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
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
Heart of nature: