William Robinson: Genesis

August 31, 2018
William Robinson, 'Equestrian self-portrait' (1987)

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

Perhaps the strangest part in these famous words from the Book of Genesis is the emphasis on the word “was”. It makes God sounds like an audio buff who’s just tested a new set of speakers, or a foodie visiting a fashionable restaurant. “Wow! That was good.”

It’s a long stretch of the bow to compare God’s separation of light from darkness with William Robinson’s early experiments in etching, but this is what Vanessa Van Oooyen does in her catalogue essay for the exhibition, William Robinson: Genesis, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. It may be a measure of just how much Robinson’s work is revered north of the border.

The same reverence is present in a “message” credited to Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, but possibly ghost-written by Sir Les Patterson, which tells us that Robinson “is one of the few Australian landscape artists working today”, suggesting that many thousands of others have gone out on strike.

Such unstinting praise must be gratifying but faintly embarrassing to Robinson himself. He was a late-bloomer, so cautious and self-critical that he was in his fifties before his work received national recognition. His entries in the Archibald Prize, which he won on two occasions, have been humorous, self-deprecating self-portraits that allowed scope for broad social satire. Whenever he speaks about himself Robinson is a study in modesty, although no artist achieves what he has without a healthy ego.

Genesis is an exhibition put together by Van Ooyen, who is Senior Curator of the William Robinson Gallery, on the grounds of the Queensland University of Technology. It may not be the first museum in Australia dedicated to a single artist (another of the Premier’s claims) but it’s easily the handsomest, being housed in the former Governor’s residence, completed in 1862.

The show has already toured to Washington D.C. and Paris before returning for seasons in Hamilton, Vic., and Sydney. It’s neither a retrospective nor a ‘greatest hits’ package, but a survey that looks at Robinson’s work in the fields of painting, drawing and printmaking from 1977-2006. The artist is known primarily for his paintings of the Queensland rain forest, but this show also includes work from his earlier Farmyard series; self-portraits (including the fabulous Equestrian self-portrait that won the Archibald in 1987), and lithographs showing whimsical views of Paris.

In many ways this is a more interesting show than a collection of indubitable masterpieces. We chart the evolution of the artist’s work, watching as he experiments with different media, experiencing small but significant breakthroughs. His first etchings, such as Untitled (Man walking a dog) (1979), are notable for their simplicity, putting the black silhouettes of a man and his dog against a white ground energised by lines and scuff marks on the plate. Already we can see Robinson’s sensitivity to the specific qualities of each medium.

Wiliam Robinson, ‘Goats and chooks’ (1980)

A series of conté drawings from that same year in which cows press their faces hard up against an imaginary lens, are original, inventive pieces made at a time when the avant-garde fringe was trying to work out what came after Modernism. Robinson had found his own, unconventional path and had begun work on the Farmyard paintings that would make his reputation in some quarters, and prompt others to write him off as a mere naïf.

There are only a handful of paintings in this show that relate to the Farmyards, but a set of drawings from the early 1980s in which cows weave their way between trees, or stand partially concealed in grassy hillocks, are eye-openers. Not even the most ideologically constipated avant-gardist could look at these pictures and imagine there was anything naïve about such an artist.

No less surprising are a pair of watercolour studies from 1989, titled Landscape 42 & 43. These works are probably Robinson’s closest approach to pure abstraction. The landscape has been broken down into a series of watery shapes, overlapping and interlocking. One thinks of artists such as Robert Delaunay and Frantisek Kupka, not names usually invoked in connection with Robinson.

William Robinson, ‘The blue pools, Springbrook to Beechmont’ (200)

These studies lead us by stages to the dominant oil painting in the exhibition, Creation landscape: The dome of space and time (2003-04), an awe-inspiring, 6.4-metre-long triptych. Robinson’s visionary Creation landscapes were without precedent in Australian art and perhaps world art. In this show we can study his watercolour sketches, lead-up drawings and written notes, revealing the thought processes behind these complex compositions.

The theme is continued in the painting, The sea with morning sun from Springbrook (1996) – a view of the forest saturated in light; and in four oils each titled Study for Creation landscape: Earth and sea (1995). These densely-worked canvases display the same vertiginous distortions of space found in the monumental triptychs. With his rainforest paintings Robinson wants us to feel enclosed and disorientated by the trees that loom on all sides, but the Earth and sea works adopt a God’s-eye perspective. We look down from the heavens at the oceans and land masses as they form.

William Robinson, ‘The sea with morning sun from Springbrook’ (1996)

This is where associations with the Book of Genesis start to make sense. The Creation may be a constant theme in indigenous art, where the deeds of ancient spirits are considered to be still alive in the present day, but very few western artists have been bold enough to take on such a vast and portentous subject.

Robinson probably owes his success in this endeavour to several factors. For a start, he is practising Catholic who brings a sense of faith to the task. Secondly, he is an accomplished musician who has learned from the grand ambitions of composers such as Bach and Beethoven. The musical – or fugal – nature of his compositions has often been noted.

Thirdly, he has avoided all the stage props that artists of the past brought to this theme. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam of 1512, a representative work of the Renaissance, puts humanity at the centre of the story. Robinson banishes human beings from these paintings, going back to the first sentences of the Old Testament when light is separated from darkness, Heaven and Earth from the Seas. There are no choruses of angels, no white-bearded Heavenly Father. Whenever figures appear in Robinson’s work they are invariably treated with wry humour.

In the Creation landscapes the drama of the elements becomes a channel for supernatural energies, yet there is no discrimination between audiences. These are works that may be appreciated by people of all faiths and creeds, and by those who see Nature itself as the supreme force in our world.

William Robinson: Genesis
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 3 August – 10 October, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September, 2018