Christopher Allen con­sid­ers Hilda Rix Nicholas

Paris to Monaro: Plea­sures from the Stu­dio of Hilda Rix Nicholas National Por­trait Gallery, Can­berra, un­til Au­gust 11

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christopher Allen

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)

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