Art day out

At the start of the week I was lucky enough to have a day out in Sydney, seeing art with an old art school buddy I hadn’t seen for a long time. We ate, we drank, we got stoned (okay, I barely inhaled), looked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, old buildings, the underside of the harbour bridge, marvelled at Circular Quay and we saw art.

We checked out the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition Martu Art from the Far Western Desert, with beautiful, brightly coloured collaborative Aboriginal paintings from Western Australia, and the slightly underwhelming and very French retrospective show of Annette Messager’s work.

Then we moseyed on over to the Art Gallery of NSW to see the Pop to Popism show. It wasn’t on – not on till November. No, I did not read the calender correctly – bummer! So instead we meandered around some of the permanent collection, then lost time in the book shop. I ended up on my own wandering through a European prints and drawing show and then the Australian collection.

Oh my god! There was a Clarice Beckett painting outside the book shop. A new one, acquired last year: Evening, St Kilda Road.

St Kilda
Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Evening St Kilda (c. 1930), 35.5 x 40.5 cm, oil on board

Clarice Beckett is one of my favourite Australian artists – her tonal approach and dawns/dusks really appeal to me. This one is so brief and gestural and flat, a spare impression of Melbourne in twilight. I just love it. What really does it for me are the cheery streetlights going up either side of the road, shining heartily in the smog or dusk. It also covers some of my favourite painting subjects: road, sky, romantic urban setting.

It must have been completed so quickly, and it’s only small. Clarice cared for her ageing parents and would duck out early in the morning and at dusk to paint en plein air. Which unfortunately, is eventually how she met her end – she got caught in a storm while painting the sea at Beaumaris, got pneumonia and died, aged 48.

So many paintings in the nineteenth-century galleries off the main foyer caught my eye with their skies. I’ve visited them a number of times but I like to see them again and again. You see different things every time. I’m suddenly having a love affair with W.C. Piguenit (who I don’t think I was aware of until this week), especially The Flood in the Darling 1890.

W.C. Piguenit (1836-1914), The Flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), 122 x 199 cm, oil on canvas

It is stunning, absolutely entrancing (also, the joint might’ve been kicking in).That is how to do overcast afternoons – warm purpley clouds and cool grey skies. The clouds are somehow comforting – sure, they’re rough, ragged-edged pillowy ones but the water reflecting them back up is calm and smooth. Kosciusko (1903) also took my fancy with its deep blue mountain shadows and misty ethereal cloudage.

I spent a good amount of time in front of Sydney Long’s Decoration – apparently also known as Sadder Than a Single Star That Sets at Twilight in a Land of Reeds, which is a bloody mouthful and I can see why it didn’t make it onto the gallery label, but I much prefer it.

Sidney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star...(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.
Sydney Long, Sadder Than a Single Star…(1899), 93 x 39 cm, oil on canvas.

This painting’s gorgeous and haunting – it looks like a quintessential art nouveau bookmark. You can’t see the woman’s face, just the moon like a halo behind her head, the shadows dark on her face and the sketchy marks of black in the lower half are a great contrast to the creamy peach skin of her decolletage and arms. The edge of the left arm seems to continue in a wavy line down her side almost to the hem of her dress.

I love how rough and expressive the background is, and also the exploratory squiggle marks over the dress, the nice rust patina, the blues within the olive of the fabric and the thin blue loosely tied ribbon. That ain’t no plain green dress; there’s a lot of colour and action going on there. I like the ‘unfinished’ look at the edges of the painting too, and the gaps of light where the background meets the subtle curves of her arms. Syd didn’t even really do the hands; when you look at them directly they’re just 2D suggestions. Crafty beggar.

I left this painting wondering ‘What is going on in this picture?’*

Other highlights were George W. Lambert’s radiant portrait of fellow artist Miss Thea Proctor (1903), resplendent in her blue gown and fetching hat.

George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.
George W. Lambert, Miss Thea Proctor (1903), 90 x 70 cm, oil on canvas.

They were so having an affair. Okay they probably weren’t, and George was seemingly happily married, but his relationship with Thea was ‘enigmatic’, she was ‘doggedly devoted’ to him, and they spent lots of time on the art scene together. Also, let me present Exhibit A (a charcoal portrait George did of Thea):


I don’t think you labour over a drawing like this, capturing your art pal’s exquisite likeness, without some underlying feelings, do you? Go George.

I enjoyed some of the works in the European prints and drawing exhibition as well; I wasn’t really in the mood for prints for some reason but I did find some old favourites of mine I had looked at many times but never seen in the flesh. Seeing Peter Behren’s The Kiss was a lovely surprise. Years ago I loved this image so much I did a copy of it in coloured pencil.

Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.
Peter Behrens, The Kiss (1898), 27 x 21 cm, coloured woodcut.

And I spent ages looking at Edgar Degas’ drawing After the Bath – it’s so raw and lively, and the linework is quite rough at times yet it works, gives it movement and keeps it alive.

Edgar Degas, After the Bath (c. 1900), 74 x 60 cm, charcoal on tracing paper mounted on board.

Reminds me yet again that a drawing doesn’t have to be polished, perfect; it can be completely free, rough and gestural, yet still be finished and beautiful.

I emerged from the gallery after 4 pm, the day just about done. I was chock-full of ideas for holing up somewhere in the city or inner west sometime soon to do sketches on the go of places around me, trying to capture that freshness you can’t get from a photo. Time to get back to experimenting with cloud paintings too; there’s that lightness and depth – that cloudness – I haven’t nailed yet.

And I’ll be back to the galleries soon no doubt, to revisit my favourites . . . and finally see the pop art show.

*Just read something about Sydney Long being briefly engaged to Thea Proctor in 1898. Hello! A year before he completed this painting? Wonder if that’s what it’s about…