's struggle with epilepsy, which Boyd, believing his father to be possessed by some sort of demon, experienced as a form of childhood trauma. Boyd said of these works, "I had to paint these things to un-see the trauma".
Oil on canvas - Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Boyd returned home in 1971 and was looking to rediscover the Australian landscape having spent several years surrounded by England's lush green countryside. On the recommendation of the art dealer Frank McDonald, Boyd and his wife settled along the Shoalhaven river on the south coast of New South Wales. Boyd fell in love with the surrounding area and especially its Nowra sandstone cliffs and wild shrubbery. The Shoalhaven landscape became one of his most enduring subjects and occupied him into his final years.
In this work he paints the Shoalhaven riverbank in bright, crisp blue, and muted pastel tones. Curator Melissa Hellard writes that Boyd "employed a looser painterly technique, as the artist grew to recognize the subtleties of the region" and that, as he often did, he painted this work "with his hands, a method which enabled greater intimacy with and devotion to the subject. This physical act allowed the artist to paint with strong intent, capturing the essence of the landscape and its many nuances". Boyd's biographer Janet McKenzie added, "The natural beauty of the Shoalhaven area caused Boyd to marvel constantly. His paintings are a celebration of the grandeur and wonder of Nature. It is to Boyd's credit that a single landscape can inspire such diversity of work. He gives us the impression that in life there are infinite possibilities, as long as we train ourselves to see". While many of Boyd's other Shoalhaven paintings include human figures and the boats and recreational water vehicles that can usually be seen on the river, he opted in this image to omit all of these, presenting the landscape as untouched and unspoiled.
Hellard observed finally that, "Having always delighted in his painting trips along the river, Boyd believed his magical Bundanon property should belong to the Australian people. Shortly before Shoalhaven River was painted, the property was gifted to the Australian Government, to be preserved forever, in the hope that future generations may also be inspired by the beauty and brilliance of the Shoalhaven River".
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Influences and Connections
- Piers Maxwell Dudley-Bateman
- Robert Dickerson
- John Brack
- Peter Herbst
- John Perceval
- Franz Philipp
- Barry Humphries
- Arthur Streeton
- Figurative Modernism
- Heide Circle