Menzies Art Brands



Garry Shead is regarded as one of Australias finest narrative painters and printmakers. Along with Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, Shead has illuminated the Australian story and its myths to a wide and appreciative audience. His imagery has an ability to transcend the personal and reach into that universal realm of shared meaning. The inspiration behind one of Sheads enduring narrative series was the novel Kangaroo written by the great English novelist, essayist and poet, D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). Shead had developed an affinity with the writings of Lawrence during a trip to Papua New Guinea in 1968, and, in Kangaroo, this would trigger a resounding deep-felt response to the distinct Lawrentian narrative that Lawrence himself described as a thought-adventure.

After arriving in Fremantle in May 1922, Lawrence and his wife Frieda travelled to Sydney where they soon found themselves in the small coastal village of Thirroul, renting a seaside bungalow named Wyewurk. It was here the adventure began - an adventure that would last less than three months and produce the novel Kangaroo in just over six weeks.

The emotional complexity of the novel radiating from the protagonists, the poet/writer Richard Lovatt Somers and his wife Harriet; the simmering nationalist urges arising from the aftermath of World War I; the socialist ideal for a more equal society, all played out against the implacable backdrop of the bush. While the ocean and beach to the east reflected a feeling of purity and pleasure, the bush to the west remained a dark, impenetrable mystery - a brooding presence.

This contrasting impact is reflected in two fine disparate works by Shead. The Cliff 1992 is in many ways an antipodean seaside idyll with a twist; while The Visitation 1993-94 could be construed as a premonition of a long overdue reckoning. In the former work, the lovers are interrupted in their reverie by the presence of a raucous kookaburra. The scene is inspired by the steep cliff face at Thirroul overlooking the sea. Shead locates the cleansing sea as a place of respite of atonement. In addition, the menacing posture of the kookaburra implies an unwelcome presence. The lovers could be seen as intruders, ignorant of the deep time that has forged a unique and mysterious landscape and culture. The precarious proximity of the cliff face in relation to the lovers also signals the tenuous hold the European mindset has on this land.

The lovers could be seen as the protagonists of the novel, Richard and Harriet, or perhaps Lawrence himself and Frieda. Yet again, it could be Shead and his then wife, Judit. In any event, there appears to be a pesky kookaburra to contend with, adding a comic note to the clifftop coupling.

In The Visitation, Shead has painted a curiously disturbing composition. The presence of the male Indigenous figure standing on the veranda railing appears real yet strangely dreamlike. Probably from the local Dharawal people of the Illawarra, he is adorned in ceremonial markings signalling the gravity of his visit. Curiously, the symbolic image of Kangaroo, leader of the ultra-right movement who once dominated Lawrences thoughts, has now receded into the background. The local political intrigue and its concomitant of players falls to the wayside. The writers thoughts are now focused on the indigenous presence that has survived theft of lands, atrocities, and systematic marginalisation. In the novel, little detail is revealed about an Aboriginal presence in the landscape. Yet, early in the novel Richard Somers does confront the spirit of the place1 while walking in the west Australian bush. The anonymous narrator of the novel delves into Somers predicament as he confronts his fear of the bush: As a poet, [Somers] felt himself entitled to all kinds of emotions and sensations which an ordinary man would have repudiated. Then he let himself feel all sorts of things about the bush Waiting, waiting the bush seemed to be hoarily waiting. And he could not penetrate into its secret. He couldnt get at it. Nobody could get at it. What was it waiting for?2

To further appreciate Sheads The Visitation, one needs again to delve into the text of the novel, tracing Somers and Lawrences apprehension of the place: He felt it was watching and waiting. Following with certainty just behind his back. It might have reached a long black arm and gripped him. But no, it wanted to wait ... It was biding its time with a terrible, ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad intruding white men.3

Back on the veranda at Wyewurk, one senses the beginning of a dialogue between the invader and the usurped. Thirty years since Shead painted The Visitation, the nation is now finally focused on reconciliation. Perhaps in time, we will witness this far-off end.4

1. Lawrence, D., Kangaroo, HarperCollins, Sydney, 1995 (corrected edition), p.10
2. Ibid., p.9
3. Ibid., p.10
4. Ibid., p.10

Gavin Wilson
Gavin Wilson is an independent curator, landscape architect and author. His wide-ranging projects probe the interconnected themes of landscape and culture in the Australian experience.

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