Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Elioth Gruner,

(1929).

Land­scape Can­berra Mu­seum and Gallery collection. Pur­chased 2002. On dis­play Can­berra Mu­seum and Gallery, as part of ex­hi­bi­tion Elioth Gruner: The Tex­ture of Light, un­til June 22. IT was along the Mur­rumbidgee River, in sheep coun­try of dry plains and bare hills, where Elioth Gruner found in­spi­ra­tion for the con­tem­pla­tive land­scapes that he painted to­wards the end of his life. He spent al­most 10 years de­pict­ing this area around Yass, Goul­burn and Can­berra be­cause, he said, he was fas­ci­nated by “the anatomy of the earth”, and be­cause he was drawn to the re­gion’s crisp, dry air, which gives an un­usual clar­ity of light.

Gruner, who was born in New Zealand in 1882, was one of this coun­try’s most cel­e­brated artists. He won the pres­ti­gious Wynne Prize for land­scape seven times, with paint­ings such as Spring Frost (1919), now in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. Re­mark­ably, he en­joyed sup­port from both con­ser­va­tives and pro­gres­sives. He was also feted by politi­cians, wealthy landown­ers, busi­ness people and in­flu­en­tial people in the Syd­ney art world. One of his cham­pi­ons and friends was Nor­man Lind­say, who de­scribed him as the “great­est pain­ter of pure light the world has seen”.

Gruner would go to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to find a land­scape he de­sired. He of­ten camped and jour­neyed away from his home in Syd­ney for months at a time. He trav­elled by train, horse and cart, and walked. While paint­ing in the field, he with­stood dif­fi­cult con­di­tions such as flies, mos­qui­toes or freez­ing weather.

Dur­ing his life, Gruner strug­gled with al­co­holism and de­pres­sion. Ac­cord­ing to Nor­man Lind­say’s son Jack, in his mem­oir The Roar­ing Twen­ties, Gruner was un­set­tled be­cause of “an un­easy bi­sex­u­al­ity”. He died in 1939, aged 56, from chronic kid­ney fail­ure.

Al­though Gruner was an ex­tremely suc­cess­ful artist, his name has faded in the Aus­tralian art his­tor­i­cal record in the 75 years since his death, ac­cord­ing to se­nior cu­ra­tor of vis­ual arts at the Can­berra Mu­seum and Gallery Deb­o­rah Clark. To rem­edy this, Clark has un­der­taken a re­assess­ment of his work. She has spent nearly four years view­ing more than 200 of his paint­ings, hunt­ing down works from pri­vate col­lec­tions, some of which have not been seen in pub­lic.

Even­tu­ally she nar­rowed her se­lec­tion to 70 works, sourced from 12 ma­jor pub­lic col­lec­tions and 16 pri­vate col­lec­tions.

Clark says the re­sult­ing ex­hi­bi­tion,

Elioth Gruner: The Tex­ture of Light, is the first sig­nif­i­cant sur­vey of Gruner’s art for 30 years. It is also the first ma­jor show­ing of the works he pro­duced while on his paint­ing ex­cur­sions around Can­berra, Cooma, NSW’s south coast and the South­ern High­lands.

When I visit Can­berra, Clark shows me Land­scape, from the gallery’s collection, which is on dis­play in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

It is a sub­tle, mod­ernist pic­ture fea­tur­ing the me­an­der­ing Mur­rumbidgee River sur­rounded by steep, mostly bare hills that en­velop the river as it opens into the Bur­rin­juck Dam.

“Gruner’s Mur­rumbidgee paint­ings marked the high point of his pro­gres­sion to­wards cre­at­ing mod­ern land­scape from a plein air prac­tice of di­rect ob­ser­va­tion be­fore the sub­ject,” Clark says.

“They de­pict the an­cient hills as broad sim­ple masses pushed up from the river val­ley and ar­ranged in un­du­lat­ing rhythms across the pic­ture plane.

“Gruner sus­tained an in­ter­est and an un­der­stand­ing of the land­scape over nearly 20 years and through all the dif­fer­ent sea­sons ... He re­ally came to terms with it; he was not just some­one who lobbed in and said, ‘This is a nice view.’ He re­ally re­sponded to the land­scape and, mar­ried with this mod­ernist im­pulse, he achieves this ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sult.” Elioth Gruner: The Tex­ture of Light is at the Can­berra Mu­seum and Gallery un­til June 22, then tours to New­cas­tle Art Gallery, NSW, from July 26 to Oc­to­ber 26.

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