By the time he discovered Werribee Gorge in 1977, Fred Williams had nothing left to prove. He was the country’s leading landscape painter, and one of the most highly respected figures in Australian art. He sat on the Acquisitions Committee of the Australian National Gallery, as it was then known, and had served as a foundation member of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.
In that same year, he became the first - and only - Australian artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, when his gouaches were shown under the title, Fred Williams – Landscapes of a Continent.
Pleasing as these honours and acknowledgements must have been, Williams was conscious of how much time they took away from his work in the landscape and the studio. If he allowed himself to sit on boards and committees it was partly because he felt a sense of responsibility towards Australian art and its institutions, but also because such appointments represented the end of a long, personal struggle to establish the ongoing value of contemporary landscape painting.
In 1957, Bernard Smith had decided Williams’ work was too close to abstraction to allow inclusion in that homemade movement of figurative painters called ‘The Antipodeans’. As it turned out, Smith’s strident defence of ‘the image’ fell flat, as none of the artists he selected felt any special antipathy towards abstract art. When Williams was invited to join later, he declined the offer, and the group quickly dissipated.
Smith had been suspicious of the paintings Williams made in Mittagong, shortly after returning from London, where he had lived and worked from 1952-56. In retrospect these strongly vertical works seem more indebted to Cézanne than to any form of abstract art, but they were a radical departure from the landscapes associated with iconic artists such as Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Hans Heysen (1877-1968).
Williams was conscious of the evolving state of modern art, and aware that many taste-makers saw landscape as old hat – at worst, a hangover of the colonial mentality. He felt a certain pressure to explore a more abstract manner of painting but was unwilling to let go of the motif. His closest approach to movements such as Colour Field and Minimalism would be the Australian Landscapes of 1969-70.
Bernard Smith, still wary of abstraction, described these works as ‘confetti thrown across Australian desert sand to celebrate a marriage that never took place.’1 The marriage was between landscape and Colour Field, a relationship that caused some unease for Williams himself. With the passing years, as our criteria for landscape has expanded beyond gum trees and sheep paddocks, it has become easier to see that these paintings capture something elemental about the local environment.
By 1974, feeling burdened by official commitments and needled by negative comments about his work, Williams re-evaluated his approach. On painting trips to Yan Yean Swamp, he began painting oil sketches en plein air, with greater freedom and spontaneity. When these more expressive, colourful works were shown at the Rudy Komon Art Gallery in Sydney, in April 1975, they came as a surprise to those who had grown familiar with Williams’ habitual earth-tones.
In the gigantic retrospective held at the Australian National Gallery in 1987, this shift towards a brighter, more varied palette was instantly noticeable. By 1977-78, when he was painting pictures such as Werribee Gorge (10), Williams had become accustomed to filling a canvas with small, bright flecks of colour. The dirty yellow-ochre ground suggests a dry, sun-scorched landscape seen from the air, with small pools of water, rocky outcrops, and patches of vegetation all clearly visible.
Williams made day trips to the site over a period of three years, usually in the company of a younger artist, Fraser Fair (born 1949). Situated in a State Park less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne, and a mere eight kilometres from Bacchus Marsh, the area is easily accessible, although the Gorge itself is steep and rocky.
In the late 1970s the park was suffering the effects of a severe drought, but there is no sense of doom and despair in Williams’ work, unlike say, Russell Drysdale’s apocalyptic images of the 1940s, inspired by drought in the Riverina. On the contrary, Williams found a real pictorial excitement in a scene that might have seemed harsh and forbidding to a lesser artist. He is not concerned with making an environmental statement, but with the complexities of a successful composition.
Williams actually viewed the drought as a bonus, writing in his diary: ‘these last three or four years have been the driest in 53 years. So it has been a great opportunity to be doing the “Gorge” – visually it could not be seen under better conditions.’2 In these days of advanced climate-consciousness it seems almost shocking that an artist might see drought as an opportunity rather than a threat. But for Williams, the only way a painter was ever going to raise a viewer’s consciousness was by exposing the extraordinary beauty in a landscape too easily taken for granted.
1. Bernard Smith, quoted in McCaughey, P., Fred Williams 1927-1982, Bay Books, Sydney, 1987, p.322
2. ‘Fred Williams,’ Creative-i Magazine, no.6, March 2014 (accessed October 2022): https://www.creativecowboyfilms.com/publications/creative-i-6
John McDonald is the author of Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He writes a weekly art column for the Sydney Morning Herald and a weekly film column for the Australian Financial Review.