Art Gallery of SA 8 May to 16 August 1998 Curated by Jane Hylton
I went to investigate The Painted Coast, expertly shepherded by Kate Jordan-Moore (new Marketing Manager at AGSA), in preparation for an interview with one of the living artists in the show, Hugo Shaw, who has a small oil painting among the works grouped in the section called by the curator 'The Coast as Idea: the Advance of Modernism.' Hugo Shaw taught art at St Peters College for many years, and has a long-standing attachment to the Willunga Area.
I very much liked Shaw's grey, close-quarters loose-realist painting of Blanche Point (1969), but I was surprised by the intensity of my reaction to the exhibition as a whole. I suspect I'm not alone in this experience.
The Gallery has an ongoing project (of thirty years' standing) to promote the work of South Australian artists. Much of the work in this show is from the Gallery's own collection. The most recent piece is a painted silk scarf by Muriel van der Byl, the earliest some rather faded watercolours by William Light.
Spending time in each of the three West Wing rooms among these dozens of works, from the naive colonial idylls (Light, Frome, Angas, Skipper) many populated by Aboriginal groups camping, Aboriginal guides - even an Aboriginal burial ceremony at Inman Valley (John Lush, 1882) - to the conceptually-loaded Pseudo Panorama of a Rapid Bay Landscape (Ian North, 1988) or Kerry Giles' equally loaded Cultural Revival 1988, I found myself overwhelmed. 'This is my country,' was what I was feeling. Not to say it isn't van der Byl's and Kurwingie's, but if this isn't my country then I don't have one. These paintings called up a surprisingly passionate attachment to the South Coast's hills, valleys, cliffs and beaches.
Normanville, Second Valley, Port Willunga, Aldinga, Maslins, the Coorong, these are emblematic of youthful freedom and escape, family holidays, and (later) ferrying surf-struck teenagers from one beach to the next in search of the best waves. Jeffrey Smart likened the Fleurieu to Provence or Tuscany, but the South Coast doesn't need imported European cachet to be an emotional powerhouse for people who grew up here. The cumulative effect of this exhibition, for us, is very strong.
It's a passion less stirred, for me, by the brooding and rather self-conscious romanticism, the overblown majesty of Ivor Hele's 1960 Blanche Point, Aldinga than by the same artist's economical green-and-grey palette and spare brushwork in The Cutting, Old Adey Road (1930s); less by the grand panorama of Heysen's 1926 The South Coast than by the lovely, faint pastels of Kathleen Sauerbier's 30s views of Port Willunga beach and hinterland. Sauerbier studied at the Central School of Art in London, but seems to have transcended her Duncan-Grant phase and evolved a looser, fluid style.
Earlier, we had our own South Coast impressionists. Jane Hylton has unearthed from a private collection a wonderful Richard Hayley Lever Victor Harbour (1905), with very French (or maybe Cornish)-looking yachts scudding on choppy, dappled, short-brushstroke waves, all blues and yellows and light-filled sky. (Lever studied in St Ives around 1900, ended up teaching seascape painting in New York). James Ashton, Lever's first teacher, has a Moon Enchanted Sea in the 'Twentieth Century: Sunlight and Grandeur' section - corny as the title suggests, but hugely likeable. Ashton taught many later Fleurieu artists. (All these enlightening historical details are courtesy of Jane Hylton's excellent catalogue).
It's a superbly-chosen selection of paintings. Since it covers the whole of the period of white settlement of South Australia, it offers, in passing, an intriguing survey of passing fads in painting, the mutations they underwent when translated from Europe, the superseding of one fashion by the next. From the documentary and, indeed, promotional impulses behind Light's and Angas's painted surveys of the colony to the Robert Hannaford acrylic chosen to advertise the exhibition: conquistadorial mid-80s Adelaide man, naked, arms-folded, master of all he surveys (a sweep of Kodacolour-bright, sun-soaked Eden: Maslin's beach and cliffs).
The same locations, painted by, say, Dorrit Black as blocky, monumental, dark, and by Horace Trennery in pastel pinks and browns seem to be from different worlds. E.C. Frome's low-Turneresque cliffs-of-Dover-at-Port Noarlunga is not even a distant relative of Max Ragless's painting, a century later, of the same spot. Very different treatments (say, Ivor Francis' and Douglas Roberts') of similar locations also appear in close contemporaries. Noting influences and new breakthroughs in style over the decades in these paintings is part of the enjoyment for the viewer.
Most of the paintings (except for early colonial ones) are unpeopled, allowing the Coast its pre-eminence as natural wonder, with a few exceptions. The Giles and van der Byl works pointedly include humans, and there's an arresting Jeffrey Smart 1946 work called Holiday Resort that is unique in this show for implied human drama. In the middle-distance, a singleted man sits reading his paper in a deckchair, his back to a front-of-stage baby's pram, which may or may not be occupied. Over the man's head, a string of coloured lights, suspended from the roof-pole of an open-sided wooden shelter, seagull overhead, lone Norfolk pine in a fenced enclosure, a strange white obelisk to the side of the shelter. This painting attends to human occupation, human overlay of the 'natural'. Its surreal, overlit, spooky quality doesn't survive reproduction in the catalogue.
Full credit to Jane Hylton for a knowledgeable and shrewd selection, a powerful and moving, revealing and reaffirming statement of Spirit of Place.