They painted paradise
TO the Islands, a subtle, smallscale exhibition now on view in Cairns (until March 9), presents the work of a distinguished series of artistic pilgrims and tells their tale.
It is that rare thing: a public gallery show that reconceives its subject and brings a fresh distinction to its cast of characters. As curator Ross Searle argues, the reputation of these island artists as pioneers of Australian painting is underdone and the problem is general.
There continues to be a wholesale lack of recognition of the contribution of regional artists to the overall canon of Australian art history, he says.
Regional galleries such as those of Townsville and Cairns have a clear mandate to redress this neglect, and this show is a vital advance. The islands of Dunk, Bedarra and Timana are the unifying theme and key subjects.
Noel Wood is now largely forgotten, despite the fame he enjoyed at the mid-point of his long career. Wood came from Melbourne with his young family in 1936.
He chose Bedarra as his place and his work came together there: he caught the green of the jungle and the red of the soil; he became a recorder of clouds and sky, shadows and the gleam of sun on palm and vine. He sent his work south, and it was rapturously received. In depression-era Melbourne, his vivid images seemed like dreams of a perfect life.
Reviewers dwelled not on his methods or the influences in his works, but their exoticism: Mr Wood rejoices in the lush colour of it all the hard blue shadows, the pale green and the dark green, the flat grey of a bay under a rain shower.
The Queensland Art Gallery bought one of Wood’s most resolved and emblematic pieces, The path to Banfield’s old home. It is a scene of glaring sunlight and stark shadow contrasts, the contours of the landscape picked out by the red slash of the dirt track that bisects the work.
Other artists soon followed Wood’s lead. The first was Valerie Albiston, who travelled as far north as possible in flight from an unhappy love affair, and stumbled on Timana Island.
She contacted her sister, Yvonne Cohen, who joined her. Their paintings have an immediacy and a tone of sheer responsiveness to nature.
Later years counted Fred Williams among painters who found inspiration in the islands.
Williams was excited by the challenges of switching his palette to new rich colours.
These collected works are modest records of an encounter: they are presented here without a single false note in the ensemble.
Many regional gallery exhibition programs struggle for relevance, but Cairns and Townsville have their great themes, which have guided their landmark shows over the past two decades: the northern landscape, the tropics and their impact on the imagination and the eye.
To the Islands is at the Cairns Regional Gallery until March 9.