LONG WAY HOME

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

Sydney Long Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Canberra, un­til Novem­ber 11

SYDNEY Long is a rather un­usual case in Aus­tralian art, the au­thor of a cou­ple of the most pop­u­lar paint­ings in our pub­lic gal­leries, yet lit­tle known for any other work, and elu­sive as an in­di­vid­ual. Ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with Pan (1898) and Spirit of the Plains (1897) and many will re­call By Tran­quil Wa­ters (1894), but what else hap­pened in the life and ca­reer of a pain­ter who lived un­til 1955?

Anna Gray has partly an­swered this ques­tion in her thor­ough mono­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, but what she has dis­cov­ered is that doubts re­main even about the most ba­sic facts, such as the artist’s date of birth and the iden­tity of his fa­ther. Brought up, per­haps, amid face-sav­ing fal­si­fi­ca­tions, Long ap­pears to have de­vel­oped an elas­tic con­cep­tion of the truth that led to fre­quent mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions on his part con­cern­ing his age and even the date of his mar­riage.

This is an­other area of am­bi­gu­ity. Long does not ap­pear to have been much in­ter­ested in women, yet in 1911 he set up house in Lon­don with a girl about whom we know — char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally — very lit­tle ex­cept that she was called Cather­ine, was 17 and was prob­a­bly a dancer. They were mar­ried in 1924 and seem to have grown very close. Al­though the cou­ple re­turned to Sydney soon af­ter the mar­riage, they fi­nally went back to Lon­don a few years be­fore Long’s death and noth­ing is known of what sub­se­quently be­came of Cather­ine.

What we do know is that Long, who was born in Goul­burn, trav­elled to Sydney about 1888 and in 1892 joined Ju­lian Ash­ton’s art school, where other out­stand­ing pupils in­cluded Ge­orge Lam­bert — who ex­e­cuted a fine por­trait sketch of the young Long — and a lit­tle later Elioth Gruner. And al­though be­gin­ning his ca­reer as a pain­ter at the height of the influence of the Hei­del­berg painters, Long, like Lam­bert, had other pri­or­i­ties. One of his ear­li­est pic­tures, the small In the Spring (c. 1895), demon­strates a po­etic sen­si­tiv­ity that is closer to the work of Con­der than of Stree­ton or Roberts. It is a scene of the Aus­tralian coun­try, with the roof of a farm­house in the dis­tance, and a girl in a white dress, turned away from us, on the right of the com­po­si­tion. On the left, the com­po­si­tion is framed by a blos­som­ing fruit tree, a cherry or plum, colour­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of Aus­tralian spring­time with re­as­sur­ingly Euro­pean as­so­ci­a­tions.

The land­scapes that fol­low, al­though in­evitably marked by the influence of Hei­del­berg in sub­ject and com­po­si­tion, dif­fer in im­por­tant re­spects. For one thing, Long never fol­lows Stree­ton into his most sun-bleached mid­day ef­fects. It is telling that in Long’s large and am­bi­tious Mid­day (1896) he avoids ex­tremes of glare and in­stead em­pha­sises the deep and dark shad­ows in the small copse of trees in the cen­tre, as well as the fore­ground; the pic­ture has, in fact, a tonal range far wider than most of the higher-keyed Hei­del­berg works of the same pe­riod.

This con­cern with tonal­ity, sig­nif­i­cantly shared by Lam­bert, con­nected Long to the preim­pres­sion­ist painters of the 19th cen­tury; but other as­pects of his style were in­spired by the con­tem­po­rary move­ment of art nou­veau, which tended to flat­ten ar­eas of paint and con­ceive of trees and other forms as dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns on the two-di­men­sional pic­ture plane. Even in Mid­day this is true in cer­tain ar­eas, while in the nearby The Val­ley (1989), the forms have largely been flat­tened and the trees are be­com­ing danc­ing sil­hou­ettes.

Mid­day in­cludes a shep­herdess, akin to the girl in white of In the Spring, but Long’s most mem­o­rable pic­tures in­volve the hu­man fig­ure in a more cen­tral way, and with sug­ges­tions of lit­er­ary and mytho­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. The ear­li­est of these is By Tran­quil Wa­ters (1894), in which a group of young boys is seen bathing in a river on a sum­mer af­ter­noon; the slant­ing rays of the sun pick out their bod­ies as white, al­most translu­cent sil­hou­ettes while af­ter­noon shadow turns the western side of the river into a glassy still­ness mir­ror­ing the trees above.

A sin­gle de­tail — apart from the ti­tle bor­rowed from Longfel­low — lends this pic­ture a lit­er­ary tone: the boy in the fore­ground plays on a reed pipe, re­call­ing the bu­colic genre in po­etry and paint­ing and some­how lift­ing the whole scene from the plane of pos­si­ble re­al­ity to that of imag­i­na­tion. In the process the po­ten­tial eroti­cism of the scene is dis­solved into a tis­sue of po­etic reverie.

The reed pipe re­curs in Long’s most fa­mous paint­ing, where it is played by the epony­mous god Pan. Com­par­i­son with the fine ter­ra­cotta por­trait bust of the pain­ter in the first room of the ex­hi­bi­tion, as well as with the draw­ing by Lam­bert al­ready men­tioned, sug­gests that Long has in­ten­tion­ally or un­in­ten­tion­ally given his own fea­tures to the fierce god of na­ture — a slim fig­ure with a prom­i­nent nose, wispy beard and shaggy goat legs.

It is an ap­pro­pri­ate self-cast­ing, since it is the magic of the god’s pip­ing that con­jures up

the other fig­ures of this dream world, two nymphs danc­ing with two fauns, while an­other pair of nymphs re­clines on the grass be­fore the piper. One of these nymphs shows no­table pen­ti­menti, where Long has en­larged her hips (in the later etch­ing of the same sub­ject he has made her dis­tinctly more volup­tuous). And all of this is seen in the mid­dle dis­tance, like a vi­sion ap­pear­ing on the far side of a reedy pool.

There was a sig­nif­i­cant re­newal of in­ter­est in Pan, and the darker and more ir­ra­tional as­pects of an­cient mythol­ogy, in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury and the early 20th. Ni­et­zsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which pro­posed the dual­ity of the Apol­lo­nian and the Dionysian as peren­nial and com­ple­men­tary ten­den­cies within hu­man cul­tures, was pub­lished in 1872 and reis­sued in 1886. His ideas be­came in­creas­ingly well-known in the English­s­peak­ing world dur­ing the pe­riod be­tween 1890 and the out­break of World War I (the com­plete works were first pub­lished in English in 1909-13). Freud, too, found in an­cient myth the sym­bolic an­tic­i­pa­tion of some of his bold­est hy­pothe­ses.

In Aus­tralia Nor­man Lind­say was the most prom­i­nent artis­tic con­tem­po­rary to find in­spi­ra­tion in Ni­et­zschean thought, but Long had none of his bois­ter­ous en­ergy or sen­su­al­ity. His im­me­di­ate source of in­spi­ra­tion was El­iz­a­beth Bar­rett Brown­ing’s poem A Mu­si­cal In­stru­ment (1860), and his Pan has more in com­mon with Ken­neth Gra­hame’s fig­ure of ‘‘ the great god Pan’’ — Gra­hame quot­ing Brown­ing — who ap­pears in The Wind in the Wil­lows (1908).

Long prob­a­bly did not delve far into mythol­ogy or phi­los­o­phy, and was above all drawn to the im­age of the piper as a spirit of na­ture. In his small paint­ing The Mu­sic Les­son (1904), it is a young Abo­rig­i­nal girl who plays to a group of mag­pies, gath­er­ing around her feet and seem­ing to sing in re­turn. In The Spirit of the Plains (1897), on the other hand, it is a less spe­cific nymph-like crea­ture who leads a frieze of brol­gas in a dance through long grasses.

There is, again, lit­tle sen­su­al­ity or phys­i­cal re­al­ity about any of this. As in the other pic­tures — with the ex­cep­tion of Flamin­goes (1902), in which he had Rose Soady, later Lind­say’s model and wife, pose for six weeks — the hu­man fig­ures re­main sketchy and lit­tle more than sug­gested. Here, and else­where, it is clear that Long had a more vivid and sym­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing of birds than of the hu­man fig­ure.

But the birds, too, in The Spirit of the Plains are turned into pat­terns and the colour pal­ette is sim­pli­fied al­most to the level of fab­ric de­sign, so that the aqua hue of the birds is re­peated in the flow­ers scat­tered across the fore­ground. The piper is, in the end, less a sym­bol of Dionysian ec­stasy for Long than of the artist’s power to con­jure up dream worlds out of his imag­i­na­tion.

It is re­mark­able that all of Long’s most suc­cess­ful pic­tures be­long to this fin-de-siecle cul­tural am­bi­ence, the cre­pus­cu­lar and dreamy se­quel to the bright sun­lit pic­tures and na­tion­al­is­tic sen­ti­ment of the Hei­del­berg painters. There are some fine land­scapes from the later years, al­though they tend some­times to be rather lit­eral; and there is the se­ries of pic­tures of The Rocks area of Sydney that be­longed to a col­lec­tive com­mis­sion pre­ced­ing de­mo­li­tion of some parts of what was con­sid­ered an in­salu­bri­ous slum (an ex­hi­bi­tion on this sub­ject was held at the Mu­seum of Sydney in 2010). The best of these is Ar­gyle Street and Cut (c. 1902), painted from a greater dis­tance, so that the ten­dency to pedes­trian re­al­ism is sub­or­di­nated to com­po­si­tion, and the viewer is given space for con­tem­pla­tion.

The medium that al­lowed Long to es­tab­lish a dis­tance from su­per­fi­cial nat­u­ral­ism and to turn ap­pear­ances into the pat­terns, de­signs and dream­like vi­sions to which he was in­stinc­tively drawn, turned out to be etch­ing, which he learned in Lon­don in 1918-19. The lat­ter part of the ex­hi­bi­tion is largely de­voted to a fine dis­play of his work in dif­fer­ent ver­sions of this medium, which had orig­i­nally de­vel­oped as a quicker and more spon­ta­neous sub­sti­tute for en­grav­ing. Its great­est early mas­ter had been Rem­brandt in the 17th cen­tury, while the 18th had in­tro­duced re­fine­ments in re­pro­duc­tive print­ing such as mez­zotint, later adopted by Turner, and aquatint, mas­tered above all by Goya.

Long’s early at­tempts al­ready demon­strate a nat­u­ral affin­ity for a medium that is re­ally a col­lec­tion of tech­niques, all of which are more con­cerned with mood and a sym­pa­thetic re­sponse to or­ganic life than with pre­cise and ob­jec­tive de­lin­eation of forms. There are sand­grain prints, in which emery pa­per is im­pressed into the ground that cov­ers the plate, cre­at­ing mil­lions of tiny pits in the plate af­ter bit­ing, and pro­duc­ing an ef­fect some­what like a sim­pli­fied form of aquatint.

There are also the more fa­mil­iar aquat­ints and soft-ground etch­ings, in which the im­age is drawn on a sheet of pa­per placed over a plate cov­ered with a soft, waxy ground; the process ex­poses the cop­per and the re­sult af­ter bit­ing and print­ing closely re­sem­bles the orig­i­nal draw­ing.

As usual with exhibitions of etch­ings, it is nec­es­sary to know a lit­tle about these tech­niques and to spend a few mo­ments study­ing their dif­fer­ent ef­fects to ap­pre­ci­ate the range of aes­thetic ex­pres­sion in this part of the ex­hi­bi­tion. But a lit­tle pa­tience will be re­warded, and the viewer will be­gin to per­ceive the dif­fer­ence be­tween soft-ground prints that record the di­rect en­counter of sketch­ing be­fore the mo­tif and etch­ings, which may be done from life, from a wa­ter­colour sketch or some­times even from a pho­to­graph but which al­ways re­flect the dreamy and dec­o­ra­tive sen­si­bil­ity that was Long’s par­tic­u­lar gift as an artist.

The Mu­sic Les­son (1904) by Sydney Long, from the Art Gallery of NSW

Long’s By Tran­quil Wa­ters (1894), above, from the Art Gallery of NSW; and The Val­ley (1898), be­low, from the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia

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