Menzies Art Brands

ELIOTH GRUNER Along the Sands


Having selected their subject, plein-air painters often have to make a crucial choice between working on a large canvas with the attendant difficulties of keeping large flat painted areas active and vibrant, opting for a small scale with more pictorial control and the potential for focused lively brushwork where each living mark is made to count.

Between the wars, Elioth Gruner was one of Australias greatest landscapists, a coined term that seems to apply to his abiding faith in plein-air painting. He was a master of plein-air. His canvases were able to capture outside light with a photographic sensibility. He possessed a keen and discriminating eye for fine tonal gradations.1 In 1921, Gruner was commissioned by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to paint a large canvas, The Valley of the Tweed. Painted entirely in open air, it went on to win the Wynne Prize for landscape that same year. The painting has a tight stillness about it, an affectation in Gruners work that was criticised by Sir William Orpen (1878-1931) at the Society of Artists exhibition of Australian art at Burlington House in London in 1923. Gruner retreated in his later years to smaller canvases that are light-filled, controlled and alive. He made his crucial choice.

Given Gruners empathy, then, with painting outside and on a smaller scale, the current work, Along the Sands, shows many of the characteristics that are hallmarks of his oeuvre. The fabulous expanse of sand, blinding in its reflection of summer light, occupies a large proportion of the painting. It is pure painted white heat. Far from an inactive flat area of dead paint, it assaults the senses, reminding the viewer of beach summers with burning feet on white hot sand. The structure of this painting is similar to the glorious small Morning Light, of 1916, also in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which follows the Luminist principles of two-thirds sky above one-third land.  At first glance, Morning Lights sky appears monochrome, like the beach in Along the Sands, but in fact both are inflected with quivers of painted light that unsettle the eye and invite the viewer to sense the landscape rather than view it.

Gruner often observes his landscape from an elevated view, so that the skyline and structure of the landscape are almost anatomical, giving his landscape images a fuller up-front capacity than that afforded by the photographic camera, where the lens typically foreshortens and diminishes distant mountains. In Along the Sands this elevated view angles the beach horizon from the top-left corner of the image and lets it meander down towards the unseen water. It is like an anatomical contour. His beach is an armature that gives form to the bleaching summer light.

Perhaps it is fair to say that these qualities of light place Gruner amongst the last of Australias lyrical painters of light. Like the great impressionist E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), Gruner made every brushmark leap from his modest canvases. The figures that line up in Along the Sands are simply carefully-placed gestural marks along the way. They are clustered in patterns of human habitation, yet not clustered and free. They are dark tonal smudges in the white light, their saturated colour liberated for the eye. We see a mark here as a dress, a mark there as an umbrella, and make out a lanky body leaning from the wind.

It is our interpretation from experience that forms the physical sense of the summer beach from Gruners vivid markings.

1. Smith, B., Australian Painting 1788-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.187

Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons);
MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD


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