BOB MARCHANT

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Judith Pugh

As Bob Marchant worked over­seas and vis­ited count­less gal­leries look­ing at great art for many years, the work of naïve artist Henri Rousseau re­mained a key in­flu­ence in form­ing his own dis­tinc­tive style, rich with Aus­tralian im­agery and themes. His pic­tures con­dense ex­pe­ri­ence and nar­ra­tive, and demon­strate his en­gage­ment with the world and ev­ery­thing in it.

BOB MARCHANT WAS BORN IN VIC­TO­RIA’S FLAT Wim­mera coun­try. As a child, he was al­ways draw­ing, at home and in pri­mary school in Dim­boola. His tal­ent was recog­nised by the art teacher, wa­ter­colourist Ella Ser­vice, when he ar­rived at Nhill High School, and she de­vel­oped that tal­ent by tak­ing him into the Wim­mera land­scape to draw and paint in wa­ter­colours. When his par­ents, strug­gling to make ends meet, told him he’d need to leave school to help sup­port the fam­ily, Ser­vice of­fered to pay for her favourite pupil to train as an artist. His par­ents were too proud to take up the of­fer, but then his mother won a lit­tle money in a lot­tery. Al­though hard up, they de­cided that if his teacher was so con­vinced of Bob’s fu­ture as an artist, he should have that op­por­tu­nity. Life has of­fered Marchant op­por­tu­ni­ties, and he has al­ways taken them. He ar­rived in Mel­bourne and en­rolled in the art course at RMIT but the first-year class was told they’d be study­ing the new form of paint­ing, ab­strac­tion. The 15-year-old Marchant wasn’t in­ter­ested, and com­plained to the head of school, who sug­gested he switch to print­mak­ing, where of course he also stud­ied draw­ing. This con­tented con­fi­dence pre­vails. “I go my own way, I paint my ex­pe­ri­ences and my dreams,” he says of his work. In 1957 Marchant won the Mel­bourne Her­ald-Sun news­pa­per’s prize for the most tal­ented art stu­dent of the year, judged against the ab­strac­tion­ists. He laughs at the mem­ory, and still seems some­what star­tled at the win: there is no sense of com­pe­ti­tion, of art-world angst, in this happy con­tented man. Of­fered a num­ber of op­por­tu­ni­ties, he ac­cepted a job at USP ad­ver­tis­ing agency, where he first worked with Richard Beck, who had trained at the Slade and in Ger­many. The Ba­haus-trained Hun­gar­ian artist Frank Eidlitz joined the agency in 1958, and then the ac­tion painter (ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist) Les Ma­son, who had stud­ied paint­ing at the Chouinard Art In­sti­tute, ar­rived from Cal­i­for­nia. Each, on ar­rival, asked for an as­sis­tant, and the en­er­getic young Marchant “put up my hand”. So the lively in­no­cent lad from Dim­boola was trained to de­sign by so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised prac­tis­ing artists. Well paid, he bought a sports car, and promptly earned five speed­ing tickets. We may owe Marchant’s paint­ings to the mag­is­trate who took away his li­cence for two years, be­fore he had a chance to kill him­self. Marchant mourned to his men­tors that he couldn’t live in Mel­bourne with­out a car, and they sug­gested it was time to leave the coun­try. On ar­rival in Lon­don he met friends who in­vited him to join them for a drive to Por­tu­gal, and thus, be­gin­ning with the Lou­vre and the ‘Mona Lisa’, he took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to see ev­ery work of art he could. Back in Lon­don, the English ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies were not in­ter­ested in his ap­pli­ca­tions, so he ap­proached an Amer­i­can agency. The direc­tor did not be­lieve his port­fo­lio could gen­uinely be the work of a 22-year-old, took him on for a trial week, and then of course Marchant had full-time work. For the next 20 years he lived in Lon­don: through the swing­ing ’60s, the ’70s … a full, in­ter­est­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing life, mix­ing with Aus­tralians like Brett White­ley, and pho­tog­ra­phers such as David Bai­ley and Hel­mut New­ton, the de­signer Mary Quant (the first client of the agency he es­tab­lished), artist David Hock­ney: he painted and drew Hock­ney. He met lovely In­ger, who’d come from Den­mark to Lon­don, and they be­gan the very happy mar­riage that Marchant of­ten cel­e­brates in his paint­ings.

Al­though he looked at ev­ery artist and ev­ery pe­riod, the work that as­ton­ished him on that first visit to Paris was that of naïve painter Henri Rousseau. “He is more in­ter­est­ing than any other painter I’ve seen in my life. He has al­ways been my hero, the in­flu­ence that started me paint­ing,” Marchant says. He’d re­solved to buy a picture ev­ery year, but his friends’ paint­ings were ex­pen­sive, so he col­lected the work of naïve artists, and his own work has the di­rect­ness and the el­e­ment of phan­tasy of­ten found in naïve art. In­ger and Bob re­turned to Aus­tralia with their chil­dren, en-route home spend­ing six months in a vil­lage in Crete, and three months in South In­dia and three in Bali. By the time they ar­rived Marchant had de­cided to paint full time. Frank Eidlitz, with whom he’d main­tained the friend­ship, had taken a house for the fam­ily in Neu­tral Bay, and there Marchant be­gan to paint. He thought “What am I go­ing to paint? No point in fol­low­ing the fash­ion.” Then “If Rousseau were alive to­day, what would he be paint­ing? He was a painter but also a dreamer.” So he be­gan. “No-one had done a paint­ing of the ferry boat race, or the Iron Man con­test” and Marchant be­gan to paint genre paint­ings, fig­u­ral nar­ra­tives, of events at the Royal Easter Show, of mem­o­ries such as catching yab­bies at Five-Mile Dam, when he was a boy. He won the Sul­man prize two years run­ning in 1987 and 1988. His se­ries The Drover’s Boy, about Abo­rig­i­nal women used by drovers, toured re­gional gal­leries. He’s had the suc­cess he de­serves, he lives hap­pily as a painter. The vis­ual hi­er­ar­chy in these pic­tures, and their nar­ra­tives, re­mind one of naïve painters, but they are ac­com­plished, tech­ni­cally so­phis­ti­cated. He stud­ied paint­ings, but not paint­ing – ex­cept wa­ter­colour with Ella Ser­vice – so he uses a wa­ter­colour tech­nique, light laid down first, grad­u­ally darker trans­par­ent layer over trans­par­ent layer, in oil. He does not seek sub­tlety, or the cri­tique of modernism. Beck, Eidlitz and Ma­son wanted graph­ics di­rectly to com­mu­ni­cate, that is what ad­ver­tis­ers want. They dis­ci­plined his de­sign train­ing, so Marchant’s work achieves im­me­di­ate im­pact. Based on di­rect ob­ser­va­tion, the paint­ings dis­til the mes­sage so that its im­pact on the viewer is im­me­di­ate. The Drover’s Boy se­ries con­veyed the am­bi­gu­i­ties in the ex­ploita­tion, but his life is happy: most of Marchant’s pic­tures be­gin with things he ob­serves, painted with de­light and hu­mour. He crowds peo­ple in the genre pic­tures: their re­la­tion­ships, the colour of their clothes, their per­son­al­i­ties. His most re­cent paint­ings are of mo­ments, in­ci­dents. They con­tinue the theme of ex­pe­ri­ence mixed with fan­tasy, and the pal­ette now glows with rich, vivid colour. On a visit to the Pin­na­cles in West­ern Aus­tralia he told In­ger one had to waltz through them: a danc­ing cou­ple over­whelms the land­scape. A young man leapt in homage to a mon­u­men­tal Mex­i­can sculp­ture near Bro­ken Hill: Marchant ren­ders him naked. A Ned Kelly mail­box in the out­back refers of course to the real and the Nolan leg­end, and a whale leaps be­side a ferry, the scene lit as if by fire. Rousseau’s fan­tasies were of jun­gle crea­tures in gar­dens, and one is re­minded of his in­flu­ence in Marchant’s new paint­ings of gar­dens: abun­dant flow­ers, fig­ures among spec­tac­u­larly coloured trees and fo­liage, all lit by ex­u­ber­ant warm yel­lows. Marchant’s May show, at Aus­tralian Gal­leries, will il­lu­mi­nate the gallery and lighten hearts. EX­HI­BI­TION Bob Marchant 15 May – 3 June Aus­tralian Gal­leries, Padding­ton, NSW bob­marchan­tart.net @bob.marchant Bob Marchant is rep­re­sented by Aus­tralian Gal­leries, Syd­ney 01 A walk on the wild side, 2017, oil on can­vas, 122 x 152cm 02 Bob Marchant 03 Bob in the stu­dio with wife In­ger 04 David Hock­ney at Glyn­de­bourne Opera House, 2010, oil on can­vas, 106 x 117cm 05 Greet­ing stu­dents form the 9 o’clock ferry, 2017, oil on can­vas, 122 x 152cm Art­work pho­to­graphs by Ji­awei Shen. Cour­tesy the artist

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