Friday, November 9, 2007

In Fairweather's footsteps

I'm re-posting this item (blogged earlier this summer) as part of the retrieval of the old Artknows content and because the Australian art market seems once again to be on the rise.

The rock shown left – on first glimpse easily mistaken for one of sculptor William Tucker’s chthonic lumps – is a memorial marking the now vanished home on Bribie Island, Queensland, Australia, of painter Ian Fairweather (1891-1974).

Prior to my recent three-week Queensland sojourn, my limited knowledge of Australian painting had been derived almost entirely from Ronald Millar’s introductory text, Civilised Magic, which I acquired in the late ‘70s (and which barely mentions Fairweather), and from occasional forays into the work of the great Sydney Nolan. Fairweather’s work was therefore entirely unknown to me.

Born in Stirling, Scotland, Fairweather (left) spent a good deal of his life as a hermit on Bribie Island, off the coast of Queensland. He is now widely acknowledged as one of Australia’s finest painters. Deeply moved by the works on display in Queensland Art Gallery, some of which recalled the work of Arshile Gorky and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, I set off for Bribie on a Fairweather pilgrimage.

Ian Fairweather’s life was an extraordinary odyssey. Born of well-to-do parents in Scotland (his father was Surgeon-General in the Indian Medical Service), much of his childhood was spent under the guardianship of his aunts on the island of Jersey. After military service in the First World War, in which he was captured in France by the Germans, he studied under Henry Tonks at the Slade School in London, winning second prize for figure drawing in 1922.

This period marked the beginning of Fairweather’s lifelong fascination with Asian culture and particularly Chinese calligraphy, which he practiced diligently throughout his life.

After a stint as a farm labourer in Canada, Fairweather sailed to Shanghai to travel and paint. Thus began an extended period of peripatetic wandering through Asia and the Pacific, during which time, despite living in near penury, the quality of his painting was gradually recognized in London and elsewhere. In the late 1930s, he exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery and in the USA and Australia.

After developing an allergy to oil paint, he worked in gouache and other more experimental media, invariably choosing materials that allowed him the freedom to develop his own calligraphic pictorial language. Kite Flying, 1958 (right) is a representative example.

In 1952, after two years living in an old boat in Darwin in the Northern Territory, Fairweather constructed a makeshift raft from discarded aircraft fuel tanks and parachute silk, evidently inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki adventure of 1947. The reconstruction (above right), entitled The Gift, by New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson (born 1964), is currently on show in Brisbane’s 5th Asia Pacific Triennial.

Using a rudimentary knowledge of navigation picked up at Darwin public library, Fairweather set sail for Timor. After sixteen days at sea, pursued by sharks, physically weak and running dangerously low on rations, he was washed up on the Indonesian island of Roti. His hosts were not amused and after shuttling him to and fro between detention centres for derelicts in Timor, Bali and Singapore, he was forcibly repatriated to the United Kingdom where he worked as a road-digger to fund his passage back to Australia.

In the mid-‘50s, after returning to Bribie Island, Fairweather constructed two primitive huts (in what were then isolated woods) in which to live and work (see the artist at home left). However, in 1965, feeling beleaguered by the number of people arriving on the island, he set off again, this time to Singapore, India and, briefly, London, where he considered setting up a studio. Unable to adapt to a conventional social ambience, he returned finally to Bribie where he continued to paint until his death in 1974.

During the early 1970s, perhaps embarrassed by the eccentric clochard in their midst, the local Bribie authorities erected a special building (shown right) in an attempt to coax Fairweather out of the primitive shack in which he was domiciled back into civilisation. Two months in this breezeblock environment was all he could bear, however, and back to the woods he crept. Today, the building is owned by the Bribie Island Toc H Association, which conserves its connections with the painter.

Ian Fairweather largely eschewed the company of other artists and the social networks of established art communities, although he was said to receive occasional guests reluctantly but always with the utmost courtesy. Happily the quality of his painting has finally earned his work a permanent home in Queensland Art Gallery.

Were he not seen as an ‘Australian’ artist, one suspects that Fairweather’s work might be better known and its quality more widely acknowledged. But Australian painting is generally viewed as marginal and perhaps even somewhat parochial (Christie’s pulled out of the Australian market altogether in 2006). Viewed in the context of his Aussie contemporaries in the Queensland Art Gallery, however, Fairweather’s work seems of an altogether different order – intense, disciplined, compositionally complex, and with an extraordinary sense of colour.

Today, Fairweather’s paintings seldom appear on the open market. His auction record is Aus$552,600 (US$398,989) for Tea Garden, Peking (1935) (left), achieved at Christie’s in Melbourne in May 2004, against an estimate of Aus$120,000-180,000.

Bizarrely, apart from the appropriately primitive rock marking the former site of his ‘humpy’ as the locals call it, all that remains of Ian Fairweather on Bribie Island today is a crude totem pole bearing his likeness (right), which sits among the kitsch souvenirs and naïve amateur landscapes in the island’s Community Arts Centre.

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