While Fred Williams is usually associated with his iconic depictions of the bush and remote areas of Australia—from the Dandenongs and You Yangs, hills near Melbourne, to the Pilbara in north-western Australia—he also loved the beach and produced a magnificent series of beach subjects, particular between 1971 and 1975, of which Lightning storm, Waratah Bay 1971–72 is arguably the finest.
This major work, a highlight of the NGA’s 2011 exhibition Fred William: infinite horizons, was gratefully accepted last year as a gift to the nation from the artist’s widow, Lyn Williams. Fred and Lyn have both served as members of the NGA Council in its short history and have contributed greatly to the life of the NGA since its beginnings.
Fred Williams’s style is distinctly his own, although a mindfulness of the work of his predecessors is clear: his bush subjects reveal his knowledge of Tom Roberts’s contribution to the development of landscape painting in Australia, while his beach scenes show a similar understanding of Arthur Streeton’s work, particularly Streeton’s narrow, horizontal pictures, usually painted on wood panels, representing breaking waves, brilliant blue skies and white sandy beaches.
Streeton’s Ariadne of 1895 is one of his most evocative works of this type. It is a work of high quality and rarity, and the depiction of the classical Greek ‘Mistress of the Labyrinth’, Ariadne, whose love life was the subject of many differing legends, almost certainly refers to the legend of Theseus abandoning Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos, after which she was discovered and wooed by Dionysus. In it, we see Ariadne standing on the beach, pondering her fate.
This is arguably the finest of Streeton’s beach scenes of the mid 1890s. The classical subject, lightly imposed upon an Australian beach, reflects an interesting aspect of Australian literature and art criticism in the 1890s, in the lead up to Federation, celebrating Australia—its climate, its sun, its beaches and the healthy, vital lifestyle it encompassed—as a kind of new Antipodean Mediterranean.
Ariadne, too, was recently acquired by the NGA with the assistance of generous donors. Both works are incomparable masterpieces and were in private hands until now. As recent and important additions to the national collection, they are currently on display for all to see and enjoy at the NGA in Canberra.
Gerard Vaughan, Director
in artonview, issue 85, Autumn 2016