Feb 2016


by Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin

Arthur Boyd took a train journey in 1953 on the Ghan from Port Augusta in South Australia to Alice Springs and then travelled for another hundred miles by jeep into the Simpson Desert to Arltunga, a former mining community. Here for the first time he experienced the presence of the displaced Aborigines, who appeared neither as the noble savages, nor as the urban outcasts of Yosl Bergner (born 1920) and Russell Drysdale (1912-1981). As was frequently the case with Boyd, there was a need for a long period of gestation as the numerous sketches which he brought back with him from Central Australia were allowed to establish their own sense of mood and presence - a feeling of complete displacement and profound sadness. At one stage Boyd commented on his process of work:

I’d say my work was about feeling more than anything else. I don’t think you can get this feeling over without having an idea to hang it on. When I am going to paint I make many drawings hoping for something in the drawings that I might latch on to. Being primarily a figurative painter, I suppose the ideas behind these drawings are of a literary nature but I would hope that some strength of feeling would come through.1

The sketches grew into the series of about thirty paintings Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-caste, more popularly known as the Bride series, painted between 1957 and 1959. The core series was painted in under a year and exhibited at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne in April 1958 and then in Adelaide in June and in Sydney in October of that year. It was a series of paintings which launched Boyd’s national reputation and eventually led to his international recognition.

The Bride series suffers from the problem of attempts made to read it as a narrative on a par with the continuous narrative principle as found in Nolan’s Kelly series. As in Boyd’s preceding works, although the figurative and narrative aspects are always strong, there exists no literary equivalent, only a series of lyrical digressions on a theme, or in Franz Philipp’s words, a ‘dream play’.2 The leading theme of the series is an existentialist notion of frustration - the figures are endlessly waiting, but self-conscious of their own futility. Boyd writes of his own response to the Aborigines:

They are forced into this position and it has a serious effect on you, when you are not used to it … you suddenly come against it after imagining that they are noble savage types living in the bush. In their rites and in their dances … there is a sort of rhythm but there isn’t any fire in the same way as the Africans. It is an Australian subject - I suppose - because they are, as far as I know, the only native, aboriginal race that has this tremendous softness and passivity.3

The effective power of the Bride paintings lies in the fact that the paintings transcend mere commentary on the suffering of the Aboriginal peoples, but serve as a broader comment on humanity. In a way the tormented half-castes are no different from the tormented whites, both suffer through their attempt to survive. In a sense, the series can be interpreted as a broad existentialist comment on ‘everyman’.

In August 1959, Arthur Boyd contributed a number of Bride paintings to Bernard Smith’s Antipodean Manifesto exhibition and three months later he set out with his family for London as the first step to becoming an expatriate. In July of the following year, an exhibition opened of Arthur Boyd’s work at the Zwemmer Gallery, 26 Litchfield Street, London, where he exhibited a number of Bride paintings that he painted both in Australia and new works in the series which he painted in England. In the catalogue essay, Bryan Robertson wrote:

A strain of religious piety in the family finds oblique expression in the ethical fervour that informs their creations. It can be found in the biblical and mythological themes of Arthur Boyd’s earlier paintings as well as in this Half Caste series of pictures. Here, extremely specific incidents are set formally against a generalised background of bush which derives vaguely from the rich and tumultuous landscape of the Great Dividing Range, fifty miles to the north-west of Melbourne. These paintings do not require any explanation. They speak with their own voice of something which the artist feels very passionately. They are tough pictures, filled with an almost lurid, Faulknerian intensity of movement, stillness and colour.  A memorable film has been made of them by Tim Burstall and Patrick Ryan.4

There was a painting in the exhibition titled Bride in the Moonlight, 1960, which cannot be identified with the present work. Not only the dimensions are different, but that painting has recently surfaced in Canada having been bought from the Zwemmer exhibition in 1960 by the Canadian journalist, author and filmmaker, Boyce Richardson.5 Also there is no compositional relationship between that painting and the work under discussion. That painting shows, in Boyce Richardson’s
(born 1928) words, ‘an Aborigine lying under a blanket, surrounded by creatures that can just be made out, as can the man himself. There is a ghostly white face hanging in a patch of moonlight beside the Aborigine.’6

The present painting is not listed in Franz Philipp’s catalogue of Arthur Boyd’s work, but is intimately related to, and appears as a smaller version of, Arthur Boyd’s Bride with Lover (Bride Turning into a Windmill), 1960.7 Philipp writes:
The bridegroom has nearly disappeared in the pool; the bride’s bell-shaped body (now even more elongated) hovers above the dark pond, the halo of her veil forming a full circle like the blades of a turning windmill. This white, hovering, half-transparent phantom (shapes and hues of the enclosing bush shine through her scumbled lightness) with her pearl necklace will often haunt Boyd’s recalls of bush and gully. The metamorphosis of the bridegroom into some form of water-sprite, allurement and threat of the dark depth, of the bride into the dart-like flash of whiteness (a human dragonfly?) … Vague associations with myth (Narcissus) and fairy tale (lure of the water and its sprites, male and female) are sounded’.8  

The present painting differs from the larger work in one significant detail – the inclusion of a faint crescent moon signifying either dusk or dawn, otherwise the two compositions are almost identical. The medium of oils and tempera on masonite and the dimensions, in imperial measurements of three feet by four feet, are in keeping with a number of Boyd’s other paintings from 1960, including his Bride and Bridegroom with Rainbow 1960.9 Boyd was obviously pleased with the compositional resolution of this work and was to revisit the theme in his etching Bride Turning into a Windmill.  

Arthur Boyd’s Bride paintings have become some of the best known and most significant works in the history of Australian art.

1. Arthur Boyd quoted in Laurie Thomas, “Foreword” to Christopher Tadgell, Arthur Boyd drawings 1934-1970, London, Secker & Warburg/The Rudy Komon Gallery, 1973, p.12
2. Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967, p.88
3. Arthur Boyd quoted in Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967, pp.84-86
4. Bryan Robertson, catalogue essay, Paintings Arthur Boyd, Zwemmer Gallery, 26 Litchfield Street, London, July 19 – August 20 1960, np
5. This painting was sold at Waddington’s Auction, in Canada on 8 December 2009, lot number 43
6. Waddington’s Auction, catalogue, December 2009, lot number 43
7. Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967, catalogue 10.9, p.261, plate XXXII
8. Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967, p.94
9. Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, London, Thames and Hudson, 1967, catalogue 10.12

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA

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