ALTHOUGH an early death can sometimes transform an artist, deservedly or not, into a tragic celebrity, dying at the wrong time can also lead to obscurity. Clarice Beckett, for example, although successful in her own lifetime, was forgotten for decades after her death. Grace Cossington Smith, in contrast, went out of fashion for years but continued to work and lived to see her reputation restored.
Both of these painters were practitioners of the rather gentle modernist styles that flourished in Australia between the wars. They were overwhelmed by the new and more aggressive form of modernism that emerged in the years leading up to and during World War II and in the period immediately following. Artists such as Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, self-consciously avant-garde and brutal in their approach to painting, made the earlier manner seem fey or decorative.
In this new perspective, even the most masculine of the interwar artists, such as Hans Heysen, tended to be dismissed as old-fashioned. And Elioth Gruner (1882-1939), who together with Heysen had dominated serious landscape painting for two decades — and who died in 1939 just after the outbreak of war — was even more alien to the new spirit. His approach to painting became incomprehensible to a generation raised on the ideologies of avant-gardism, hollow ghosts of which still haunt art teaching.
Gruner was a quiet, rather elusive personality whose self-portrait looks out at us enigmatically, even evasively, at the opening of Deborah Clark’s welcome retrospective of his work at the Canberra Museum. The picture is unusually dark and tonal, reflecting his recent encounter with Max Meldrum, but also contemporary convention in the portrait genre.
The artist has rather oddly chosen to paint himself wearing a hat, which not only conceals the upper part of his head, his hair and brow but also shades his eyes. The lower part of his face, though visible, is almost masked by a fixed set of the mouth recalling the archaic smile of the kouros statues that were being rediscovered in the early 20th century.
He tells us he is an artist — and that this is a self-portrait — only by holding a brush in his hand. And he tells us at the same time that he is left-handed because the brush is, or at least appears to be, held in that hand. In reality, we are looking at a mirror image and the brush is in the right hand: it is a trick that artists have used for centuries and that allows Gruner to pose with a brush in his right hand while painting what he sees in the mirror with his left.
The cropping of the composition also means that the hand seems almost disconnected from the bust, as though to emphasise the distinction
May 24-25, 2014 Elioth Gruner: The Texture of Light Canberra Museum and Art Gallery to June 22 between the man and the artist. At any rate, the picture gives very little away about the man himself. We know that he suffered early bereavements and worked very hard to support his family after the death of his father and brother, and that he was a homosexual, although even in what we might imagine was a very conservative social world this fact never seems to have stood in the way of his success among the wealthy and the powerful.
Gruner was a talented boy whose abilities were fostered by his teacher, Julian Ashton, and his early work was well received, although he did not commit to painting on a full-time basis until 1912, when he was 30. Many of his early pictures are of the beach, painted at or near Bondi, where he lived until he bought a house in the adjacent seaside suburb of Tamarama.
Although he lived by the ocean, Gruner’s deepest artistic inspiration would be found inland, in painting the rural landscape. Throughout the history of art in this country, different sites have seemed, at different times, to embody the quintessence of the Australian experience, and just as an earlier period looked to mountain ranges and waterfalls, and postwar sensibility would discover the arid outback, Gruner’s generation found the heart of Australia in our farmlands, in the pastoral and grain country that fed the nation and made it prosperous.
He first really came to prominence with Morning Light (1916), which was awarded the Art Gallery of NSW’s Wynne Prize for land- scape — the first of seven times in the course of his career — and was acquired by the gallery. The picture was painted at Emu Plains, where he had rented a hut on a rural property, and looks out across the countryside towards the rising sun. A figure stands on the left, contemplating the view, backlit with a shadow that trails towards the viewer.
Gruner is above all interested in light, but not the brilliant midday glare of the Heidelberg painters, which bleaches and flattens the world — and which in their case was partly a metaphor for the challenge of living in the Australian environment — but rather a soft yet intense brilliance that spreads out across the landscape, endowing it with shape and animation.
He realised that the best time of day to capture this kind of light was dawn, when the power of sunlight is still subdued so that one can look into it without squinting, and when the return of light after the darkness of night feels uniquely life-giving. He understood too that the effect of brightness in a painting is not achieved by using a very high-keyed palette but by understanding the relative effect of tonal contrast. Here, for example, it is by placing the darkest element in the composition, the clump of trees, right against the horizon that he makes the sky seem to be the source of the powerful illumination that it pours down on to the awakening fields below.
Three years later Gruner painted his most famous work, Spring Frost (1919), which won him his second Wynne Prize and has remained one of the most popular pictures in the AGNSW’s collection. The scene is, as before, at Emu Plains and this time the effect of the dawn scene is enhanced by the frost — the work was painted en plein air in bitterly cold conditions, and something of the urgency and acuteness of the artist’s sensory experience seems to come through in the vivid image he has created.
Once again he looks into the light, and again, only now more dramatically, he enhances the effect of brightness by placing the darkest masses in the centre of the composition in immediate juxtaposition with the source of light. At the same time he has used a group of cows in the foreground to structure the space, while the light that strikes them from behind picks out white highlights around the edge of their bodies as well as glistening on the frosty grass.
In the following year Gruner bought his house at Tamarama, and two years later his mother died. In 1923, by then a celebrated contemporary artist, he was sent to England to manage an exhibition of Australian painting, and this gave him the opportunity to visit Europe, spending time in Italy and the south of France, where he painted Aloes, St Tropez (c. 1924), whose bright Mediterranean colouring is
(1934), right; (1919), his most famous painting, below