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‘…each painting asks a question, none disclose the answer.’1

Ian Fairweather is an enigmatic artist within the rich tradition of modernism that shaped Australian art of the 20th Century. His unique visual language of abstraction, characterised by calligraphic markings, is without comparison. Fairweather achieved success on every stage during his lifetime and long career as an artist. His work was greatly admired not only by art lovers, but also by his friends and contemporaries such as Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley and Donald Friend. He also achieved recognition and praise from some of the nations most well respected and high profile dealers and art historians. In 1962 the esteemed Australian art critic, Robert Hughes camped overnight outside the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney to secure a Fairweather painting for his personal collection.

Fairweather was an ‘itinerant, escapist utopian’2, his unconventional, nomadic life included journeys through North America, Europe, Asia and India, scandalously culminating with a solo rafting expedition from Darwin to Indonesia in 1952. As Fairweather’s biographer, Murray Bail wrote, his travels ‘wander through his art like a Chinese line,’3 as he constantly calls on his vast array of experiences and memories to inform his art. Much of Fairweather’s art is derived through memory and does not seek to replicate the subject with precision or realism; rather he developed a visual shorthand through which he could convey through his art the essence of a scene or an idea through the distillation of the memory of his own experience. Of all Fairweather’s journeys, it was his experiences in China during the 1930s that have had the most profound impact on his developing output and unique style. These formative years, spent immersed in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai and the spirituality and tranquility of smaller towns such as Huzhou, Hangzhou and Suzhou enacted the most powerful stylistic changes seen within Fairweather’s oeuvre, and paved the way for the iconic abstract works he created during the 60s. Indeed it was Fairweather’s memory of his visit to a monastery at Taishan in 1933 that resulted in his preeminent work, the Monastery 1961, painted thirty years after its conception, and now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

Fairweather’s fascination with oriental culture and language began during his four years as a prisoner of war during the First World War. During his captivity he read Lafcadio Hearn’s book ‘Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art’. At the conclusion of the war, Fairweather returned to London and enrolled in the Slade School of Art, where he received his only training in the tradition of Western Art. Fairweather rejected realism in art, even during this formative period as a student, reflecting ‘I don’t like form, especially solid form… I think it’s the realism about it I dislike.’4 Despite being impressed by the work of J.M.W. Turner, the great English Romanticist, Fairweather was never persuaded by Western aesthetics. “When I was at school I felt completely for Turner’s work… I never got over him. Not his early period. He had such a wonderful sense of depth, you could see into the water, you didn’t just see the surface of things.”5 This extract from Fairweather facilitates tremendous insight into the genesis of Fairweather’s unique style. He sought a mode of visual expression that permeated the surface of his subject, which went beyond the literal or the real, to evoke a sense of memory intrinsically linked to one’s own experience. 

Whilst in London, Fairweather also enrolled in night classes at the London School of Oriental Studies. He commenced his studies in Japanese, a continuum of his interests in the language during the war, but was soon persuaded to transfer his enrollment to a class in Mandarin. It was on the strength of this experience, and armed only with an edition of the Chinese English dictionary and a few modest possessions Fairweather chose to pursue a more authentic experience of Chinese language and culture, arriving in Shanghai in May 1929. The effect of Chinese art and philosophy on Fairweather’s style and artistic practice was utterly transformative. In China he discovered the work of the great calligraphers, saying, ‘there was about them a serenity, a chaste beauty that made me dissatisfied with everything I had done.’6 This was an important turning point for Fairweather when his art became a study in line and compositional perfection. 

Fairweather lived in Shanghai for three years, working as a park keeper, road inspector and finally as the manager of an asphalt plant. In his spare time he sketched prodigiously but did not complete any major works. By 1932 the violence between the Japanese and Chinese forced Fairweather north to Beijing and eventually out of China altogether. Fairweather arrived back in Melbourne after a nine-month sojourn to Bali in February 1934, also the year of his first Australian exhibition. 

His restlessness had driven him to new places… not so much for the sake of change, but in order to look back on a former destination with a memory cleansed of hardships (and there were always hardships), in order to render a sort of idealised vision of it. This resulted in paintings that saw the physical realities of place, space and form dissolve and reform themselves on a single painterly plane, held together entirely by an invisible template – or web – of memory and feeling.7

Village c1934 is an evocative work from this period exemplifying Fairweather’s emergent style. Fairweather’s challenge here is to pay homage to the opposing aesthetic values of East and West. Exhibited in the retrospective of Fairweather’s work organised by the Queensland Art Gallery that toured nationally between 1965 and 1966, it is a work with a fine pedigree. In the forward to the exhibition catalogue, its curator Robert Smith reflected on Fairweather’s works from the mid 30s: “Fairweather’s paintings still showed evidence of his Slade School training and the influence of the New English Art Club, but he was already beginning to merge the modern art of Europe with the ancient art of Asia.”8 The Village retains the need for a narrative context, a relic of his Western training. It is possible to read the markings as a cluster of buildings with angled rooftops while the title confirms this literal interpretation. Stylistically, the painting is a homage to the impact of Eastern aesthetic values. Here the Western approach to scale gives way to the Chinese mode of expressing the landscape, where scenery and events are placed vertically one above the other and the composition becomes flattened emphasising line instead of tone. While the bold calligraphic lines that define Fairweather’s later works aren’t resolved here, there is a sense of this influence in the application of expressive dry brushwork. Works of this period are characterised by their febrile surfaces, spidery lines, and fast dry brush strokes applied until scenes often congested in which no single gesture or mark can claim prominence. 

The two comparison works offer further insight into the progression of Fairweather’s developing style. By the end of 1934 Fairweather had returned to China. Temple Yard, Peking 1936, a celebration of people and culture introduces the bold calligraphic lines that are now synonymous with Fairweather’s oeuvre. Beneath the bold lines is a patchwork of interwoven colour patterning which envelopes the whole picture plane. Near Hangchow 1938 is an example of how the literal interpretation of landscape, that had begun to blur in the Village,has made way for a more abstracted approach to representing the subject matter, in keeping with Fairweather’s ethos to represent memory rather
than realism. 

Fairweather left China in 1936 and never returned, however everything Fairweather absorbed in China continued to be expressed in his paintings in the subsequent years. Fairweather’s distinctive works are today considered extremely rare as he destroyed many of his works himself while others were lost through mildew, fire and rodent damage over the years. His works are in the National Gallery of Australia, all Australian state galleries, many regional and public galleries, and major international museums and galleries including the Tate Gallery, London.


1. Ian Fairweather in Fisher, T. , The Drawings of Ian Fairweather, 1997, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, p.4

2. Ibid, p.5 

3. Ibid

4. Ian Fairweather cited in Anderson, P., ‘A Web of Memory and Feeling’, Art and Australia, Summer, 2006, p.255

5. Ibid

6. Ian Fairweather in Abbott-Smith, N., Ian Fairweather: Profile of a painter, 1978, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, p.63.

7. Ian Fairweather cited in Anderson, P., ‘A Web of Memory and Feeling’, Art and Australia, Summer, 2006, p.255

8. Lynn, E., ‘Together – Finest of Fairweather’, Australian, 24th July 1965, p.12

Alison Burns BA (Hons). MA

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