In the 1970s, critical opinion was predicting that painting was dead, superseded by performance art, situation art, video art and assemblage. Arthur Boyd’s answer was to paint furiously, like one possessed, and he turned out some of the most memorable images of his long career. His huge canvas, Paintings in the studio: ‘Figure supporting back legs’ and ‘Interior with rabbit’, is one of a series of pictures painted in 1973–4 and is the key work of the series. Indeed, it is one of the great Australian pictures of the 20th century and could hold its own in any company.
Boyd, painting in his Suffolk studio in England after a short stint in Australia when he had seen and fallen in love with the Shoalhaven River and Bundanon, was in the grip of a dark dilemma. He was not only the victim of fashionable art scholarship but he was also the victim of his own necessity. His predicament was the need to walk the fine line between his deep inner impulses and popular opinion — no amount of acclaim could protect him from this.
In the picture, the artist is trapped in his dark studio and, through the open window, we see the enticing blaze of an Australian summer — but the artist is cut off from this and the outside world by a screen of chicken wire tacked across the window frame. Look at the effortless freedom with which Arthur Boyd painted this chicken wire — he handled the brush like a Zen master, weaving the skeins of paint in and out without a falter of the hand.
In his studio, the artist is surrounded by painted canvases stacked against the wall. Boyd once said that, when he realised what it was to be a truly dedicated artist, he felt like a dog on a chain and, from that moment on, he felt chained to the studio and to the profession that he loved. It was not only an all-demanding profession, but was also how he must earn his living. He could not allow full reign to his deepest instincts because he had an audience looking over his shoulder.
Throughout Boyd’s life, certain images and themes recurred. One such image is of a figure supporting another by the legs. It is a bizarre sight, but it had its origins in a humorous memory from his youth. When he was living in Fitzroy in Melbourne during the war years, his elderly neighbour would take her crippled dog for a walk by supporting its paralysed hind legs and giving it a ‘wheel barrow’ around the block! This comical four legged creature – half human and half animal — resurfaces here as a ferocious and demonic fury.
It is the artist who is the cripple now. His legs are being supported by the devil of necessity, which is intent on castration and intent on robbing the artist of his deepest feelings, leaving him impotent and vulnerable.
Poised over his canvas, he has one hand sheltering a pile of gold, symbol of betrayal and sell-out for financial gain. The accumulation of money and the achievement of professional reputation are not the ultimate goal, but the artist is helpless; he is grasping his brushes in his left hand with the bristles pointing up. This way they are useless — like a pistol without bullets.
The small canvas, with which the artist struggles, is within a larger canvas of a nocturnal landscape with a high horizon on which you can just make out a thin scatter of Australian bush — in the foreground a billy boils. It, in turn, is within the still larger canvas, each canvas slightly overlapping into the space of the other. This ‘overlapping’ emphasises that the painted image always overlaps human experience and human emotions, and that one pictorial image generally feeds into the next.
For example, one of the pictures in his studio was Interior with black rabbit. It also shows the dark interior of the artist’s studio, with a chicken-wired window. The rabbit sits on an open book beneath a naked electric light bulb — one of the terror tactics of the torturer/inquisitor — we cannot see this side of the canvas as it is hidden by the landscape, but the open window of Interior with black rabbitbecomes the open window of the big picture. Figure supporting back legs overlaps all three images — the fiend steps in from the real world, into the large canvas and across the smaller two.
It is a cathartic painting in which Arthur Boyd lays bare his deepest insecurities and stands naked before us. The view from the window is almost euphoric. The sun stands directly overhead, casting small ultramarine splashes of shadow at the base of each tree. The heat crackles and bleaches the colour out of the landscape, while two snow-white clouds mushroom into a clear blue sky. The progression is from black studio to the muted nocturnal landscape to the brilliant light of a Bundanon summer. The view out the window is of pure, untrammelled nature, yet nature, the artist warns us, is not necessarily all that one needs for happiness; it can be another prison, fit only for those without dreams and desires.
In the space of just one year, Arthur Boyd painted this series of pictures of unprecedented intensity, depicting himself as an alienated individual in a society that no longer regarded his work as of contemporary relevance. It was in this same year that Boyd purchased ‘Riversdale’ on the Shoalhaven River, and re-established his roots in his country of origin. Boyd the ‘Prodigal Son’ had returned, and his return stimulated a fresh burst of creative energy.
Betty Churcher 2002
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002