Fred Williams in the You Yangs

September 21, 2017
Fred Williams, 'You Yangs Landscape' (1963)
Fred Williams, 'You Yangs Landscape' (1963)

Last year the Geelong Art Gallery held an exemplary survey of Arthur Streeton’s paintings made in Victoria’s Western Districts from 1920-32. The exhibition was a swansong for retiring director, Geoffrey Edwards. This year the gallery has marked the arrival of new director, Jason Smith, with a show of comparable importance: Fred Williams in the You Yangs.

Streeton (1867-1943) and Williams (1927-82) need to be considered together, as they are the artists who did more than any others to revolutionise Australian landscape painting in their respective eras. One could go even further and say they are this country’s most important landscapists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 1880s-90s the young Streeton captured the bright, distinctive quality of Australian sunshine in a way that has never been rivalled – even by the artist himself. In 1923 Streeton would return from a long stay in England with a subdued palette and brushwork that had lost the immediacy of his early work. By the time he began exploring the Western District Streeton was no longer a ground-breaker, although he remained a better painter than any of his peers.

Williams approached this landscape at a very different stage of his career. Although he was born and bred in Melbourne, the artist’s first glimpse of the You Yangs came in 1957, from the deck of the ocean liner on which he was returning from a five-year residence in London.

It’s the old story of the hare and the tortoise. If they were cricketers we’d say Streeton was a dasher while Williams was a grafter. Streeton in his 20s would launch himself into mid-air, but Williams spent those years building an immaculate launching pad. By the age of 30 Streeton’s most dynamic period was over, but Williams was only getting started.

The young Streeton was a prodigy who observed and painted his surroundings with amazing spontaneity. By contrast the young Williams undertook the most arduous apprenticeship as a painter, studying at both the National Gallery School and the George Bell School. In England he would attend classes at the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art, learning invaluable technical lessons while working part-time for the framer, Robert Savage.

Williams, who spent much of his time in England painting figures, is said to have begun thinking of the Australian landscape when the ship bringing him back from England docked in Western Australia. The passing view of the You Yangs reinforced his resolve. Shortly afterwards, in a now-legendary conversation with his friend John Brack, he announced: “I am going to paint the gum tree”.

In the late 1950s this was a unthinkable admission for a any aspiring painter. The gum tree had come to represent everything hidebound and reactionary for Australian artists who had gone over to the abstract camp.

Wiliams set out to make works that took account of abstraction but were still, unmistakably, landscapes. During his first few years back in Australia he painted in the forests of Mittagong, Sherbrooke and Echuca, creating pictures with a strongly vertical accent. By 1962 Williams was ready for a change, and thought back to the dry, scrubby country around the You Yangs.

In the local Aboriginal language You Yangs (or “Wurdi Youang”) means “mountain in the middle of a plain”. The reference is to a series of granite ridges rising above the Werribee Plain, 40 kilometres from Geelong. It’s not the kind of landscape that would have appealed to Claude Lorrain or any his followers that made their way to Australia. This sparse, un-Romantic countryside required an entirely new vision.

Fred Williams, 'You Yangs Landscape 1' (1963)

Fred Williams, ‘You Yangs Landscape 1′ (1963)

Most artists would have gone looking for something more picturesque, but Williams set himself the challenge of painting the Australian landscape as really was for most of the time – a landscape without obvious focal points. This meant the artist had to find a different way of structuring a composition. In the first of the You Yangs paintings, You Yangs Landscape (1963) and You Yangs Landscape 1 (1963), he settled on an inverted T-shape, around which thick dabs of oil paint were clustered. Most of these blobs contained hints of another colour, giving a surprising liveliness to the surface. The painting would be finished with a coat of varnish that aged gracefully, lending a mellow, brown glow to the work.

There was nothing like these paintings in 1962 and there is nothing like them today. Williams may have appeared to be flirting with formlessness, but nowadays – when so many artists ignore the most basic ideas of composition – the You Yangs paintings come across as tight, compact constructions. I don’t know if the artist was already laying strands of piano wire across the canvas to work out where he should put his marks, but in front of these paintings one soon becomes conscious of a network of invisible lines.

Fred Williams, 'You Yangs Pond' (1967) gouache on paper

Fred Williams, ‘You Yangs Pond’ (1967) gouache on paper

The first You Yangs paintings are Australian classics. They captured the landscape in a way that no artist had previously envisaged, and were abstract enough to satisfy the most progressive tastes.

For Williams it was only the start of a long association with this region that would see him producing more minimal works in 1968-69, and more conventional landscapes such as Old gum, You Yangs (1978). All the time he was making drawings, gouaches, watercolours and prints.

The most recent retrospective of Williams’s work, held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2011, was notable for the absence of prints. With artists who treat print-making as a sideline this might have been acceptable, but for Williams, painting and printmaking acted as a continuous conversation. Every series of paintings sent him back to the printmaking workshop. In turn, each series of prints helped him think through the problems of painting. One of the strengths of this modest You Yangs show is that it demonstrates this vital interaction between painting and printmaking.

There are few exhibitions that make one want to stand back and take a deep breath, but this is the feeling I had from the first room of You Yangs paintings. It’s the same feeling I’ve had looking at exhibitions by Cézanne, Picasso and Braque. From the oldest landscape in the world, an artist had created something we’d never seen before.

Fred Williams in the You Yangs
Geelong Art Gallery, until 5 November

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 September, 2017