Strike a pose
With a nod to the Italian mannerists, George Lambert relished artifice and theatricality, writes George W. Lambert Retrospective: Heroes and Icons National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Until September 16. George Lambert: Gallipoli and Palestine Landsca
IN a lot of George Lambert’s work there is something strained and overripe. But it’s just this quality that makes the Lambert retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra one of the surprise hits of the year. You come out of the show thrilled and slightly dazed, as you may from a jolting ride on a proud but skittish horse. How can an artist so good, so capable, so noble, leave you in two minds about his real worth? When so many reputations these days come prepackaged, it’s refreshing to have the question of merit kept alive in this way.
Lambert may have been a traditionally minded painter living through a period in which artistic traditions were violently overturned. But he was hardly predictable and he was anything but staid.
Lambert has not been the subject of a full- scale, in- depth retrospective since his death 77 years ago. This is exceedingly strange because throughout the 1920s he was, as NGA director Ron Radford says, ‘‘ by far our most famous celebrity artist’’. He had established himself as an esteemed painter in London in the first two decades of the century. The State Hermitage in St Petersburg had bought one of his works. He was the subject of monographs in 1920 and 1924, and of three memorial exhibitions after his death in 1930. Many of his most famous works are on permanent display in Australia’s public galleries.
But we have never before been given an opportunity to consider the man’s entire achievement. It’s not as if Lambert was a cranky old traditionalist that today’s right- thinking gallery directors would rather forget. Quite the contrary: on his return to Australia after almost 20 years in Britain and Europe, he championed the values of modernism in the face of local reactionaries.
Moreover, he was a patriot, a man who exposed himself to considerable risk and earned widespread admiration as a war artist ( perhaps Australia’s greatest) during World War I. He almost died from dysentery and malaria.
So how could he have been ignored for so long, when seemingly all of Australia’s great, promising and even mediocre talents from the early decades of the 20th century have been granted retrospectives by our leading museums?
I can only suggest that Lambert, as an artist and as a man, is hard to place, at least culturally. He was born in St Petersburg, the son of American and English parents. He moved to Australia when he was 14, then to Paris and London, where he stayed for 17 years. Finally he returned to Australia.
He was never fully ensconced in one place. He left England just as he was becoming established ( having achieved more there than any of his contemporaries). Even in his penultimate year, he wrote to his wife that he was set on getting back to London in time for the next exhibition at the Royal Academy.
It may be too that, despite his enormous talent and dedication, Lambert never really found a deeper purpose for his art, in the same way that brilliant essayists or storytellers never quite achieve a proper marriage of their talents and their deepest apprehensions about the world and about themselves.
No one expects this perfect marriage to be achieved by artists and writers in their formative years. Instead, we look for promise; we thrill to brilliant passages and bold execution.
Early Lambert has all this in abundance. Indeed, Lambert’s early years produced one of the greatest examples of youthful precocity in Australian art: Across the Black Soil Plains, a huge picture, painted in 1899 in a shed at the back of his mother’s house. It depicts a team of horses pulling a wool wagon across a tawny plain, the beasts’ heads rising and falling with their efforts. Most of the picture is in shades of black, white and brown. It is a superb example of rhythm, mass and volume conveyed through the modulation of tones.
Across the Black Soil Plains was bought by the Art Gallery of NSW, and later awarded the Wynne Prize for landscape. When Lambert died three decades later, it was swathed in black drapes as a tribute. It remains one of the gallery’s most popular works.
That composition, by someone so young, promised a career of drama, intensity and perhaps — like the massive, plodding horses it depicts — a certain strain.
He delivered. One painting after another over the following years tinkers with established precedents. The effect is often dazzling and almost always bemusing. Look, for instance, at Lambert’s 1903 portrait of Thea Proctor, a fellow expatriate artist and lifelong friend.
Proctor’s face could not be more fresh, open, sensitive, vulnerable. You sense something much deeper than flattery; something truly perceptive and sympathetic, realised with rare skill.
But the conception of the picture — with its allusions to the romantic, loosely brushed backdrops of Gainsborough; to mythology ( dogs chasing a stag or unicorn sketched in behind the sitter’s back); and above all the anatomically impossible elongation of Proctor’s neck and arm, like a creature out of Ingres or Parmigianino — suggests overheated ambition.
Tellingly, Lambert once wrote that he regretted studying only the effects of the artists he admired ( Manet, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes and Sargent) rather than exploring ‘‘ the analysis, and power of selection by which these pictures were approached’’. Many of Lambert’s early London paintings echo Velazquez, whose tonal style of painting so influenced him ( and his compatriot Hugh Ramsay). Some feel superficial.
But Equestrian Portrait of a Boy is a bravura painting that manages also to be quite touching. Lambert’s son, Maurice, is shown astride a horse, in the manner of Velazquez’s portrait of the Infante Baltasar Carlos. Beside him is his nursemaid. The composition appears awkward and lopsided, but Lambert unifies it with a strong diagonal, joining the nursemaid’s lavish hair to the horse’s equally lavish tail.
Lambert painted several showpiece portraits in London. These often featured his red- lipped, curly- haired sons in the care of maternal figures, usually based on his wife, Amy. Some of these look like statements about the contrasting roles of women — independent beings or mothers — or about sibling rivalry.
But you don’t feel Lambert’s heart is in any of these statements. He is more concerned about showing what he can do within an almost arbitrary configuration of inherited traditions.
But Lambert was blind to his own lack of deeper conviction. On the contrary, he seemed to relish artifice and theatre. ‘‘ By watching the play of children, one arrives at the scientific conclusion that artificiality is the quality that makes man the master of the world,’’ he once wrote.
Lambert, as curator Anne Gray points out, wanted to be ‘‘ master within the universe of the picture’’. Hence his move to embrace artifice and theatre as guiding principles. In paintings such as the wonderfully inexplicable The Shop, he seemed to be raiding ideas and scenarios like an actor raiding a props cupboard.
The same impulse can be found in his many portraits, the greatest of which are The Red Shawl ( Miss Olave Cunninghame Graham) ; The Halfback ( Maurice Lambert) ; and Mrs Annie Mur-
doch . It also is particularly evident in his selfportraits. At least one of these takes mischievous aim at Lambert’s image as a gay and affected dandy, an image that somehow coexisted with his reputation for gregariousness, vigour and allround virility.
( Gray, persuaded by the thinking of writer Robert Dessaix, suggests Lambert was ‘‘ heterosexual but with a gay sensibility’’. To me this suggests a man divided; I prefer to think of him as three- dimensional, like the rest of us.)
Belatedly digesting developments in late 19thcentury art, Lambert brightened his palette. The results were not always felicitous as in The Actress , his kitschy homage to Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus . But they were usually original and almost always fascinatingly enigmatic.
Important People , for instance, was a group portrait of a boxer, a businessman, a mother and a baby: ordinary people seemingly unrelated to one another but unified by Lambert’s chalky blue, yellow and lavender palette.
Was Lambert mocking the idea of important personages? Was he making a democratic statement about equality? Or was he simply constructing an ingenious and lovely picture? Lambert’s contemporaries weren’t sure and I’m not convinced we’re any the wiser today.
Lambert’s experience as a war artist changed everything. Suddenly he had a deeper purpose. According to official war historian Charles Bean, Lambert ‘‘ looked on himself as a soldier fulfilling a directive’’. His art changed accordingly. His sketches of battlefields, camps and landscapes painted en plein air in Palestine, Egypt and at Gallipoli have a freshness that is sombre and poignant, without any sense of strain. These pictures can be seen in a superb, complementary exhibition of Lambert’s war work at the Australian War Memorial. In them one can see just how great was Lambert’s technical prowess, his ability to render accurately in pencil or paint.
His celebrated battle scenes, worked up in the studio from historical and witness accounts, inevitably look dated in an age used to the evidential power of war photography. But they are impressive, enveloping works, full of credibly conveyed detail and incident.
When he returned to Australia after the war, Lambert funnelled his new- found sense of conviction into his work.
He became almost alarmingly single- minded and produced some of his best and freshest work, including an exquisite outdoor scene of a garden at St Luke’s Hospital ( where Lambert went to recuperate from recurring bouts of illness) and some bold, ambitious sculptures, most notably the Geelong Grammar School war memorial.
One still feels, however, that he was struggling to find true subjects. One lurches from a colourful racing scene to a sober portrait, to a vibrant still life, to a realist townscape, all the while admiring the brilliance but searching in vain for any deeper sense of private affinity.
In the end, with all his talent, Lambert was a mannerist, like one of those prodigiously gifted 16th- century Italians tooling around in the wake of more sure- footed geniuses, working at the end of a tradition, too many moves open to him, not quite sure which ones to take. But as I have tried to illustrate, many aspects of Lambert’s awkward historical predicament make him more fascinating, rather than less.
There are dozens of extraordinary pictures in this show and congratulations must go to Gray, as curator, for putting it together and producing an authoritative, accessible catalogue to go with it.
The theatrical impulse: Clockwise from top, George Lambert’s The Red Shawl ( Miss Olave Cunninghame Graham), Portrait Group, The Half- back ( Maurice Lambert) and Across the Black Soil Plains