43. LLOYD REES
Most people in Australia know Lloyd Rees’s paintings. Most in Sydney value them highly. This justifiably high regard has a long history. In fairness, it must be admitted that at times such great regard has waxed and waned and that, in the minds of some, there were periods when Rees’s reputation languished. This sort of thing is certainly not new – the paintings of the greats: Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, E. P. Fox, Charles Conder, Abram Buvelot, John Longstaff, Rupert Bunny, James Gleeson, Jeffrey Smart and Mike Brown all, at times, fell under an artistic shade. When thinking about this curious phenomenon, it is instructive to remember one important fact: the paintings do not change – we the viewers, change. Thankfully, the viewers are sometimes brought to see what was there all the time.
This salient fact was brought home to all when Brett Whiteley, Sydney’s tousled wunderkind, revealed that he admired the works of Lloyd Rees and, as if to confirm it, dedicated a painting in his honour.1 Artists such as Whiteley often remind one of surprisingly overlooked aesthetic qualities that come afresh when pointed out by an unprejudiced eye – such was the case with Pablo Picasso’s admiration of Ingres and Francis Bacon’s of Velasquez and such is the case with Brett Whiteley’s admiration of Rees.
When viewing the present painting, A Song to Creation – Land, of 1969, one is struck by its ‘open’ and airy atmosphere and, above all, by its shadowless spaces. This, like most of Rees’s landscapes, is a scene filled with an atmospheric light of uncertain source that falls evenly on all surfaces – everything is caught in a suffused glow and everything is depicted in a landscape composition that completely avoids the pictorial drama of deep shadows and raking light. There is something deeply Australian in this odd light pattern. It must have occurred to Rees, after his travels to France and Italy in the 1920s, that Australian light has nothing to do with the raking shadows of a Lombardy pine or the brooding late-afternoon atmosphere of a piazza in Florence. Australian light is something altogether different.
What comes to mind is how often Australia’s early explorers and settlers remarked upon the shadeless landscapes they discovered and came to occupy – even the ubiquitous gum trees, whose leaves turn away from the midday sun, provided little shade. To eyes accustomed to the shades of oak glades, Australia’s openness seemed unhomely and relentlessly oppressive. To us, an evenly-lit scene and an open sky seem characteristic of the land. There is little doubt that Brett Whiteley’s thematic use of shadeless landscapes and beach scenes has its origins, wittingly or not, in the paintings of Lloyd Rees – both artists touch upon a deeply Australian characteristic. Arthur Streeton, John Shirlow, Harold Herbert, Murray Griffin and Elioth Gruner too all realized the national significance of this open airiness
Rees’s A Song to Creation – Land belongs to an important series of just three works based upon the same theme: an extolling pictorial hymn to Nature, centering upon the Land (the present work), the Sea and the Sky. The aesthetic sources of this series may be found in a canticle, or hymn of praise, common to the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran Faiths Benedicite, Omnia opera (A Song of Creation) based upon the book of Daniel (Dan. 3, 57-88/56) and Psalm 150. Viewed in this wider context Rees’s painting takes on an additional meaning: the painting’s effulgent atmosphere aims to convey the inclusive importance of everything in the pictorial scene – the trees, mountains, earth, water, sky and the place of human domicile – all is captured in an evenhanded emphasis that stresses charmed interconnectedness. No feature is treated more lavishly, painted more prominently and no aspect is featured in the lyrical flow of Rees’s picture plane – the centre, corners and sides – all are caught by the same democratic pantheistical visuality. Overall, the painting gives off a sense of Walt Whitman’s view of existence, where everything equally is a miracle of Nature.
Rees was aware of the importance of the present painting and the series to which it belonged. Furthermore, the present painting belongs to the same high-point period as Rees’s masterwork paintings such as The Timeless Land and Australian Façade, both of 1965, together with his Tribute to France and Country II (Béziers) 1968-1969, both in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Sydney-based art historian Renée Free, in her monograph on the artist, sees the period as the artist’s apogee:
The series expresses the great feeling for light, which dominates Rees’ work in the years 1967 to 1969. Rees was elated for he felt that his work had come to a climax.2
A Song to Creation – Land was included as (cat. no.99) in the official Lloyd Rees Retrospective curated by the Art Gallery of New South Wales that toured nationally from Sydney to the State Galleries in Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth as well as the Newcastle Region Art Gallery from 2 October 1969 to 31 August 1970. The retrospective exhibition was a resounding success that topped off a halcyon period. Rees was celebrated as a national figure whose life spanned most of the Twentieth Century and his paintings were greatly admired. The Hon. Michael Kirby AC, CMG recalled the period in an address to the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales in 1995:
In 1969, the second retrospective exhibition was held in this Gallery. It toured all State galleries with much success. By this time, Lloyd Rees was becoming a major national artistic figure.… In 1972, Renée Free's book on his life was published. His contributions to art in Australia were publicly acknowledged in 1977 when he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. In 1981, his first exhibition in Melbourne for 55 years was held. By 1985 he was the doyen of Australian artists. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia - by then, our highest civil honour. … When the new National Parliament was opened by the Queen in 1988, Lloyd Rees was one of the 200 notables invited to dinner in the new building. A bicentennial exhibition of his works was held. He was honoured and feted by politicians, artists and other citizens. He was a raconteur with few equals. He extended friendship and encouragement to so many. He was becoming a public celebrity and public figure in the land.3
This celebrated painting presents a typically high-keyed, close toned, depiction of a river-side scene set in a mountainous cove-like landscape. It could be anywhere, but its space and airy ambience are distinctively Australian. Its gossamer haze and bucolic associations suggest a transcendent theme –that is, a visual celebration of the unperturbed beauties of Nature. This accomplished mature period painting shows the seventy-four year old Lloyd Rees at his most reflective, depicting his most humanistic feelings toward the land.
1. See: Pearce, B., ‘Affinities: Brett Whiteley and Lloyd Rees’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2001; ‘More Affinities: Whiteley and Rees’, Brett Whiteley Studio, Surry Hills, 7 Jan-2 Apr. 2006 and Klepac, L., Lloyd Rees, Brett Whiteley: On the Road to Berry, Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, 1993; Meacham, S., ‘More Affinities: Whiteley and Rees’ Sydney Morning Herald, 28 December, 2005; J Hawley, ‘Two for the road’ (Brett Whiteley and Lloyd Rees) in Good Weekend, 3 July 1993, 14. See: The Blue Bay (c.1938-450; The Road to Berry (1947); Gerringong Landscape(1952-56); The Great Rock: Dusk (1977); Illawarra Landscape (1980; The Pinnacle, Mount Wellington (1980); Timeless Cliffs (1980) Cliff Face, French’s Court, Dynnyme, Tasmania, (c1970-75) for examples of Rees’s works that Whiteley would certainly have admired.
2. Free, R., Lloyd Rees, Lansdowne Press, Sydney, 1972, p.90
3. Kirby, M., ‘Lloyd Rees – A Centenary Reflection’, Address to the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 15 March, 1995. See: http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/print/F5A0FFA5425D0109CA2571A800809B...
Catalano, G., The Years of Hope: Australian Art and Criticism 1956-68, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1981
Free, R., ‘Lloyd Rees - a lifetime from Federation to Bicentenary’, Art and Australia, vol. 26, no. 4, Winter 1989, 575
Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors, The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Penguin, Ringwood, 1981
Klepac, L., ‘Homage to Lloyd Rees’, Art and Australia, vol.18, no. 2, 1980, 152
Smith, B., Smith, T., Heathcote, C., Australian Painting, 1788-2000, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne