Important Art by Arthur Boyd
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!".
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".
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".
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