Not just an­other mav­er­ick

He’s one of this coun­try’s finest artists, yet Jan Sen­bergs’s work is prob­a­bly bet­ter known than he is, and it’s hardly known at all, writes Elis­a­beth Wyn­hausen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

NOW and then a vis­i­tor to the Art Gallery of NSW cranes over the rope bar­rier to peer at a rum­pled, bar­rel- chested man in an in­digob­lue jacket and jeans. It’s the day be­fore the open­ing of an ex­hi­bi­tion of his work, but no one seems to recog­nise Jan Sen­bergs, one of the na­tion’s fore­most artists. For his part, Sen­bergs wan­ders from one work to an­other, con­tem­plat­ing screen- prints he made so long ago that in some cases see­ing them again is like en­coun­ter­ing an ap­pari­tion.

Sen­bergs is best known for gritty ur­ban images such as the monumental En­trance to Port Liardet , one of his many paint­ings and draw­ings of Port Melbourne. But cu­ra­tor Hen­drik Kolen­berg de­cided to base the show on the screen­prints Sen­bergs made early on, say­ing: ‘‘ I’d like to start off where you be­gan.’’

Sen­bergs’s be­gin­nings as an artist are im­prob­a­ble. While other artists who came to the fore in the 1960s, such as Peter Booth, Robert Jacks and Dale Hickey, were ex­plor­ing ab­stract art, he was in a fac­tory learn­ing how to lay out ad­ver­tis­ing posters. He had be­come an ap­pren­tice com­mer­cial screen- printer, forg­ing a con­nec­tion with art that would stand him in good stead when pop art brought screen- print­ing tech­niques into the main­stream.

Not that he was a part of it. In­stead, some of his screen- prints from the early ’ 60s are so dark and som­bre, Sen­bergs likes to joke that they be­long to his ‘‘ early axle- grease pe­riod’’.

It is tempt­ing to dis­cern deep- seated angst in ev­ery dark blob. Sen­bergs was born in Latvia in 1939. In the chaotic last years of World War II he saw his fa­ther shot by Lat­vian par­ti­sans who had come to the door of their house in the for­est. He was five. Like char­ac­ters in a grim fairy­tale, he, his mother, grand­mother and lit­tle sis­ter fled across the snow in a horse and cart.

In 1950, af­ter five years of be­ing shunted across dis­placed per­sons camps in var­i­ous parts of Europe, they ar­rived in Melbourne. ‘‘ I should be to­tally screwed- up, I sup­pose,’’ he says. ‘‘ It was a rough be­gin­ning.’’

Tempt­ing as it may be to see men­ac­ing pres­ences in his early works, a sec­ond glance can also re­veal the play­ful­ness that un­der­lies them. Stop­ping in front of a grey- toned screen- print of three ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes to point to one that seems to have had a small bite taken out of it, Sen­bergs says he was hav­ing a go at the earnest­ness of the colour- field move­ment sweep­ing the art world at that time.

He is self- taught. He didn’t get into art school. He didn’t go to draw­ing classes. In­stead, he left school to learn a trade, of­fi­cially be­com­ing an artist as soon as he fin­ished his ap­pren­tice­ship. But he seems to have stuck to his own path even then. ‘‘ I didn’t want to join any par­tic­u­lar art move­ments, I just wanted to go my own way,’’ he says.

Au­thor Don Wat­son, a close friend, launches the show at the gallery the next day with a speech that in­cludes light- hearted com­ments about Sen­bergs’s pro­found ob­sti­nacy.

Strong- minded as he is, how­ever, Sen­bergs seems end­lessly curious, as if what’s around the next cor­ner can still sur­prise him. Check­ing out a large work he last saw ex­hib­ited when his then dealer, Rudy Komon, a great in­flu­ence on him, showed it in his Padding­ton, Syd­ney, gallery four decades ago, he muses: ‘‘ That’s the thing about the whole show. When you look at th­ese things you haven’t seen for a while . . . you re- eval­u­ate where you stand, and maybe how you pro­ceed.’’

Sen­bergs had his first ex­hi­bi­tion in Melbourne in 1960, the year he quit com­mer­cial screen­print­ing, but his zest ap­pears al­most undi­min­ished. I had pre­vi­ously met Sen­bergs and his wife, He­len Beres­ford, on a trip to New York in 2006; we wan­dered through the bor­ough of Brook­lyn into the Brook­lyn Mu­seum, where the artist darted from one paint­ing to an­other, as open to ideas, im­pres­sions and ex­pe­ri­ences as he must have been as an ap­pren­tice of 16 or 17 who al­ready knew he didn’t wish to spend his life turn­ing out posters for rail­way sta­tions be­cause he wanted to be an artist. ‘‘ In my late teens it was this ro­man­tic thing,’’ he says.

His in­ter­est in art was trig­gered by artist Leonard French, briefly a sub­sti­tute teacher at Sen­bergs’s high school, Rich­mond Tech. One day French pro­duced three post­cards, one of a Cezanne paint­ing of Mont Sainte- Vic­toire, one of an El Greco saint and a third of Rousseau’s Sleep­ing Gypsy , a favourite Sen­bergs still goes to see in the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art when he’s in New York. ‘‘ See­ing those three post­cards showed me there was an­other world be­yond the usual choco­late- box land­scapes and the usual posters,’’ he says.

He has cre­ated so sig­nif­i­cant a body of work in the years since that Pa­trick McCaughey, au­thor of Voy­age and Land­fall: The Art of Jan Sen­bergs ( Miegun­yah Press, 2006) has said he wrote the book be­cause he felt Sen­bergs’s con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian art had been un­der­rated. In one chap­ter, McCaughey talks about ‘‘ Sen­bergs’ coun­try’’, de­scrib­ing it as a place in which ‘‘ the vast and in­dus­trial land­scape turns do­mes­tic, the doll’s houses of night­mare’’.

In Mound­house , the largest of the prints in the art gallery show, a heap of in­dus­trial waste floats just be­hind a sort of bench. From a dis­tance it looks like a sur­real cabi­net ( or so it ap­pears if one’s gaze in­sists on mak­ing ap­prox­i­ma­tions of ac­tual ob­jects out of his fan­tasy ones). ‘‘ See, what I was try­ing to do at that time, I wasn’t paint­ing any­thing that was like a land­scape or any known spe­cific site or form; I was try­ing to in­vent all th­ese dif­fer­ent forms and struc­tures.’’

Sen­bergs, by then Aus­tralia’s lead­ing print­maker, was silk- screen­ing the images on can­vas and paint­ing around them. ‘‘ I was in­flu­enced by look­ing at dif­fer­ent bits out of mag­a­zines and old en­grav­ings. I’d blow ’ em up and put ’ em into the paint­ings. I was just sort of eat­ing them all up, th­ese images, and trans­form­ing them into my own images.’’

There are other screen- printed images of mounds of de­bris that may be vi­sions of a night­mar­ish world where ev­ery­thing has turned to ash and muck. What­ever the con­vo­luted con­nec­tions be­tween ex­pe­ri­ence and imag- ina­tion, Sen­bergs re­sists the easy ex­pla­na­tion.

‘‘ I can’t say be­cause you’re paint­ing dark pic­tures, you’re a dark brood­ing char­ac­ter.’’ He cer­tainly doesn’t look the part. In­stead the so­cia­ble, solidly con­structed Sen­bergs has the lu­mi­nous com­plex­ion of a man who likes a good glass of red.

Ac­cord­ing to Wat­son, the es­sen­tial thing about Sen­bergs is that ‘‘ he was ex­truded from the most ter­ri­ble cat­a­clysm of the 20th cen­tury’’. The fiveyear- old sees his fa­ther shot, he and his fam­ily flee through the rav­aged coun­try where the Ger­man and Rus­sian armies are still at war, then join the ragged armies of refugees in the DP camps. Out of all that, Wat­son says, comes a bon vi­vant.

In per­son, Sen­bergs is as hearty as a peas­ant in a paint­ing by an old mas­ter. If he’s asked if the ghastly ex­pe­ri­ences of his child­hood have cast a shadow over him, he merely con­cedes rather mildly that it was a rough start. His mother never re­cov­ered, how­ever.

‘‘ I took her in and out of men­tal hos­pi­tals,’’ he says. ‘‘ She lived a tor­mented life. It be­gan like that. One of the things you had to do, you had to es­cape from who you were.’’

In the ’ 50s in Rich­mond, a work­ing- class sub­urb then dot­ted with fac­to­ries, the boys leav­ing school at 14 or 15 were ex­pected to be­come trades­men. Sen­bergs bucked. ‘‘ I be­came a screen- printer sim­ply be­cause I was try­ing to do some­thing artis­tic,’’ he told Kolen­berg, se­nior cu­ra­tor of Aus­tralian prints, draw­ings and wa­ter­colours at the AGNSW.

He hung around the art scene, meet­ing fel­low artists in in­ner- city pubs such as the Trav­eller and the Con­ti­nen­tal that have since been de­mol­ished. He would be­come good friends with artists con­sid­er­ably older than him, no­tably Fred Wil­liams and John Brack. ‘‘ In a way the pubs were your ed­u­ca­tion be­cause you’d meet all th­ese artists and other peo­ple,’’ he says.

In fact, the qual­ity of his work was recog­nised al­most from the start. He was win­ning art prizes by the time he was in his early 20s and was soon in­vited to teach art part time at RMIT, which had knocked him back when he ap­plied to be an art stu­dent. This de­li­cious irony was com­pounded when the same in­sti­tu­tion sub­se­quently awarded

him an hon­orary doc­tor­ate. Even­tu­ally, in 1989, the boy who had left school at 15 was a visit­ing pro­fes­sor in the chair of Aus­tralian stud­ies at Har­vard.

‘‘ He’s very knowl­edge­able about Aus­tralian art,’’ says Wat­son, who first met him about 20 years ago. They be­came friends im­me­di­ately. ‘‘ He’s just ter­rific to talk to, with that slightly icon­o­clas­tic brain.’’

There are self- taught peo­ple whose bound­less en­thu­si­asm for learn­ing is a lit­tle in­dis­crim­i­nate. In con­trast, Sen­bergs, an om­niv­o­rous reader, man­ages to alight on way­ward pieces of his­tory and forgotten char­ac­ters that sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly come to life in his work.

En­trance to Port Liardet , which the AGNSW pur­chased in 2001, is one of a se­ries of paint­ings he named for Liardet, a forgotten char­ac­ter Sen­bergs chanced on by ac­ci­dent. ‘‘ In a fish- and­chips shop on a cal­en­dar there was this lovely lit­tle wa­ter­colour im­age of early Port Melbourne painted by this man called Wil­bra­ham Liardet,’’ says Sen­bergs, who would spend hours wan­der­ing around the area tak­ing it all in.

He checked him out, found that some of his wa­ter­colours were in the Vic­to­rian State Li­brary, and that Liardet, who had started a ferry ser­vice there in 1839, was the first white set­tler in Port Melbourne. In fact, Sen­bergs and his fam­ily had landed at Port Melbourne in their turn in 1950.

The Port Liardet paint­ings also marked an­other evo­lu­tion in his own work. In his screen- print­ing he had cre­ated images based on an imag­i­nary world. Long ac­knowl­edged as one of the coun­try’s finest draughts­men, he had aban­doned screen- print­ing years be­fore he trav­elled to Antarc­tica in 1988, a trip that in­spired an ac­claimed se­ries of paint­ings of its sub­limely eerie land­scape. His paint­ings were de­rived more di­rectly from the world around him: the rot­ting fac­to­ries, mills and slip­ways of Port Melbourne or the steel mills and wharves of Port Kem­bla in NSW, the sub­ject of the trip­tych Driv­ing around the Kem­bla Sculp­tures on a Satur­day Night , also in­cluded in the show. In­spired by par­tic­u­lar­i­ties such as the de­serted, lit- up smoke­stacks of Port Kem­bla, he some­how cre­ates works that evoke a place more strongly than mere re­al­ism ever could.

Kolen­berg says: ‘‘ When he con­structs an im­age now he re­con­fig­ures it so you can see it from ev­ery an­gle, inside and out.’’

The draw­ings and paint­ings would trans­form ‘‘ Sen­bergs’ world’’ into a wholly sat­is­fy­ing, densely re­alised vi­sion of the coun­try he had adopted as quickly as he could.

He was start­ing to cre­ate what he called map­mak­ing pic­tures, re­mark­able ae­rial views of Melbourne and Syd­ney, Wol­lon­gong and the over­seas cities he and Beres­ford vis­ited on their trav­els. Both mar­ried be­fore, they have five chil­dren be­tween them and have been to­gether since the ’ 70s. Beres­ford is there ev­ery step of the way and still finds her­self amazed by some of the paint­ings that emerge. The two of­ten drive through the Ot­ways, to their week­ender at Aireys In­let. ‘‘ Jan al­ways drives,’’ she says. ‘‘ We go into the land­scape and he never seems to be look­ing at it much. But he must be tak­ing it in the whole time. Out come th­ese pic­tures which take in all the de­tails.’’

Back at the AGNSW, Sen­bergs is still mus­ing about see­ing works he hasn’t looked at in years.

‘‘ You think, do they stand up? If they do stand up, you’re very happy,’’ he says. And if they don’t? He laughs heartily. ‘‘ If they don’t, you sort of qui­etly walk away.’’ Jan Sen­bergs: From Screen­printer to Painter at AGNSW un­til May 25.

Pic­ture: James Croucher

Bon vi­vant: Sen­bergs with his Ob­ser­va­tory with Hard Edges , on show at the Art Gallery of NSW

God’s- eye view: Jan Sen­bergs’s Wol­lon­gong to Port Kem­bla ( 2000)

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