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Arthur Boyd

Australian Painter, Potter, and Printmaker

Born: July 24, 1920 - Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia
Died: April 24, 1999 - Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Arthur Boyd Timeline
"I suppose my ultimate aim would be to paint the Great Picture, or if not the great one, then some very good ones."
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Arthur Boyd
"I see lovers as victims. They suffer from being unprivate, watched. Love becomes guilt because it is frustrated."
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Arthur Boyd
"I think it is a very good idea to be able to turn to a number of different techniques. A new medium offers the artist a variety of keys: it allows him to re-state and sum up without repeating himself."
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Arthur Boyd
"The only way to deal with [guilt] as an artist was to paint it out of my system. To expunge my own guilt by painting it and in a way face up to it. I mean guilt in a general sense, because although I do the painting, everyone else who then looks at it is in the same position as myself. I hopefully have helped them to face their guilt also."
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Arthur Boyd
"It would be nice to have a flag with two lovers. They needn't be lying down, they can stand up - and they'd be rather good. When it blew in the wind, they'd wiggle, hopefully a lot ... I think that would be a wonderful flag, I mean it. I'd have a black man and a white woman entwined on a flag."
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Arthur Boyd

Summary of Arthur Boyd

Boyd was one of Australia's most widely respected and prolific modern artists. A man of strong moral conviction, his most important paintings conveyed his deep concern for humanitarian matters and Australia's natural environment; themes he often brought together in a single canvas. Boyd's painting style, which has seen him described as a "figurative Impressionist", was often informed by biblical sources and carried lyrical allegories on themes such as wartime genocide and the plight of dispossessed Aboriginal communities. His painting also addressed the topics of family relations, religious faith, and the conflicting human emotions of love and aggression.

Accomplishments

  • Boyd was profoundly affected by the onset of World War Two and the large number of refugees, and those deemed "unfit for service", wandering the city streets of Melbourne. These pieces, including key works such as The Gargoyles, formed part of his drive to not only represent the sense of desolation felt by the displaced and dispossessed, but also to create an alternative historical perspective on Australia's war years.
  • Boyd's famous postwar "religious" series revealed European influences as wide reaching as Impressionism, Surrealism, and Social Realism. His great triumph was to develop a uniquely Antipodean painterly style that also represented a personal sense of mental chaos (triggered specifically by newsreel images of the Nazi death camps). Within his intense vision of personal torment, however, one could always seek out and find hidden symbols of love and hope.
  • Having seen first-hand the poor conditions under which Aboriginal people lived, Boyd produced his expansive Brides series; the "Bride" representing a person of mixed descent who is an outcast in both Aboriginal and white communities. The curator Kendrah Morgan suggested that "In terms of Boyd's attempt to raise awareness of discrimination against Indigenous people", the Brides series stands as "a milestone in the advancement of [Australian] modernism".
  • In his later career, Boyd produced his Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonian king) series of landscapes set in the tangled Australian bushland. The works were a form of catharsis that helped Boyd process Australia's (unnecessary) involvement in the Vietnam war and childhood recollections of seeing his own father in the grip of epileptic seizures. In art critic John Neylon's opinion, these works stand as the epitome of the "topography of modern Australian art as a primal landscape".

Biography of Arthur Boyd

Arthur Boyd Life and Legacy

Responding to the general view that he was at the very forefront of Australian modernism, Boyd mused "I like to feel that through my work there is a possibility of making a contribution to a social progression or enlightenment".

Important Art by Arthur Boyd

Cape Schanck (1937)

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!".

The Gargoyles (1944)

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".

The Mourners (1945)

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

Influences on Artist
Arthur Boyd
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Wilfred McCulloch
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    Yosl Bergner
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    Albert Tucker
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    Joy Hester
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    Sidney Nolan
Artists
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    Piers Maxwell Dudley-Bateman
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    Robert Dickerson
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    John Brack
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Peter Herbst
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    John Perceval
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    Franz Philipp
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    Barry Humphries
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    Arthur Streeton
Movements & Ideas
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    Antipodeans
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    Figurative Modernism
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    Heide Circle
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Arthur Boyd Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Available from:
First published on 16 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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