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.