Arthur Boyd: An Active Witness

June 28, 2014
Arthur Boyd, Australia, (1920 – 1999), 'Persecuted lovers', 1957-58.
Arthur Boyd, Australia, (1920 – 1999), 'Persecuted lovers', 1957-58.

Arthur Boyd (1920-99) was one of Australian art’s leading painters and one of its greatest mysteries. In the preface to her comprehensive biography, published in 2007, Darleen Bungey quotes Boyd’s youngest daughter, Polly, who calls her father “an enigma, probably one of the most secret people on earth.” This also acts as a disclaimer for the biographer, as it is an impossible task to capture a true likeness of anyone, no matter how many words are expended. Having said that, it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving us a more convincing portrait of the artist.

The National Gallery of Australia is planning a new Boyd retrospective for September this year, but in the meantime Zara Stanhope has put together a travelling exhibition for the Bundanon Trust, called Arthur Boyd: An Active Witness, which may be seen at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, before it moves on to Wagga Wagga and Mornington Peninsula.

The thesis behind the show, as stated in the S.H.Ervin’s room brochure, is to explore the “social and political consciousness” of Boyd’s work, and “the potential of the artist to influence society through their role as an active witness.”

This is never spelled out in Stanhope’s catalogue essay, which suggests the difficulties of trying to portray Boyd as a political artist. Compared to a figure such as George Gittoes, whose survey may be seen at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery until 27 July, Boyd’s themes seem oblique to the point of mysticism. Where Gittoes has made works that vividly record the horrors he has encountered in many countries, Boyd draws universal significance from specific issues.

The curator’s key word is “empathy”. She argues that Boyd’s political and social beliefs were bound up with his ability to identify imaginatively with the victims, to understand their pain and frustration. He did not make statements on behalf of those who suffered – he tried to put himself into their shoes.

One of the strategies of this show may be to emphasise the uniqueness of Boyd’s stance in comparison with the works of other artists from the Bundanon collection. Pictures by Arthur’s wife, Yvonne Boyd; by Sidney Nolan, Leonard French and Charles Blackman, document the lives of the urban poor, albeit in a more innovative manner than the social realists. Blackman’s Two children with skipping ropes (c.1954) is arguably the most impressive painting in the exhibition, but its scene-stealing qualities tend to obscure our view of Boyd’s work.

If there was an argument to be made for Boyd as an artist of conscience, it would have been better not to include other artists. We have already seen this all-inclusive tactic in the S.H. Ervin’s 2012 show devoted to the work of Arthur’s brother, David Boyd. Where Arthur was dark and metaphysical, David was a demagogue, ready to make strident political statements. The brothers offer the greatest scope for contrasts, but the comparison tends to make David look too shallow and Arthur too deep. The scope and complexity of Arthur’s work demands a close focus, free of the distractions imposed by others.

Boyd was only a “witness” in the same way as any of us who experience the impact of violence and war vicariously through the evening news. He took part in an anti-nuclear march in the 1960s, and was profoundly affected by the Vietnam War, but was never a political animal. He even hated the petty internal politics of the Contemporary Art Society during the war years.

Boyd was a loner, not a joiner who seems to have thought in terms of good and evil, justice and injustice. In his paintings these feelings are expressed in imagery drawn from the Old Testament, and a private mythology that appears from the 1940s until the end of his life.

When Boyd reacted to a social problem he had experienced first-hand – the poverty and marginalisation of Aboriginal people in the outback – it took him the best part of seven years to turn his observations into art. He had travelled to central Australia in 1951 and been horrified by the squalor he saw, but the works in the sequence, Love, marriage and death of a half-caste, later known simply as the Bride series, did not appear until 1958.


These were the paintings that helped establish Boyd’s reputation, but he was critical of them in later life. “They should have been more Goyaesque;” he said, “They should not have been based on soft, pretty colours. There should have been a bit of compassion.”

Boyd could recognise his own aestheticising tendencies, but so could the critics, who didn’t view the series in terms of an overt political statement, but – in Robert Hughes’s words – “the search of man for love.” Because the Bride series is so poorly represented in this show it’s impossible to judge the truth of these remarks, but Boyd would gradually abandon the highly finished style of these paintings in favour of a more savage, expressionistic approach.

This savagery breaks out sporadically, like a volcano erupting on a quiet day. In his later years Boyd would fall into a pattern, painting a long sequence of unexceptional pictures, (vide those late views of the Shoalhaven), punctuated by a bizarre, visionary image. The dull pictures sold while the odd ones languished in the studio. But if we want to understand the man and his work, we have to pay close attention to his deviations from the norm.

Beneath the shy façade there was a wild, raging fantasy in Boyd’s make-up. He could transpose scenes from the Old Testament into the Australian landscape; turn men into animals and animals into men; make perverse interventions into art history. Think of The Australian Scapegoat (1987), (not in this show) that depicts an Australian digger in a slouch hat having intercourse with the goat from Holman Hunt’s celebrated painting. Boyd was both introvert and extremist, with both academic and avant-garde tendencies.

It’s hard to know what to make of a painting such as Pre-embarkation Suffolk (1979). In a dense forest a man in uniform is whipping a naked man tied to a tree. It looks like a soldier flogging an Aborigine, but the setting is identified as Suffolk, where the Boyds owned a cottage. It is an image that has arisen in the artist’s mind, as he prepares to leave England and take the voyage back to Australia. He is thinking of the violence of the colonial era, forgotten in more peaceful and prosperous times.

Another unusual image, Jonah on the Shoalhaven – Outside the city (1976), shows a figure – part-human, part-animal – leaning on a tree in the desert, gazing longingly at a distant city. The figure’s belly is split open, allowing a glimpse of gold coins. We can guess from the evidence of other pictures this is an allegory for the artist’s life. Bloated and injured by his lust for gold he is banished from human society and condemned to isolation. On the horizon there is a small mushroom cloud, a reminder of subjects that might have been less attractive but more urgent.

This scrappy, hastily painted work is a comment on the debasement of the artist’s role. Instead of an apostle of truth, he is a flatterer and decorator. It’s a self-critique as well, because Boyd knew the kind of works the market preferred. He had no desire to make his allegorical paintings attractive because they were never intended to appeal to a popular audience. When his ire was ignited, the pictures got ugly.

It is typical of Boyd to fall back on the Bible for his imagery. Brought up in a staunchly religious household, he had the Old Testament stories inscribed on his mind at an early age. This is evident in one of his most dynamic series: the paintings of Nebuchadnezzar made during the years of the Vietnam War.

Nebuchadnezzar struck by lightning (1968-69) is the most powerful image in this exhibition. It shows the outcast king, now more beast than man, being blasted by yellow fire from heaven. It is a picture about hubris and retribution; a prophetic warning to the United States and their allies that they will be punished for their sins. It is as close as Boyd gets to a protest painting.

Arthur Boyd, 'Nebuchadnezzar struck by lightning', (1968-69)

Arthur Boyd, ‘Nebuchadnezzar struck by lightning’, (1968-69)

Arthur Boyd: An Active Witness
S.H. Ervin Gallery, until 13 July

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28 June, 2014