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