Elisabeth Cummings

June 6, 2017
Elisabeth Cummings, 'Edge of the Simpson Desert (Diptych) (2011)
Elisabeth Cummings, 'Edge of the Simpson Desert (Diptych) (2011)

In the annals of Australian art Elisabeth Cummings was an almost invisible presence for the first 30 years of her career. The story would change in the early 1990s when she began to attract serious attention from private collectors, who are always quicker off the mark than public institutions. After a slow start, partly due to her own reticent personality, Cummings (b. 1934) now looks like one of great painters of our era.

Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes, currently on display at the S. H.Ervin Gallery, is a touring retrospective organised by Terence Maloon for the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra. This is a pretty good pedigree, as Maloon has shown himself to be one of the most talented curators in the country. The disappointment – and how many times must I say it? – is that such a show should have been initiated by the Art Gallery of NSW and sent on to other state galleries.

I know the AGNSW is planning retrospectives of John Peter Russell and Tony Tuckson, but both those artists have been dead for many years. It would be a pleasant surprise if a senior, living artist were deemed worthy of such an honour. Instead, it’s left to the S.H.Ervin to take up this essential task once again. Philanthropists please note, there’s no more worthy place to invest a dollar.

I’ve written a lot about Cummings over the past few years, including an essay for a new book on her life and work. If it’s taken a long time for such a volume to appear it’s because Cummings seems to feel there is something immodest in pushing one’s own barrow. In her selflessness and lack of volubility she is the antithesis of the ‘super salesman’ type that does so well in the world of contemporary art. (I wouldn’t buy a used car from Jeff Koons, but Wim Delvoye might be hard to resist.)

Cummings is reminiscent of Van Gogh in the way she is ambitious for her work but almost ashamed at the prospect of success. She may have sold more pictures than the Dutchman but his career ended at the age of 37, whereas hers only took off as she was approaching 60. She is a classic ‘late bloomer’ who had been painting and drawing since her teenage years in Brisbane, but suddenly found a new level of achievement late in life. Everything in her youth and middle-age now seems like a preparation for the masterful works of the past two decades which dominate this lop-sided retrospective.

It would be foolish to pretend that being a woman wasn’t a career disadvantage in Australia but one can’t blame mere sexism for the neglect Cummings endured. Her early work is skilful enough but rarely inspired. In these paintings she is always under the spell of Bonnard and Matisse.

In the later work we encounter a fully-formed artist who has assimilated many different influences to arrive at an original vision. The change coincides with a 1990 move to the bushland suburb of Wedderburn on the outskirts of Sydney; and an embrace of gestural abstraction, as the subjects of her paintings became less important than the way in which they were painted.

The move to Wedderburn first found expression in a series of grey-green paintings that reflected the distinctive tones of the bush. In the manner in which they captured the flickering light and dense shadows of the forest these were breakthrough works. The pastel colours of the past had been replaced by the tough, earthy palette of an artist who had decided to get serious.

By the end of the century Cummings had progressed beyond the subdued bushland greys. Her travels to different parts of Australia and further afield stimulated a more adventurous approach to light and colour. Her rapid progress meant that each new exhibition at the King St. Gallery from about the year 2000 became an eagerly anticipated event.

Elisabeth Cummings, 'Arkaroola Landscape' (2004) Collection: Art Gallery of NSW

Elisabeth Cummings, ‘Arkaroola Landscape’ (2004) Collection: Art Gallery of NSW

By 2005 one might have thought Cummings’s reputation was well established, but the Trustees of the AGNSW still managed to reject her Arkaroola landscape (2004) from that year’s Wynne Prize. When curator Barry Pearce acquired the work for the gallery’s permanent collection, from that year’s Salon des Refusés, it was a powerful comment on the Trustees’ blindness for landscape.

Arkaroola landscape looks just as impressive today in its evocation of an ancient, brooding Outback. Alongside some of the more vibrant pictures in this show it feels slightly menacing, as if Cummings was trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar environment haunted by the ghosts of long-lost tribes.

Pardon the poetic licence, but it’s clear that Cummings is an artist who responds to a motif primarily on an emotional, intuitive level. She is not good at explaining her work because she finds the creative process to be mysterious, beyond the capacity of words.

She is often described as an “abstract painter”, but has never given up on subject matter. Her most turbulent pictures are recognisably landscapes, still lifes or interiors. In this she resembles artists such as Ian Fairweather or Willem De Kooning, whose example she has been able to digest without sacrificing her own virtuosity.

By her self-assessment Cummings says she has always been a “diffident” person, but in the late works her confidence is palpable. Over the years her relentless efforts in the studio have given her an instinctive understanding of the painted surface. She doesn’t need a theory of art to know exactly where a canvas has to be revised and reworked, or when it’s finished.

In major paintings such as White Billabong (2002) or Edge of the Simpson Desert diptych (2011), there have been countless additions and subtractions, producing pictures that are literally teeming with incident. Cummings has made sketches and colour notes in front of the motif then returned to the studio to reconstruct the scene from memory. As she works on such paintings, over weeks and months, a composition will take on a life of its own. What began as a mental snapshot of a specific place becomes a dialogue – perhaps a combat – between different parts of the picture.

She allows herself the freedom to exaggerate or tone down colours, to emphasise areas of detail or emptiness. One is always conscious of the drawing that underpins the brushwork. The pencil lines are not only an important part of the piece, they appear to orchestrate the use of colour. This suggestive, symbiotic relationship between line and colour is a kind of grace that occurs in the career of a mature artist.

One finds the same call-and-response approach in the very different canvases of Michael Johnson, an artist who is sensitive to the landscape but sees himself as an abstract painter. The briefest study of Cummings’s work confirms that she is essentially a figurative artist, even in a picture such as Crossing Open Ground (1994) which pushes the boundaries to the very limit. In an interview in the monograph, Cummings tells Sioux Garside she was thinking of “a big red space” – an expanse of red earth in which shadows and vegetation are added in the most schematic fashion.

Elisabeth Cummings, 'Crossing Open Ground' (1994)

Elisabeth Cummings, ‘Crossing Open Ground’ (1994)

Cummings has tried to paint an emotional sensation rather than an observation. She wants to capture what it felt like to be in such a place in a way that can’t be conveyed by any likeness. This is the meaning of the show’s subtitle: Interior Landscapes. We are not looking at a landscape per se, but a landscape transformed by a sensibility, a temperament – or any other word one might use to describe the mechanism by which an artist makes us see the world in a new way.

For every painting in which Cummings pushes the image towards extinction, there are many more in which she takes pleasure in piling up identifiable objects. In the large canvas, Journey through the studio (2004), we can see a stove, crumpled fabric draped on furniture, an open book, a dog, a series of small bowls and cups on a shelf, even a tiny reproduction of a striped picture by Sean Scully.

Elisabeth Cummings, 'Journey Through the Studio' (2004)

Elisabeth Cummings, ‘Journey Through the Studio’ (2004)


What lifts this catalogue of objects into another dimension are the heavily worked planes of red in the left-hand panel of the diptych, and the soft dappled colours that animate each component. We hardly notice the rigidly geometric nature of the composition because there is so much colour and movement for the eye to absorb. It’s a genuine “journey”, but there is no fixed destination, only a constant, restless circulation.

Although she sticks to the time-honoured genres there is an amazing energy in the best of Cummings’s work. It’s a quality that seems to have crept up in her on over the years, as if age and experience have bequeathed her an ever-greater creative freedom. She makes one feel that for the true artist, youth is a condition that needs to be disposed of as quickly as possible.

Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes
S.H.Ervin Gallery
26 May – 23 July, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 June, 2017