On The Heysen Trail

Art Life , Reviews Oct 03, 2012 No Comments

Sharne Wolff went on a walking holiday and found art…

The Heysen Trail is a long distance walking trail in South Australia. It runs for an incredible 1200 kilometres from the Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges to Cape Jervis on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. A couple of weeks ago I flew to Adelaide for the first time to walk part of the Heysen Trail with a group of friends. Although I shouldn’t admit it here it never occurred to me that the Heysen Trail had anything whatsoever to do with Hans Heysen (1877-1968), well-known South Australian colonial artist. It tuned out this trip would immerse me in art.

River red Gums on the Heysen Trail, 2012. Pic: Sharne Wolff.

With one spare day in Adelaide we had a plan to visit the newly renovated Art Gallery of South Australia. The Gallery’s Twitter-friendly Director, Nick Mitzevich, encouraged us to see exhibitions by Fred Williams, Anna Platten and the new hang of the Gallery’s Australian collection. A hot pink and gold poster of ‘Anemone Incursions II’ by Margarita Samson caught our eye on the way. We followed up with a quick visit to the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize at the South Australian Museum (next door to the Gallery) where around 50 finalist artworks including Margaret Loy Pula’s ‘Anatye (Bush Potato)’ and ‘Freshwater Eel (Colonial Style)’ by Richard Dunlop grabbed our attention.

Wandering through the Australian Collection at the AGSA it was fascinating to see some of our most striking Australian colonial works in the real. HJ Johnstone’s important ‘Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia 1880’ was the first ever acquisition of the Gallery. The large oil painting captures an aboriginal family camping beside the banks of a billabong in the still twilight. Painted in a photographically realistic way, Evening shadows was used for many years as a painting exercise in South Australian art schools. It also, however, contains substantial symbolism and has been interpreted an allegory for the dispossession of the Aboriginal population. Tom Nicholson’s recent project for ‘Parallel Collisions’, the 2012 Adelaide Biennale, examined the life of Johnstone’s popular painting and attempted to ‘reanimate’ the original by inverting the historical narratives that have developed around it.

Gallery Four contains three paintings by twentieth century modernist Margaret Preston including ‘Aboriginal Landscape’ and ‘Aboriginal Flowers’. These hang amongst a group of paintings by Indigenous artists and illustrate the way Preston, Ian Fairweather and others found inspiration in Aboriginal bark painting and other art forms.

The major exhibition at the AGSA until the end of this year is Fred Williams’ infinite horizons first shown at the National Gallery of Australia. Williams was born in Melbourne in 1927 and during his life produced some of Australia’s best-loved landscape paintings.

This show, curated by the NGA’s Deborah Hart, includes over 100 works by Williams and traces the development of his artistic life, cut short when the artist died at a young 55. It’s possible to see the development of Williams work and, in particular, the way he began to tilt and shorten his horizons making them appear like aerial versions of landscapes – not unlike Indigenous paintings from many areas of Australia today. The artist spent years visiting the outback areas of Australia and clearly developed an affinity for the feel and colour of the landscape. Seeing the work in the real also demonstrates Williams’ talent as a colourist – dabs of incongruous colour applied in a seemingly abstract fashion make perfect sense. It’s hard to believe such diverse shades and hues exist in the bush until you’ve experienced them first hand. Seeing Williams’ coastal landscapes in the real also made me realise Ken Done might have picked up some of his understanding of Sydney’s beaches from Williams.

We departed Adelaide the following morning. I figured that was over for our cultural experience for the time being. I was wrong. One of our first stops on the journey to Wilpena Pound was to view the subject of Harold Cazneau’s ‘The Spirit of Endurance’ (commonly known as ‘The Cazneau Tree’) a robust river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) for which the original photograph was taken in 1937. Still standing proudly with several new saplings emerging, the tree continues to endure. It’s a monument to all of those who survive and thrive in Australia’s harsh environments.

Tom Roberts, Shearing the rams, 1890. Oil on canvas on composition board, 122.4 x 183.3 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1932.

Dodging dozens of kangaroos and wallabies in the orange and yellow striped twilight we headed to Willow Springs for the evening and a few days stay in shearer’s quarters. With several cold early morning starts ahead our conversation was (of course) presided over by a slightly faded reproduction of Tom RobertsShearing the Rams’ 1888-90 which I admired while trying to keep warm, dress a dodgy toe and drink too many cups of tea. ‘Shearing the Rams’ is one of those iconic pictures that every Australian is familiar with, to the point where no one notices it any more. Although Roberts was fascinated with the romance of the bush and Australian pastoral life, this picture wasn’t painted on the spur of the moment. The artist spent two shearing seasons at a station in the NSW Riverina making sketches and drawings to prepare for it and to present Australians with a painting that he considered would ‘express the meaning and spirit of strong masculine labour’. In doing so he also painted the new spirit of Australian nationalism that had begun to emerge. Despite its obvious realism the painting was very carefully composed. Interestingly Doug, the ex shearer in our group, suggested that in his experience the sheep on the far left (being handled by the man in the blue shirt) would never have been brought into the shearing line facing forward.

The following day was spent walking the last twenty kilometres of the Heysen Trail which began at the pug and pine ‘Aroona Hut’, constructed in 1925. Two years on in 1927, Hans Heysen visited the Flinders Ranges and stayed at the hut where he made the first of many sketches and paintings including ‘The Three Sisters of Aroona’. He later made nine further trips to the Ranges and painted an entire series there. The Trail winds through hills covered in native wild flowers and dry riverbeds. Gums glowing red, white and gold in the sun tower over the path. According to Bernard Smith, Heysen was ‘the only Australian painter of the Edwardian years to handle the big landscape with success’.

“It is a fascinating part of our country distinct from anything in Australia, and it is crying out to be painted.”

(Hans Heysen, 1927)

*All quotes are from Bernard Smith et al ‘Australian Painting 1788-2000’.

Sharne Wolff

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