42. FREDERICK McCUBBIN
Frederick McCubbin’s Pastoral was painted in 1904 – the same year as his most famous and much-loved The Pioneer, now held in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Furthermore, McCubbin’s Pastoral was on special loan to the Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria from 2010 to 2016.
These two noteworthy facts alone make the present painting more than deserving of serious attention.
More than that, McCubbin’s Pastoral shows the then forty-nine year old artist amply displaying all the hallmark aesthetic attributes that were immediately appreciated in those long-ago Post-Federation times and that have made him and his paintings so justly famous ever since.
It’s all there in this rare and seductively harmonised painting: that informal openness, the dappled jade-green lushness, the warm glow of filtered sunlight, the blurring movement of mountain air, the russet tones of brushy bracken, that shrubby beauty, those gum leaves ruffled by eucalyptus-scented breezes – all of it caught in a hazy green-hued gossamer setting that seems as relaxing and natural as billy-tea in The Bush. One thing is clear: McCubbin’s Pastoral packs associationalist “punch”.Even to this day if one stands in front of Camille Jean-Baptiste Corot’s (1796-1875) very subtle painting, The Bent Tree of 1855-60 in the National Gallery of Victoria one can appreciate why it was McCubbin’s favourite painting. He knew it well from reproductions in magazines and came to appreciate it more directly after the NGV acquired it in London in 1907. After all, Corot’s gem of a painting hung in the gallery above his downstairs workplace in the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, when McCubbin was its Drawing Master (1886-1917). Corot’s layered wafers of pigment, softened tone, funnelled emotional affect and his blurring of leaves and the ends of branches - all of these pictorial attributes had their effects upon McCubbin’s subsequent artistic techniques.
Corot used photography as an aid in the creation of his paintings. One can be unequivocal about this since normal human vision does not see movement as a blur – however, a camera does. In those times, soon after the invention of photography, cameras’ very long exposure times meant that action was not able to be “frozen” and any movement registered as smudge-like blurs on daguerreotypes and negative plates. For accomplished artists, this was manna from heaven as it allowed them to give the “impression” of movement in their paintings and drawings.
There is nothing to suggest that McCubbin used photography, but he certainly learned from Corot. The fact is that he learned from many, including Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), but the “soft” qualities of Corot’s feathered edges echoed in McCubbin’s best paintings from that time on.
However, McCubbin emulated Corot’s atmosphere-suggesting approach rather than copied. It is worth noting that Corot’s “coolness”, “sooty” colours and early morning 'silvery' stillness are absent from McCubbin’s highly Australianised painting where whirls of grey-greens, jade tones, lavenders and bark browns rule in an environment that is distinctly, and lovingly, Australian – one might say that McCubbin heard Corot’s song but changed
A softer “focus” and a new empathetic poeticism crept into McCubbin’s paintings. He became interested in the type of imagination and contemplative ease that radiates from the dappled light and scumbled surfaces of his Pastoral of 1904. Its unique difference is palpable – it glows with repose.
There is more that is notable about McCubbin’s Pastoral: if one looks closely at his much acclaimed and much loved painting The Pioneer in the National Gallery of Victoria, one notes that the paint handling and the rendering of form are distinctly naturalistic. The painting’s tones and colours are very close to those found in nature. Bark, leaves and the trunks of trees are painted in such a way as to make a visual “reading” of the painting easy and almost instantaneous. This is all as it should be, as the painting relies heavily upon its desired naturalism and nationalistic narrative. There is no doubt that he got it right, so much so that the painting’s light effects and its capture of the almost shadowless atmosphere of tall eucalypt forests are recognisable to almost any Australian.
On the other hand, McCubbin’s painting Pastoral of the same year is quite different. A careful inspection of the lower right of the right hand panel of The Pioneer triptych is most revealing. It displays a paint handling that is softer and more free than any other part of the large three-part artwork. One can safely surmise that McCubbin worked on this area of the painting last of all, since it displays a lighter and much more confident, almost spontaneous, touch that gives the section an open, less naturalistic “airy” atmospheric quality. Given the nature and pictorial location of this stylistic development, a connection and credible inference may be made: the lightness and colouristic emphases so evident in McCubbin’s Pastoral were born in or spun out of this more “painterly”, pictorially “open” section of the famous The Pioneer picture.
Consequently, McCubbin’s Pastoral may be comfortably considered as being stylistically twinned with his The Pioneer. Both of these paintings have painterly passages (one in part; the other in whole) that are full of light play and sparsely applied paint effects that give them shimmering appearances. These flickering effects enhance the almost out of focus and soft atmospheric qualities of the paintings. One might extend this further: upon closer comparison it becomes clear that, magnificent as it is, with its naturalistic technique, narrative content and wistful mood McCubbin’s The Pioneer is decidedly a nineteenth century painting and by contrast his Pastoral, with its looser touch, bravura and more free non-narrative response, has stepped into the twentieth century.
Upon close scrutiny it becomes clear just how far McCubbin had progressed along his own self-generated direction in the few months that separate the two major paintings of 1904 – each of them created three years before his first and only trip to London and Paris. An important observation may be made at this juncture: 1904 was a straddle year – one when McCubbin left one artistic phase and entered another; that is, one that witnessed an aesthetic advance from the narrative power of The Pioneer to the suffused magic of his Pastoral.
Furthermore, the compositional triptych format of McCubbin’s The Pioneer is constructed to allow the viewer to “read” the work from left to right in the normal Western narrative way – the painting is constructed in three parts that, separately and collectively, tell a story – it has an implied meaning - that is, its composition is conditioned by a step-by-step lateral reading.
By contrast McCubbin’s Pastoral, of the same year, is presented to the viewer as an unpeopled tableau-vivant – a living picture or a slice of life – that is, it is looked at all at once and taken-in as a symphonic totality rather than read in sectioned parts. One has meaning, the other has content – one is driven by a narrative, the other by visuality; one plays to the mind, the other to the eye. It is as though in The Pioneer three pages of a storybook are flipped over, whereas in Pastoral a translucent screen is displayed – one is a three punch pounding; the other a knockout. Each painting is equipped with a differently constructed visual guidance system.
It is interesting to consider how this “all-at-once” viewing of a translucent screen effect is orchestrated in McCubbin’s highly accomplished Pastoral of 1904 and how it its construction differs markedly from that found in his The Pioneer of the same year – each of them purportedly separated by a few months, at best.
McCubbin’s Pastoral of 1904 is wonderfully subtle in orchestration. This may be fully appreciated when, upon squinting the eyes, one notices that its central area is “held” in the picture plane by four diagonal lines. Two of these are suggested along the tonal changes that surround the depicted sheep in the lower truncated triangular section of the painting. The others make up the outlined triangular form that is repeated in the painting’s upper section so that the mass of green leaves leads the viewers’ eye downward to the central rectangular patch of distant land and sky.
This type of pictorial unpeeling reveals the secret of this gravitating painting: McCubbin’s Pastoral is constructed with an underpainted frame within a frame format – made up of four parallelograms with a central rectangle. The viewers’ gaze is channelled into this central rectangle – the painting radiates inwards; it has “zoom-in” focus. McCubbin did not just paint a “pretty” scene – more than that, he led the viewers’ eye and in doing so he aimed to educates it, and us, to the often overlooked funnelled-in beauties of its surrounding environment.
It is important to stress that McCubbin’s Pastoral is not a transitional work – it is much too sophisticated than that. It is a pivotal work – a turning-point work - a harbinger of things to come. The things that are realised in McCubbin’s Pastoral come to thread through and further energise his later closely related paintings such as Childhood Fancies of 1905 (sold by Deutscher~Menzies in 2007); Looking North From Mount Macedon of 1906 (sold by Menzies in 2013); Hauling Rails for a Fence, Mount Macedon of 1910 in the National Gallery of Australia Collection; Evening in the Bush of 1911 formerly in the Fosters Brewing Collection; The Sheltered Pool of 1911 (sold by Menzies in 2012); Hauling Timber, Macedon Heights of 1911 in the National Gallery of Victoria and the visually operatic Violet and Gold of 1911 in the National Gallery of Australia Collection – sold at auction by Menzies in 2007 for $1.32 million.
The composition of McCubbin’s Pastoral is dominated by jade green, sienna and umber clouds of freely applied paint that cleverly lead the eye into the centre of the canvas – it has, if the expression may be excused, a new ocular sophistication. This centralising pictorial movement strengthens the painting’s structure in ways that complement its associationalist features. The painting’s restricted palette of pigments is applied in small dry daubs and smears that give it a softer focus than any paint-loaded broad-brush application could achieve. This “broken touch” approach is particularly effective in rendering bracken, foliage, bark, leafy boughs and undergrowth where McCubbin presents a painterly range of tones and effects that is visually harmonious and colouristic in its visual interplay – it is as though McCubbin painted Pastoral of 1904 with a type of visual delight solely to capture its splendid light effects, implied depth and visual elegance. Its all at-a-glance completeness is remarkable.
Frederick McCubbin’s first-rate Pastoral of 1904 presents as a dazzling diorama of painterly effects. Its seductive, seen-through-a-screen-softness, heralds a new and important poeticism in McCubbin’s aesthetic program – one that stood well beyond the narrative naturalism of his earlier artistic grasp.
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Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne