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Hal Hattam: redefining the Australian beach scene

By Sophie Cunningham
An exhibition showcases a painter who took an untrodden path though a familiar landscape

Given that we’re a nation that lives, for the most part, clustered along the coast, it seems strange that paintings of beaches with their hard, bright light, their wide open spaces, are often not taken seriously. Or certainly weren’t in the past. The implication seemed to be that art should work with claustrophobia and the Gothic to be authentic. One of the refreshing aspects of Hal Hattam’s work, now showing in Paintings at Eastgate Gallery, in Hawthorn, Victoria, until 16 December, is that it’s to the beach that Hattam turned for inspiration, and it is these works that are his significant contribution to Australian art.

Hattam was an obstetrician, art collector and artist whose work was exhibited regularly from 1960 until his death in 1994. A man who was paid in paintings when he delivered the babies of artists. He had a big personality and stubby fingers (as did Picasso, he was fond of telling people). From the 1950s onwards, he and his wife, Kate, transformed their house in Cromwell Road, South Yarra, into a salon. The two acquired many works by artists in their circle and beyond. Credited as the first private collectors of Fred Williams’ art, they built up a substantial collection of his paintings from 1958 onwards. Hattam was the subject of significant portraits by major artists including Williams, John Brack and Clifton Pugh, as was Kate by Pugh.

Despite this sociability, the photographs he took were of landscapes rather than people. His daughter, the artist Katherine Hattam, remembers her father taking out a disposable camera to photograph the Sturt’s desert pea, finishing the roll, then throwing the film over his shoulder, expecting developed pictures to magically turn up at their chemist. Tents put up on the Nullarbor during family excursions, then abandoned because Hattam couldn’t figure out how to get them down. These gestures speak of vagueness and impatience, but are also quite surreal. Some of that strange quality is present in his paintings.

In 2003, a tribute retrospective of Hattam’s work was held at Heide Museum of Modern Art. At the time, Patrick McCaughey wrote that Hattam’s subject matter was “undisturbed by any human presence. The sand is untrodden. The beach occupies virtually the entire canvas; it absorbs the total consciousness of the painter and the viewer, in turn.” In choosing blue skies, scrubby trees, sparse beaches and coastal fringes, in focusing on the sandy space between the dunes and the water’s edge, Hattam worked against the impulses of his friends. These included fellow artists John Perceval, Williams, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Brack and Pugh. Hattam joined Williams and Perceval on painting excursions during seminal periods in those painters’ careers, from the mid to late 1950s, and it was at this time he started painting seriously. These trips took them to Williamstown, the Dandenongs and the You Yangs, and the friendships and experiences were all that he had by way of training. Hattam was self-taught, and as a result he developed his own distinctive style using oils, gouaches, and drawings. His work, along with that of Williams and Len French, was considered for the Antipodean show in 1959. All three were rejected, which, given that the Antipodeans were avowedly anti-modernist, is hardly surprising. Instead, Hattam’s first exhibition ended up being at Joseph Brown Galleries, in 1960. As you walk around Paintings, you can pick that earlier work when you look at paintings such as Honeysuckle Point (1973). The palette is richer, the use of oil paint heavier, and there is more focus on bush and plant life.

His shift to seascapes speaks of an attraction to the margins. Poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe has talked of Hattam’s “struggle to escape from the medical life … gradually making himself an inhabitant of that margin, the sea’s fringe”. His paintings of Shoreham and Fraser Island are particularly expressive of this. Such subject matter also led to his characteristic use of space. Space that isn’t, as his grandson William Mackinnon described this void in a recent lecture. If you look into his whites, there “are sensual washes and stains of pink, eggshell and soft hues”. The artist Michel Kemp has talked of Hattam’s palette being warm, despite his use of blues and whites, rather than cold, suggesting this is because of the economy and simplicity of his composition. As well as shifts in tone, there is great textual dexterity. In Hattam’s hands, oil is not just sculptural – though it can be – but is as delicate as gossamer, more akin to gouache or watercolour. As Mackinnon says, “subtle washes are the counterpoint to dark and spiky patches of delicious intensity of extruded oil paint straight from the tube”.

To paint the coastline, you have to embrace light and it was the light that distinguished Australia from Hattam’s childhood homeland, Scotland, from which he emigrated at the age of seven. As a young man, he served in the war as a medical officer, and then returned to Britain. It was there he met and married Kate and they returned together to Australia in 1948. He never left its shores again.

At the show’s launch, Dr Mike Richards described Hattam’s response to Australian light when the would-be artist arrived in Australia as a child. “I had to squint,” Hattam said. “The intensity was extreme.” As he reacquainted himself with Australia, he was also struck by the wide horizons and dazzling stretches of sand, so different from the beaches of Europe. This attraction to space and light led to an idiosyncratic form of abstraction, though ragged shrub often intrudes from the sides, anchoring the painting back into some form of reality. Horizons, shorelines and dunes form a series of shapes, which you don’t, at first, register as beach at all. There are geometric bodies of water; the sharp lines of beach, water and sky; the curve of dunes.

In Lake Wabby (1975), conventional perspective is abandoned and the coastal lake hangs, as if on a clothesline, from a thin strip of ocean on the top edge of the canvas. The pale water of the lake takes up the centre of the picture. The painting is not just about the fringe, but its content is on the fringe, as the eye is forced to the edges of the canvas. These works are, as Mackinnon says, “about the act of painting itself”. In Back Beach, Robe, pale sand fills up most of the canvas, pushing it towards the work of minimalists and avant-garde artists such as Dale Hickey, Robert Jacks and Robert Hunter whom Hattam so admired. Green Water is a series of stripes, not quite reduced simply to colour and light but heading in the direction of the North American painters of the desert, such as Agnes Martin, though without their obsessive precision. These are paintings that evoke landscape without being slavish imitations of any actual place, paintings that throb and hum, loud as cicadas in summer.

Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Warning: The story of Cyclone Tracy.

@sophiec

“Back Beach, Robe”, oil on canvas

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