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ON DISPLAY
LVL 2

Australian Art
Social Comment & Hard Edged Abstraction gallery

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Arthur BOYD

Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1999

  • Movements: England, Australia, Italy from 1959

Reflected bride I
[Bride Reflected in a Creek] 1958 Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Painting, oil and tempera on composition board
Primary Insc: Signed l.r. "Arthur Boyd" Not dated.
122.0 h x 91.4 w cm
Purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 1999
Accession No: NGA 99.42
Reproduced with permission of Bundanon Trust

  • In 1951, Boyd visited Central Australia and witnessed the sad circumstances of the Indigenous people there. He travelled by the old Ghan train to Alice Springs and then by jeep to the former mining community of Arltunga. Before this time, as Grazia Gunn has recorded, he had only seen ‘one Aboriginal, a chap around Melbourne who played a gumleaf’.1

    Boyd was shocked and depressed to see the plight of Indigenous people. Their situation was not well known and he determined to show Australia that it had a moral responsibility to address such tragic neglect. Boyd was always the conscientious objector, the passionate protestor against inhumane treatment and acts of cruelty. He made many drawings of Indigenous people in his sketchbooks, but it was not until several years later that he began to make paintings based on them.

    On the road to Alice Springs, Boyd had 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 memory was the origin of the  ‘Love, marriage and death of a halfcaste’ series, better known as the ‘Bride’ series, an elaborate morality tale of an Indigenous trooper, a half-caste, and his half-caste bride. They are haunted by the dreamlike image of a white bride. For Boyd, the half-caste was the neglected outsider, neither black nor white, a nobody. His half-castes suffer the fate of the marginalised, isolated in a world of greed and selfishness.

    In all there are, from 1955 to 1958, 31 ‘Bride’ paintings, of which ten tell the main story of courtship, marriage and funeral. First exhibited in Melbourne in April 1958, the series met a mixed reaction, as it did later that year in Adelaide and Sydney. Reflected bride 1, also known as Bride reflected in a creek, comes in the middle of the series. It was painted in Melbourne in early 1958, the year Boyd’s second daughter Lucy was born, and when he represented Australia at the Venice Biennale. It is a remarkable and memorable image, reminiscent of the story of Narcissus, condemned to fall in love with his own reflection.

    Boyd was certainly aware of Marc Chagall’s haunting and beautiful paintings of a levitating bride and groom. Chagall’s bridegroom also had a green jacket with brass buttons and dark trousers. Boyd’s paintings are not pretty, however, and carry a pervasive magical and somewhat menacing atmosphere. It is as if 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.

    Boyd’s painting responds to a contemporary trend among artists and writers who argued in favour of improved conditions for Australian Indigenous people. Yosl Bergner, Noel Counihan, James Wigley, Peter Graham, Russell Drysdale and Boyd’s brother David, among others, sought to make a moral issue of the desperate plight of Indigenous people.Boyd may have been influenced by the feature-length movie of Charles Chauvel, Jedda, released in January 1955. The film was the first to feature Indigenous people in the leading roles. It told the story of an Indigenous girl reared by a white family who is wooed by an Indigenous outcast, Marluk. The film ends tragically after the couple are chased by the white police. Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings about Eliza Fraser, a white woman who was shipwrecked and lived with Indigenous people, and Patrick White’s powerful book Voss about the relationship between the title character and an Indigenous boy, were also prominent culturally at the time.

    In 1975, Arthur Boyd made an extraordinary gift to the fledgling Australian National Gallery, now the National Gallery of Australia. He and his wife, Yvonne, gifted almost their entire personal collection of his work numbering hundreds of drawings, pastels, prints, paintings, sculptures and ceramics – some 40 years of art making.

    The collection did not, however, include an example of Boyd’s most famous and arguably his best works from the ‘Bride’ series.  In 1999, the National Gallery of Australia was able to remedy this omission when the splendid Reflected bride 1 was acquired.

    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.

    Arthur Boyd had his own idea for a new Australian flag: ‘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’.2

    Brian Kennedy, 2002

     

    1 Grazia Gunn, Arthur Boyd: Seven persistent images, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1985, p.56.

    2 Arthur Boyd, 7.30 Report ABC TV, January 1995, quoted in Arthur Boyd: Brides, myths and landscapes, Sydney: Savill Galleries, 23 March to 29 April 1995 (exhibition catalogue).


    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002