Michael Leunig has recently written a great article on his encounter with Arthur Boyd and his art. I can’t find a link to this article on the web so I have set it out below:
A BRUSH WITH ARTHUR BOYD.
A beautiful wake-up is one of life’s most perfectly happy times. I have certainly had my share, but there’s one glad morning that comes to mind, in these uneasy days as polar icecaps melt and the art world appears to be freezing over.
The awakening happened perhaps a dozen years ago, on the floor of an art gallery in Sydney, the enchanted city, all jackarandered and frangipanied as it was at the time where I had spent the night on a fold-up bed, surrounded by a host of glorious new pictures painted by the Australian artist Arthur Boyd.
Fresh from Arthur’s studio in Bundanon; these paintings were still unseen by the world – images of glistening fish, stingrays, rocks and river and the bristling bush – gardens and flowers, sandbanks and a powerful, dark hill reflected in silvery water – paintings still gleaming and alive with new pigment, breathing the perfumes of turpentine and linseed oil upon me and into my blessed and most fortunate camping place.
Arthur’s final show of paintings at Australian Galleries would open in a couple more days, but for this night, the pictures were mine, to rest with and contemplate alone – to give thanks for, to sleep among and be at peace with.
It was Arthur Boyd’s art that awakened my interest in painting when I was a boy. Somehow I managed to glimpse some of his pictures at a time when original paintings were not so commonly seen in my part of Australia. Boyd’s pictures enchanted me, and very quickly I could sense his unique hand and spirit at work in them. I was quite suddenly inspired, perhaps challenged, towards something that was mysteriously good and promising and full of life. For me, Arthur Boyd was one of his own painted angels.
When I was about nine years old and wartime barbed wire entanglements still embroidered the back-beach dunes of the Mornington Peninsula, I saw a man painting alone at an easel on a cliff top near Portsea. I had never seen such a thing and stood there watching him in absolute wonder. Below, the ocean churned at the kelp and thundered onto the rocks and I couldn’t understand how such a thing could possibly be painted. The man soon beckoned me to see his work and as I peered at the textured, tumbling image on the canvas, I saw to my amazement that indeed such things could be painted – and unwittingly, I also recorded a vivid impression in my heart: an acute visual memory that over the years would gradually reveal itself and become a rare personal gem : my boyhood viewing of the painter’s picture was, I suspect, my first meeting with an Arthur Boyd painting.
After sleeping well, I awoke to the rays and the radiant fish and dancing flowers; I rose to linseed perfume, to cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, titanium white, vermillion – all singing and saying prayers for me and the new day; all of us alive and well and together; everything healthy and happy in the world – and to make matters even happier, I was about to travel this very morning down South to Bundanon, to spend the day with Arthur Boyd.
Fade to black. Now I wake to a grim slanging match about art and whether the rights of art photographers should prevail over the rights of children – whether such photographers should capture and use the innocent power of a child’s nakedness to enhance their own power and conceal their own nakedness. This is not so much a debate as a grisly public display of defensive pomposity, self-interest, cultural poverty and emotional dyslexia. Art practice has in this instance been challenged by a broad spectrum of public concern, ranging from the shallow to the intelligent and well considered; all of which have been lumped together by the media and falsely described as ‘outrage’. Such is the popular press, but when art critics and scholars: people we imagine are possessed with powers of discernment do similar in order to dismiss real questions about children’s rights – and descend to the belittling sarcasm that rolls so easily off educated tongues – then it is indeed a forlorn and busted cultural situation.
I had always imagined that artists, more than most, were open to ideas and questions; that they worked not so much from a position of defensive power but from a vulnerable place of openness, humility and love – and that these qualities distinguished artistic vision; that artists were people who could get down on the ground very close to things and listen and see deeply and creatively – and particularly so if the subject was the sanctity of childhood.
But I see now that many who claim to be artists would appear to have abandoned the grounded perspective and have gladly forsaken the work and gestures of the hands in favour of clean technology and slick art – fleeing upwards into the head and the citadels of clean refinement: the detached little studios and darkrooms of the brain; floating on art essay clouds like ‘Schongeister’ (beautiful spirits) – a style tribe of self-designated uber-artists cradling grooviness and design, and getting off on unexamined fantasies about the brutes and philistines who would roll over their art and deprive them of freedom.
Art, it seems to me, doesn’t need freedom so much as it needs courage and love – some would call it soul or Eros. In contemporary culture freedom may refer to a cool, grey state: an oblivious place with no shared gravity and no North or South; a pleasant condition where convenient ambiguities rule and you can somehow have the blissful superior sense of knowing everything by knowing nothing and not ever really committing to anything. And thus the world fills with lifeless, boring art.
As one with a mature appreciation for ambiguity, I am wondering what finely balanced things the photographer, Bill Henson may have been alluding to recently when he said, rather ambiguously – ‘The greatness of art comes from the ambiguities – it stops us from knowing what to think’ Henson’s words make me think about the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Ignorance’:
‘Strange to know nothing, never to be sure of what is true or right or real?’
As the poem unfolds, Larkin points to the natural and binding truths that surround us and are part of us, and of which we are strangely ignorant. Perhaps this whole controversy about the ethical boundaries of art practice is an attempt to honour or deny such binding truths. In the end it may come down to ignorance.
We arrived at Yvonne and Arthur Boyd’s house in the bush at Shoalhaven before lunch. Arthur greeted me with twinkling spirit and offered me a glass of wine, adding that he’d certainly like one himself. Yvonne mentioned something about wine to him and Arthur acknowledged by saying that, yes, he had better wait until lunchtime.
He led me through the garden into his studio with much conversation and laughter and many funny and serious questions and the affectionate pointing out of various objects, plants and curiosities. Manning Clarke’s words about his friend Arthur Boyd seemed demonstrably true: ‘He had a great felt life’. I also heard that Arthur believed life was best when ‘governed by love’ and this too seemed very real.
After a good lunch Arthur invited me to come to another room and assist while he signed some etchings. ‘Fill up your glass and bring it with you’ he suggested with a beam.This I did and after we had settled down quietly with the etchings he suddenly pointed to my glass and enquired impishly, ‘Is that your glass or mine?’
‘I’m not sure’ I said, reflecting his tone.
He picked up the glass and sniffed the wine with great seriousness. ‘It smells like mine’ he said. He paused and had a little sip and pondered further. ‘It certainly tastes like mine’ he murmured, nodding slowly – and then with a hearty swig, he downed the lot.
Arthur stood thoughtfully savouring the aftertaste, and all this very soon became a beautiful impression of a man with growing dismay. ‘Oh dear, I think I’ve made a dreadful mistake. It was your wine after all. I’m terribly sorry about that. I really am’. And then the great, warm sparkling smile.
Near the end of the day I stood by the Shoalhaven River in the place where Arthur had last painted Pulpit Rock, which rose darkly across the water. All around me, the foliage of the young wattle trees, waist high, was jewelled and speckled brightly with fresh oil paint where Arthur had flicked and spattered as he worked his brushes a day or two before; cobalt blue, cadmium red, titanium white, chrome yellow, emerald – how beautiful it was, and how blessed and glad was I, to be for this moment a part of the most breathtaking and life giving Boyd painting I have ever seen.
Art is about the messy and marvellous business of coming to your senses – and also, to the senses of the world.