Sam Atyeo championed the role of modern art in Melbourne. He studied architecture at the Melbourne Technical College and between 1927 and 1932 attended the National Gallery School. Atyeo worked across a variety of media, including furniture and building design, but he believed that painting was the first place to explore new ways of interpreting visual culture.1
Norfolk Island pine, Metung depicts a couple having a picnic at the beach under a large native pine tree. Behind the figures the beach stretches out and a headland can be seen on the horizon. The man and woman are John and Sunday Reed – friends of the artist and supporters of modern art in Australia. Atyeo wrote to Sunday in 1933 from Metung (a small coastal town in East Gippsland, about 300 kilometres east of Melbourne) describing the painting and including a small pencil sketch. He noted: ‘This is a picture I painted on Saturday of a big pine tree, on a cliff, against the sea, with you and John in the foreground. You are reading and John is looking out to sea.’2
This painting reveals Atyeo’s interest in the structure and composition of Cézanne’s painting and the colour and rhythm of van Gogh’s work. The tall Norfolk pine dominates the work. The trunk cuts vertically through the image and the craggy limbs of the tree stretch out at all angles. Atyeo has simplified the forms and re-created the bristly foliage of the tree through dabbing and dynamic brushwork. He placed light and dark tones of colour next to each other, and in some areas left the canvas unmarked. He has angled the brushstrokes to lead the eye through the composition, arching around the beach to the horizon and sky. The overall effect is one of light and volume.
1 Sam Atyeo, excerpt from talks given in 1932, NGA Artist’s File.
2 Sam Atyeo, letter to Sunday and John Reed, undated. Reed Papers, LaTrobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.