Hans and Nora Heysen

The river, and daylight, beckoned as I descended to the Potter Galleries from Federation Square to see the Heysens’ show. If ever an artist deserves natural light for an exhibition it is Hans Heysen; I found the idea of the outside intruding constantly as I looked at his and Nora Heysen’s pictures in the curatorially correct lighting. Yes, it is important to ensure future generations see the work, but seeing them as if underwater surely defeats the purpose of seeing them at all.

The constraint of the underlighting illustrates wider issues confronting the visual arts today. The show’s form and narrative led me to contemplate changes in institutional engagement with the public since the sixteen-year-old Hans Heysen sold a watercolour to his Adelaide teacher, James Ashton, in 1894.

Marketing, systems of curatorial practice, and the need to publish now manage a system that until the late 1970s was run by trained visual artists. Scholarship, connoisseurship, was evident in critical reviews, publications, correspondence and conversation, but powerful figures such as Sydney Ure Smith, Daryl Lindsay, Bernard Smith, William Dargie, James Gleeson and Elwyn Lynn began their journeys to power in the studio.

In that very small artworld it would have been unthinkable to report, as one exhibition catalogue essay claims, that the young Hans Heysen lacked funds and connections. His teacher was the most influential in Adelaide, one of the city’s richest men paid his tuition fees, and four patrons then sponsored him to Europe for four years. Another catalogue essayist claims that Nora Heysen’s self-portraits were ‘a coded way of defining herself’.

This is stretching feminist interpretation very thin … every self-portrait is comment on a stage, a point in life … but coded?

The drive to develop exhibitions that procure audiences, fitting a narrative to contemporary interpretations has, in this case, done both artists a disservice. The show provides a series of examples of how the foci of the current system interfere not only with the enjoyment of art, but with information and appraisal that can assist in that enjoyment.

The catalogue and the notes on the wall reveal an inclination to set Nora Heysen’s work against Hans’, implying that by being ‘modern’, it was superior to his. Her drawing is utterly accomplished, and when her portraits work they are very impressive, but in certain of her war artist paintings, the image is not supported by her drafting. Stretching the analysis to focus on her intermittent ‘modern’ techniques and palette diverts from her strengths and distorts the view of his.

She could have looked to any figurative forms, from Rembrandt to cubism, but two powerful moulded 1941 portraits, Motherhood and Dedication, might be said to meditate on Raphael’s Madonnas. Hans advised her against going down the ‘modern’ path, and again the implication is this was unhelpful, but he may well have been right; he knew her strengths.

The catalogue also suggests that it is tempting to speculate who was the better still-life painter. Why? It’s not a sporting competition, as both produce marvellous work in the genre. Nora’s painting Eggs, when she was seventeen, and Cabbage, with eggs and onions, took me to Cezanne’s apples and onions. She sets the objects against a dark formal background which emphasises the planes and focuses the ways the shapes respond to the light suffusing the paintings.

Daughter and father painted exactly the same still life in 1927, the year of Eggs, each with the same dark shadow and bottle of oil. Nora got to the vegetables first; hers are plump, delectable, glowing; by the time Hans had his go, the parsnips had shrivelled, the asparagus collapsed, and the onions were losing their skins. He brought off an account of formal decay. These still-lifes are not cubist, or abstracted, but they are to be admired.

Nora’s early work played with Vermeer and the Dutch masters. Hans was, as Bernard Smith points out, a skilled Impressionist. Paintings by them both of the same variety of rose are displayed beside Hans’ advice to Nora. Hers was a painting produced after Pissarro’s daughter ordered her to update her palette, at which point she is supposed to have ‘got’ modernism. His roses almost give out perfume. Hers, against a pale, diffused and nondescript background, are insipid, the breaking up of the background reduces the blooms’ impact; the Impressionist effect is old-fashioned. The urge for a theoretical approach here regrettably leaves Nora looking less interesting than Hans.

Father and daughter were both surprised their still-lifes were well received: the demand that each artist should explore every trend began to haunt art practice from the early twentieth century.

This was itself a trend, a fashion. It became the rule for some time from the late 1970s in Australia, through the unscholarly hectoring of the young Robert Hughes, whose later fame meant his influence prevails into the present.

Curator Angela Hesson felt obliged, in her catalogue essay, to respond to Hughes’ ignorant, inaccurate dismissal of Hans Heysen. She would have been better to ignore his remarks; it is clear he spent no time at all with any of Heysen’s pictures. Hesson would have been better to engage with Bernard Smith’s magisterial essay in Australian Painting (1962). James Gleeson articulated the taken-for-granted of Australian artists when he pointed out in 1976 that Impressionism emerged when ‘the French no longer felt any very urgent need to translate their landscape into art … the real purpose of the exercise,’ was ‘to describe the quality of the atmosphere surrounding it’.

For Australian painters, he argued, the imperative task remained ‘to clarify their vision of the country and to establish its appearance in art’. Despite the intersection of the artworlds of Britain, France and Australia, this was why Australian painters of the period did not explore the various approaches to painting that evolved in Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Smith acknowledges Heysen’s triumph in this regard. Situating his work in the landscape tradition of the European masters, Smith distinguishes Heysen’s contribution from the ‘tangled little scrub of gum tree painters’ growing up ‘around the roots of his achievement,’ obscuring his originality and command of the big landscape, underpinned by the ‘power and integrity’ of draughtsmanship, the broad vision of a range of regions and seasons.

We should assume agency that artists choose to work in certain ways, challenging themselves, developing technique. Heysen chose gums and hills. Another South Australian, Jeffrey Smart, chose freeways and industrial sites. When I came to the Flinders Range paintings, Smart’s stark images came into mind; both artists knew that flat, unforgiving South Australian light. Here Hans’ work references cubism through an understanding of the monumental shapes in front of him; just as the pink 1901 view from his Paris window understands, but does not explore abstraction.

As I reflect on the show I want to emphasise the remarkable intensity of the best Nora Heysen portraits; both father and daughter’s drawings are also to be admired. Her eggs glow in the memory, and his grapes make the trip worthwhile. But his landscapes, particularly the Flinders Ranges, make the show unmissable. I cannot get them out of my mind.

This essay originally appeared in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations
of Australian Art
Until 28 July, 2019
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


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