signed lower right: Arthur Boyd
Mossgreen Auctions, Sydney, 31 August 2010, lot 612
Private collection, Sydney
Lawsons, Sydney, 29 November 2019, lot 78
Private collection, Perth
(c) Arthur Boyd/Copyright Agency, 2023
Arthur Boyd’s Bathers on Rocks and Water Tower combines a highly imaginative response to the traditional bather or ‘figure in the landscape’ theme with a distinctly Australian setting. It alludes to classical mythology and contains biting social commentary on our mistreatment of the natural environment. Drawn together, these individual elements make for a convincing and compelling exposé of contemporary life from a major Australian painter.
Arthur and Yvonne Boyd returned to their Shoalhaven River property, Bundanon, from England in 1984. Over the next couple of years, Boyd painted in and around Nowra, on the New South Wales south coast. Bathers on Rocks and Water Tower compares in date with Hanging Rocks with Mars and Bathers c1985 (Bundanon Trust collection), and equally majestic works such as Bathers, Shoalhaven Riverbank and Clouds 1984-85 (private collection) and River, Water Tower and Storm (Beach Umbrella and Storm) 1986 (private collection). These four major paintings are variations on the same subject, and although they vary in motif and colour, each tells a similar story.
The return to Bundanon was a bittersweet experience. Arthur Boyd’s enthusiasm was tempered by unruly day-trippers who ventured further and further upstream in motorboats and on jet skis to disturb the river’s tranquil, higher reaches. The depiction of people as pink-skin encrusted lobsters in the paintings, slithering on their bellies, with fins replacing arms, became a common Boydian motif – a metaphor for the hedonism of people and the degradation of hitherto unsullied environments.
Bathers on Rocks and Water Tower depicts two such figures on Hanging Rock, a natural stone rock formation and popular viewpoint overlooking Nowra and the Shoalhaven River. In the painting, the river snakes towards the North Nowra water tower. Discernible by its cylindrical shape and creamy tonality, the tower acts as a sort of a sunlit beacon and visual counterpoint to the uncertain amorphous mass that dissolves into mist beneath the figures.
For Boyd, this local incursion had wider, global ramifications. Just as the two figures perch precariously and stare unknowingly into a bottomless pit, so this work almost certainly alludes to Boyd’s longstanding fear of human degradation and ultimately, self-destruction. The water tower bears some resemblance to a nuclear power plant, close to where the Boyds lived in Suffolk, while the burnt-out tree trunks on the right side of the picture allude to the ever-present threat of bushfire in Australia, and conflagration on a global scale. In Bathers on Rocks and Water Tower we see the detrimental effect of humanity on nature and Boyd’s impassioned response to it.
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.
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