Arthur Boyd’s Potter Dreaming of Gold is a subject that presents a thought-provoking depiction of the preciousness and precariousness of human existence. A central theme of Arthur Boyd’s oeuvre, the preciousness/precariousness duality, so often commented on by other writers,1 regularly takes the form of signifiers invoking desire, narcissism, self-destruction, and the baseness of human behaviour. Boyd personalises these universal themes, combining them with his own life experiences, and then re-presents and reconfigures them as intriguing subjects that convey avarice as an unwanted but ever-present pre-condition of human life.
In this context, Potter Dreaming of Gold makes an indirect reference to major and earlier oil paintings held respectively in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide – Nebuchadnezzar Protecting his Gold 1968-69 and Nebuchadnezzar Dreaming of Gold 1966-68. The works were both painted in London as a direct response to the Vietnam War, a dreadful and futile conflict that, as a pacifist, Boyd so strongly opposed. In the NGA picture, Nebuchadnezzar stretches over the yellow, globular missives in an animistic posture that summons the preciousness of the material (and by implication, his resulting, precarious existence). While in the AGSA work, the debased figure, revelling in and being consumed by a sparkling field of gold, can be likened to the deranged Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit (1937). In that context, the phrase ‘my precious’ evokes the ‘morbid covetousness’ induced in holders of the Ring by the Ring itself.
Arthur Boyd’s lexicon is that greed and misplaced ambition invariably lead to external strife or internal self-loathing. His father, Merric (the potter), though much-loved and respected, is referenced in Potter Dreaming of Gold as a victim of unrequited desire and greed and his physical resemblance is an animal locked on all fours. The young Arthur Boyd had witnessed the primal screams and howling of his father at the base of the locked maternal bedroom door, where during his epileptic fits, Merric would become a writhing, pitiful, prostrate mass. Merric Boyd is certainly not responsible for the world’s ills – equated in the painting with the nuclear threat posed to the tranquil Shoalhaven River setting – but his presence is a poignant reminder that in extreme circumstances humans are capable of the best and the worst.
1. See Hart, D., Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.