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
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.
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)