(c) Arthur Boyd/Copyright Agency, 2021
16. ARTHUR BOYD
Flame Trees, Horse’s Skull, Black River is one of Boyd’s most powerful, symbolic landscapes from his Shoalhaven period, which commenced in the early 1970s.1 The work forms a part of a masterful series Boyd produced from 1981-83 that deal with the same subject matter: a horse’s skull and native flame trees, set against the backdrop of Boyd’s Bundanon property and rugged Australian bush in the Shoalhaven.
The work is at once deeply personal — both to Boyd and the locality — as well as universal in its exploration of themes that strike at the heart of humanity: the fragile balance that exists between life and death, and environmental catastrophe.
The series was sparked by the story of the previous tenants’ chestnut-coloured horse Flame.2 One day, the beloved horse is said to have become trapped in its paddock by barbed wire that had been lodged in the ground by flood. Upon freeing the animal, it died and was buried under one of the namesake Flame trees. This story resonated with Boyd, who, upon hearing it, set about locating and unearthing the skull. To this day, it remains on display at Bundanon in Boyd’s studio.3
The series, including Skull on a Winter’s Morning with Mist and Flame Trees 1981, Death of a Horse 1981, Three Flame Trees in a Paddock with Pulpit Rock in Backdrop 1981 and Horse Skull Under a Blanket and a Starry Night 19814, evokes an almost Claude Monet-like (1840-1926) spirit, in Boyd’s fascination with and repeated depiction of the same subject at different points of time and under different conditions.
The flowering tree that dominates the work—full of life and colour—is positioned above, almost springing from the skull, calling to mind the delicate balance that exists between life and death, but also the power of life to regenerate and flourish. The barbed wire features prominently in this work, fatally tethering the skull to the tree, recalling the cause of death. The wire, in Boyd’s own words, serves as ‘a reminder of the country and its cruelty’.5
The European-inspired pastures in the foreground lie in stark contrast to the ‘wild’, ‘untamed’ bush of the background, divided only by the river.6 Boyd was aware of this sharp duality of landscape, brought on by Australia’s colonial settlement and was a subject upon which he gave much thought.
Boyd was deeply attuned to the environment and land issues, and environmental catastrophe and destruction is an important theme in this work.7 It was a flood that instigated Flame’s death, thus playing a key role in the work’s conception as well as Boyd’s own personal experiences of severe flooding in the Shoalhaven region in the 70s and 80s. Looking at this work’s context, one cannot but recall the extreme flash flooding in the Shoalhaven area following the raging fires of the Black Summer in 2020.
While Boyd’s comments on environmental destruction were to become more pronounced in later years, this series of works provokes their subtle, preliminary examination. They signify a moment of calm contemplation that preceded his drama-laden works regarding the commercialisation and degradation of the Shoalhaven in the later 1980s.8
Flame Trees, Horse’s Skull, Black River speaks to our time, and yet simultaneously manages to convey enduring, forever poignant themes. It is this complexity that is distinctive of Boyd’s oeuvre, and it is no doubt what continues to mark him out as one of Australia’s most enduring and prominent artists.
Let us acknowledge the Wodi Wodi and the Yuin, traditional custodians of the South Coast region, the land upon which Bundanon rests, where this work was conceived and executed, and their continuous connection to culture, community and country.9
1. Pearce, B., Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul [Education Guide], Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, 2019, p.15
2. McGrath, S., The Artist and the River: Arthur Boyd and the Shoalhaven, Bay Books, Sydney, 1982, pp.59-60.
3. Bundanon Trust, Arthur Boyd’s Studio and Practice, Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, n.d., p.7
4. McGrath, S., pp.59-60
6. Spens, J., The Art of Arthur Boyd, University of St Andrews, United Kingdom, 2002, p.238
7. Wilson, G., Rivers + Rocks: Select Works of Arthur Boyd & Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, 2001, p.57
8. Spens, J., p.218
9. Bundanon Trust, New South Wales, 2021, accessed May 2021: https://www.bundanon.com.au/
Alice E. A. Evatt, BA (Adv Hons), MPhil, PhD Candidate