Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1927 – Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1982
Landscape '69 triptych
Collection Title: Australian landscape series / Howqua River series
Place made: Hawthorn East, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on three canvases
Hang the painting … up in the house and it is going to be one of my better works! … I am getting more and more interested in the size, hue and shape of a painting.
Fred Williams’ Landscape ‘69 triptych is a masterpiece of understatement. Its apparent simplicity reveals the hand of a master so accomplished that he makes it look easy. It appears to have been painted rapidly, spontaneously, with the greatest of ease, but each brushstroke has been carefully placed to create an interconnecting rhythmic pattern — like nature itself.
Around 1963, Williams and his family moved from Melbourne to Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges. Here, and in nearby Lysterfield, Williams created a new way of looking at the Australian landscape, placing dabs of heavy impasto onto a textured ground to portray the space of the Australian countryside dotted with scrubby trees. He observed that there was no focal point in the Australian landscape and that this had to be built into the paint.
Williams merged a contemporary concern with abstraction, flat surfaces and gesture with an ongoing interest in figuration. He commented:
I’m basically an artist who sees things in terms of paint … I always physically put wires across the pictures from corner to corner … and I always paint them upside down … I always make sure … that the tension [in] the picture emanates from the middle going out ... I sometime do them sideways … but generally upside down … I suppose the more successful ones are where I’ve sort of been able to work freely, when I haven’t been trying to impose anything on the landscape … simply letting the landscape come to me as it were.2
He absorbed himself in the landscape and translated this into paint.
Williams said he was thinking of Frederick McCubbin’s The pioneer 1904when he painted Landscape ‘69 triptych. As James Mollison remarked, ‘The pioneer, for all its overt narrative, is a painting born out of a love of the bush; Williams’ triptych is about the detail of the bush.’3 But whereas McCubbin depicted a foreground, middle ground and distance, and showed the earth and sky, Williams created an image that is more closely focused, more intense, more absorbed into the bush. In looking at this triptych, our eyes slip from one dimension to another — from the flat grey surface of the canvas to the world of living forms. A few strokes of coloured paint suggest the trunks of tall saplings, the curl of a fern, delicate plants in flower, rocks and cut logs; the things that might draw our attention if we were to sit and immerse ourselves in the bush. The more we look at the painting, the more we imagine — we can almost hear the wind ripple in the trees, a bird warble, or a goanna slither in the undergrowth. The liveliness of the sparsely placed gestures against the ethereal grey surface takes us into another realm.
Williams’s triptych is like a meditation on the bush. It shares something with the late work of Claude Monet and with Japanese screens — in the way the image totally consumes the canvas and in the manner in which the painterly gesture dominates. More especially, it shares something with the work of these artists in the manner in which spatial ambiguity replaces the ordinary pictorial concepts of up and down, back and front, depth and surface — in the way it allows our consciousnesses to dissolve into visual space.
Although in 1968 Williams broke from his long established pattern and began to use oils on his outdoor excursions, he based Landscape ‘69 triptych, as he had many of his earlier works, on notes, drawings, gouaches made on sketching trips. He also painted regularly from his etchings, as well as reworking paintings into etchings — finding equivalents in the different media. He commented:
I never really know what is going to happen with an etching. I start off with an idea but it often turns out to be quite the opposite to what I started out [to do], so really it takes shape while I’m doing it … I can get an organic shape on the plate or on the print, and this helps me with the landscapes, particularly with my idea of the trees … I refer to the etchings so that the paintings never really are of any particular spot but I try to evoke the feeling of a district.4
He painted Landscape ‘74 in his studio over 1974–75, after a visit to Preston Gorge, a relatively inaccessible site on the outskirts of Melbourne. He initially intended it to become one of a suite of canvases on the scale of Monet’s waterlily series, but he never realised these plans. He made the etching Yellow landscape ‘74 while working on this painting.
Both Landscape ‘69 triptych and Landscape ‘74 are evocative and spiritual works. Williams did not seek merely to create an impression of a particular place, the surface appearance, but sought instead to convey something about the character of the bush, honing his images into a kind of spiritual essence of the landscape — absolute and enduring.
1Fred Williams diaries, 11 May 1969.
2Fred Williams talking to James Gleeson, Melbourne, 3 October 1978, National Gallery of Australia Library, tape recording.
3James Mollison A singular vision: the art of Fred Williams Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1989 p.139.
4Fred Williams, interview with Hazel de Berg, 8 December 1965, National Library of Australia, tape 155.
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