REES’S WORK DEMANDS AND REWARDS CLOSE ATTENTION
without pausing and apparently without seeing anything, as though the work, and especially the drawings, were somehow invisible to them.
The attention they call for from us is the concomitant of that which went into their making, and that, as we see from the fine early drawings of St James or the semicircular portico of what used to be the Trustees’ Room at the Art Gallery of NSW (1917), is not just a matter of scrupulously copying what is before the artist’s eyes. In the first place, each picture is based on the selection of a motif in which architecture and trees, art and nature, form a dialogue between the intentionality of geometric design and the spontaneous growth of organic form.
Second, each of these works represents a grasp of light and shade that remains invisible to the careless eye. The reason for this is that the eye makes instant and involuntary modifications to its light exposure — in effect the aperture of the pupil — when looking into brightly lit and shadowed areas. It requires a conscious effort, almost a deliberate act of detached vision, to perceive the simultaneous contrast of light and shade across the whole field of the composition; but the result is to produce something that, in its combination of accurate articulation and dramatic chiaroscuro, seems more real than our casual impression of the actual.
This effect is even more striking in a beautiful drawing of 1931, The Fig tree, McMahon’s Point, where there is greater continuity and at the same time more subtle discriminations between the shades of light and dark. But The Bridge, South Coast Landscape (1936), which was awarded a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale of Paris in 1937, takes the precision, the detail and the sophistication of light and shade to the point of revealing the paradox of representation in its own bewilderingly elaborate artifice. The impression of vivid lifelikeness composed of lines, shadows and even tiny dots in the sky is essentially a fiction.
All these works reveal a fascination with linear definition, and for that reason a particular interest in the shelving forms of rocks that are among the natural linear structures of nature. And yet it is equally clear that the lines of the rocks are simply the shadows that gather under them; we sense even in the foreground of the drawing just mentioned, but especially in the swelling masses of the hill in the distance, the artist’s interest in those natural shapes that evade the definition of line.
The tension between what can be articulated by the defining point of the pencil and the organic forms of life that evade rational comprehension is the subject of the fragmentary Study for the Port Jackson Fig (c. 1934), which concentrates only on the almost corporeal morphology of the knotty trunk. It is also what makes fascinating his later studies of geological forms, such as The Summit, Mount Wellington (1974), which we can see both in the vivid sketchbook view done before the motif and the finished work, a masterpiece that is rightly chosen for the cover of the catalogue. The little painting of The Road to Berry (1947) is intriguing for the same reason: the linear element of the road, however deeply it seems to gash into the land, can hardly tame the unruly tumescence of the hills: no wonder the picture appealed to Whiteley.
This balancing act between the grasping of what can be grasped and the acknowledgement of what cannot, or more exactly the use of the former, like the most delicate of scientific instruments, to suggest and reveal the latter, is at the very heart of great drawing. And this is the sort of quality we should consider in re-evaluating the canon of modernism. Great artists who change the course of art history will always deserve an eminent place, but there are only a few of those in a century, far fewer than we may be led to believe.
There are many others, however, who are capable of opening our eyes to things we had never seen before: and there is little doubt that Lloyd Rees is among that number, as we walk back through the park outside the gallery, discovering in the trunks, branches and roots of the ancient fig trees there forms that he has made patent and almost tangible.