LONG WAY HOME
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