When Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) penned his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891, he infused his main character Tess with an emotional sensitivity towards landscape. A victim of manipulation by fate, she had lost her virginity in a rural tryst. Her inward feelings of grief found the sunset landscape to be an emotional topography, rather than some kind of external geography.
‘She knew that moment of evening when the light and the darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other, leaving absolute mental liberty. It is then that the plight of being alive becomes attenuated to its least possible dimensions’. 1
There are echoes of this mental, physical and sexual release in Arthur Boyd’s Sunset Cave c1976, for it is at twilight, here, from the confines of a cave, that he recalls emotional and physical pain. This painting is a dense tableau of signs, symbols and haunting memories. Like Hardy, Boyd uses the sunlit landscape to set the mood of his emotional topography. He tenderly paints eucalypts caught rigidly in the pink light of the evening; one of the trees is held firm by a tripod of stakes. He populates the sky with black crows that seem to recall the messengers of the beautiful spacious Wimmera landscapes, or even the bush birds of the Shoalhaven. However, in this image the crows are indeed messengers like the ravens from Game of Thrones, or drones flying in a claustrophobic fantasy space.
The sense of paranoia is increased by the dark hooded cave-like structure in the corner of the picture where the action occurs in the shadows. Boyd has used this hooded cave-like structure to dramatic effect several times before: The Frightened Bridegroom 1958, shows a jaded Aboriginal man crouched in a cave of repression. Boyd’s Figure in a Cave with Smoking Book 1973, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, has a similar crouching figure confined to a cave at sunset, looking past a muzzled dog at the mouth of the cave into the world beyond. The cave in all these paintings is a place of abject disaffection. In the foreground, the remains of a campfire smoulders on, leaving us in no doubt that Boyd has placed his images in Colonial Australia. In each, the hazy smoke somehow softens the desperation that emanates from the appearance of his figures.
When first looking into Sunset Cave, the viewer’s eye seeks out the tripod echo of the figure within the cave. Here man and muzzled dog (again) are merged as one in an image that speaks to the violence that is curbed within our natures—so often not spoken of—but Boyd finds strength to literally paint of it. As John McDonald has observed: ‘Beneath the shy façade there was a wild, raging fantasy in Boyd’s make-up’. 2
Just as Hardy found sunset as a place for Tess to be un-harnessed from sexual guilt, so Boyd could redeem the actions of his past personal relationships in the emotional topography of his late paintings. Boyd’s figures, flung viscerally from his imagination, are ‘universal symbols of love, desire, loss, loneliness and pain; ultimately, images of the impossibility of wholeness and harmony’. 3
1. Hardy, T., Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Dover, New York, 2001, unabridged republication of the 1912 McMillan ed., Phase of the Second, 13
2. McDonald, J., ‘Arthur Boyd: An active witness’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June, 2014
3. Allen, C., ‘Arthur Boyd’s Bride Series explores issues beyond indigenous affairs’, The Australian, 31 January, 2015
Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons); MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD