On the eve of Australia Day, this week’s picture is Red Landscape by Fred Williams, who remains little known in this country but was one of the most gifted Australian artists of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the principal works from a group of paintings entitled “The Pilbara Series”, this large and vibrantly colourful image was inspired by the landscape of the Pilbara region in the extreme north west of Australia. Created in 1981, not long before the artist’s premature death from lung cancer, the picture can be seen at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Less far afield, “Fred Williams: An Australian Vision” is currently on display in the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department, until 25 April.
Williams flew to the Pilbara for the first time in May 1979, at the invitation of Sir Roderick Carnegie, family friend and chairman of the mining conglomerate CRA (now Rio Tinto). The area is rich in iron ore deposits, which partly accounts for the predominant deep red colour of its landscape. At the time the Pilbara had only recently been opened up to large-scale mining. Carnegie wondered if Williams might like to record its appearance before the landscape was altered by new settlements and increased population.
Partly because of the scale of Australian geography, Williams chose to make his first forays into the Pilbara by light aeroplane. Extracts from his diary convey his enthusiasm for its bare and rugged terrain:
“13 May 1979: On the way we run into a squall – the pilot comes down out of it in a cork-screw turn and the sight at about 500 feet was brilliant – flocks of parrots and lines of brumbies… running through the desert – very memorable… Chris takes me to a delightful spot. I paint for one and a half hours – too rushed.”
“16 May 1979: It is a superb day and the plane flies over Skew or Hidden Valley making three circuits so that I could get photos, and then does the same at Karratha Station… A geologist takes me to the top of Mount Price – deposits me by midday and comes back at 5.30. I have a delightful afternoon quietly watching the day and light go across the plain….
Williams made another visit in 1980 but did not begin work on the large-scale oils of “The Pilbara Series” until the spring of 1981. He painted them in his studio in Melbourne, using the many sketches and gouaches that he had completed on the spot, aerial photographs, and his memories of “quietly watching the day and light go across the plain.” He made no attempt to subordinate the outback to conventional picturesque formulae. In an attempt to catch its hardness, brilliance and implacable vastness, he rendered the landscape as an almost oppressive wall of red paint, surmounted by the thin light band of an almost featureless horizon. The effect is reminiscent of certain American “Colour Field Painting” of the 1960s and 1970s, with which Williams was certainly familiar. But his saturated field of red works to particularise rather than to abstract. This was his way of distilling his experiences of a real place into a single, monumental image. In order to recreate the play of light on the plain, the buzz and shimmer of the harsh sun, Williams thinned down his paint – a batch of pre-war Winsor & Newton vermilion that he had obtained from a supplier in Melbourne, and prized for its intensity of hue – and applied it in thin and slightly uneven washes. “There’s only a cupful of paint in it,” he once remarked about the picture. The effect is to destabilise the image, to give it the same shifting quality that he had observed while looking across the Pilbara from the mountain-top.
A few years after seeing “The Pilbara Series” in London – they were exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in 1988 – I travelled to Australia and visited the outback for myself. Admittedly, I did not go the Pilbara, but to the Western Desert. But nevertheless the extraordinarily intense red colour of the land, its immensity and the strong sense that every last spinifex or waif-like tree was engaged in a hard and stubborn struggle for survival – all these things made me think of Williams’ pictures, so much so that it was like travelling to a place which I felt I already knew. Sometimes you need to experience a painter’s milieu to appreciate how well he has caught it.
Williams was fascinated by the spindly vegetation of the Pilbara. Trees in Australia, he once remarked, looked as if they sat on the earth rather than grew from it. While in the Pilbara he spent quite some time, he said, “trying to work out a kind of symbol for the fascinating white trunked small gum”. The calligraphic shorthand that he developed to describe the tree occurs several times in Red Landscape, where it takes on almost anthropomorphic qualities, like a struggling figure. The rest of the vegetation is painted as smudges or blots and at the line of the horizon these become actually detached from the land, as if to suggest the vulnerability the painter saw in the landscape. Life persists in this bare and hard place, but looks as if it almost be blown away at any moment. I wonder if Williams was so sensitive to the ephemeral qualities of the landscape before him because he knew that he himself had so little time left. He died less than a year after painting Red Landscape.