Landscape, allegory, mythology: three defining characteristics of Boyd’s work come together in the present painting to create this powerful image from Boyd’s Shoalhaven period.
Boyd saw great beauty in the wild, untamed landscape surrounding the Shoalhaven, which so strongly contrasted the English gardens and pastures he had come to know during his years abroad.
During his Creative Arts Fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra, Boyd was invited to visit Bundanon by Frank McDonald and Tony McGrath in 1971. His first piece depicting the area subsequently dates to 1972 and would become subject matter that would preoccupy him for the rest of his artistic career. The river and its surroundings became a stage for Boyd’s exploration of themes including humanity’s plight, future, vulnerability and vanity. Allegory was one of Boyd’s favourite tools and he proceeded to fill the Shoalhaven setting with allegorical characters, including Nebuchadnezzar, Cain and Abel, Mars, and, notably, Narcissus: ‘Dealing with the Shoalhaven landscape I have used several themes to allegorise it. One of them was Narcissus.’1
Narcissus and Echo is Ovid’s classic Greek tale of the curse of a rejected lover, fatal self-love, blind delusion and eventual self-recognition.2 It was foretold by the seer Tiresias that Narcissus would live to old age so long as he never came to know himself. A beautiful and proud youth, Narcissus rejected all advances, including Echo’s — a maiden cursed only to be able to repeat the words of others back to them. The Greek goddess of Retribution, Nemesis, learning of Narcissus’ callous rejections, intervened. Upon seeing his reflection in a pond, Narcissus fell in love with the image before him. Eventually realising that this was his mirror-image, Narcissus continued to long for his own image and died, still longing, next to his reflection.
Boyd saw a connection between classic mythology and the surrounding hills and river:
The stillness of the river and the echoes in the valley originally triggered the idea. Echo was in love with Narcissus but he only looked at himself and she faded away. The self-absorption of Narcissus particularly interests me. It is totally non-productive — you only perpetuate your own being.3
The Narcissus series is Boyd’s largest body of work from the Shoalhaven years and includes works such as Reflected Figure and Cave 1976.4 The series is predominantly set against the Shoalhaven River and the Australian wilderness. The choice to use Australian landscape as a setting for traditionally European and classical western mythology fuses the two worlds Boyd had come to know from his time in both Australia and England. The pairing brings new life to the unfolding classic tale about the nature of mankind, its self-concern and conceit.
In contrast to the calm and still found in Reflected Figure and Cave, Narcissus Running on a Sandbank is filled with movement. The work shows the naked figure of Narcissus — the artist and humanity incarnate — striding forth on the river’s sandbanks. He has eyes only for his reflection as he charges towards his fate, leaving a trail of elements in his wake and disrupting the pristine, primal landscape. In the background, we see the hint of hills, calling to mind Narcissus’ spurned admirer Echo and all that falls outside of Narcissus’ concern in the world around him.
The work was originally exhibited at Fischer Fine Art, London in 1977 alongside other works in the series with an introduction by poet Peter Porter. The pair went on to publish the illustrated poetry volume Narcissus in 1984.
1. Gildenhard, I. & Zissos, A., ‘Ovid's Narcissus (Met. 3.339-510): Echoes of Oedipus,’ American Journal of Philology, vol.121, no.1, 2000, pp.129-147
2. Arthur Boyd, quoted in McGrath, S., The Artist & The River: Arthur Boyd and the Shoalhaven, Bay Books, Sydney, 1982, p.50
4. Ibid., p.296
Alice Evatt is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oxford and Balliol College. Alice has experience in the art market, having interned at Sotheby’s London and worked with the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney.