(c) The Estate of Fred Williams. Licensed by VISCOPY Ltd, Australia
20. FRED WILLIAMS
Created soon after his return to Australia from London in the summer of 1956-7, Lilydale Landscape dates from a formative period of Fred Williams’s career. Having become attuned to the different light, atmosphere and scale of the European countryside, Williams embarked upon a radical reappraisal of the Australian landscape. Hitherto, Williams had largely concentrated on the human figure – his whimsical etchings and drawings of the early to mid-1950s had featured the musicians, actors and circus performers of London’s West End. But from 1957-8, Williams began to realise the potential of the Australian landscape as a modern subject - ‘as a vehicle for formal artistic invention’.1 Unlike many of his forebears and counterparts, Williams expressed little interest in the ‘mythical’ qualities of the Australian bush: the lost explorer on horseback was not for him. Likewise, Williams saw little appeal in naturalism for its own sake. His objective would be that of visual authenticity over mere accuracy.
From 1958 to 1961, Williams would pay regular visits to his friends Nance and Martin Foster, who lived twenty kilometres south of Lilydale near Olinda, in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.2 Lilydale Landscape may well have resulted from one of these occasions. The dense eucalypt forests of the Dandenongs readily lent themselves to Williams’s favoured interpretation of the Australian landscape – as Patrick McCaughey explains, ‘The bush motif was dense, crowded and tactile; it made for solid images and effects and it was spatially close and confined.’3 Over the ensuing decade, Williams would return to the Dandenongs to paint at Sherbrooke, Lysterfield and Upwey, creating the works that would cement his reputation
as Australia’s most accomplished landscape painter of the post-war era.
In Lilydale Landscape, Williams reveals a tangled frieze of foliage beneath a grey tonal sky. Splayed tree branches radiate upwards towards a soft, undulating horizon, creating a palpable sense of rhythm and movement. Williams’s treatment of the branches in the present work shows some deviation from the ‘lollipop foliage’ of his earlier Mittagong landscapes:4 instead, the leaves appear more loosely bunched, showing the possible influence of Cezanne’s views of Mount Sainte-Victoire from the 1890s.5
Williams’s landscapes of 1957-58 may be characterised by their ‘ready-made’ quality: ‘the sense that he found the Australian landscape composed before him, ready for use.’6 This is in contrast to his later abstractions of the 1960s, in which the landscape is taken apart and sparingly reconstructed, piece by piece. In nearly all of Williams’s landscapes, however, there is an absence of linear perspective: the foliage is pressed up against the picture plane to create an overall sense of immediacy.7
In Lilydale Landscape and other works of this period, Williams sought to resolve a certain tension between drawn design and painterly surface. In order to preserve the structure and readability of his images, Williams’s ‘instinct for broad and vigorous handling’ would have to be ‘subjugated to his need to find a clear and correct drawing style.’8 The artist fulfils this objective in the present work. Lilydale Landscape shows Williams using a grey-green tonal palette to create formal ambiguities between individual trees and the bush beyond, while simultaneously employing bold outlines and streaks of white paint to delineate trunks and branches. This formal strategy was to underpin his most celebrated works in the years to come.
1. Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1989, p.35
2. Hart, D., ‘Resurrecting the Gum Tree’, in Fred Williams: Infinite Horizons, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2011, pp.48, 52
3. McCaughey, P., Fred Williams, 1927-1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, p.104
4. Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, p.36
5. The influence of Paul Cézanne on the early works of Fred Williams is widely acknowledged, as in Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, p.35. For a comparable work by Cézanne, see the foliage in La Montagne Sainte-Victoire c1890, oil on canvas, 65.0 x 92.0 cm, collection of the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, gift of the Perrin family 1969
6. Mollison, J., A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, p.36
7. McCaughey, P., Fred Williams, 1927-1982, p.107
8. Ibid., p.112
Catherine Baxendale, B Phil (Hons), MA (Art Curatorship)