Philip Wolfhagen, Night Beacon V (2005). TarraWarra Museum of Art collection. Acquired 2005. On display in Panorama, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria, until July 31.
Philip Wolfhagen lived in Sydney for five years while attending art school but during this time he became so homesick for his beloved Tasmanian landscape that he began painting it from memory.
This was the beginning of his preoccupation, some would even say obsession, with the land of his birth.
Wolfhagen, born in 1963, comes from a long line of northern Tasmanian settlers. He was reared on farms in the Isis valley and in Longford, near Launceston.
After his stint in Sydney, he returned home and he now lives and works in a rather isolated farming community near where he grew up because the landscape is his inspiration.
“I am only really interested in painting places I know and love, the places that are meaningful for me. I have no desire to paint a landscape for the sake of it,” he once said. “Living close to nature is a very clear way to notice
time and the changing seasons, to observe the poignancy of moments, and how things pass.”
In his passion for the Tasmanian landscape, Wolfhagen has been influenced by English romantic painter John Constable, who also persistently painted the area surrounding his home in Dedham Vale, east England.
It was Constable who deftly summed up his connection to the land when, in 1821, he said: “I should paint my own place best, painting is but another word for feeling.” It is a sentiment with which Wolfhagen would seem to agree.
At first Wolfhagen didn’t think he would paint landscape.
“I mean, it was so daggy, the whole genre after the 20th century had finished with it,” he says in a 2013 video interview. But, despite this, he found his “own language, his own voice”, with the result that, for example, he has won the Wynne Prize and is represented in numerous national and international collections.
For Wolfhagen, the starting point for a painting could be anything from a glance out the window at the evening sky or the colour of the distant mountains.
Given his fascination with landscape, it is fitting that one of his paintings is on display in
Panorama, a landscape exhibition at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria. When I visit the gallery, I’m shown Night
Beacon V by curator Anthony Fitzpatrick. As we stand before the monumental work, he explains that it is a distant view of slightly indeterminate topography where the lines between the land, hills and sky are not sharply defined.
“There is always a slight melancholy tinge to his work which I can’t quite define,” Fitzpatrick says. “But this quietness and stillness is broken by the strange appearance of a fire-like flare of glowing red and orange which faintly illuminates a lone homestead huddled in the vast undulating tract of land.
“The light source actually comes from a set of car headlights, which for anyone who has driven through the bush at night can be quite an eerie and even unsettling experience as the tangled forms of trees and scrub temporarily flash before one’s eyes.”
Fitzpatrick says he finds Wolfhagen’s painting surface “luscious” because he uses a palette knife to apply the oil paint mixed with beeswax in thick swaths.
“There is quite a nuanced gradation of colour and a diffused softened light which he captures,” he says. “All of those things enhance the ambience and the mystique, which I think are the essence of his sublime landscapes paintings.
“They have an atmosphere to them, which maybe can only come from living in the landscape and spending time and being aware of the changes and the light and the seasons and the forces of time and the elements of wind, fire, rain; all of the things he has worked through and explored in this painting.”
Oil and beeswax on canvas, 201.3cm x 214.6cm