Van Dyck and Rembrandt at the NGV December 2012

Since the cleaning of “The Banquet of Cleopatra” by Tiepolo some years ago, the NGV seem to have embarked on a program to clean paintings in the collection and then regularly show them in their new condition and sometimes with new neighbours. This is a pleasure for all viewers and is particularly valuable for artists and students of art who can now view works in a state closer to the actual execution. Many of these are now exhibited on the mezzanine floor.

Two recent and striking examples are “Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke” by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and “Portrait of a White-haired Old Man” by Rembrandt, his second last portrait made two years before his death. The paintings in this room have been judiciously hung so, for example, at a diagonal to the Rembrandt, you can compare the sombre portrait bust of a man byTitian, Titian being one of the models of excellence for Rembrandt.

Before the cleaning of the Rembrandt, you could admire the virtuoso paintwork in the hair and flesh, but parts such as the hands did not convince, and it was suggested that the painting had been trimmed. However it’s now clear that the problem was one of tonal reading because of dirt and faded varnish. The matter of dirt also didn’t help the flesh tones. I always remember this painting with sadness because the sitter looked like an old man with skin disease and because his black tunic was so dull he looked doddering.

Now the painting has been cleaned the face looks frail only because Rembrandt has magically captured that distinctive transparency of skin that occurs with old age and this, together with the gorgeous deep black of the garment, combine to make an image of considerable gravitas. The melding of quiet authority from the looming of face and hands over the garment with the frailty of the flesh make this a wholly convincing portrayal of benign Protestantism.

The black in the painting becomes more seductive the longer you remain gazing and you realise Rembrandt achieved a considerable feat here because there is no drawing in the fabric to bestow volume: the hands have to do everything. And the black is indeed rich. I was very much reminded of the high prestige of a good strong black dye in those days. It was inevitably associated with wealth and power. Being extremely difficult to get a fast black with the technologies of the time, things got to the point where in Venice, a centre for dyeing, regular deceptions, murders and lawsuits over the secrets of dyeing in black were commonplace.

Nonetheless in spite of the deep satisfaction elicited by the new Rembrandt, my eye was constantly drawn towards a mysterious mark on the right side of the curtain forming the background. This odd mark is really only visible at very close quarters when you scrutinize the architecture of the paint layers. It doesn’t seem to represent anything. From a distance it blends invisibly into a broader sense of cloth where we would expect perhaps a broken surface due to folds and creases, but up close, as Rembrandt would have seen it while painting, it looks out of place, even meaningless.

Sometimes I thought, from painter’s experience, that the mark could have been made semi- automatically. While the artist is constantly adjusting the details of a painting, heightened sensitivity can easily descend into desperation and getting lost. Being in unknown territory and placing a mark unrepresentative of anything actually seen is a way of reorienting yourself in the painting. Later on, once the work has found its direction once more, you can erase the mark or, as Rembrandt has seemed to have done, integrate it casually back into the general fabric of the work. But I find this a tease in the Rembrandt because as a viewer I can only relive the development of the work through the imagination. It will always be a secret known only to the maker who no longer exists. And I always keep coming back to that mark.

While this mystery was clouding my thought, my attention moved to a painting nearby, also newly cleaned: “Philip Herbert 4th Earl of Pembroke”, a work roughly contemporaneous with the Rembrandt. No human frailty in this one, in fact never has hauteur been more imperturbable. And no uniform sombre black either; the fabrics veritably tumble over each other in a rippling display. Yet why doesn’t all this finery look vulgar or slick as it would in the hands of a lesser artist?

A close examination of the surface reveals the work of a brush apparently in perpetual movement. Famed for his fluid use of paint Van Dyck’s rendering of surfaces is at once virtuosic and natural; all the fabrics, and there are many different types, seem to combine in an effortless flow that is supremely elegant.

 But there is more here than impressive verisimilitude. The surface of the painting is like water; all the parts perpetually and easily blend into each other. The paint is transparent with medium. The jewels have highlights that peep out of the dark like droplets.

Van Dyck’s choice of a close woven linen enhanced the liquid qualities of the paint by giving him a smooth surface to work on. A coarser weave would have caused drag producing a stiffer effect. It would be interesting to know more about the priming. Some artists of the time preferred just a thin layer of gesso, just enough to fill the holes between the warp and the weft. Combined with sanding, not only did this give a smooth surface but also allowed for a more subtle and varied set of tones. This was especially sympathetic towards the production of close tones due to beginning the image with a mottled, flickering surface underneath: a surface already partly alive, unlike a surface of uniform dead white.

Leonardo’s depiction of falling ringlets of hair has often been linked to his drawings of water but Van Dyck’s portrait expresses fluidity just as keenly but rather through the temperament of a sensualist.

It is interesting to speculate on Van Dyck’s childhood at this point. Brought up in Antwerp in the early 1600’s, it is easy to imagine the little boy being allowed to wander through his father’s warehouse of high quality silks and fabrics from all over the world. Being short (as children tend to be) he would have placed his face closer to the materials and their textures and smells than adults, so his senses and memory would have been deeply affected.

Yet prior to the cleaning of the painting, I must admit to finding the rendering of surfaces well tossed off but tired, even bored, just as with so many society portraits, without deeper engagement. But now the correct tonal values have been reinstated, the lightness of touch and heightened sensitivity that went into the work are beautifully conveyed.

And then I had a more or less identical experience as with the Rembrandt. Right in the middle of the painting I saw two parallel gouges each about 12 centimetres long. Certainly I had never noticed them before. However, unlike the mark in the curtain of the Rembrandt, these marks had not been reworked and muted. They were totally naked and disturbing to return to. Like the Rembrandt, it was only apparent as a scratch or violation close up. From a distance, which of course forms our initial view of a picture, it blends into the overall image.

The marks on the Van Dyck are more fascinating though because the artist allowed them greater visibility, at least from close up, where they really look like rents, causing a gasp of breath in the viewer, just as it would if a tear was discovered in a real piece of cloth.

My initial thought was, rather than why did he do it, how did he do it? I would say it was most likely done with a quill; there would have been plenty of them around. They were used for both writing, drawing and as holders for brushes used in fine work. I can imagine the mark being done in the same frame of mind as the Rembrandt portrait, semi- automatically, and out of frustration and impatience. And he left it there because he felt it looked “good”.

But why does it look good? I can only come up with a suggestion. It works because it interrupts the seductive drift of pleasure we get moving through the clothing. It functions as a correction to attention when we come up close and look into the cool and inscrutable eyes of the Earl who is after all the primary subject. Then we become aware of the highlight that runs down the staff of office, a hard resilient surface so unlike the fabric. Because for fabric, the paint treatment allows for intimacy of touch, for loving, blending, but in the face and in the staff this is not so. The effect here is one of distance, holding back, of courtliness, diplomacy, a cultured and contrived world, not a sensual one.

Suddenly the painting looked chilled.                                                                                                                              



                                                                                            Christian Waller and Penleigh Boyd at the NGV 2013


I recently discovered a new purchase at the NGV Federation Square by Christian Waller. A small painting, a mere 49.5 cm by 59.5 cm, I was immediately drawn into its dark force.

Her husband, Napier Waller, I was more familiar with. The excellent retrospective organized by Nicholas Draffin in the late 1970’s extended the admiration and curiosity I already held for his public works in Melbourne. While they looked dated and exotic, the sheer majesty of the designs together with the vigorous line made them memorable. However in the retrospective I remember a wonderful colour woodcut of chooks, a work completely at the other end of the creative spectrum, a spectrum that really did range from the homely to the heroic. In spite of the range, however, a sense of quiet faith suffused everything from the smallest study to the most sophisticated finished pieces.

Around the new Christian Waller purchase were hung some of her husband’s book illustrations. But none of them had the magnetism of this odd painting where a female personage blows nonchalantly on to a dish of water causing bubbles to rise, in each one a mannikin in embryonic form.

The only comparison I could make was with Alfred Kubin, the Viennese Symbolist who wrote a visionary novel “The Other Side” prefiguring the First World War. Both Kubin and the Wallers were thoroughly aware of the synergy between word and image, both were book illustrators and at a period when classical links had not yet broken with common literacy.

But the image of bubbles and people (actually in the painting more reduced to the category of “creatures”) remained with me.

At the time I was reading “Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors and Media into the Twenty-first Century” by Marina Warner, and while leafing backwards I came across the following on page 22  “Homo bulla est (i.e. Man is a bubble): the melancholy phrase about the vanity of human life compares it to a mere puff of air.”

Well, 1916, when “Destiny” was painted, was a year to be melancholy. The world was in the grip of the worst war it had known, for the first time using ghastly weapons that showed the malevolent side of industrial capitalism.

It was interesting to speculate why Christian used an archaic metaphor for such an utterly contemporary event. Then I remembered that sayings such as these had been collected in emblem books for centuries, and these publications would have been part of the Waller’s world as professional illustrators and designers of works for the public good.

As for many soldiers, Napier’s fate was unfortunate. He lost his right arm in the fighting. But his destiny was not thwarted. He taught himself to write and draw with his left hand and continued a life of substantial achievement.

Not everyone was so fortunate. On turning from “Destiny” into the next exhibition space, you come directly to “Winter Triumphant” by Penleigh Boyd. This extremely bleak landscape was painted in Warrandyte 1920 where Boyd lived after the War.

Caution should always be observed when reading autobiography into an artist’s work, nonetheless my first impression of this painting before I knew anything of Boyd’s circumstances, was that it was like looking into a blasted mind. The space looks genuinely haunted with the protagonists not long ago just having left the scene. I was reminded of Macbeth. Moreover the painting is on a scale big enough to walk into.

Boyd was gassed at Ypres in 1917 and indelibly scarred both physically and psychologically. He died while driving near Sale in 1923.

For Boyd, the bubble really did burst.

Someone once said that after 1914 the world changed forever.

Both paintings still carry the reverberations of that event.


 Douglas Stewart: Painting and the Poet

To my knowledge, there is little, if any, study of Douglas Stewart’s relationship to the visual arts, although his friendship with Norman Lindsay and marriage to Margaret Coen, the painter, are well known to scholars.

My own introduction to his poetry was between the ages of 15 and 16 at High School where we had an inspired (and inspiring) English teacher, Harry Jacobs. Harry still had a very strong accent from his Dutch homeland, and his spoken English was not always clear in the details, but boy, could he get inside language and make it live in front of a class!

I still have the textbook for that subject: “Six Voices” edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, as part of the Contemporary Australian Poets series published by Angus and Robertson in the 1960’s. The contribution by Douglas Stewart ranges from historical epic to short nature poems.

Strangely enough, the one that stayed in my mind over the years was one we didn’t study: “Rutherford”, a brilliant Cold War poem that rolls forward and backward in time, alternating between surging ambition and chilling doubt regarding the repercussions of his momentous discovery, the splitting of the atom. And when I choose to return to this collection, it is always to return first to “Rutherford”. Nowadays I notice wryly that it begins with the wonderful line “Mostly to busy to think- too busy thinking,” virtually a mantra for the today person.

Then in April 2013, there appeared in Quadrant Magazine a fine article ”Douglas Stewart (1913- 85)” by Vivian Smith. It draws attention to, among other things, his nature poems with their deep rootedness in the visual, as well as placing the work in the context of nature photography and general interest in the bush at the time.

This in turn led me to read more of his poetry and I tracked down a copy of his “Collected Poems 1936- 1967” from the local library. This book includes selections from a work called “Sun Orchids” published in 1952. And when you’re born in 1952, well, that’s something that draws you in!

I could find no poem on painting in “Collected Poems” other than “The Pictures”, but it would be fair enough to say that many of his poems are painted. Of course, he would have seen his wife’s watercolours as slashes of colour before they became images, and surely this state of emergence would have been very sympathetic to his own quite different medium of writing. Shifting light and colours are paramount. Many of the poems even have a palette: blue, gold and green is a recurrent combination. “A Robin” consists of dabs of grey, black, white and crimson against a background sky at first silver, then rose, as the sun sets in an epiphany of colour. On occasion, the colours become malevolent, as in “Kindred”.

The rock swallows the snake,
Chilly and black as it vanishes;
In rain and moss the year
Moves in the sandstone crevices
Where like the snake itself
Earth’s darkest impulses brood.
Long stems, sharp leaves awake-
O look where the wet moss flourishes
Tall crimson orchids appear,
Snake-headed, with a darting tongue,
Now this way striking , now that,
As if indeed they had sprung
From the black snake’s rotting side
Under the sandstone shelf
To spill on the green air
Their dewdrops of dark thought
Like venom and like blood.

From 1940 till 1960, Stewart worked at the Bulletin in Sydney. He treasured his visits to the Lindsay property in the Blue Mountains, clearly the place of inspiration for many of his poems. Being brought up in the bush, I can testify to these poems. They are felt acutely and I can honestly say ”I know what he means”Stewart wrote a memoir of Norman Lindsay, and Lindsay produced   illustrations that were beautifully integrated with the text of “Sun Orchids”. More than mere ornament, they exist almost like a parallel text; yet neither do they distract. While the images look closely observed and fresh, it is likely they would have been done from photographs for practical purposes. But they convince for two reasons. Firstly, just because they have been done from photographs does not mean the artist has not done his share of observation. Photos can operate by unlocking memory thereby producing a richer image (a sort of sediment from multiple observations) and that is what happens here.  Secondly, it is the line work that makes these illustrations compelling and you don’t get line work in a photograph.

Actually, my introduction to Norman Lindsay’s work predates that of Douglas Stewart. It was as a very young child in the 1950’s. His illustrations were included in a set of children’s encyclopaedias given to me by my parents for Christmas and bought from a travelling salesman. It must have been a considerable expense to them because their small dairy farm was earning next to nothing. Nonetheless, those encyclopaedias were devoured by me for years.

An artist of my generation, of course, was brought up to hate Norman Lindsay, and while I can appreciate the reasons, certain childhood experiences are hard to shift.  And to this day I regard his graphic sense of a high order, and as to his painting, well, you could mention any number of famous Australian artists who are stronger in drawing than painting.

However, to return to my starting point of Douglas Stewart and the visual arts, I found one poem which openly declares a deep love of painting and the mental enrichment it can bring: “The Pictures”. He has captured a precious moment with this one and I think to present it would be the best way to end the article. I quote the poem in full because to split it up for analysis seems both sacrilegious and beside the point. It would spoil the unique sense of drift alternating with suspension that is the strength of the poem.

Plenty of poets have written about paintings, of course, but how many have written about them in moonlight?

So that is how my pictures spend their time
(That have all time to spend) when no one’s looking
And only moonlight comes to visit them
Or silent midnight up the dark stairs creaking:
Needing no commendation, fearing no fall,
Quietly living their lives on the wall.

There’s Percy Lindsay’s ploughman he set up high
Among white glittering cloud and the blue of noon;
He painted his own happiness into the sky
And all through midnight keeps this time of his own;
There like a dark-green wall stands Blamire Young;
He found a sheep-track up to the bird’s song.
There silently crashing down on cliff and boulder

Glimmers Lance Solomon’s wave in its white swirl;
There Margaret Coen’s magnolias curve and smoulder
Like coals of moonlight, like a naked girl;
There half in the light, still half in the shadow’s mesh
The wistfulness of spirit caught in the flesh,

Shines the dark grace of Norman Lindsay’s Rita,
Breathing unearthly stillness. How strange it seems
I should have walked with, talked with, known these people
On whose clear art the light so moves and gleams

And one entrusted me for my safe-keeping,
My wife in the next room quietly sleeping.

These were the people high and far and lonely;
Laughed, loved and lived indeed; and yet were bidden
Walk outside life, care nothing, so that only
They might distil from the visible world its hidden
Order and grace and clarity. As they have done
Here in their pictures cool as the light of the moon.

Woman and flower and wave, gleaming and shadowy,
Seen for the first time in their full reality
They burn now in the moonlight’s soft intensity
Like ghosts on the wall: that light is from eternity.
It moves from sky to petal, from foam to face
And fills my night with their immortal grace.