Menzies Art Brands

ARTHUR BOYD Death of a Husband 1958


Death of a Husband is from Arthur Boyds seminal series Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste, commonly known as the Brides. More than 40 paintings form this body of work, which were made over several years from 1958 onwards, and exhibited in both Australia and London. Boyds Brides are widely regarded as some of his most profound allegorical works, and contributed significantly to the zenith of professional success that he rose to during the period of their creation and exhibition. This success occurred in both Australia and overseas, as his exhibition of the Brides in Zwemmer Gallery, London in 1960, helped cement his position as a leading Australian artist in an international context. This followed the major accolade of being chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale (along with Arthur Streeton) in 1958, the same year Boyd created Death of a Husband.

The recent exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Arthur Boyd: Brides (November 2014 March 2015) included the present work, and was a comprehensive attempt to unite the Brides after their successful sale and dispersal to international collections in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Curator Kendrah Morgan asserts that the exhibition also sought to bring the Brides back to their spiritual home, as it is here that their message resounds most deeply.1 While the Brides as an entire series may have been created at different times, and countries, both before and after Boyds relocation to London in 1959, the core group of sixteen paintings were first exhibited at Australian Galleries, Melbourne in 1958. It is to this group that Death of a Husband belongs.

Though commenced in the late 1950s, the seed for the series was sewn in 1953 when Boyd made a trip to Central Australia, and saw the abject poverty and degradation of human rights that Aboriginal people were suffering as a result of child removal policies, and the violently racist mentality of the era. The profound assault that this had on the artists sensitivity is widely discussed in the scholarship on Boyd, and is regarded as pivotal to the inception of the Brides. Art Historian Franz Philipp quoted Boyds reflections on this experience, They are forced into this position and it has a serious affect on you, when you are not used to it You suddenly come against it after imagining they are noble savage types living in the bush.2 The reality of Aboriginal experience that Boyd witnessed in the early 1950s in Alice Springs, Arltunga and other small Central Australian towns, was vastly different to the nave view of the noble savage a stereotypical and pejorative trope that was deeply ingrained in white thinking.

In her essay that accompanied the recent Heide exhibition, Marcia Langton reads Boyds artistic practice as attempting to reconcile his inner struggle with his success and personal wealth, which included the vast property of Bundanon on the Shoalhaven river, and the guilt of understanding that he was in a sense an inheritor of land, wealth and privilege won from a genocide.3 His experience of Aboriginal Australia in 1953 informed this new understanding, and the pain brought with it subsequently found expression in the Brides and other works.

A more specific memory from this journey to the centre is identified by Ursula Hoff as being influential to the series. She writes that Boyd recounted seeing an open truck in Alice Springs which was carrying a number of Aboriginal women to church in bridal dresses, their white bridal finery contrasting with a method of transportation more fitting for cattle.4 Such scenes must have left a vivid imprint on Boyds psyche. Yet while the Brides had an experimental precursor in the painting Half-Caste Wedding of 1954, it was not until four years after this trip that Boyd, backed by the financial support of Tam and Anne Purves of Australian Galleries, tapped into such memories and began work on the first group of Brides.5

The Brides are widely understood as a discourse on the politics of racial division in Australia.6 Employing a powerful narrative strategy, Boyd communicated the hopelessness and injustice of this situation via an allegory that could be universally understood. Moved by his experience of the Aboriginal world in 1953, he chose a story of broken love that anyone who has experienced the emotional pain of love gone wrong could understand. In many ways he uses love to humanise his Aboriginal protagonists, at a time when ignorance and dehumanisation prevailed. Love, with all of its hopes, complexities and catastrophes, becomes a human right, one that Boyd returns to his subject through the creative and emotional outpouring that resulted in the series.

As a whole these paintings are dreamlike, and deeply irrational. While they contain a loose narrative and resonate with meaning, they do not form a clear story and tend to defy straightforward interpretation. Formally they reflect Boyds interest in the stage, as at the time of their inception he was drawing theatrical costumes in Melbourne.7

In each painting the Australian wilderness forms a backdrop, with figures and animals composed to visually consume the picture plane. Death of a Husband is no exception. Against an abstract night sky interrupted by the silvery moon, Boyd paints a tragic lament. A coffin contains the rigid body of a male figure, laid out and staring sightlessly up towards the hanging moon. From his toe, the form of a red tree springs forth, and within that blurry shape the disembodied head of his bride emerges, her arm outstretched to proffer him a bouquet. They are physically joined through the tree that emanates from his foot, but they are spiritually disconnected, a separation indicated through the direction of their staring wide eyes that will never meet. He is lost to another world, and she tries in vain to call him back to her own.

Kendrah Morgan interprets some of the psychological tension and anxiety within the series as reflective of events taking place in the artists private life. In the lead up to his 1958 exhibition at Australian Galleries, Arthurs wife Yvonne Boyd, suffered a nervous breakdown. During what was a highly stressful period, Arthur turned to friend Jean Langley for support and the two commenced a romantic relationship.8 It is difficult to imagine these events the guilt of a forbidden affair and the strain of his wifes psychological difficulties as not having a major impact on the paintings he produced during this period. Boyds choice of the theme of tortured love must have seemed an apt one to express such complexities, while simultaneously allowing him to make a broader social comment.

Along with bringing him wide acclaim, the present work and the series it belongs to represent an artistic watershed for Boyd, as he found a way to speak of the tragedies that were occurring in his homeland, and personal universe, in a truly original manner. The gently floating figures in Death of a Husband reveal a profound sadness that tacitly acknowledges the shared commonality of such emotions that unite us all as human.

1. Morgan, K., Boyds Brides: A Modern Allegory,  Arthur Boyd: Brides, exhibition  catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 29 November 2014 9 March 2015, p.9
2. Philipp, F., Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, pp.85-86
3. Langton, M., Arthur Boyd: Possession, Land, Spirit, Arthur Boyd: Brides, exh. cat. Heide Museum of Modern Art, 29 November 2014 9 March 2015, p.32
4. Ursula Hoff, The Art of Arthur Boyd, Deutsch, London, 1986, p.49
5. Kendrah Morgan, Boyds Brides: A Modern Allegory Arthur Boyd: Brides, exhibition  catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 29 November 2014 9 March 2015, p.17
6. Ibid, p. 8
7. Hoff, U., The Art of Arthur Boyd, Deutsch, London, 1986, p.49
8. Morgan, K., Boyds Brides: A Modern Allegory,  Arthur Boyd: Brides, exhibition  catalogue, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 29 November 2014 9 March 2015, p.20-21

Marguerite Brown
MA (Art Curatorship)

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