31. FRED WILLIAMS
Fred Williams returned to Australia from London in 1957 after six years of training at the Chelsea Art School. During this time, Williams availed himself to every opportunity to visit the city’s museums and galleries to absorb the works of both the old and modern masters. Artists such as Cézanne (1839-1906), Courbet (1819-1877), Matisse (1869-1954) and the Cubists provided a verdant source of inspiration for Williams, who studied details such as the various types of canvas to the diversities of paint and varnish, the modes of application and the different compositional devices used.
Williams had left as a student and returned, early in 1957, an artist. He was determined to make a living as an artist - not a teacher or a part-time painter, but as a full-time professional. Not long after his return to Australia he embarked upon his first major series of landscape paintings. His return to a vast, rural environment had caused Williams to shift his focus from figurative subjects to the uniquely Australian landscape which now surrounded him.
‘I don’t want to give the impression that I love the bush…I simply want to paint pictures from it.’1
Williams painted with a renewed sense of purpose and a revived interest in the native forms found in the Australian bush, these were in stark contrast to the lush, green English countryside he had recently left. Williams began incorporating motifs into his landscape paintings which he had encountered in the works of the European painters – in particular, Cézanne’s (1838-1906) slender trees and geometric rocks. Williams had exhibitions of his landscape works at Tam and Ann Purves’ newly opened Australian Galleries in Melbourne in 1957 and 1958, where his work received critical acclaim.
From 1961-63, the Sherbrooke and Echuca sapling forests dominated Williams’ art. He worked with extraordinary concentration and energy during this period, producing more works on the forest theme than any other single subject. In 1966, Williams returned to the theme, experimenting with the dynamic spatial relationships within forests. In Landscape, Williams paints an abstracted view of the forest; the composition is totally ambiguous with no definition between the vertical trees and the spaces between them. The entire composition is given over to a flat picture plane without a foreground, middle ground or background – the artist distils the essential elements of the forest with the fine, vertical black lines of the saplings. His forest works are some of the most abstract and experimental of his career; Williams was incorporating the exciting, modern techniques and practices of the art he experienced first-hand while in Europe into the landscapes of his native Australia.
Patrick McCaughey describes here the works from this period, ‘the general direction of the series is clear. Formally, Williams moved towards a mode where the order, discipline and abstraction he sought in Cubism could be joined with the rich, painterly touch which was so essentially a part of his gift. Steadily, thought and instinct would come together as rarely before in the landscapes. The story of the Forest series is as much the story of the expansion of Williams’ expressive powers in landscape painting as of growing formal mastery. Williams explores two opposing interpretations of the bush; airless, sunless and oppressive on the one hand, and on the other luminous, filled with light and heat’.2
Williams returned to the Forest theme numerous times during the 1960s, exploring it through etchings, watercolours, gouaches and oils, demonstrating the significance and enthusiasm the artist felt for the subject. The Forest paintings allowed Williams to paint freely and abundantly, representing a turning point in the artist’s career. The paintings are equally remarkable for their formal mastery and the originality of their vision.
1. Armstrong, I., interview with the artist, cited in Mollison, J., Fred Williams 1927 – 1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, p.142
2. McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-82, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, p.142
Caroline Jones MArtAdmin.