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.


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