HEART­LAND HUES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

Elioth Gruner’s

(1934), right; (1919), his most fa­mous paint­ing, be­low

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