Menzies Art Brands



With exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, and painting outdoors at Kew, Kosciuszko, and Werribee, the years 1975 and 1976 were busy ones for Fred Williams. It is from the paintings that Williams completed at Kew that Kew Billabong 1976 comes. Williams began the series, over thirty in number, on 30 April 1975. There were seven visits to the billabong with three to four paintings made on each visit. On 21 May Williams noted that the Billabong at Kew is splendid but on the other hand it is just a rubbish dump of all things I use a discarded rubber tyre in my painting as a motif (first ever) & I find it a great place to work.1

Whether painting outdoors or in the studio, Williams was most concerned with place and atmosphere. The landscape held his interest, but the concerns of composition and colour ultimately determined how paintings evolved. The dry and hard-won Werribee Gorge, and the snow bleak Mount Kosciuszko, were immersive locations; each different, but with aspects that engaged Williams and further developed his pictorial language.

The painting Forest Pond 1974 (Art Gallery of South Australia collection, Adelaide; see Figure 1) gives precedent to Williams Kew Billabong series. It is a large semi-square painting which is pendant to Forest Pond Triptych 1974 (Sydney Opera House Trust, Sydney). Both share a preoccupation with water and how light and reflection effect form. Williams Pond gives emphasis to the water by using a thick black line to divide foreground and forest. The band, like the rim of a cup, contains the pond and the subtleties within of detail and depth.

Kew Billabong was fifteen minutes from Williams home in Hawthorn. The proximity influenced how Williams painted and refined the series with each visit. Patrick McCaughey noted, It answered certain psychological needs at the time a retreat, a new starting point with some point of departure from previous work, not too difficult or too quickly ambitious in aim, and notably unpicturesque.2

The paintings progressed from early literal depictions to later refined iterations. To better understand the billabong Williams turned to printmaking. He was a consummate etcher and worked rapidly on various plates to bring a new dimension to his painting. The etching Yarra Billabong, Kew III 1975 mirrors the painting Kew Billabong with Old Tyre 1975 (private collection). The semi-submerged tyre appears as a motif, as does the wattle to the foreground. The higher contrast of the etching gave the scene a harder edge and the objective view that Williams sought.

There is also an etching, Yarra Billabong, Kew I 1975 that references the painting Kew Billabong II 1976 (private collection; see Figure 2). The composition in oil is one of the most important of the Billabong series. It is a painting in which reflection and colour are to the fore. Williams appears fully at ease with his subject. The wide band of water predominates in a composition that plays to both sides of the image. The foreground is quickly put in with strokes of pink, green, and lilac. The central trees rise from the riverbank, the wattle in counterpoint to the forked sapling. The water flows laterally as our eye goes to the far bank where bright green dashes complement those of the foreground. The glare of the white-grey pigment to the centre recalls the brightness of Williams etchings but more so, the shallow reflections that play against the deep mauve of the rushes, give the painting its rhythm.

Kew Billabong 1976 is the high point of the billabong series. The painting has been unseen for 45 years and exhibited only twice, in 1978, in Perth and in Adelaide, where it was purchased by the current owner. The painting was begun in the studio in April 1976 where Williams was adding weight to the series, often reworking paintings done in the field. On 7 May 1976 he wrote I have left the paint very thick
I will enjoy working on them [again] they are quite dry being 12 months old.3

Kew Billabong brings together the various pictorial concerns that Williams faced when painting at Kew. The banding of the water is consistent but less distinct and expands laterally to meet the horizontal format of the painting. The shallow foreground takes the eye into broader space - front to back. The view is more in close-up than previously seen with less emphasis on how space is delineated. In the upper band there are trees, one fallen, squid-like in shape, and the other two, carefully outlined, to separate them from vegetation. Through the central band, the water and foliage are masterful. It is one of the great passages of any Williams painting in its surety and beauty. Colour is applied using small and large marks, and with freely handled dashes. Shapes in black appear across the central band but are never literal and increasingly less so as nature takes its course.

Williams palette is so various it bespeaks a freedom unseen in the series. The colour of Kew Billabong is myriad, and the great beauty of the painting has evolved from Williams matching his colour to the light fall. Williams had no obvious program; his choice of colour was instinctual, and the colour used was what he saw in the billabong a mix of green, blues and yellow, lavender and purple - and they were to go in.
Williams spoke of landscape in meditative terms and how as an artist he wanted the landscape to come to him. From the first images to the last, the billabong paintings became increasingly and unselfconsciously about the act of painting. Its majesty is confirmed by the free rein that Williams has given to iconography and colour. There is much warmth to the painting which suggests that Williams had reached an end point. If Kew Billabong could be thought of, as Patrick McCaughey suggested, as a retreat, then Williams has made his own walled garden, and we are those privileged to enter it. There is life here, amidst the colour and dry damp of the billabong, and a voice that sings through our perceptions of time and place.

1. Fred Williams, quoted in Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p.199
2. McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-1982, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2008, p.285
3. Mollison, J., op. cit., p.203

Brett Ballard

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