April 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Life’s work

By Quentin Sprague
Illustration
Artist Jan Senbergs prepares for his NGV retrospective

Jan Senbergs sits surrounded by the ephemera of his life’s work: folders of correspondence, press clippings, catalogues and plastic sleeves of 35mm slides that document his five-decade career as a painter.

“It’s not usually this disorderly,” Senbergs says, his striped shirt spilling over rumpled jeans and a pair of blue slip-ons poking out from frayed hems. His wiry, white hair is tousled and he speaks quietly, with a voice worn thin. He is at the pointy end of preparations for his career retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne (Jan Senbergs: Observation–Imagination, until 12 June), and has been rummaging through his records for a stray slide – an image of a painting of Sydney Harbour that hangs, of all places, in the Australian corporate headquarters of McDonald’s.

Senbergs’ studio is a converted North Melbourne warehouse that was a jazz club before he and his wife, Helen, bought it 15 years ago and moved in upstairs. Here are two of the large framed drawings of African carvings that hold an iconic place in Senbergs’ oeuvre; over there are large racks of paintings straining at their seams. On the wall to the left is a small abstract by Senbergs’ late friend and contemporary Robert Jacks, and across from that a ceremonial dance board by Rover Thomas, the late painter from Gija country in the East Kimberley. Senbergs picked it up by chance in 1986, at a roadhouse in the Northern Territory town of Katherine.

Janis Feliks Senbergs was born in Latvia in 1939. His life changed in an instant at age five, when he witnessed his father being shot at the front door of his childhood home. Fleeing with his mother, grandmother and sister, he lived in refugee camps across Europe, and at age ten landed at Port Melbourne aboard an American troop carrier repurposed as postwar migrant transport. From a train window he glimpsed the mosque-like turret of the Forum Theatre and wondered where exactly they had arrived.

At Bonegilla migrant camp near Albury-Wodonga he was overcome by the delicious heat of summer. “The adults were always sort of moaning and groaning about it all,” Senbergs recalls, “but to me and the other kids it was fantastic. You drifted around the bushlands, heard your first kookaburra. It was lovely, the sense of relief.”

The family moved to Melbourne where Senbergs eventually attended Richmond Technical College. He left at 15 and commenced a screen-printing apprenticeship, but it was art that captured his attention. His early paintings are often heavy affairs – muted compositions that unspool in endless-seeming conduits. The titles are parable-like, their meaning veiled: Feeding the New Man (1965), The Overseer (1965), A Detached Figure (1963). The Whipper (1960) is named for a character from Kafka’s The Trial.

Senbergs was soon exhibiting at well-regarded galleries like Rudy Komon in Sydney, but not everyone understood what he was doing. Elwyn Lynn, an influential artist and critic of the time, saw in a 1966 exhibition nothing more than “flaccid cubism gone hermaphroditic”; a concurrent notice from the Australian called Senbergs’ paintings “harsh and unlovely, as if Wyndham Lewis had been forced to work in a bitumen factory”. The same year Senbergs won the coveted Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship.

“Critically you have your supporters and you have people who slam you,” Senbergs says with a smile. “You get used to it.”

Ultimately, fellow artists were most important. Leonard French was an early mentor; later, it was Fred Williams and John Brack, both of whom became Senbergs’ good friends. Brack bought an early work straight from the studio when he visited with collector Hal Hattam (“One of the ugliest paintings I think I ever made,” Senbergs recalls), but it was Brack’s simple interest in the younger artist’s work that mattered the most. Senbergs would seek his counsel throughout their friendship. “I’d always call John the artistic conscience of our generation,” he said. “He was very quiet, but potent.”

Senbergs received wider acclaim with a series of brittle-seeming visual bricolages that he exhibited at the 1973 São Paulo Art Biennial. They hold up surprisingly well, but as was the case with Williams and his iconic paintings of the You Yangs ranges south-west of Melbourne, real traction came when Senbergs returned to the landscape. In the late ’70s he rented a small studio in Port Melbourne, a stone’s throw from where he had alighted as a ten-year-old, and turned his eye to teeming industrial vistas. As he embedded himself in the world around him, the memory of Latvia retreated. “I always wanted to be seen as an Australian artist of Latvian heritage, rather than a Latvian artist in Australia.” Even so, it’s tempting to see something of the migrant’s narrative in the work that follows, as if the human density of European industrial cities is endlessly reconfigured in unfamiliar surrounds. The port takes shape as a mess of charcoal-black buildings; vast open-cut mines crowd pristine wilderness from the picture plane. A tumble of dilapidated infrastructure grips the coastline like a cancer. Roads reel outwards from cities, leading nowhere.

Curiosity finally took Senbergs back to Latvia in 2004. “I wanted to see what the place looked like,” he says. “I wanted to get an image.” He and Helen travelled via Moscow and St Petersburg to Latvia’s capital, Riga. They hired a car and drove north towards the Estonian border where the family had lived and Senbergs’ father had been in charge of a forestry detail.

“My mother used to show me photos of the house,” Senbergs recalls. “It was really quite nice – there was a garden and a sunroom – but when we got there the place was a wreck.”

It had been divided into a number of residences, the sunroom replaced by a tasteless besser-block extension. A curious neighbour peered at them through her curtains, and Senbergs approached. “I used to know someone who lived here once,” he offered by way of explanation. Senbergs took photographs and left.

On his return to Australia he painted Exit–Arrival (2005), in which the house hangs suspended above a tangle of roads. Melbourne lies clustered at the bottom, picked out in slashing brushstrokes against a dark background. Although the city represents the “arrival” of the title, the painting’s energy draws from the confusion of journeys that mass above its skyline. Melbourne appears as something of an afterthought, an arbitrary destination among many.

Senbergs has been directly involved in the development of Observation–Imagination, a process he characterises, in its recent stages at least, as one of “culling, not selecting”: “I could fill the space three or four times over, if I was allowed to do that,” he explains. He knows it will show him at both his best and worst – “A proper retrospective shows all aspects” – but he also knows he’s in good company: a Fred Williams retrospective graced the same space at NGV in 2012; in 2009 it was John Brack.

If he’s apprehensive about anything, it’s what comes next. Preparations for the exhibition have left his studio’s main wall bare. “Now that I’m 76 I feel almost clapped-out in some ways, but I’m still concerned about what I’m going to do afterwards,” he says.

“There’s all sorts of different things I’ve got in mind: as much as it’s behind you, you always think ahead.”

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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