Liverpool, England 1859 – London, England 1935
Materials & Technique:
paintings, oil on canvas Support: canvas
Bernard Hall first exhibited The quest with a verse from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: ‘I sent my soul through the Invisible/ Some letter of that After-life to spell’. The 12th-century Persian poem The Rubaiyat was translated into English in 1859 and, with its mystic, exotic philosophy and sensual imagery, became a popular source of inspiration. The work of symbolist poets such as Mallarmé and Verlaine had also been influential in Australia since the late 1890s.
The quest was an important symbolist painting because it introduced to the Australian public the types of symbolist works popularised in Europe by artists such as G.F. Watts and Gustave Moreau. Hall used a composition derived from Watts and previous artists – that of a woman seated on a globe symbolic of the spheres. Yet his is the most pared-down allegory, his female figure holding no identifying objects to give clues as to her purpose. Suggestive rather than didactic, Hall gives the viewers’ imagination full rein to impose their own interpretation of the nature of the subject’s quest. The figure floats mysteriously, her face in shadow – anonymous – and her hair becoming a long flimsy swathe that curves round the globe, suggesting an ethereal soul drifting into space. The contemplative mood suggests that this is an inner quest, not a physical journey such as that pursued in Arthurian legend. Hall’s first wife had died in 1901 and perhaps his thoughts were turning towards the passage of the soul to an afterlife.
The muted colour of the globe, the dark veil encircling it and the dulled background suggest the enveloping blankness of eternity. While the subject’s face is obscured, the soft illumination from above highlights the body, whose smooth skin and sensuous curves still hint at the eroticism of wordly flesh. The eye is drawn to a bright halo-like aura around the head, perhaps the pure light of the living soul.
Bernard Hall was born in England in 1859 and had completed his studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and at the Antwerp and Munich Academies before coming to Melbourne in 1892 to become Director of the National Gallery of Victoria and head of the National Gallery School.
Susan Hall, 2002
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