Peter Powditch, The big towel (1969). Collection National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Samuel E. Wills Bequest, 1979. On display in Coast: A Peter Powditch: Retrospective, 1961-2015, SH Irvin Gallery, Sydney, until May 21. In the late 1960s, Peter Powditch was living in a top-floor studio apartment in Paddington in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, and throwing himself into his painting to cope with a relationship break-up. He didn’t realise it at the time but he was on the verge of finding fame, and he wasn’t even 30.
“I’d just separated from my first wife so I was not in a good headspace,” Powditch says when he speaks to me from his home in northern NSW. “Max Hutchinson [the director of Gallery A] offered me the studio and an income to paint. It was sort of, you know, ‘if I am no good at marriage I will throw myself into my painting’.”
Besides helping him cope, the studio also had significant repercussions on his painting. “I found the space liberating as I was not confined by a smaller studio,” he says. “I was doing a lot of big works because I had space and I wanted to paint something that was bigger than life.”
One of those “bigger than life” paintings he produced in 1969 while living in Paddington was The big towel, one of Powditch’s most rec- ognisable images. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria but is currently on display in a retrospective of Powditch’s work from 1961 to 2015 at Sydney’s SH Irvin Gallery.
The big towel is dominated by the colour green — a colour Powditch says he is “not fond of” — but, he says, the legs are the best bit of the painting. “The legs are the bit I enjoyed painting. The rest is all a bit mechanical but I somehow like the idea of making the legs more important than anything else. Legs are stupid things but I wanted to give them weight.
“I think also because this painting is very big, it is bigger than life and I think that is important. I was very aware of scale back then. I went bigger than human just to make it more abstract but people will accept it more because it is bigger than them.”
Besides The big towel, Powditch is best known for his images of beach culture, featuring sun-kissed navels, cropped torsos and breasts of voluptuous bikini-clad women. One such painting from his Sun Torso series won the Sulman Prize in 1973.
When I ask Powditch why he chose to focus on beach culture, he says “it was my world”. “The bikini as far as I was concerned was one of the things that I knew was Australian. I also like the geometry of the bikini, where the bikini was painted flat and the figure was painted solidly. I like the organic thing, the human body against the flat thing of clothes.”
Campbell Robertson-Swann, director of Sydney’s Defiance Gallery, has known Powditch for more than 60 years, since they grew up together. To coincide with the retrospective, he has organised two additional exhibitions: Life Drawings and Lithographs at Defiance Gallery, Newtown (April 5 to 29), and Painting and Sculpture, Yellow House, Potts Point (May 6 to June 4). Robertson-Swann says Powditch has always been grounded and unaffected. “Peter paints the world he sees around him, his world, which when he started painting was 1960s Sydney, just as a wave of freedom and liberation hit.
“There is a curiosity and an adventurous spirit evident in Peter’s work. He’s not precious about it. His originality, his particular creativity is a pleasure to witness. I enjoy the dry humour … and find there is always a twist, an element of surprise. His long overdue retrospective will show Peter as the under-appreciated master that he is. I think the exhibition will shock even him.” Clarification: In Public Works on March 18, artist Anne Noble’s name was incorrectly repeated in the text as Anne Nolan.
Oil on composition board, 183.6cm x 122.4cm