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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Se­bas­tian Smee

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

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