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In 1999, when Garry Shead began working on the series The Artist and the Muse, he joined a tradition of established Australian artists who, throughout their oeuvres, have paid homage to the great painters of history. Arthur Boyds (1920-1999) Figure by a Creek 1972, is a salute to Rembrandts (1606-1669) Susannah Surprised by the Elders 1637,  Jeffrey Smarts (1921-2013) The Picnic 3 1980, is a modern day version of Manets (1832-1883) Djeurner sur lherbe, 1863;  Robert Dickerson (1924-2015) created an entire Homage to the Masters exhibition for the Johnstone Galleries in 1969, reworking iconic images created by Degas (1834-1915), Manet and Renoir (1841-1919); and Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) referenced innumerable artists from Bosch (1450-1516) to Matisse (1869-1954) throughout his career.

For Shead however, the series is more than a homage, or a simple reworking of masterpieces.  It is much more complex and personal.  The paintings portray, not the art of European Masters such as Goya (1746-1828), Velsquez (1599-1660) and Rembrandt, but the Masters themselves in the intimate act of creation. In each work the artist is accompanied by the mythical Muse of poetry, Erato, who appears to the Masters as a revelation, often floating around the studio and bathed in a radiant light.

The importance of the Muse for Shead is discussed by Sasha Grishin, in his monograph on the artist, Garry Shead and the Erotic Muse, On the most basic level I have been arguing that Shead felt himself to be one of the few who consciously sought out Erato, and that at certain periods in his life he felt that he both saw her and heard her and that he in a sense was a willing medium through which her inspiration could act.1

The Artist and the Muse series can thus be read as autobiographical, charting the importance of the Erato in Sheads own creative process.

Shead is an artist who in most instances has to enter the work by putting himself into the composition whether he be Lawrence, Prince Philip, a dancer or, in this case, an artist.  However by entering a composition , this does not imply that he owns it, as painting grows through its own internal logic and momentum; he enters it to give it life, then participates in the delight and agony of its growth and development.  On one level, these are strangely autobiographical paintings where, in a not too unkindly manner, we can note that we encounter the artist in period dress voyeuristically exploring the world of the Old Masters.2

In The Jealous Muse (Rembrandt) 2000, Shead depicts strong forces at play between the artist, Erato and the Muse-model, who poses for the artist. In a rare moment of truth, the viewer is permitted to share the artists own creative struggle, the urge to create, tempered by the anxiety of failure. The artists gaze is concentrated solely on his Muse-model as she levitates before him, dream-like. A similar composition was employed by Shead in the larger painting, The Studio 2001, which was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the same year.

1.Grishin, S., Garry Shead and the Erotic Muse, Craftsman House, Sydney 2001, p.164
2. ibid, p.174

Staff Writer

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