Agony and Ecstasy
Dates + venue
5 Sept – 9 Nov 2014
This is a ticketed exhibition.
Tickets will be on sale late August.
General information +61 2 6240 6411
Mobility assistance +61 2 6240 6411
Arthur Boyd: agony and ecstasy is a major exhibition of Boyd’s art including more than 100 works across diverse media: paintings, prints, drawings, ceramic tiles and sculptures, and tapestries. The focus is on Boyd as an intense passionate visionary capable of plumbing the depths and vicissitudes of human emotions.
The show is not a retrospective but rather provides the opportunity to take a close look at a number of works that have never or rarely been previously exhibited, as well as groups and series undertaken over 40 years. While the Australian landscape directly informs some works, the emphasis is on the way that Boyd engages with human experience—from an intense early self-portrait painted when he was only 17 through to works of the 1970s including rarely seen St Francis tapestries shown with related prints and pastels.
Among key groups of works in the exhibition are Boyd’s paintings undertaken during the Second World War. As a pacifist who grew up in a highly creative, eccentric home environment where art was considered the lifeblood of existence, this was a challenging time. In 1941 he was conscripted into the army and social experiences encountered on postings in Bendigo and South Melbourne left a lasting impression. Many drawings and paintings focus on the dispossessed: people on the streets of South Melbourne and at St Kilda beach, destabilised by the exigencies of human experience, especially at a time of conflict. Boyd’s empathy for outsiders was informed by personal experience—as a shy, creative boy who was sometimes bullied at school and as the son of a father who had epilepsy, which gave him firsthand experience of human suffering. His father, Merric Boyd, was also an inspiration—a remarkable man who was one of the first and most inventive studio potters in Australia as well as a sculptor who drew prolifically and whose metamorphic imagery had a direct bearing on his son’s work.
The young Boyd’s expressive images of the 1940s also drew upon European and Australian art, from reproductions of Bosch and Breugel to the works and philosophical approaches of immigrants to Australia like Josl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff who had experienced war firsthand. At the same time Boyd was evolving a distinctive, identifiable visual vocabulary that established his reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the Australian art scene.
Boyd’s capacity to convey a depth of emotion is apparent in Gargoyles 1944, in which fear is symbolised by a small man crouching in the middle ground as well as a figure with a crutch, desperately thrusting into the scene with outstretched arms. Above the building the gargoyles appear so fully engaged in their task of warding off evil that one feels they may soon become unhinged.
Fear, love, sex and death became frequent subjects in Boyd’s paintings referencing the preciousness and precariousness of life in wartime. Among his close friends during these important early years who shared a common ethos were John Perceval, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and Yvonne Lennie (a practicing artist at the time) who he married in 1945 and who remained his lifelong partner.
In Boyd’s developing visual lexicon, images from the past often merged with the present, taking on new life, like a snowballing effect. Along with the evils of the Nazi regime, Boyd was deeply disturbed by the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. In 1960, the year after he moved to London with his family, he participated in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at Alderston with thousands of others. While he didn’t generally put his name to political causes, the increase in nuclear weapons testing by the late 1950s heightened his concern for the fate of humanity. His painting Nebuchadnezzar making a cloud 1968 shows the Babylonian king on his back with a mushroom cloud (like the cloud of a bomb explosion) growing from him as if from an umbilical cord. Yet Boyd’s imagery is open-ended, with the face looking down from the cloud also suggesting a Narcissus-like image.
This work is among an impressive series in the exhibition on the theme of the Old Testament story of Nebuchadnezzar that features a great Babylonian ruler who became overcome by pride, refusing to acknowledge the help of God. As punishment he is cast into the wilderness to live like a beast undergoing many trials and tribulations. The story provided rich fodder for Boyd’s poetic imagination and predilection for metamorphic imagery. In work after work he re-imagined the fallen king’s plight: eating grass, blind on a starry night, catching on fire.
Painted in the volatile political environment of 1968, the image of Nebuchadnezzar on fire was informed by reports of the self-immolation of protesters during the Vietnam War. The Biblical inspiration of the series also recalled intense imagery in stories read to him as a boy by his grandmother, the artist Emma Minnie Boyd.
Philosophical concerns from the past merging with contemporary realities inform the collaborations Boyd undertook with acclaimed poet, Peter Porter, including The lady and the unicorn 1973–74. This was a highly successful collaboration based on friendship, mutual respect and an understanding that their independent visions in words and printmaking would be allowed to flourish side by side. Boyd’s etchings accompanying the poems reveal a mastery of arabesque line and fine detail in drawing combined with velvety black aquatint that shifts in tone. The portfolio as a whole combines intense passions with a corresponding delicacy of touch. Boyd’s works capture a feeling for the sacred and profane of the story: of the mythical unicorn; the outsider, the only animal left off Noah’s ark, and much sought after by the emperor. The unicorn falls in love with a lady who betrays him to the hunters. Hunted down, the unicorn dies Christ-like for love. Yet he remains etched brightly in the mind as a symbol of undying purity and compassion.
The lady and the unicorn: invocation 1974
tapestry: dyed wool on cotton The Arthur Boyd Gift, 1975 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
While apparently not directly inspired by the fifteenth century The lady and the unicorn tapestries at the Musée Cluny in Paris, the fineness of Boyd’s prints suggest his familiarity with medieval tapestries. It is perhaps no coincidence that in 1974 he had a tapestry woven at the Portalegre Tapestry Workshop in Portugal: The lady and the unicorn: invocation. This rarely seen, remarkable work is based on the etching and aquatint, woven in black and white with subtle tonal gradations. It is staggering in scale without losing a sense of tenderness and intimacy. Here the hunter appears as supplicant, reaching up to heaven with one arm while his spear moves diagonally in the opposite direction, almost touching the sacred horn that bows down. The unicorn is nestled in a forest while two opposing forces, the flight of birds and the implied entrapment of the wire mesh, reside above and below.
The lady and the unicorn series relates directly to The caged painter series, also 1973–74, revealing the tremendous outpouring of work in these years. In these paintings such as Interior with black rabbit 1973, Boyd conveys the immense struggle that it takes to be an artist, embracing notions of entrapment and dreamed-of liberation, heaven and hell, agony and ecstasy.
Arthur Boyd: agony and ecstasy will showcase many works from Boyd’s great Gift to the National Gallery in 1975 among others, and will provide a rare opportunity to consider in depth works from diverse series. In its totality across an array of media it is a chance to contemplate images of considerable daring and passion and to rediscover Boyd as you have never seen him before.
Senior Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture
SOURCE: Artonview 78