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Monday, 18 September 2017

Fred Williams, minimalist Romantic

This positing of the famous Australian painter using terms that might at first glance seem to be contradictory was suggested to me by an article I read written by Mark Dober in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. I got in touch with Dober and spoke with him for this interview because I wanted to explore in more detail the ideas he had put forward in his article. Dober has a PhD in Fine Art (Painting) from Monash University and in addition to painting he also writes articles for magazines.

MdS: Can you tell me a little bit about your own practice? You’re an artist and you also do some writing about art.

I’m a professional artist, a painter. I paint in the landscape. Until about a year or so ago I was living in Flemington in inner Melbourne and driving down to the You Yangs - I was doing that for two to three years – to make works on location at the You Yangs, which is a rocky outcrop near Geelong. I was making a lot of work there for a while. I’ve since then, from about a year ago, my wife and I moved to Castlemaine in central Victoria and so I’m not painting the You Yangs anymore. They’re too far away. I’m painting in the region around Castlemaine. The culmination of my project at the You Yangs is the work that’s currently being exhibited at Geelong Art Gallery and it coincides with the Fred Williams in the You  Yangs exhibition.

MdS: Can you tell me a little bit more about your understanding of Fred Williams in relation to the sublime, that you outlined in your article? Where does the sublime fit in – obviously it’s part of the Romantic moment – how does that fit in as part of art history and where does that take you when you think about things like beauty and the landscape?

I’ve always enjoyed Fred Wiliams’ work even though I don’t have any special affinity to abstract painting. And what it is about Fred’s work that strongly appeals to me is the actual handling of the paint. There’s a great beauty in his paint, the opposition of a thin glaze support with thicker, more sensual use of paint in dabs and marks to indicate the presence of bush and fence lines and a horizon line, this sort of thing. So, I respond to Fred Williams’ painting very much in terms of paint, and what he’s able to do with the materials and the colour and so on. It’s very much a visual thing. Now, that kind of sensual expression is very much a feature of much Romantic painting. It’s expressing an idea of engagement with nature, a sense of being there, engaged, responding with joy and delight in the presence of nature. Now, the You Yangs series have tended to be framed in terms of what was happening in New York, which in the 60s and 70s was the world centre of art. In New York, in the 1960s, among the leading styles were Abstraction and Minimalism. Fred was able to take these and apply them to the Australian landscape. But even when his work was quite minimalist, it still had this sensuality, this beauty that is still very much a Romantic thing and I think connects him, places him within this much larger Romantic context which comes out of England and Europe, originating about 200 years ago.

MdS: You know that there’s a statue of Robert Burns just near the Art Gallery of New South Wales that was erected in the middle of the 19th century?

Oh, yeah? Well, the Romantic movement, which is generally dated from late-18th century through to, say, maybe up to the mid-19th century, is in many ways still with us because that sense of the sublime really tended to continue, albeit in different ways. Even abstract expressionism, the work of an artist like Mark Rothko, has this quality of the sublime about it. So, Romanticism as an art-historical movement, although it may be seen in the history books as ending around 1850, as a kind of a way of responding to the world, and particularly as a way of responding to landscape, it doesn’t go away. And it will continue probably far into the future because it’s intrinsic to how we feel and respond to landscape.

MdS: It’s a sense of awe and inspiration, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. It’s kind of universal, really, because it seems to transcend time and culture. We’ve got people, I mean, people today hike up to the Flinders Peak to get a view from the You Yangs and they’re wanting to take in the expansive view. This is very much a part of the sublime, feeling yourself small in relation to the vastness of nature, the beauty of nature, and within Fred Williams’ painting you’ve got that sense of distance … You seem to be hovering above the landscape looking down on it as if in an aeroplane, or there’s an emphatic horizon line and your eye goes to the horizon line, taking you into the far distance. The paintings seem cropped as if they could expand indefinitely left and right. They’re not framed by trees or anything like that. So, there’s this wonderful feeling of spaciousness in a Fred Williams which is very much a quality of the sublime. You know, a Casper David Freidrich, Rothko, so many others have dealt with that. And I think it accounts better for why Fred Williams is such a loved painter, than this rather narrow focus on minimalism.

MdS: And when I think of Williams I also think of people like Pollock and De Koening, their really gorgeous use of colour and line.

Yes. That’s right. I think it’s very much to do with paint, the expressive potential, the physicality, of paint. The way the mark-making suggests that you’re present to nature, even if the work is abstract, there’s a sense of responding to the experience of nature. Fred actually went to the You Yangs a lot and made a lot of gouaches, a lot of studies, down there. The larger paintings were made back in the studio in Melbourne but they’re based on a direct experience of nature.

MdS: Your exhibition is on alongside the Williams exhibition at the gallery in Geelong. Is that right?

Yeah. We had an opening at Geelong Art Gallery for the Fred Williams show, and my work was there for the opening. The Fred Williams show ends on the 5th of November and my show ends on the 15th of October. My work shares with Williams a Romantic sensibility – apart from the subject – we have that in common, that Romantic sensibility and concern for colour, concern for sensuality of the paint, and engagement with the landscape. But of course my style is very different. My style is far more observation-based, and it’s all made plein-air, it’s all made entirely on location. I don’t work back in the studio, I work onsite.

MdS: In my email to you I mentioned this idea of Louis Hartz, the fragment theory, that he has about colonies that split off from the main trunk of the political entity. I wanted to go back and maybe talk a little bit about some of those Romantic artists and especially people like Turner and Bourke, who first intimated – well Turner was later, obviously – but people like Edmund Bourke, who wrote about the sublime. Bourke’s treatise was something of a reference point for the Romantic poets. When you talk about the sublime are you thinking about the way that … [I mean, the] world was changing at that time so much because of the American Revolution, and there was something awe-inspiring about the things that were going on. I think that the Romantics at that time responded to that and reflected that in their art. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, it’s a bit of a paradox but at the very time that the Industrial Revolution was kicking in the appreciation of nature became all the more intense. It’s as if the Romanticism was oppositional to industrialisation. But it was happening across all the arts. It was happening in music with Beethoven and musicians like that. It was happening in poetry with Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, the great Romantic poets. And of course it was happening in painting with Turner, Constable and others. So, you have this discovery of nature and a sense of the individual finding freedom and beauty, a kind of truth, even, that Keats talks about, in a direct response to nature. This was quite new. Like you say, it seems to partly [be] a response to ideas of freedom and individual liberty that were coming out of France and the American Revolution, and also a kind of oppositional stance, I think, to industrialisation.

MdS: Blake’s dark, satanic mills.

Yes, that’s right.

MdS: Wordsworth spent a lot of time up in the Lake District just like Williams used to spend time down in the You Yangs.

That’s right, yeah. I think that feeling about nature is still with us. It can be expressed in different styles but the underlying content, the underlying idea, is the same. I don’t see any fundamental difference in the ideas that Fred Williams is advancing compared to earlier expressions in a more observational-based way. He is of course applying it to the Australian context, and so the landscape has [a] more scattered, afocal appearance. You don’t get that display of mountain scenery and whatever that’s associated with Turner and the Europeans. So, he’s wanting to apply the Romantics to an essentialist Australian landscape, which he views as flat, brown, dry, spacious, and non-picturesque. All those things sound not particularly Romantic, but the way in which he paints, the way in which he composes, the features, the colour, the use of paint, it’s all Romantic. And as I say, the way that your eye goes to the horizon line, taking you into deep space, it’s really an application of the sublime idea, which is European-derived, to the Australian landscape. And really that’s the great achievement. It’s a wonderful achievement. And sure, it’s true that the minimalist thing coming out of New York was also a major force of ideas for Fred, and he himself acknowledged that, but there’s no need for us to limit out appreciation of his work just to that historical moment in the 1960s.

MdS: It’s almost as if the minimalism as a quantity comes out of the landscape, rather than coming from New York.

Well, this is the thing. The reason why the work’s so convincing is that the idea coming from New York has a natural affinity with the Australian landscape as Fred saw it. The two kind of bond together. It doesn’t seem a forced idea. It doesn’t seem in any way alien. It seems to fit. It seems to fit the Australian landscape. This is why, quite justly, it was celebrated as an achievement in the 60s and 70s. Australians could see that it was new and that it amounts to something. But that sense of the sublime tended to be played down or entirely ignored. Partly because the sublime was an old idea, 200 years old, and the desire was to emphasise the new, the current, hence New York. And partly because the Romantic, it sort of, I suppose, in some ways, muddies the water a bit with the emphasis [being] on what’s happening “now”. But I think we’re far enough removed from that period to look at the broader context.

MdS: I agree. I think that your insight is particularly interesting, and I thank you very much for spending time talking to me.

Mark Dober, Fawcett's Gully 1, 112cm  x 380cm, 2016, watercolour on paper. Posted with the permission of the artist.

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