St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish, 1954. University of Western Australia art collection, gift of Dr and Mrs RK Constable, 1985. On display, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, Perth, until July 13.
WHEN Robert Juniper’s St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish won the Perth Prize for Contemporary Art in 1954 it was a controversial winner. Even though the prize was purportedly for contemporary art, such were the sensibilities of the 1950s that Juniper’s painting was bewildering for the public because it broke away from the familiarity and formula of realist painting.
The picture was produced at the beginning of Juniper’s career. Just before winning the Perth prize, he had studied commercial art and industrial design in England at the Beckenham School of Art from 1943 to 1947.
He returned to Australia in 1949 with an admiration of contemporary English painting. Once home, he was also influenced by a touring exhibition, French Painting Today, which he saw in Perth in 1953.
St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish, with its board areas of paint applied with a palette knife, strongly emphasised outlines, shallow sense of depth and high-keyed colours, reflects Juniper’s early stylistic concerns, according to arts writer Janice Baker.
There is also the use of a recurring motif that became indicative of Juniper’s art, in this case a green flower.
When I visit the University of Western Australia in Perth, I’m shown St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish by Ted Snell, director of University of Western Australia Museums (and also The Australian’s WA art critic), and Sally Quin, curator, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, who tell me this is the earliest work by the artist in the university’s collection.
Juniper, who was born in 1929 in the West Australian wheat-belt town of Merredin, died last year, aged 83.
He was one of the state’s most popular artists and was so valued that in 1998 he was recognised as a Living Treasure.
He was best known for his highly individual, lyrical depictions of the West Australian landscape, often composed from the untraditional perspective of viewing the land from above. Interestingly, he rarely sketched, relying on recollection to create his works. On the subject of his landscape painting, he once said: ‘‘ I started painting the landscape distressed by the recent arrivals who took what they wanted and then departed, leaving the detritus of their works and lifestyle, showing the same disdain for the land as they had for the Aborigines.’’
Juniper’s early career was supported by Perth art dealer Rose Skinner who, with her husband, Joe, opened Skinner Galleries in 1958. During the late 50s Juniper joined forces with Guy Grey-Smith, Brian McKay and Tom Gibbons to explore abstraction. This group exhibited three times as the Perth Group at the Skinner Galleries.
‘‘ Rose Skinner picked Bob Juniper up as a local young man who she thought had talent,’’ says Snell. ‘‘ Rose was also madly attracted to him and took him off to Europe as well. Bob was always interested in surface, and surface was almost the key element in all of his practice. So everything is always very flat, and this is indicative of his influences, such as Paul Klee and the School of Paris.
‘‘ In some ways St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish is atypical because it is a fairly early work. Later, he began to put plaster on to raw canvas, embedding leaves in it, dragging plaster over the surface. Then he would stain it and get this rough earth-like quality.
‘‘ But St Xavier’s Thorn and a Fetish shows a young man really pushing at the boundaries and really trying to find his own language, so it is one of those key works which almost unlocks a practice later on. There are a lot of ‘ Ah, ha!’ moments in this painting.’’
Oil on board, 54cm x 74cm
Robert Juniper in 2009