Menzies Art Brands

47. GARRY SHEAD Romeo and Juliet 2015


The plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare have inspired artists right from the time they were first produced more than four centuries ago. His ideas of high drama, comedy, colour and action have always provided rich pickings for painters, perhaps none more so than the pre-Raphaelite and Royal Academy artists of the late nineteenth century who made Shakespearean drama a cornerstone of their art Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928), John Everett Millais (1829-1896), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) and even Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) all had numerous encounters with the Bard, with Romeo and Juliet being a firm favourite. The beautiful but tragic central characters and a cast of the good, the bad and the ugly meant that free reign could be given to the skilful hands and eyes of the academically trained masters. While the desire to render Shakespeare on canvas had been largely replaced by cinematic production in the twentieth century, there is still plenty of scope for a twenty first century interpretation.  Australias own Shakespearean company, the Bell Shakespeare Company was founded in 1990 by John Bell, an enthusiastic actor and producer who simply wanted to see the plays in a form they might be appreciated by new modern audiences, and especially young people not normally exposed to high quality theatre. To mark the 25th anniversary of the company it was decided to mount an art exhibition where an invited list of Australias most popular artists would bring a contemporary eye to Shakespeares works. The exhibition would also serve as a precursor to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeares death, an international event that would kick off just as the exhibition ended its run at the Sydney Opera House.

Garry Shead was one of fourteen painters, photographers and multi-media artists selected to provide their own unique take on Shakespeare. He would be shown alongside a list that included Euan McLeod (born 1956), Wendy Sharpe (born 1960),Peter Godwin (born 1953), Joe Furlonger (born 1952), Ann Thomson (born 1933), Ken Done (born 1940) and Matthew Lynn (born 1963). The organisers of the exhibition stressed the need for accessibility and popular appeal, with the works to be shown at the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne and Parliament House in Canberra, before culminating at the Sydney Opera House in November of that year.

Garry Shead was a good choice for an artistic challenge of this kind, for he had made the narrative series central to his work over the past four decades. From the time when he first discovered the letters of D H Lawrence (1885-1930) while on a trip to New Guinea, he was drawn to the idea of building striking images on the dramas, both large and petty, in the stories of Australia and the literature we share, be they the imaginative escapades of Lawrence and Frieda, the fairytale story of the 1954 Royal Tour or the madness of Dantes Divine Comedy. Garry Shead is always able to balance the serious and the whimsical, the factual and the absurd in his retellings of familiar narratives. Romeo and Juliet, envisaged on stage, was an appealing subject, for Shead nearly always sets his stories in a stage-like space, the action taking place against a flat painted backdrop. Unlike his pre-Raphaelite artistic ancestors, Sheads Romeo is garbed not in rich brocade, but in a simple black coat. He plants a luscious kiss on the bare breasted Juliet as they dance, oblivious to the surprised audience, with a singer and musicians providing an accompaniment. The artist explains that It [is] the ballroom scene. Theres only one family there, except for Romeo, and they are all horrified at his temerity at gate-crashing the ball, discovering Juliet and kissing her.1 Their open mouthed concern provides a dark pause in an otherwise romantic moment, one guarded by Sheads signature magpie and kangaroo, providing an Australian anchor back to the pictures commissioning agent, the Bell Shakespeare Company.


1. (accessed 12 August 2019)


Gavin Fry BA[Hons] MA MPhil

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