BROAD CAN­VAS

Ed­war­dian painter and ad­ven­turer Hilda Rix Nicholas is the fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject of a new ex­hi­bi­tion and book, writes Lyn­dall Crisp

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Paris to Monaro, National Por­trait Gallery, Can­berra, un­til Au­gust 11. Moroc­can Idyll by Jeanette Hoorn, The Miegun­yah Press, $39.99.

THE first thing Hilda Rix Nicholas did when she ar­rived on Knock­a­long, the prop­erty she would share with her sec­ond hus­band, Edgar Wright, was to build a stu­dio and cul­ti­vate a gar­den over­flow­ing with roses. Started in 1928, it took two years to com­plete; 83 years later the gar­den has gone but the pert lit­tle stu­dio still stands, its contents un­changed since the artist died, aged 77, in 1961. Some­one sim­ply closed the mas­sive green door with its odd nau­ti­cal knocker and locked it.

‘‘ It’s not ex­actly a barn, rather church-like with high ceil­ings, French provin­cial fur­ni­ture, a mu­si­cians gallery and stage where Hilda put on plays with friends,’’ says Sarah Engledow, cu­ra­tor of the Paris to Monaro: Plea­sures from the Stu­dio of Hilda Rix Nicholas ex­hi­bi­tion that opened this week at Can­berra’s National Por­trait Gallery. ‘‘ You feel you are in a French junk shop till you look out the win­dow and see the bleached pad­docks of the Monaro.’’

Rix Nicholas fell in love with what she called the heroes of the bush, the men and women who lived in Vic­to­ria’s south­ern Monaro re­gion, and it’s th­ese por­traits that are on show along with her ear­li­est works and many of the stu­dio’s contents. The idea for the ex­hi­bi­tion, part of Can­berra’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions, came to Engledow af­ter she met Rix Nicholas’s grand­daugh­ter Bron­wyn Wright who, with her brother Rowan, lives on Knock­a­long and is the stu­dio’s cus­to­dian.

In a happy co­in­ci­dence, Engledow’s grand­mother, Sylvia, ap­pears in sev­eral of Rix Nicholas’s 1920s paint­ings, so the two grand­daugh­ters were able to swap pho­tos from fam­ily al­bums that the other had never seen.

The por­traits (in oil on can­vas) and draw­ings (pen­cil and crayons) are on loan from the Queens­land Art Gallery, National Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Art Gallery of Western Aus­tralia and re­gional gal­leries in­clud­ing Bendigo, Bega and New­cas­tle, as well as pri­vate col­lec­tions.

But what makes this ex­hi­bi­tion ex­tra­or­di­nary is the ob­jects from the stu­dio that com­ple­ment the paint­ings. There is, for ex­am­ple, a full-scale rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the stu­dio’s huge fire­place made up of pho­to­graphs and a built struc­ture — much like a trompe l’oeil — sur­rounded by the artist’s orig­i­nal fur­ni­ture, gramo­phone records, cos­tumes and dolls. The Chi­nese Robe, painted in 1913 in France, is ex­hib­ited next to the ac­tual robe. A sim­ple idea but one that’s rarely ex­e­cuted.

It took Engledow about a year and many vis­its to the stu­dio with de­signer Tim Moore and pho­tog­ra­pher Mark Mo­hell to put the ex­hi­bi­tion to­gether. Her two favourite paint­ings are Phyl Maslin and her Pony, Muf­fett (1935) and The Bride (1938), which was found rolled up, hav­ing never been stretched. The lat­ter, she says, fea­tures ‘‘ a glamorous, sat­in­clad bride with creamy green eye­shadow and coal lips, hold­ing a sheath of death lilies, stand­ing in front of a re­pro­duc­tion of a French tapestry which some­how looks like an Aus­tralian land­scape. The bride was one of Hilda’s son’s gov­ernesses. The mar­riage was a disas­ter, so the paint­ing was stuffed away. Hilda painted it to warn the bride off the mar­riage.

‘‘ She wanted to show the best, most no­ble of Monaro’s farm­ers. She was a great pro­po­nent of the healthy life­style they lived. Hav­ing lost her sis­ter and mother to ty­phus and her first hus­band [Ma­jor Ge­orge Mat­son Nicholas, who was killed in World War I only six weeks af­ter they mar­ried], she had been ex­posed to hor­ror and grief at a young age.

‘‘ Her pic­tures are al­most like posters, the best ads ever for Aus­tralian tourism. She wasn’t a mod­ernist, she didn’t look groovy in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but now it’s the high, al­most lurid colour that . . . hits you.’’

The painter’s par­ents, El­iz­a­beth, also an artist, and Henry Rix, a math­e­ma­ti­cian and ed­u­ca­tor, were prom­i­nent mem­bers of Melbourne so­ci­ety who en­cour­aged their daugh­ters, Hilda and Elsie, to travel. They sailed to Eng­land in 1907 and Rix Nicholas didn’t re­turn un­til 1918. Both girls wrote post­cards and let­ters dur­ing their time in Lon­don, France, Italy, Bel­gium, Spain, The Nether­lands and Morocco, and it’s th­ese that tell the story of the Ed­war­dian sis­ters’ many ad­ven­tures.

Melbourne aca­demic Jeanette Hoorn has re­pro­duced snatches of the let­ters, along with sketches and draw­ings, in her book Moroc­can Idyll, which cov­ers their vis­its to Tang­ier in 1912 and 1914. She dis­cov­ered Rix Nicholas — who stud­ied un­der Fred­er­ick McCub­bin at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, and later at the New Art School in Lon­don and at Paris’s Academie Delecluse and Grande Chau­miere — while teach­ing art his­tory at the Univer­sity of Melbourne.

‘‘ She was insert­ing women into the bush tra­di­tion in a way no other artist had, [in] paint­ings such as The Fair Mus­terer, a woman on horse­back mus­ter­ing cat­tle, painted when she was liv­ing in Monaro,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ I was in­ter­ested in her fem­i­nist work of insert­ing stal­warts of coun­try folk into the coun­tryscape. Peo­ple like [pro­fes­sor] Bernard Smith, who su­per­vised my PhD many years ago, had left her out of his­tory and one of the rea­sons he didn’t like her work was be­cause he couldn’t ‘ bear the palette’. Bernard wouldn’t have known much about her Moroc­can work.

‘‘ Hilda painted a lot of pic­tures of women en­joy­ing the land­scape or hav­ing a cup of tea to­gether. So­cial pic­tures. And she de­vel­oped th­ese bright blues and pinks, which I think she did de­lib­er­ately as a fem­i­nist ges­ture as she de­vel­oped her own dis­tinc­tive style.’’

When Hoorn be­gan read­ing the sis­ters’ let­ters — by then in the National Li­brary — she dis­cov­ered 70 per cent were writ­ten by Elsie while Hilda spent much of her time paint­ing and sketch­ing. In fact, Hilda could not have achieved what she did dur­ing their vis­its to Tang­ier with­out Elsie, who kept her com­pany, al­most guard­ing her while she worked in the city’s streets and souks.

North Africa was not a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion be­fore World War I; cars were a nov­elty in Tang­ier and so were the two women, who al­ways at­tracted a cu­ri­ous crowd when they brought out the easel and brushes. For two months in 1912 they stayed at the Ho­tel Villa de France at the same time as Henri Matisse, and here they had an ad­van­tage over the French artist. The Moor­ish cul­ture would never have coun­te­nanced him roam­ing around draw­ing women, and find­ing a fe­male model was near im­pos­si­ble. Not that Rix Nicholas found it easy — some­times Elsie had to pose in Moroc­can cos­tume — but she was ‘‘ a celebrity in the mar­ket­place; they in­vari­ably treat her with re­spect’’, Elsie wrote to their mother.

Em­bed­ded in the do­mes­tic life­style, her Moroc­can paint­ings and draw­ings were a rich diary of ev­ery­day scenes, of so­cial mores and val­ues but, sadly, most were lost in a fire at Knock­a­long. ‘‘ Hilda was clearly an early Aus­tralian post-im­pres­sion­ist,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ Her paint­ing style changed, she be­came more con­ser­va­tive when she went to the Monaro. For a start, she wouldn’t have been able to sell them. Peo­ple would have said, ‘ What are th­ese crazy daubs?’ In Tang­ier, Matisse painted from his ho­tel room; he was reclu­sive be­cause he was sick of peo­ple laugh­ing at his pic­tures. If they didn’t un­der­stand Matisse, they wouldn’t un­der­stand Hilda in the wilds of Monaro.

‘‘ Her work in the Monaro came out of her plein-air work in France, where she painted the ru­ral fish­ing folk of Eta­ples. That in­ter­est in cap­tur­ing the essence of peas­ant folk trans­ferred to [her] work in Monaro, where she painted work­ers in the bush. She was a very fine portraitist.’’

Al­though she at­tained in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion fol­low­ing her de­but solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris in 1912 and at the So­ci­ete des Pein­tres Ori­en­tal­istes Fran­cais show a year later, Rix Nicholas had a hard time sell­ing her works back in Aus­tralia. ‘‘ She put high prices on all of them,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ Her prices were as high as Arthur Stree­ton’s and Tom Roberts’s be­cause she felt she was as good as they were. She did sell, but she would have sold more if the prices were lower. I ad­mire her for that. Now they’re very valu­able.

‘‘ She was in­cred­i­bly coura­geous and had to fight against a lot of prej­u­dice in her ca­reer. She made the de­ci­sion to live in a ru­ral com­mu­nity de­lib­er­ately. She lived in Mos­man, in Syd­ney, for years and had she stayed there things would have been eas­ier. That had to do with the re­spect she had for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, it was a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion.’’

Hilda Rix Nicholas about 1910; be­low left, Phyl Maslin and Her Pony, Muf­fett

(1935)

HER MOROC­CAN PAINT­INGS WERE A RICH DIARY OF EV­ERY­DAY SCENES

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