William Robinson has reached the greatest heights available to an Australian artist and is the only living Australian artist with a gallery dedicated to his work, the William Robinson Gallery at Old Government House in Brisbane. Reaching international acclaim, William Robinson: Genesis has just opened in Washington DC, and will travel to Paris in January 2018. He works across subjects from epic landscape paintings to characterful portraits and, increasingly in recent years where age restricts his ability to be in the landscape, still-life. In his 81st year, he remains committed to taking his paintings into new territory.
YOU COULDN’T PRACTISE FULL-TIME AS AN ARTIST until you were 53. Would it have changed your practice to have more time to paint earlier?
Shirley and I have been married 59 years this year and we had six children – so that was not an option. I believe an artist has to get a life rather than a career. They have to experience the wide variety of things that life can give you, all the changes that can happen, and if that can be reflected in your art, as a personal sort of thing, it is useful.
Painting has been a lifelong pursuit – with art and music influential. Which artists stay with you?
Undoubtedly there are influences on my painting from Bonnard, Matisse and Cezanne. As a painter, I think you have to look as though you don’t belong to the style of mark-making and life of other artists, or whatever is the fashionable trend of the day. You just have to reflect your life in your painting somehow and hope that eventually it will come through.
Your companion on this journey (in art and life) has been your wife Shirley. How might we see her influence manifest in your work?
We met for the first time in 1955 at the Central Technical College. We were engaged in 1957 and married in 1958. My art wasn’t really worth commenting on in the early years. Shirley had enough to do raising our children, and I must say that husbands are not the greatest of help. She was very supportive all of the time. That is an important factor with young artists. The longer we’ve been together the more I take notice of her – she is really a very wise person and can see things that I don’t see.
Were there other important early influences?
I didn’t have a lot of shows before I joined Ray Hughes in 1976. I stayed with Ray for 25 years and I can speak very well of Ray because he allowed you to develop yourself, he allowed you to have faith in yourself. With him too there was always a degree of excitement. He was astonishing in many ways: nobody else would have allowed me to have a show of cows in 1980, they were an absurdity really, from my farmyard in the late 1970s.
We had bought a farm in Birkdale (outside Brisbane) and lived there from 1970 to 1984. I left teaching in 1989 to paint full-time. I felt, by the time I was in my mid 50s, that I was just managing to keep it all together. I had a show with Ray in 1985 in Sydney, and it was always a challenge, huge spaces to fill, so different to his relatively small gallery in Brisbane. I know that he still goes to exhibitions like Ray Hughes: Africa (at Delmar Gallery, Sydney, 2017) and the Archibald Prize – I was really glad to see that.
In his analysis of still-life throughout your oeuvre, John McDonald (who curated TheEternalPresent at the William Robinson Gallery, 2017) suggested that “pictorial intelligence” is your trademark. Can you describe the way you create compositional balance?
Well, I don’t do it to the extent of losing intuition – not knowing how the picture is going to be resolved is a very important thing. I think you need to look suspiciously at your work. There is a feeling in all the arts – writing, music and all the rest – of silences within the movements. The correct punctuation is to do with space, and breathing. Music and its cadences sometimes have nearly a stop, a long comma, and it goes on again. The closer all of these things are to the human being as a physical thing, as a moving breathing object, the better art it is.
Not knowing how the picture is going to be resolved is a very important thing. I think you need to look suspiciously at your work.
Your use of perspective has changed the way we see landscape, with the incorporation of multiple viewpoints within the picture plane. What drove that innovation?
It does take courage to make a break. You wonder whether you should make a break or stay doing the same thing, but I think it is wrong to stay in the comfort zone. I realised that I was going to be treated in another way with the farm pictures, where that multiple viewpoint began. In a way it is a bit like when I put ‘William with Josephine’ (1983) into the Archibald Prize in 1984. Josephine was a cow, and I had only one eye showing under my hat. They hung it and, by 1987, I put in ‘Equestrian Self Portrait’. We were living then at Beechmont on a couple of hundred acres. Once you put a person on a horse, you have an enormous degree of grandeur, particularly in horse paintings. I put myself on a horse and I didn’t know if I had done the right thing, taking the Mickey out of the Archibald and myself. I had no belt, and there were no reins on the horse, I was just holding my hands up in this position, a fat rider on fat horse. Strangely enough, the critics were kind.
The stylistic shifts in your work have parallelled your changes of place – the farmscapes in Birkdale, the epic Creation landscapes in Beechmont and Springbrook, the seascapes in Kingscliff and, most recently, the still-lifes now that you live in suburban Brisbane.
The Creation landscapes started in 1988 and contained both darkness and light. In 1991 our eldest daughter died and in 1992 our youngest daughter died. I became immersed in the landscape in that stage and stayed through seven Creation paintings into the 2000s, one for every day of the week. I didn’t really move away from the landscape after that. I was in a realm where laughter had gone and was replaced by a certain spirituality. That stayed for a long while.
I seem to take roads that go on, and the road at the moment is the road of old age. Now I gather objects and put them in front of me. They are still-lives of the imagination and must work on two levels, in parts, like lots of little still-lives all joined together somehow like a mosaic until the whole thing is a much more complex still-life. The objects and the spaces between them are totally balanced in a picture, which takes me quite a while.
You have kept animals for much of your life. How important do animals remain in the work now that you don’t own them yourself?
Well, there is a chook yard right next door to me, although the foxes keep on getting the chickens. And there is another one just up the road. It is very overgrown and I’ve based two recent farmyard paintings on it. It’s on a corner, very prominent and their neighbours must hate it. This house has no paint on it, it’s all worn off, and barely stands on its stumps, but people are living in it. Whenever I find places like this I put them into my pictures. I didn’t win the Archibald for my picture called ‘Self Portrait for Town and Country’ (1991). I carried a bent shotgun and had two Pugs out hunting. It was a spoof of hunting pictures and the thing I enjoyed most was that it was hung next to the 1992 winning portrait, ‘Paul Keating’ by Bryan Westwood – like my bad neighbour in a row of smart houses.
‘Farmyard with corner shed’ (2016) from your Philip Bacon exhibition this year is typical of the eye contact your cows maintain with the viewer. I’m not sure if it is an appeal or if they are catching us in the voyeuristic act of looking at them.
People sometimes ask me why so many of the animals look out at us. When you walk into a paddock the animals look at you – they think food is on the menu. They have other habits that you wouldn’t paint.
An essential life force is what holds so much of your work together – how do you achieve that – technically, emotionally, spiritually?
If you are going to do anything, for the most part, you don’t have to make a lot of symphonic paintings – but you do have to make some. It is necessary to extend yourself while you are youngish, even late middle-aged, into paintings of size and with content which is important to you. One of the important things to me was the survival of the Earth.
When I was making Creation landscapes in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, we did have storms but somehow they didn’t seem to be quite so severe. We haven’t taken enough notice of the planet. And landscape went from contemporary art when it should have been the political issue at the time. It is an artist’s responsibility to feel, with the intensity that they can have in the work, a communication with other people. The revolving Earth, the seasons, some of my big pictures
It does take courage to make a break ... but I think it is wrong to stay in the comfort zone.
have a linear read to them as though the earth is spinning but, in the end, I didn’t convince as much as I would have liked to in that direction before old age crept up on me.
Place is important in your work – does it remain so now that you are working with interiors?
Wherever we lived we tried, not necessarily with success, to make sure that we were completely at one with the place. Where I am now, I have the closest thing to the extension of a rainforest that I could possibly get for a garden. I am concentrating more and more on the garden as you see in ‘Garden corner and poinciana’ (2017). The garden only comes really alive to me in spring and summer, when the jacaranda tree first starts to bloom and then, after that, a partly overlapping big poinciana tree. I don’t think that there are more large pictures, because you can only manage to hold your arm up for a certain amount of time. Everybody gets overtaken by arthritis at my age. You’ve got to get up and push yourself to do the work, through several pain barriers. Otherwise you would be only playing Bridge – and that won’t do.
You don’t have anything left to prove – do you?
I do have something left to prove. I don’t feel as though I belong to the contemporary scene. Betty Churcher was a bit older, and she used to say to me that she felt that she didn’t belong to the age she was living in any longer. The world has developed into something else, and she wasn’t just talking about art. There is another virtual world of electronics and all this sort of things as well, but it’s a much more demanding world of materialism, a constant world of bad news. The only escape from all of these things is the world that you create yourself. There you can create the music you want to listen to. I create this world of my own where I can exist and get up every day and do a bit of painting. My painting world is a strange world and doesn’t belong to political argument, or today where the artist becomes a personality and has to work on their persona like a film star almost to be noticed. I don’t know if that is a good thing or bad but I suppose that is why, in a way, my farmyards have a dagginess and anti-establishment sense about them – a silliness. I can’t take myself that seriously any more.