Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstacy

The new exhibition, Arthur Boyd: agony and ecstasy, at the National Gallery of Australia Canberra is a major showcase of Boyd’s art including more than 100 works across diverse media: paintings, prints, drawings, ceramic tiles and sculptures, and tapestries. The focus is on Boyd as an intense poetic visionary who was capable of plumbing the depths and vicissitudes of human emotions.

This show is a great opportunity to revisit the Boyd legacy and see first-hand the contribution this lauded painter and printmaker made to the visual arts. Boyd lived both in Australia and for the later part of his life, in Britain. He was widely known as a leading modern Australian master for his painting but in this article I would like to focus on his collaboration with another well known expat – the poet Peter Porter OAM. Boyd made his name as a passionate expressive painter; he explored emotional depths that were often uncomfortable and at times brutal. Amongst some of the works on show will be a range of prints from the collaborations he made with Porter, who lived in the UK from 1951 from the age of 22. Porter teamed up with Boyd a number of times and the combination of the poets’s piercing literary evocations and the artist’s stinging visions created works that maintain a potent relevancy today.

Since Boyd’s death his awareness amongst younger audiences has faded slightly – maybe not as ‘slick’ a painter as one needs to be nowadays to cut it in contemporary circles. But if you carefully examine these incisive and dark works, you can see that he had such a sharp visual intellect and awareness and so did Porter. In fact, both have influenced many current creators, musicians and writers – some like Nick Cave, another Aussie expat have found inspiration from Porter’s writing.

It’s not hard to be transfixed by Porter’s amalgam of everyday syntax with a brutally honest juxtaposition and assessment of modern greed, envy and the social ills of the day.

While the Australian landscape directly informs some of the artworks, the emphasis is on the way that Boyd engages with human experience— fear, love, sex and death which became frequent subjects in his imagery. These topics are what Boyd painted daily or was driven to paint throughout his career. These subjects are not so easily palatable to audiences, but it was the willingness to explore these human foibles and our own aberrations that made these creators important. The biting allegoric component of Boyd/Porter books and collaborations arguably haven’t been seen since—during their height these two operated collectively as a long-distance national conscience.

Some of the projects they collaborated on took form in limited edition books which included: ‘Jonah’ (1973), ‘The lady and the unicorn’ (1974) Narcissus (1984) and ‘Mars’ (1988). This was a highly successful collaboration based on friendship, mutual respect and an understanding that their independent visions in words and printmaking would be allowed to flourish side by side. Boyd’s etchings accompanying the poems reveal a mastery of arabesque line and fine detail in drawing combined with velvety black aquatint that shifts in tone. In ‘The lady and the unicorn’ the portfolio as a whole combined intense passions with a corresponding delicacy of touch. Boyd’s work captured a feeling for the sacred and profane of the story: of the mythical unicorn; the outsider, the only animal left off Noah’s ark, and much sought after by the emperor.

The unicorn falls in love with a lady who betrays him to the hunters. Hunted down, the unicorn dies Christ-like, for love. Yet he remains etched brightly in the mind as a symbol of undying purity and compassion. ‘The lady and The unicorn’ series relates directly to ‘the caged painter’ series, also 1973–74, revealing the tremendous outpouring of work in these years.

It’s safe to say that both creators benefited from working with each other and gained from the experience. Porter himself wrote: “Only when I first began to work with Arthur Boyd did I find that there is a fulfilling way of collaborating, and that it requires each artist to go his own way, the resultant works being counterpointed rather than harmonised. Stravinsky asserted that he liked working to commission, but added that the artist should make sure that he was commissioned to carry out what he had already decided he wanted to do.

“My experience with Boyd has been at the opposite end of patronage – I have been given the subject, but allowed to develop it as I saw fit, being simply plonked down on a wide-ranging theme and told to write poems to it. Arthur would then do the pictures in whatever form he fancied and the end-product would be the two sets of artworks issued together in a book. My description of this process, of course, begs many questions, including that of how much value the final book might have, but it underlines the autonomy of imagination which I believe to be essential to any worthwhile collaboration.”

The NGA has said that this show is not a retrospective but rather provides the opportunity to take a close look at a number of Arthur Boyd’s work that has never or rarely been previously exhibited. There are ten of these ‘collaborative’ works on show in the latest exhibition at Canberra. Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy will provide a rare opportunity to consider in depth, the artist’s work from The National Gallery’s diverse collection.


Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy
National Gallery of Australia
5 September to 9 November, 2014

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