Christopher Allen considers Hilda Rix Nicholas
Paris to Monaro: Pleasures from the Studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, until August 11
HILDA Rix Nicholas is one of those artists we tend to know, if at all, from a few brightly painted, high-keyed pictures of girls and horses that manage to look at once very much of the 1930s in style and therefore in a generic sense modernist, and yet at the same time oddly dated, like the illustrations and travel posters of the time that they so often recall.
The style is a kind of chunky documentary realism designed to convey a simple, nononsense image of healthy outdoor life in the tough but clean environment of the Australian pastoral landscape. There is no room here for introspection, for doubt and hesitation, barely space for self-consciousness. The affinities with contemporary ideologies of Australia as the breeding-ground of a strong, healthy new race are clear, but the style is also akin to other varieties of simplistic, in fact stylised realism adopted by authoritarian regimes of both Left and Right to promote a positive message of progress towards an ideal future.
But would you expect the author of these pictures to have built an artist’s studio to her own exacting designs in the middle of the Monaro plains — to have filled it with oriental costumes and textiles, medieval furniture and other paraphernalia of the fin-de-siecle aesthete? And would you expect her to have been addicted to play-acting, fancy dress, even to making stuffed puppet figures of fairytale characters for her son — and then exhibiting them, together with her watercolours of nursery rhymes?
And who would imagine this studio, so many years later, to be still substantially intact — indeed to have escaped the fire that long ago destroyed the main house on the homestead? It is, in fact, the extraordinary survival of Hilda Rix Nicholas’s studio that is the basis of the intriguing and in some respects tantalising exhibition devoted to her life and work at the National Portrait Gallery, and accompanied by a beautifully produced catalogue with an introductory essay by Sarah Engledow.
Engledow’s text is engagingly written, sympathetic and often insightful; it conveys a vivid sense of aspects of the artist’s life, but of necessity, no doubt, dwells mainly on the period following the building of the studio and moves fairly rapidly through her earlier years, although this was the time in which her vocation as an artist, and her character, took shape: and it is perhaps as an Edwardian expatriate who came home after some recognition in Europe, but then did not really integrate into the native Australian art tradition, that she can in part be understood.
These early years were also the time of dramatic, romantic and tragic events that must have marked her deeply — must surely have exposed her to the nuances and the deep shadows that are so lacking in her painting, and must have made her reflect on the pathos of human life, even though her correspondence, as quoted in the catalogue, is always determinedly bright, superficial and, although full of self-conscious aestheticism, devoid of the slightest sign of intellectual inquiry.
Hilda Rix was born in Ballarat in 1884; her father was an inspector of schools and her mother an amateur artist; she attended Merton Hall in Melbourne and then studied at the National Gallery of Victoria school, where she was taught by Frederick McCubbin. Her father — an interesting but complex and even troubled man, judging by his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography — died in 1906 following an acute nervous breakdown.
Hilda was in her early 20s at the time and clearly had not grown up in an environment of stolid unreflection. Now with independent means, she and her mother and sister left for Britain, where she studied art in London before moving to Paris. A few years later, in 1911, her painting Retour de la Chasse — which she always kept and which is included in this exhibition — was hung at the Salon de la Societe des Artistes Francais. As well as her studio in Paris she kept another at Etaples, on the coast in the Pas-de-Calais.
The family travelled to Morocco, spending two winters there before World War I and showing the resulting works in Paris — some of these are in the present exhibition and others are included in the Australian Impressionists in France show at the NGV, reviewed here last week. But this idyllic existence, divided between summers on the English Channel and winters in North Africa, was interrupted by the outbreak of the war, whose consequences for her were more sudden and overwhelming than could have been anticipated.
After the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914, the Rix women returned from France to England, but Hilda’s mother and sister contracted typhus on the crossing. Her sister died in September 1914. Her mother survived until March 1916. Not long afterwards, a young Australian officer, George Matson Nicholas, who had seen some of the work Hilda left behind in the studio at Etaples, sought her out in London. She made fine drawings of him and his brothers, also officers, and in October 1916 they were married; a few weeks later he was killed leading his men at the front.
Within a very short time, then — between the ages of about 30 and 32 — Hilda Rix, who thereafter adopted the name Hilda Rix Nicholas — had passed from a relatively carefree life as an expatriate, cosmopolitan painter of the Edwardian period through an accelerated and pitiless series of bereavements.
And yet it is hard to see much direct expression of these experiences in the present exhibition, except for a drawing of a soldier who has been shot and falls back, arms outstretched and silently as though in a dream. More obliquely, her loss and her determination are embodied in a strong self-portrait pastel of 1917, significantly titled Mrs George Matson Nicholas, in which she represents herself at work, looking into the mirror.
She came back to Australia for a time in 1918 and painted pictures such as A Man (1921), in the collection of the Australian War Memorial — a half-length figure of a soldier in a helmet looking towards the right with an expression that should speak of determination but actually looks rather distant. In 1924 she returned to France and exhibited successfully in Paris and London, before coming home again in 1926, and in 1928 marrying Edgar Wright, a grazier and returned soldier whom she had met some years earlier. In 1930, at the age of 46, she had her first and only child, Barrie Rix Wright.
There are some engaging drawings done in life class in Paris, although the selection presented here suggests she was just as interested in her fellow sketchers as the model. The style is highly able, efficient but rather superficial, like that of a cartoonist.
It is the same quality that makes her paintings essentially illustrative: that is to say they are highly successful in rendering instantly recognisable accounts of visual experience, and yet seem to tell us nothing at all that we did not already know.
This last point is perhaps the crucial one. In any art that really lays claim to our interest, from Byzantine mosaic to baroque altarpiece to fauvist landscape — even in late 19th-century academic realism that mistakenly is trying to outdo photography — we feel something happens in the relation between the image and the subject it purports to represent: some transformation and revelation in the balance between likeness and unlikeness, between becoming the thing represented and being something quite distinct and artificial.
The inherent paradox of representation is that an image can never be a compelling representation of something else unless it is also a strong and coherent object in itself; we can be brought to see something new in the world only by rediscovering it in its transformation into something unfamiliar.
Art, in other words, can never simply copy the world of appearance, and had no model for such passive copying until the advent of photography.
The illustrative style arises not only from a reliance on photography as source material but from the internalisation of the photographic way of seeing the world, and the presumption that style should be a literal — and thus ultimately piecemeal — transcription of facts, rather than a comprehensive reinvention of the
motif in pictorial form, the process that I discussed recently in the work of Amor.
When you add to the problem of being illustrative a proneness to cliched images of manhood, womanhood, childhood and so forth, you have the formula for political propaganda and promotional kitsch. But as it happens, Rix Nicholas was saved from the dismal prospect of celebrating Australian manhood and womanhood in general by a different and opposite weakness, the tendency to narcissism and self-centredness that made the world revolve around her own experience, and even more so after her second marriage and the birth of her son.
It was the birth of her son, Barrie Rix Wright, known as Rix, that led to a touching and very personal series of portrait studies of the child at every point in his development. It was also the occasion for yet more dressing up and amateur theatricals, in which she would play the queen of hearts and the longsuffering — or secretly histrionic? — Edgar would also dress up as the king of hearts or whatever other character was required.
But the birth of Rix also led to the employment of a series of nannies who doubled as jillaroos on the property and as models for Hilda. These are the young women in her most memorable compositions, such as The Fair Musterer (1935), whose model, Nance Edgley, had already appeared in On the Hilltop (1934-35), where she seems to point the way to the future to the young Rix.
Such sentimental posturing can distract us from the most striking thing about these pictures, which is that these young women mostly fail to conform to the gender roles one might expect within the ideology of Australia as a land of virile men and motherly women. On the contrary, they are boyish, even masculine, conspicuously so in Bringing in the Sheep (1936) and especially in Autumn
Evening’s Golden Glow (c. 1942), where Julie Turton sits upright in the saddle, with slim waist and muscular, erect torso.
Perhaps the idea is that Australia is a land so virile that, as in Sparta, even the women are manly; but there is an undeniably sensual response to that upright back and those slim hips — a hint of something not elsewhere apparent in her work, a charge of feeling deeper and more disturbing than is apparent in the highly competent but facile incuriosity of her pictures or the constant play-acting in her life.
Autumn Evening’s Golden Glow (c. 1942)