Arthur Boyd, Agony and Ecstasy

A major retrospective of Arthur Boyd’s work is currently on show at the National Gallery of Australia. Drawing largely on the donations of work that the artist made to the gallery in 1975, the show includes works in a range of media, from pen and ink, oil, oil and tempera, pastel and tapestry.

With a show of such magnitude I can only touch on a few points I found of interest. Firstly I agree with the friend who commented on the wide range of styles that Boyd employed or reflected over the years. To my mind Boyd’s early works went from reflections of the Heidelberg School (Australian Impressionism), then to a strong influence of the artist Albert Tucker. At the same time his drawings in pen, ink and wash have a decided renaissance feel to them, possibly enhanced by their mythological and biblical themes. By the time he gets to England you can see strong influences of Turner, particularly in his landscapes.

I also felt that the hanging series of work, such as the Nebuchadnezzar paintings and the ‘caged painter’ series, reset my response to many of the individual paintings I had previously seen. The Nebuchadnezzar series, depicts episodes in the wanderings of Nebuchadnezzar and includes quite lyrical works which I was unfamiliar with.

Arthur BOYD | Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the tree

Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the tree 1969 oil on canvas 174.5 h x 183.0 w cm, National Gallery of Australia, 1975.3.95

My favourite work was an oil, painted in 1979-80, titled A Skate in a Merric Boyd Pot. In this work a skate, an image which Boyd has painted many times, is merged with and is emerging from the type of pot that characterised the work of his father, the studio potter, Merric Boyd.

Skate in a Merric boyd Pot, pencil and watercolour, 15 October 2014

Skate in a Merric boyd Pot, pencil and watercolour, 15 October 2014

I spent a lot of time looking at the many examples of drawing displayed throughout the exhibition. Boyd showed the same facility with drafting, as did the young Picasso,  then proceeded to refine and simplify his style as he grew more experienced.

Arthur BOYD | Figure in a fountain with watching figures

Arthur Boyd, Figure in a fountain with watching figures 1944-1949 ink; paper , drawing in pen, brush and black ink 38.0 h x 56.0 w cm, national Gallery of Australia, 1975.3.1381

In his later works, the figures emphasise hands and feet, and faces are represented by blots for eyes and nostrils and small lines for mouths. These are no less powerful works for their brief notations. I tried to capture this focus in the quick study of the hands in one of the works in the St Francis tapestry series.

A detail of St Francis Turning Brother Masseo, pencil, eraser and watercolour, 15 October 2014

A detail of St Francis Turning Brother Masseo, pencil, eraser and watercolour, 15 October 2014

This final room is a fitting conclusion to the exhibition, showing nine of the 17 St Francis tapestries, designed by Boyd and superbly woven in Portugal at the Tapapecarias de Portalegre. As you approach, the works appear, glowing, quite literally with the strong colours Boyd used in his pastels, translated into the very large woollen tapestries.

For locals there are still another few weeks to see the exhibition, which runs until 9 November. Don’t be put off by the introduction of paid parking at the National Gallery. Visitors can validate their parking ticket at the cloak desk and will get free parking for 3 hours.

Weaving a Web

A friend sent me a link to this very interesting project called the Web of Europe. where artists were invited to re-weave a section of a  seventeenth-century Brussels tapestry Mercury Hands Over the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs, which is kept at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. This work has been undertaken as a celebration of Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union.

You can have a look at the original work in the ‘Mercury’ section of the site, and then in the ‘Paraphrases’ section of the site, view individually the pieces re-woven by the 27 tapestry weavers invited to participate in the process.

I found reading the comments of the artists one of the most interesting sections of the site (click on each piece of the tapestry to find the artist’s statement). Judit Nagy from Hungary writes – “The with-child time for every work is long, and premature birth is impossible. The frequencies develop into a picture in the course of many months. And a distinctive way of life takes shape, one which is about only the two of us. It is about intimacy, the productive power of tranquillity, the sensual joy of handling the coloured threads, and sometimes suffering, namely, about the Sisyphean-like task and the acceptance of heavy physical work on a daily basis.

My major frustration with this site is that there is only colour and greyscale overlay image of the old and the new works together. I would have loved to see them both in full colour – so I had to resort to paper cut outs to try and get an idea of the how the composite might look.


As serendipity would have it I read on the ABC site that the Eureka Flag, which has been undergoing restoration will shortly be back on display. What struck me as most interesting, and relevant to this post is that the principal conservator Kristin Phillips curator said that while they know where some missing pieces of the flag are (they had been souvenired over the years), the decision was taken not to stitch them back in.

“To get them back into location we’d be guessing where they went and they aesthetically would look quite strange,” she said.

Personally I think it is an opportunity lost, but then I think that anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised that I came down on the side of the “aesthetically strange”.