(c) Garry Shead/Copyright Agency, 2021
32. GARRY SHEAD
The power of love is the galvanising force in Garry Shead’s recent creation, Grande Amore. For most of the last decade, the multi-award-winning artist has immersed himself in the work of Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet born in Florence in 1265. The force that drove Dante and crystallised his philosophic and poetic vision was his lover and muse, the beautiful, elusive Beatrice. Sustained and guided by the memory of Beatrice, who died in her youth, the poet was propelled by an incomparable vision to render one of the greatest works in the Western literary tradition, The Divine Comedy. For Shead, Dante’s medieval vision of the afterlife, realised in a long narrative poem, remains a source of inspiration and revelation.
The fact Dante wrote the epic verse in his native Tuscan dialect rendered the poem intelligible to the people. By eschewing the tradition of Latin that narrowed readership to an educated elite, the poet’s vision of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise became accessible to the masses.
This kind of vernacular lyricism appeals to Shead’s sensibility. The idea of sustaining a narrative vision has remained a key element throughout his career. Apart from the sheer quality instilled in his paintings, Shead, along with Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, remains one of Australia’s greatest narrative artists. Much of the appeal of Shead’s painting can be traced to the imagery he wrests from a literary text such as D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo or from the life of a creative spirit close to his heart. This was the case with the Love on Mount Pleasant series inspired by the tragic tale of the artist’s uncle, the great Hunter Valley vigneron, Maurice O’Shea.
This year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death at the age of 56 in in Ravenna, where he lived in exile from his beloved homeland in Florence. Events are now underway worldwide to celebrate a towering literary genius and his decisive impact on the humanist tradition in Western culture.
Dante conceived the dual nature of humanity; earthly yet eternal while musing on the extreme vagaries of the human condition observed at close quarters during turbulent times. He was a passionate advocate of the humanist ideal, believing the individual mattered and should enjoy the right to self-expression and a happy life. In his day, Dante held the dangerous belief in the separation of church and state – a feature of civic life that continues to prevail somewhat precariously in most Western democracies.
In Grande Amore, it appears the artist is looking through time and space to the sprawling Florentine metropolis on the banks of the Arno. The dramatic appearance of the lovers transfixed in ecstasy ignites the painting: the atmosphere is instantly transformed. In that moment, it seems humanity has been struck and shamed at the same time by the apparition of a great love. As we cautiously emerge from the Covid pandemic, humanity is faced with a stark reckoning: a world without love is a place fit only for the damned.
The glowing scarlet heart at the epicentre of Grande Amore is a beacon of clarity and hope.
Gavin Wilson is an independent curator, landscape architect and author. His wide ranging projects probe the interconnected themes of landscape and culture in the Australian experience.