Robert Malherbe led the way up three flights of quite steep stairs to his studio, in an unpretentious early 20th-century building in Darlinghurst, unchanged save a couple of smart stainless steel doors. I’ve been up a lot of stairs to a lot of studios; there’s always the anticipation, often a sense of anxiety from the artist, when as dealer or writer you are the conduit between the maker and the world.
I usually walk around, but my Jack Russell had come with me and I wanted him to settle, so I first sat with an immediate view of some small pictures, mainly nudes and portraits. I hadn’t seen Robert’s work, and I wasn’t prepared for the scale. My immediate impression was of the impasto, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach came into my mind, but without the sense of pose. These paintings were quiet and intimate, small in scale, the largest no longer than a metre. It was at this point I realised Robert was relaxed. I hadn’t picked up worry or tension, or bother about the dog, just the quiet confidence that was apparent in the pictures.
I asked where it all started. Robert was born in Mauritius. His family migrated to Australia while he was a schoolboy. His father made a collection of postcards before the family left the tropical island. The captured images intrigued, and Robert began to draw.
His mother bought some smoke-damaged art books after a fire at the local school, one from the Washington Gallery, and Robert knew that this was what he wanted to do, to make images like these. At secondary school a good teacher encouraged him, but left. When a teacher wanting to teach craft skills threw him out of the art class for painting and drawing, Robert left. At the age of 16 he found work in an animation studio. So drawing, capturing the moment, underpins the work.
The paintings had bothered me slightly: not just the small scale contrasting with the rich, thick gestures of colour, but something about their calm-without-stillness. Each image has unusual power. Animation training explains this. Experience, accepting, integrating experience, informs all really good art, and the sensation of almost-movement in the work made sense in the context of animation.
Still life is usually tranquillity: sheen on a solid vase against delicate translucent petals; perhaps a witty conjunction of objects. Robert’s objects are still, but somehow immediate. They’re still, but they are alive. Someone will pick up one of the artichokes, or move the cloth; the shadow of the peonies will lengthen. And that’s characteristic of his figures. They, too, are about to move, to stretch, have just sat down. Poised, not posed.
As I took in the paintings, Robert talked about art. While he was learning animation he began to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He went constantly, standing in front of the paintings, just looking, thinking about the work, the artist’s intentions; how a personal, private moment becomes a permanent and public record. Here he began to absorb tradition. The eye trained to animate is trained to observe, to see minute differences, but to keep in mind the whole.
Making good money, he travelled to London and to Europe, visiting galleries, looking. Looking. Thinking about what it means to make a work of art. He spoke about this time, about painting the figure. That was the attraction, how do you paint a human being? A good painting, he tells me, is never old, it was given life by the artist, and it lives, the same now as it was 400 years ago.
Then I realised I could recognise his models. They are friends, he talks to them, and although the way he paints, draws with paint, does convey volume, the flesh, veins and muscles under the skin, they do bring to mind other styles of figure painting. It is not primarily about rendering the image. Auerbach for all his luscious textures, and Freud’s precise description of the person, retain a degree of detachment. And de Kooning’s nudes, Robert mentions de Kooning, seem to be vehicles to express drama, often anger. Robert’s figures, clothed or naked, have personality. Even when the face is hidden by hair, or turned away, the individual breathes, the person is paramount, nude or clothed.
De Kooning brings him to talk about tradition, about every generation having the right to re-interpret, but that art doesn’t go forward like science, it is situated. Robert’s work is situated, in the present through the past. This he thinks is because he wasn’t trained, except by the process of standing in front of paintings, looking at centuries of work, his eye taking in. Illustration, he goes on, is technique, and it’s not about illustration. The image exists, that’s a form of copying, that’s easy, there’s a huge difference between illustration and painting, in painting you don’t preconceive the image. The process of painting a portrait is a process of discovery.
It’s the same with landscape, he pushes a trolley with his paints, and canvas, sets up in the landscape. That’s what the landscapes and figures and still lifes have in common, the sense of immediacy: there is a breeze in the trees, the shadows seem almost to move. I realise I’ve never looked at a landscape before and thought about the air, but the way Robert makes his landscapes brings air to mind. Plein air, indeed.
It’s movement again, he speaks of the need for distortion to convey the idea and the form in the moment, and because he doesn’t block in, because he doesn’t appear to think about texture, but draws with paint so that the texture renders the line and the colour conveys the volume, the light is alive, and the place is present. I am thinking a lot about how this works, and I realise there is light against dark; I ask about black.
Robert gives me a catalogue of his recent show at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. The last reproduction is of a ‘Self Portrait’, and he’s wearing a hat. He realised that black is a crucial, active element in Australian painting, because of the strength of the light. I’ve never heard it put like that before, although I’ve heard artists talk about the force of black in the Australian landscape. Robert’s ‘Self Portrait’ explains it. The light is so bright, so intense, that the shadows take on life. The painting is of a man looking back at the viewer. He’s surrounded by green, but you don’t ask if it’s a painted wall, or wonder if the figure is outside. It’s a stylish hat, a summer hat, and he’s wearing a dark collarless top. Every detail of the face is drawn, and the dribble of green on the shoulder and the smear on the hat brim catch the eye, but only to emphasise the accuracy with which the vividly coloured brushstrokes model the features. Except the eyes, which are in shadow, under the brim of the hat, the black caused by the Australian light offering the painter a way quietly to observe.
Robert’s tranquillity had struck me as I arrived, and he tells me another story that conveys his confidence. He came back to Australia and took a studio, but went on working in animation: he met his wife and continued to divide his time with painting. But when they decided to have a child, he gave up animation and painted full-time. There was a little gallery space in the studio complex, and he had a show there, and this led to a series of successful exhibitions. He’s painted full-time for many years.
He lives now in the Blue Mountains and moves between his studios there and in Sydney. The recent show at the Cultural Centre was called Resist the spirit of the times. The spirit of the times is about celebrity, about stretching the boundaries, about something new every moment, about using language as if art was a sociological and academic pursuit. The phrase, Robert tells me, paraphrases Baselitz about Picasso, that artists should follow their own paths.
We leave the Darlinghurst studio, down the steep wooden stairs. The building, it occurs to me, is just right for Robert. It’s solid, traditional, without pretension, but the stainless steel doors suggest that modernity is part of the whole. The climb is worth it, because one sits in a room full of light: calm, engaged, delighted. And unable to stop looking at the paintings.
Just as I sat down to finish this profile, Kon Gouriotis, our editor, phoned with the news that Robert Malherbe had won the 2016 NSW Parliament Plein Air Prize. The next day’s newspaper story told of Robert’s accidental discovery of the wetlands; but there is nothing accidental in pursuing your own path, and having confidence in painting your own vision in your own style. Robert’s work shows us that.
Robert Malherbe is represented by Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane and James Makin Gallery, Melbourne.
Images courtesy the artist.