The ‘figure in landscape’ occupies a long and honourable position in the iconography of Australian art, with Arthur Boyd one of its most acclaimed exponents. Historian Bernard Smith even coined the term ‘iconomorphic’ to describe paintings by Boyd (and fellow artist Sidney Nolan) in which image and form are closely interlocked.1
By 1967, around the time this Bride in Landscape was painted, Boyd’s art practice had already been examined by distinguished, European-trained art historians: Franz Philipp in a 1967 monograph, and Ursula Hoff in Meanjin in 1958, an article that anticipated her 1986 publication on Boyd. During the late 1950s Boyd had been a member of Angry Penguins, then the Antipodeans; two art groups espousing figuration, and his paintings were included the Antipodeans’ controversial exhibition of 1959.
Boyd’s successful profile and recognition both in Australia and overseas by this time was due in large part to Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste, more commonly known as the Brides, a series of more than forty paintings which were made over several years from 1958, when they were exhibited in Melbourne, before showing in Adelaide and Sydney. Described by Philipp as ‘a dream play,’ ‘an epilogue of mood rather than of a narrative sequence’,2 the series was originally labelled by Boyd as ‘allegorical’. Its subject favoured his earlier biblical and mythological themes: the metaphorical journey of a doomed inter-racial relationship, of an Aboriginal man and his mixed-race bride undergoing a symbolic cycle of growth, death, and renewal.
The paintings evolved in stages across different times and in two countries, both before and after Boyd’s relocation to London in 1959, where later versions, along with English landscapes, were exhibited to critical acclaim in 1960, confirming his position internationally as a leading Australian artist, and consolidated by his retrospective exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1962.
The Brides series had been seeded by the artist’s trip in 1953 to Central Australia by train from Adelaide to Alice Springs and then out to the former mining settlement of Arltunga, where he camped and sketched drawings in his notebook. Along the way, Boyd witnessed the desperate living conditions of Aboriginal people, their racial segregation and vilification—a searing encounter which confronted his early religious background, cultural heritage and innate humanity. He had also observed an incident with a group of young Aboriginal women dressed in bridal gowns in the back of a cattle truck on their way to church.3
It is debatable as to whether the original Bride series evolved as an allegorical journey alongside Boyd’s biblical Nebuchadnezzar series, or as a social and political critique, or an expression of his troubled personal life in the late 1950s — most likely it reflected all of these circumstances in part.4
While the first stages of the Brides series were marked by Boyd’s ‘surrealist expressionism, but without the original savagery’ of his early 1940s paintings,5 the later paintings appear more as a thematic coda, tilted towards a whimsical lyricism, where the figure seems to hover as if it is the landscape’s spirit or a mythical being, barely human but ever-present in the artist’s imagination.
The bride’s physical identity had undergone ‘radical physical transformations’ as the series developed,6 which this Bride in Landscape makes clear. The original bride’s large-eyed, robust physical presence is now transformed into a ghostly floating apparition lightly drifting above the ground, loosely painted but still identifiably a bride in white gown and veil with a string of pearls around her neck. The landscape setting is schematically evoked with the abstracted expressive rendering of Boyd’s evolving landscape painting style.
1. Smith, B., ‘Image and Meaning in Recent Painting,’ The Listener, London, 19 July 1962, pp. 93, 95; quoted in Burn, I. et al, The Necessity of Australian Art, Power Publications, Sydney, 1988, p.100, note 14
2. Philipp. F., Arthur Boyd, Thames & Hudson, London, 1967, p.92
3. Arthur Boyd, quoted in Gunn, G., Seven Persistent Images, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1985, p.56
4. Saines, C., ‘Arthur Boyd’s Sleeping Bride,’ Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 18 October 2016
5. Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Penguin Books, London, 1970 (revised edition), p.232
6. Morgan, K., ‘Boyd’s Brides: A Modern Allegory,’ Arthur Boyd: Brides [exhibition catalogue], Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2015, p.20
Jenepher Duncan is an independent art consultant. She was previously Curator of Contemporary Australian Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and Director of the Monash University Museum of Art and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.