Mas­ter strokes

On the 40th an­niver­sary of Hans Hey­sen’s death, the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia is pre­par­ing an im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion of his paint­ings, re­ports Diana Sim­monds

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - South Australia Holidays -

VIS­I­TORS to Ade­laide this ap­proach­ing spring have a unique treat in store: the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia is mount­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of the work of a favourite son, Wil­helm Ernst Hans Franz Hey­sen. Bet­ter known as Hans Hey­sen, he was the painter who opened the eyes of the pub­lic to the beauty of the South Aus­tralian land­scape and its mag­nif­i­cent gum trees. And he did it when most arty types thought of them as rough, rude and (sniff) not a patch on Europe.

Be­cause Hey­sen was a bril­liant and straight­for­ward ob­server of his sub­jects, and a ro­man­tic to boot, his work even­tu­ally went out of fash­ion as tra­di­tional draughts­man­ship fell foul of a gen­er­a­tion of cack­handed art mavens who opined that draw­ing was just not so­phis­ti­cated or nec­es­sary.

The wheel has turned, how­ever, and once more Hey­sen’s glo­ri­ous, at­mo­spheric and his­toric land­scapes are recog­nised as the mas­ter­pieces they al­ways were.

Not that the pub­lic ever had any prob­lem with Hey­sen’s work. His paint­ings in Ade­laide’s lovely old gallery con­sis­tently have been among the most pop­u­lar works in the col­lec­tion since they were ac­quired from the artist dur­ing his 70-year ca­reer.

Re­pro­duc­tions have al­ways been part of the Hey­sen story. Thou­sands of Aus­tralian homes had their framed print of (var­i­ously) a gum tree, sev­eral gum trees, gum trees with cows or gum trees with cows, dusty sun­light and sum­mer heat. Th­ese were con­stants in his work be­cause they rep­re­sented his ear­li­est mem­o­ries of boy­hood ad­ven­tures in the Ade­laide Hills. His love of the bush and its trees re­mained with him all his life.

Hey­sen hunt­ing is a good ex­cuse to visit SA be­cause it takes in all that makes for a great trip: fine wine, good food, great art, nat­u­ral beauty and ad­ven­ture.

Hey­sen was born in Ham­burg on Oc­to­ber 8, 1877. His fa­ther Louis was a feck­less man who de­cided to mi­grate to Aus­tralia to get away from bank­ruptcy and gen­eral fail­ure. Six-year-old Hans and four sur­viv­ing sib­lings stayed be­hind with their mother, El­ize, who sorted the mess as best she could and waited. They even­tu­ally boarded the steamer Pro­cida and ar­rived off Largs Bay in July 1884.

Ac­cord­ing to Colin Thiele’s ro­man­tic bi­og­ra­phy of the artist, it was a chilly and un­promis­ing day, made more so be­cause Louis was nowhere to be seen.

The for­lorn fam­ily and mea­gre be­long­ings (‘‘Don’t bring any­thing,’’ Louis had writ­ten. ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing is lighter and bet­ter here and I can make furniture.’’) were off-loaded onto a smaller boat and set ashore at Port Ade­laide. There Louis was wait­ing with a horse­drawn cart and the news that things weren’t go­ing well. Their rented house was poor and un­fur­nished.

Young Hans spent much of his time trudg­ing to and from a se­ries of rented houses, his schools and odd jobs that sup­ple­mented the fam­ily in­come. When the Hey­sens oc­ca­sion­ally vis­ited friends in Hah­n­dorf, it was an ar­du­ous trek up into the Ade­laide Hills that took all day rather than the 20-minute swoop up to­day’s free­way (through the Hans Hey­sen Tun­nel, no less).

In Hey­sen’s time, Hah­n­dorf, the ‘‘ Ger­man vil­lage’’ in the Ade­laide Hills, was much as it is to­day: sleepy, pretty, with wurst and sauer­kraut on the menus. The young Hey­sen loved its gum trees from the start and be­gan a life­time of draw­ings.

At his fa­ther’s be­hest, Hey­sen left school at 14 for a £5-a-week job with a Nor­wood tim­ber mer­chant. By 16 he was also help­ing with Louis’s pro­duce de­liv­er­ies in the sub­urbs. He was given a small box of Win­sor & New­ton wa­ter­colours and a ‘‘ how to’’ book­let from the same com­pany, and never looked back. (Sadly, he found the draw­ings years later and was so mor­ti­fied by his child­ish ef­forts, he tore them up.)

On spare evenings he at­tended art classes and soon came to the no­tice of lo­cal so­ci­eties and pa­trons. When he was 18, busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Robert Barr Smith paid his tu­ition fees for a year at James Ash­ton’s Academy of Arts.

It was Hey­sen’s fur­ther good for­tune to be taught by a man in whose stu­dio hung a sign with the ex­hor­ta­tion: ‘‘ He that at­tempts to run be­fore he can walk must surely stum­ble and fall.’’ In other words, learn to draw or else. Nowa­days it’s com­mon to come upon stu­dents of all ages and am­bi­tions sit­ting qui­etly be­fore one of Hey­sen’s pic­tures in the AGSA, try­ing to em­u­late the mas­ter’s draughts­man­ship.

By the time he was 20, Hey­sen had sold his first paint­ing (to Ash­ton). It was ti­tled The Wet Road and a re­port in the pa­per solemnly noted, ‘‘ Hans Hey­sen may fairly be de­scribed as the com­ing land­scape artist of South Aus­tralia. He has not yet ar­rived in the fullest artis­tic sense of the word, but has proved in­dis­putably his tal­ent in oils and also as a ‘ drawer of wa­ter’. Young Hey­sen goes straight to the heart of na­ture for his sub­ject and gets there.’’

Within a cou­ple of years, young Hey­sen was off to study in Europe on funds pro­vided by four more gen­er­ous Ade­laide cit­i­zens. When he re­turned, his ca­reer as a pop­u­lar painter be­gan. At 26, in 1904, he won the first of nine Wynne prizes for land­scape paint­ing with Mys­ticMorn. Crit­ics and the pub­lic loved him and so did one Selma Bar­tels, whom he mar­ried that year.

In 1912, such was his suc­cess he was able to buy the Cedars, a ram­bling house near Hah­n­dorf with 15ha stud­ded with the red and white gums that had made it all pos­si­ble. The Hey­sens set­tled in and the artist built a sub­stan­tial but sim­ple stu­dio a cooee from the kitchen door, where he worked for the rest of his life and where he and Selma reared a fam­ily of nine chil­dren, one of whom, Nora, was even­tu­ally to equal her fa­ther as an artist. The Cedars is still owned by the fam­ily and is open to the pub­lic. It of­fers a unique in­sight into the work­ing life of the artist in his stu­dio as well as a good idea of how the fam­ily lived: com­fort­ably but not os­ten­ta­tiously. It’s one of the best daytrips from Ade­laide and may ig­nite an in­ter­est in art or ex­plor­ing the coun­try Hey­sen cap­tured so vividly.

This year an­other gen­er­a­tion can share that ex­pe­ri­ence for the first time since the cen­te­nary ret­ro­spec­tive in 1977. It’s also the 40th an­niver­sary of Hey­sen’s death, which makes the scale and scope of the ex­hi­bi­tion even more spe­cial as the 100 pic­tures on show are taken from the gallery’s col­lec­tion of more than 2000 works, be­queathed by the artist, as well as oth­ers from col­lec­tions across Aus­tralia.

Unique in­sight: The Cedars, Hans Hey­sen’s house near Hah­n­dorf, in the Ade­laide Hills, is now a liv­ing mu­seum

The stu­dio Hey­sen built within cooee of his kitchen door

An early un­dated Hey­sen paint­ing of a drover and sheep

Pic­ture: Ben Searcy

Artist’s re­treat:

Heart of na­ture:

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