Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ian Fairweather's most extraordinary escape

In a profound - as well as in a humorous - sense Ian Fairweather was the ultimate escape artist and from the art historian's or critic's point of view that is especially cogent because he is certainly one of the most original painters associated with Australia in the 20th century. Against the wishes of his family, Fairweather from an early age wanted to paint and he was later classically trained at the Slade School in London, but following WWI and his war service - which included time as a captive of the German Army - he set off to far shores to find his own, unique style. Gaugin revisited? A classical Modernist trope? Fairweather tends to defy easy classification though he is able to be situated within the Modernist canon, although the thing that is most clear is that he arrived at his later style by independently working out specific problems of representation and abstraction, on his own terms.

For example this painting, Barcarolle, which represents elements from Fairweather's most extraordinary escape from civilisation - when in 1952 he built a raft in Darwin from old scraps and cast-off materials and ventured out to sea aiming for Indonesian Timor - encapsulates the interesting dissonance between figurative and abstract methods of representation that more and more came to dominate the artist's practice. He was 60 years old by this time. This painting was made in 1956, four years after the escapade, which seems to be typical for Fairweather. You see him in the Philippines making paintings based on his experiences in China - a place he had left years previously - and then in India making paintings based on Philippines experiences.

Temporal and physical distance enabled him to find the right style. As for his escapades, it wasn't as if he was a complete misanthrope: he enjoyed the company of other artists and the people who congregated around them in Melbourne's inner-city society. What he found objectionable was the upright, small-town Australia of mid-century: the main street, the endless suburbs, the propriety, the lack of sophistication, the absence of culture, the lack of tolerance for a man who appears to have cared little about his personal appearance being, it's clear from all reports, the ultimate artist, intent on the one thing above all else. So off he goes again to China, to the Philippines, to Bali, to India, to Cairns and Darwin and Cooktown. In places like this in Australia's north he finds his own level among people living on the fringes of society, who take less notice of his ungainly behaviour and odd appearance.

Then there's his mental illness. I have of course been reading Murray Bail's book on Ian Fairweather and have come across one of those irritating references to "split personalities" that crop up when ignorant people talk about schizophrenia, which it is clear to me that Fairweather lived with throughout his productive life. As if Fairweather painted a figure with two heads to describe his own mental problems, as Bail suggests. With Fairweather the illness manifests itself in classical ways including irrational paranoia, equally irrational elation, and depression.

But there's also - always - his incredible restlessness, as if Fairweather is always trying to escape from wherever he is, that has become a place that has, somehow, proved itself unsuitable for his needs. And there's his later reclusiveness, his tendency to run into the bush when strangers appeared. Because Bail does not understand the illness he cannot relate the artist's behaviour to anything exterior to it and therefore make sense of it for the reader. You find the same failing with people who write about that other mad artist, William Cowper, the 18th century poet, whose irrational sense of damnation led him to the blackest despair. Biographers of such people need to have tools that they are not equipped with, to understand their subjects.

Bail's book has come out in two separate editions and is considered the last word on the artist but it seems to me that Fairweather deserves more treatment, by someone like Patrick White. The author of Voss (the explorer), A Fringe of Leaves (the castaway) and the artist (The Vivisector) could surely improve on Bail's eloquent yet flawed performance. White was a generation younger than Fairweather but he would have understood the romance of the artist's quest, and he would have been intrigued by the schizophrenia and how it conditioned both the way of life Fairweather pursued, as well as the art he produced.

To return to the famous escapade, Bail writes: "Fairweather was stricken - increasingly - with paranoia."
In his account written on the ship from Singapore to England [after he was rescued by Indonesian authorities] he claimed to have found people in Melbourne exhibiting his paintings without his knowledge, and furthermore had come up to Darwin to gloat on him. 'To get out of Australia - that was the only solution.'
The suspicions about people he knew and had worked with in the past are classical indicators of schizophrenia and he might have chosen the raft solution because he also was suspicious of Australian authorities: a clandestine escape like this would make him untraceable as there would be no travel documents through which people could find out where he had gone to.

The poor man. A year after he painted Barcarolle there's an ecstatic work, Lights, Darwin Harbour, which represents another moment of the artist's most extraordinary escape. Here is a figurative reflection on his first moments on the raft but again it is veering toward an abstract representation. Here are the lights shining on the calm water, their trails seeping into the night and lying surrounded by blackness. Here are the safety lights of the vessels he passed as he made his way out of the harbour. And here are the good burghers of Darwin seated on the wharves, fishing. There goes Ian, alone, into the night, looking for a space where he can pursue his dream, this man on the verge of old age who will also miraculously survive this trial. The kangaroos and the eucalypts and mangroves lie in the future on Bribie Island, a refuge for a restless soul.

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