May 2009

Arts & Letters

Castaway

By Sebastian Smee
Murray Bail’s ‘Fairweather’

Starting out as an art critic for newspapers, in the early '90s, I remember well the way people talked about Murray Bail's 1981 monograph on Ian Fairweather. Long out of print, it had to be borrowed from jealous owners or read in a library. Even those who'd never read the work muttered admiring things about it. It was the one great book on an Australian artist, they said. Certainly, author and subject seemed ideally suited: Bail, the aloof and notoriously unhurried novelist; Fairweather, the peripatetic loner who had survived a suicidal raft voyage across the Timor Sea. Slow burners, both. It sounded like a perfect match.

Murdoch Books, by reprinting the book and, with Bail's deep involvement, substantially improving it, has done Australian art a great service. The title has been changed, from Ian Fairweather to Fairweather (280pp; $125); 50 plates have been removed but 79 more added, many of them never previously reproduced. They are almost entirely in colour, and a handful of the larger, more impressive paintings have their own gatefolds. Both the reproductions and Bail's revamped text place new emphasis on the works Fairweather made after his 1952 raft voyage - works that Bail and many others regard as the high point of Fairweather's achievement. And various other subtle adjustments have been made, including an attempt to de-emphasise the influence of Aboriginal art on Fairweather, which Bail says he overstated in the first edition.

How does it read in 2009, then, this freshly renovated and handsomely presented monograph? Less well than I had hoped. It tells a wonderful story, and Bail deserves enormous credit for his research, for piecing it all together and for staying on the case - few twentieth-century artists' lives can have been more difficult to describe, let alone make sense of. But something about the telling feels stilted and, at times, deeply discouraging. The book is almost perversely cursory when discussing important aspects of Fairweather's life. On the other hand, it is frustratingly vague when talking about the work. I can guess why. Given Fairweather's far-fetched and far-flung life, Bail must have sensed that any hint of melodrama in his account risked interfering with his deeper project: establishing the greatness of Fairweather's art. He has written a monograph, after all, not a biography.

Robert Hughes warned of the problem, in 1966, when he wrote, "Fairweather's reputation is confused by the fact that he is excellent copy." And yet, as Bail admits in his original preface (reprinted in this new edition), "Fairweather - more than most artists - was an autobiographical painter, often to a neurotic degree." Thus, getting the life right is important.

By and large, Bail does it well. The book deals briefly but entertainingly with the early life: Fairweather's capture in the opening days of World War I and his long years as a POW ("among the happiest of his life"), much of his time spent on "the very British occupations of amateur theatricals and planning escapes". A change took place after his return to England, when the "handsome, dapper" young man, his face a "paradoxical mix of worldliness and pale blue-eyed innocence", became "nervy, inclined to secrecy". Fairweather had seen almost no action, so it seems unlikely that he was traumatised. Instead, Bail raises the possibility - "strong, though offered cautiously" - that he was suffering the onset of schizophrenia.

Strangely, we hear no more of this. Nor is any evidence offered, beyond the proposition that "He was the right age for it" and that "in photographs taken months apart, and in his subsequent behaviour, something has happened to him." But what if Bail is right? There is abundant circumstantial evidence from throughout Fairweather's life of paranoia, irrational decision-making and a sense of crushing isolation. If Fairweather did suffer from schizophrenia, or some other serious mental illness, how might this affect our thinking about his work? Would we be more or less generous in our judgement of it?

Such questions may well turn out to be fruitless, yet they scratch at a raw spot in Fairweather's reputation: the suspicion that while his painting was in many ways remarkable, aspects of it "remain hermetically sealed", as Hughes wrote of Fairweather's abstract period. (The young Hughes was in other ways an unreserved admirer, and wrote beautifully about Fairweather.) Fairweather's painting has never had broad appeal. Fellow artists have long adored him, but, as Bail writes, "the rest of the world scarcely knew, or even knows now, of his existence." His work needs championing, as his admirers have always known.

Bail sets himself to the task. He tells us how Fairweather went to study at the Slade School in London, how he fell for late Turner and Rembrandt ("it was the sheer quality of his achievement," says Bail, unhelpfully, of Rembrandt), travelled around Germany and Norway (inspired by a Knut Hamsun novel: a great nugget of information), and tried to establish himself as a practising artist. It took him a painfully long time to hit his stride. Estranged from his family ("I do not wish them to know of me any more," wrote Fairweather), he moved to Canada, worked as a labourer and near-starved, before boarding a Japanese ship bound for Shanghai. In China, Fairweather wrote, he "shrank from the European's aggressive individuality". His experience there became, Bail tells us, "the source of a great nostalgia that [he] was to translate and investigate in his art for the remainder of his long life" - a key summation.

The author paints an amusing picture of Melbourne in 1934, the year Fairweather arrived. "Architecturally ponderous - mercantile - it showed what was possible when Anglo-Saxons and Protestants remote from civilisation were given their heads." Nonetheless, Melbourne's effect on Fairweather was profound. Despite the city's "philistine" atmosphere, the artists there were supportive. And Fairweather had his first meaningful contact with the work of Cézanne - a critical encounter, as it was for so many twentieth-century artists.

He could not, however, stand still, and soon was off again: the Philippines, Shanghai and Peking. The following year, 1936, it was Japan, Formosa (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Tawau, Jakarta (where he was jailed), Makassar, and so on. Untitled paintings were sent to England wrapped around bamboo poles. That year he had his first London exhibition, at the Redfern Gallery. Incredibly, it was not until Fairweather was in his seventies that he attended an exhibition of his own work. And, writes Bail, "He may well never have seen a retrospective exhibition of any artist."

The tribulations he had to endure, or brought upon himself, almost defy belief. A cut on his little finger became septic and the digit needed to be partially amputated. He left a cigarette on his bed and lost a year's work in the ensuing fire. Later, in Brisbane, an ill-advised choice of materials meant he lost two-and-a-half years' work. He got lead poisoning and became allergic to oils. He was repeatedly turned away from countries he tried to enter. As World War II raged Fairweather did his best to enlist, but the British Army failed to find much use for him and he ended up back in Melbourne. He sent 130 gouaches to London and they arrived all stuck together: "not one could be saved." A bushfire on Bribie Island, where he eventually settled, destroyed his tent and all his belongings. He lived the final decades of his life without running water, electricity or sewerage.

While living on the outskirts of Cairns, after the war, Fairweather cultivated solitude to an almost pathological degree: "When anyone approached from across the bay he was known to rush into the bush and hide." And then, in 1952, he decided to build a raft and push off from Darwin into the Timor Sea. Bail insists the raft trip was a turning point: "If he had perished in 1952 - and he almost did - perhaps he would have surfaced on occasions as one among several hundred who came late to post-impressionism, with the saving grace of having dabbled in chinoiserie ..."

After the raft trip, Fairweather's work gained in "confidence, calmness and individuality", and possessed a "less decorative air". His brushwork relaxed. The brush's movements suggested searching, rather than spontaneity. His work took on a quality of dignity, secrecy and grandeur. Dismayingly, though, Bail devotes no more than a short paragraph to the trip itself, and less than a page to its background and aftermath. This cursory account of such a critical experience is matched by a brittleness in commentaries on the post-1952 art. Occasionally, when he acknowledges the interpenetration of the life and the art, Bail can be brilliant: "It was as if he had chosen complication in his work to match or even provoke disappointment in the place he had chosen to live and work." Or elsewhere, in a description that brings to mind Pierre Bonnard: "The finest of Fairweather's paintings are meditations on experiences, usually experiences long past, as if the present were far too unpleasant."

But on the whole, the life and the work are kept sternly apart. As a result, Bail finds himself falling back on bald assertions. "We are not expected to ‘fathom' an abstract painting," we are told: "gaining something from the general aura is enough." Before another painting, "we see, become conscious of, that indefinable sensation which is to be found in the stillness of the best abstract art." But is it satisfactory to mention a sensation only to assert that it is indefinable? And anyway, is great abstract art always still? Surely not, except in the most literal sense.

Bail is constantly declaring things without explaining them. We repeatedly hear that Fairweather's best work was influenced by cubism, but are never told what aspect of cubism he took on, or how he made it his own. What does it mean to say, of an earlier painting, that "the line, although distinctive, is tonal"? Here and elsewhere, we are left hanging.

Again and again we hear that Fairweather is a "subtle" or "sophisticated" colourist. And yet we never read any substantial analysis of Fairweather's colour, or anything to argue against our growing sense, as we turn the pages, that he was fairly restricted in his use of colour, favouring browns, greys and blues to an unusual degree. This does not mean Fairweather was not a subtle or sophisticated colourist, but what might such a description mean? He was obviously a linear artist, heavily influenced by Chinese calligraphy, so how did his colour interact with his line work? Did it help create atmosphere, a sense of space? Or did his selections of soft, pale, chalky hues wedged provisionally and often ambiguously between cool, dark grounds, creamy overlays and thick lines that sit on the surface suggest particular moods or meanings - and how might these be described?

Bail makes big claims for the spirituality and religious force of Fairweather's art, especially the late work. But, beyond his description of the artist's overnight stay in a monastery on T'ai Shan, we hear next to nothing about Fairweather's beliefs. What were they? How did they make themselves felt in his painting? These questions are crucial, because the quality of religiosity is one of the pillars upon which Bail erects his claim for Fairweather's greatness. It is, of course, very difficult to write about modern painting that veers towards abstraction, and more difficult still to write about spirituality. This book, so full of fine reproductions of Fairweather's works, too often sidesteps such problems with vague analyses and a haughty tone.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.

@SebastianSmee

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