Menzies Art Brands



In Garry Sheads oeuvre, the 1990s was a golden period for his art.  It was a time when he attained national recognition with his D.H Lawrence series and then The Royal Suite.  In 1993 he was awarded the Archibald Prize for his amazingly expressionistic portrait of Tom Thompson and his art was commanding respect from collectors and within the broader arts community.

The development of Garry Sheads art can be viewed as a constant progression or search for inspiration in the elusive Muse Erato.  Finding early guidance in D.H Lawrence, Shead warmed to the writers pronouncement A picture lives with the life you put into it.  If you put no life into it no thrill, no concentration of delight or passion of visual discovery then the picture is dead, like so many canvases, no matter how much thorough and scientific work is put in it.  With Shead it is precisely the question of the inner life of a painting that is central to his art making, and this inner life is dependent on inspiration and on Erato.  Lawrence continues, this inner life or visionary awareness needs a purity of spirit, a sloughing of vulgar sensation and vulgar interest, and above all, vulgar contact, that few people know how to perform [Art] is treated as if it were a science, which it is not.  Art is a form of religion, minus the Ten Commandment business, which is sociological.  Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness and atonement meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object but is the great atonement in delight, for I can never look on art save as a form of delight.1

For Shead, the notion that art is a religion and a total commitment, is an absolute given.  One constant thread which re-occurs throughout his diaries is that he feels that he is married to art, to his Muse, while the rest of life is something which has to fit around this.  It was when he was aged in his late fifties and was working at the height of his powers he embarked on a small series of paintings that dealt specifically with the theme of the artist and his Muse.

The Studio, 2001 is the largest of the three major paintings that Shead completed over the summer of 2000/2001.  The other two Artist and the Muse (Rembrandt), 2000 and Artist and the Muse (Velzquez), 2000 are held in private collections. They are, in a way, very adventurous paintings, but also self-conscious works where Shead in quite an analytical manner investigates the appearance and role of Erato.

The Artist and the Muse series appears to grow almost seamlessly out of the earlier Dancer Sequence of paintings.  In Sheads work tongue-in-cheek humour cannot be equated with complete frivolity, so that by painting Rembrandt or Velzquez with their Muse, it is not an exercise in satire, but an exploration into a rather complex labyrinth of ideas.  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 the painting grows through its own internal logic and momentum; he enters it to give it life and 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.  It is interesting that Shead has not called the series the artist and his model, but precisely, the artist and the Muse.  In each instance we recognise Erato, as she may have appeared to Rembrandt or Velzquez.

There is also an expression of great tenderness and passion as Shead pays homage to the old masters.  It is not a question of painting in their style, but of acknowledging them as his masters and as his teachers.  Most of the encounters between the artist and the Muse occur within intimate interior spaces, with a window or doorway in the background open as a path of escape.

It is also in this series of paintings that Shead, through the use of luminosity with light radiating in shadow, explores a greater spiritual dimension.  Despite the secular iconography, his figures inhabit spiritually charged spaces.  There is a profound tenderness in the gaze where, for the artist, the Muse is also a revelation, something magical and a being who does not exist in a specific time or place.  They are also paintings of considerable colouristic complexity and sophistication in the handling of the paint surface; there are wonderful loose breathing passages of paint, where beneath the flicker of a white highlight there is an internal glow that seeps through veils of translucent colour.

The Studio, 2001, at least on one level, relates to the world of Velzquez and finds its point of departure in the masters Las Meninas, 1656.  That painting was set in one of the large rooms of King Philip IVs Royal Alcazar palace in Madrid, where the Spanish royal family seem to be caught in an informal moment surrounding the young Infanta, Margaret Theresa, while the artist stands behind his huge canvas looking into the space of the beholder.  Shead retains the figure of the Infanta, now appearing almost like an apparition at the head of a flight of stairs leading out of the picture space. Velzquez has surrendered his brushes and appears to be involved in some sort of mystical dance with an almost nude model, while the winged Muse Erato has taken up the brushes and is working on a canvas at the easel.

Although we are told in the title that the scene is set within the studio, it is more of a studio of the mind than any known physical space.  The sprig of wattle on the artists table next to the easel seems to locate the scene in Australia, while the open windows with their sweeping panoramic views radiate with the saturating blue of Bundeena.  Lyricism is the prevailing note in this work as the artist celebrates the beauty and joy in the creative process with its strongly expressed hedonistic note.

The Studio, 2001 is a stunning and sensuous painting where shadows radiate with light and there is a celebration of life, love and art.  Of the four figures in the composition, only the identity of the Infanta is certain, and she appears more as a prop than a person, the others are deliberately ambiguous. Velzquez may be Shead; the dancer and the Muse may be the same figure, the artists wife and Muse, Judit; while the studio could be in Bundeena.  Alternatively this could be an evocation of 17th century Spain and the royal court, where one of the greatest artist of all time worked.  Garry Sheads message is that the Muse Erato is eternal and cannot be confined in time or space, she is the link that runs throughout the ages and gives life to art. 


1. D.H. Lawrence, Making pictures in Mervyn Levy(ed.), Paintings of D.H. Lawrence, London, Cory, Adams and Mackay, 1964, pp. iii-iv

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA

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