William Robinson’s art has always been an art of place. He has painted his milieu, whether it has been the domestic spaces of early family life, the bustling chaos of his household farm at Birkdale, or the vast spaces of forest and mountain at Beechmont in the Darlington Mountain Range. This move to wilder terrain south of Brisbane, and inland from the Gold Coast, gave Robinson vast spaces in which to walk and to paint. His work took on a new spaciousness – a feeling of reach and breadth. He responded to the swift changes in elevation in which he found himself by developing a technique of multiple viewpoints that questioned the viewer’s position. Are we looking up at the sky or down into crevasses that mirror it?
In this mountainous wilderness, Robinson began the great Creation Series – paintings that are the cornerstone of his work. Nimbin Rocks in Fog 1996 addresses many of the issues Robinson explored in the Creation landscapes, a preoccupation that continued with later paintings of the rain forest like Morning Tallanbanna 1998 and Springbrook with Lifting Fog 1999. In these works, Robinson painted a response to the immense fall of the land from mountain peak to the distant valley floor below. He invites the viewer into the forest spaces in a compelling way. The use of multiple perspectives induces a feeling of vertigo – and of awe –experienced from great heights. The sky itself becomes a chasm as the eye grapples with up and down, near and far.
This is particularly notable in the cloud-filled vortex of sky in the upper left corner of Nimbin Rocks in Fog, where ungrounded trees soar into space from above and behind. Within this unsettling stratosphere, Robinson records precise detail. The limbs of branches are drawn to look hard and impenetrable as they stretch and wind, emphasised by clear outlining in white of their skeletal forms. In the centre of the canvas, Robinson has painted cloud-shadow complicating depth and infused the green of the foliage with the blue that is a a signature of the Australian landscape.
His use of detail, so precise in the lower two thirds of the painting, undergoes a transmutation in the top third where the fog of the title shrouds the remote mountain heights. It is here that Robinson exercises his mastery – the hidden rocks are cloaked in veils of subtle colour – and, as the elevation increases, the mist thickens into fog. The fog separates the mountain tops from the intricately painted detail of the lower slopes to become, in the very top section of the canvas, remote with detail lost in the spindrift of cloud.
Robinson’s colouring of the fog is one of the most important elements in the painting. Over the left peak, he has coloured the fog blue, intimating the solidity of the rock hidden behind the fog. The peak on the right side appears more distant. It is covered by a snow-like white cloud. The white paint also ensures that much is hidden. Brightly lit, it is a mystery of a different order.
Robinson is fundamentally a painter of light and, in Nimbin Rocks in Fog, he alludes to his fascination with the mystery of the natural world. He has looked to the mountains and their hidden peaks but also beyond them. Robinson has said of this period of his life (a time after which his family had experienced much sadness) that he left behind the sense of humour that had imbrued his Birkdale paintings. He says of those years in the 1990s,
‘I was in a realm where laughter had gone and was replaced by a certain spirituality.’1
It is the sense of ‘the other’ in nature that Robinson has captured in this painting.
The rocks of Nimbin Rocks in Fog are hard and impenetrable, but the fog that masks them, softer than rain, is impenetrable to the gaze. Robinson has painted a real place, well known to him, but in directing our gaze upwards and into the strangeness and mystery of the fog he directs our gaze further – into the cosmos.
1. Martin-Chew, L., ‘William Robinson’, Artist Profile, iss.41, 2017: https://artistprofile.com.au/william-robinson/
Lynn Fern is a writer on art and culture.
She is the author of William Robinson, Craftsman House, 1995