Great Britain 1891 – Australia 1974
Turtle and temple gong
Bribie Island, Queensland, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard on composition board
Turtle and temple gongby Ian Fairweather is painted memory, a vision based on the artist’s recollections of daily observances during his nine-month sojourn in Bali many years earlier in 1933. A self-described colourist, he commented on his painting practice, ‘I see things as colour first of all. It is hard for me to put any form into it …’ Akin to the undulating sounds of Balinese gamelan music, structure in this four-panelled late masterpiece is formed entirely by the mustard yellow, black, grey and white palette and the meandering calligraphic outlines of the temple buildings.
Fairweather travelled to Peking (Beijing) after Bali and became immediately drawn to Chinese art, language and culture, and this was to have a profound influence on his art. He remarked, ‘The Chinese have quite a different idea of painting from us. The movement, the stroke of the hand counts so much for them. They never draw a straight line. And it is the same for me.’
After years of travel through Asia punctuated by intermittent stops in North Queensland, Fairweather finally settled on Bribie Island in 1953, where he built himself a thatched hut as his ramshackle studio-home. He continued his studies in Chinese and during the early 1960s was completely absorbed in the translation and illustration of The Drunken Buddha, which he published in 1964. This intense immersion in the Chinese calligraphic tradition clearly informs Turtle and temple gong, which is considered to be a work of great majesty and power. The work was so highly regarded in its time that it was awarded the WD and HO Willis Prize of 1965, the same year in which Fairweather was honoured with his first retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
Ian Fairweather began his artistic career in the early 1920s at the Slade School of Art in London, but his long career took him far from England and English art. Not long after finishing at the Slade, he travelled steerage to China in search of adventure and this was to be the beginning of over 20 years of nomadic life, moving through the Orient and the islands of the Pacific.
While in China, he realised the expressive power of the great calligraphers and perfected his own skills as a scholar of Chinese language. He said of the calligraphies, ‘there was about them a serenity, a chaste beauty that made me dissatisfied with everything I had done’.1 From this time on, Fairweather always worked on paper or cardboard, and line became his principal means of expression. By working on paper with quick-drying acrylic paint or gouache, he could expand or contract the composition according to the needs of the picture as it developed. If the picture needed to grow, he simply joined on more sheets until the picture was big enough to hold his idea.
In Bali, he found a subject matter that was in perfect tune with his creative bent. He said ‘the whole island glowed … it was a painter’s paradise’.2 He was able to live there with only the basics of existence – he had always longed for a simple life.
Ian Fairweather painted Turtle and temple gong in 1965, in the Malay-style thatched hut that he had built for himself on Bribie Island in the mouth of the Brisbane River – but he was drawing on his earlier memory of Bali.
He had expressed a desire to go to Australia two years before his move to Bali in 1933. He wrote: ‘and then Australia, the never-never land – so lies the trail, for I have another intimation – never to go back on the way I have come.’3 Nevertheless, it was not until 1952 that he finally came to rest on Bribie Island in a grove of native pines. Here he felt safe and able to live close to nature, in absolute harmony with his environment, and here he found the silence that he wanted. He was by nature a hermit.
Fairweather was almost 75 when he painted Turtle and temple gong on four sheets of cardboard, creating a masterpiece of linear construction and demonstrating the full impact of his sustained study of Chinese calligraphy.
Fairweather’s method of painting was a matter of endless additions and subtractions, building a complex web of lines that gradually took shape. In this picture, he worked on a memory of a temple courtyard in Bali; the court is surrounded by rest-houses and, in the centre of the courtyard, there is the temple gong – and of course the turtle. Perhaps the turtle and gong are part of a Balinese or Buddhist tale, or perhaps it is something remembered from a Chinese text. The construction of the picture is so open-ended that, while you can make out the flimsy structures of the temple buildings, only the turtle and gong alert you to the subject. Yellow and black are the main building blocks of the composition but you can see the intricate web of grey and white lines that underlie it. It would be a mistake to see this as an abstract picture; Ian Fairweather always hotly denied that his paintings were abstract. ‘Abstraction doesn’t suit me’, he said. ‘I will always put into my paintings some representation.’4
It is tempting to see these late works as being influenced by his landscape environment on Bribie Island. In the midst of his grove of pines, the dappled sunlight fell as patches of shifting shapes on the white sand. This delicate tracery of light and shade seems to have infiltrated Turtle and temple gong. Fairweather was drawing on over 20 years of memory when he conjured up this image of a temple in Bali, but his sensibility was alive to what he saw each day in his island home. Although some element of his English training remained with him to the end, it was the expressive beauty of Chinese calligraphy and the dappled light of Bribie that shaped his later works.
Fairweather had exhibited with the Macquarie Galleries annually until his death in early 1974. The Directors of the Macquarie Galleries tried from time to time to encourage him to paint on something more robust – more permanent – and on one occasion sent him a roll of top quality linen canvas: he used it to patch the holes in his thatched roof! He said, ‘to hell with posterity, it will take what it wants, and can look after itself.’5
Betty Churcher 2002
1Ian Fairweather in Nourma Abbott-Smith Ian Fairweather: Profile of a painter Brisbane: University of Queensland Press 1978 p.63.
3Ian Fairweather, letter to Jim Ede, Shanghai 24 May 1931 in ibid. p.130.
4Ian Fairweather in ibid. p.130.
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