The mourners 1945 signed 'Arthur Boyd' lower right oil on composition board 84.0 x 100.5cm (33 1/16 x 39 9/16in).
PROVENANCE Mr and Mrs Gerd Buchdahl, Cambridge, United Kingdom The Alan Bond Collection, Western Australia The Dallhold Collection, Christie's, Melbourne, 28 July 1992, lot 59 (illus.) Savill Galleries, Sydney (label attached verso) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Contemporary Art: Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Rowden White Library, University of Melbourne, 23 July 1946 (Paintings by John Yule and Arthur Boyd), Rowden White Library, University of Melbourne, September 1946 Contemporary Art Society, 8th Annual Exhibition, Education Building, Sydney, 12-28 November 1946, cat. no. 243 Arthur Boyd retrospective exhibition, David Jones Gallery, Sydney, 4-16 September 1950, cat. no. 3 Arthur Boyd, Marodian Gallery, Brisbane, October, 1951 Paintings by Arthur Boyd, Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne, 15-24 September 1953, cat. no. 24 Arthur Boyd Retrospective Exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, London, June-July 1962, cat. no. 23 Exhibition of paintings, ceramics, graphics and tapestries by Arthur Boyd, Melville Hall, Australian National University, Canberra, 21-26 October 1971, cat. no. 45 Arthur Boyd: Works dating from 1937 to 1989, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 29 September - 30 October 1993, cat. no. 9 Arthur Boyd Retrospective, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 December 1993 - 6 March 1994; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 30 March - 23 May 1994; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 9 June - 21 August 1994; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 22 September - 20 November 1994, cat. no. 47 Arthur Boyd: Brides, Myths and Landscapes, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 23 March - 29 April 1995, cat. no. 3
LITERATURE 'Self-taught artist paints Crucifixion', unknown source, Melbourne, September 1946 'Like a Hangover?', Australasian Post, 1946, titled The Crucifixion (illus.) Franz Philipp, 'On Three Paintings by Arthur Boyd', Present Opinion, Melbourne University Arts Association, vol. II, no. l, 1947, pp.9-14 (illus.) 'Arthur Boyd: Artist of Integrity', Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 4 September 1950, p. 4 John Reed, 'Arthur Boyd: a personal reaction to his painting and career', Ern Malley's Journal, vol.I, no.4, November 1954, pp. 29-32 Ursula Hoff, 'The Paintings of Arthur Boyd', Meanjin, Melbourne, vol.17, no.2, June 1958, pp. 143-147 Bryan Robertson, Arthur Boyd: Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, June-July 1962, p. 25 Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967. cat. no. 3.2, pp. 44-45, 48, 138, 241, pl. 28 (illus.) Exhibition of paintings, ceramics, graphics and tapestries by Arthur Boyd, exh. cat., Melville Hall, Australian National University, 1971, pp. 3, 8 (illus.) Ursula Hoff, The Art of Arthur Boyd, Andre Deutsch, London, 1986, p.42 Diana de Bussy, The Alan Bond Collection of Australian Art, Dallhold Investments Pty. Limited, Perth, 1990, p. 86 (illus.) Patricia Dobrez and Peter Herbst, The Art of the Boyds, Bay Books, Sydney, 1990, p. 111 Arthur Boyd: works dating from 1937 to 1989, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 1993, npp. (illus.) Barry Pearce, Arthur Boyd: Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1993, p. 65 (illus.) T.G. Rosenthal, Arthur Boyd: Brides, Myths and Landscapes, Savill Galleries, Sydney, 1995, npp. (illus.) Janet McKenzie, Arthur Boyd: Art & Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2000, pp. 65-7 (illus.) Darleen Bungey, Arthur Boyd: A Life, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008, pp. 204-5, 273, 470, pl. 46 (illus.)
The mourners is a key painting in the early production of Arthur Boyd. It represents his response to revelations made public at war's end about the terrors of Auschwitz, Changi and Hiroshima. 1 This is Australian modern art in its most intense, emphatic form. A perplexing complex composition, the artist uses it to work his way through deeply-felt fears that the entire world had succumbed to corruption and festering evil.
Boyd worked largely from the imagination, fashioning his compositions to press a moral point. Modernist invention is elevated over depiction and the copying of external appearances. He has started this painting by improvising a view of scrubby country, loosely based upon landscapes on the south-eastern outskirts of Melbourne. Flanked by thick bushland and beneath an ominous cloudy sky, Christ is shown crucified in a dark gully. People dressed in brightly coloured Biblical clothes swarm about, but they do not celebrate. They are visibly distressed, those beneath the cross comforting each other (a man bearing a ladder turns away and weeps), some in mid-field gesture imploringly to a bird, and those further back look on at the naked pale body wearing a crown of thorns. But there are puzzling details. Cockatoos swoop overhead, sheep cavort, a bridal couple embrace beneath trees on the upper left.
The painting caps an extended series of symbolic, at times semi-religious pictures Arthur Boyd had been developing since 1943. Through visual means the artist's paintings formed a meandering symbolic tale which looked beyond current troubles to the moral cycle of human history, perceiving the Second World War in more universal terms. This particular work appears among those final disturbing paintings of 1945-46 which recast an ancient vision of shadowy torment in contemporary terms.
The immediate motivation for The mourners were those cheering, elated crowds that celebrated war's end in spontaneous street parties across Australia's cities and towns, although Boyd gives the festivities a twist. His crowd has come together to publicly mourn the sufferings in intensely human manner. This is not the ceremonial gravitas of Anzac and Remembrance Day, formal events set aside for the public observance of sorrow. Instead, people express their private grief in an emotional, unconstrained manner beneath a gory crucifixion a symbol for the agonised sufferings endured by those in the holocaust, the blitz and countless other places of modern evil.
There are overt visual and thematic connections with several Boyd paintings of the time. The brute mobs he painted in The mockers, The golden calf and Melbourne burning, directly related apocalyptic compositions, clearly signify the sin of a corrupt modern world: they were shown fighting, gambling, indulging in orgies, preying upon the innocent, worshipping bestial idols. However, Boyd shows the similarly swarming figures in The mourners mostly in states of confusion and panic. And where The mockers, which immediately preceded this piece, had a poisoned and scorched landscape, the setting now is wild, fertile and abundant. There is little mistaking the artist's elation in evoking the verdant countryside, that combination of ease and vigour with which he has painted landscape features, setting down foliage and tree trucks with fluid dark green dabs and slithery pale strokes.
Much hinges on how Arthur Boyd endowed his Australian motifs with symbolic qualities. Recasting the traditional dove symbol for the Holy Spirit, he sometimes has cockatoos and native birds allude to a spiritual presence. Two of these white winged creatures fly over the imploring mob, one visibly heading to the crucified figure. And the biblical image of a ram by a bushy thicket (an allusion to the ram sacrificed by Abraham) was on the way to becoming the artist's symbol for manifest evil, Boyd having its horns invariably curling like serpents. This ram figures at four different points in this pictures. One appears cavorting to the left of the cross, another ram nuzzles a ewe in the lower right corner, a figure on the lower edge in the centre holds an ominous dark ram to himself, and a small ram can be distinctly made out amidst the mob in the upper centre.
The closer we inspect The mourners, the more an implicit symbolism to Arthur Boyd's apocalyptic imagery comes forth. Like how he stresses this world is wounded by making the trees immediately behind the cross lifeless and dead. But there is hope. As in many Boyd paintings of the war period, a pair of lovers is placed beneath a large dead tree to signify renewal, fertility and the restorative qualities of divine love. His message is direct: love will conquer evil. Boyd even makes these lovers a bridal couple, giving the bride a long white veil that spills down onto Christ's cross in so doing the artist introduces what would later become a signature image in his work, the bride. And through compositional doubling, the young bridal couple effectively mirror and invert an older distressed couple: the lovers appear just about the left side of the cross, and the older anguished couple to the right side just below Christ's pierced hand. A generation that has experienced horrors and pain is thereby shown to be succeeded by a younger generation that will rebuild and renew.
Looking to the design techniques of the Old Masters, Arthur Boyd adds to this positive message by employing visual echoes further down. Beside the foot of the cross he has placed the traditional image of the distressed Mary being comforting by St John, a motif which also contrasts with the bridal couple directly above. Indeed, the artist uses the Renaissance convention of stressing this section by having two more figures in the lower left corner gesture and point to the mourners, thereby directing the viewer to look and see this message.
The meaning of the painting was not entirely self-contained however, because in it Boyd was giving a potent thumbs down to the art that had been officially favoured on the Melbourne scene for some years. The mourners is compositionally based upon Norman Lindsay's early work Pollice verso 1904, which was then hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria: the use of a gully, the glowering skies, the crucifixion at left, and the crowds banked at right were unmistakable to local painters. But the modernist is doing more than 'quoting' the format of the Edwardian composition: he is replying to an argument. Where Lindsay, a zealous advocate for the philosopher Nietzsche, had used his mocking piece to argue for Dionysian excess and the abandonment of moral constraint, Boyd points to the intense suffering these Germanic ideas have lead to. An evil war has taken place. This is probably the cryptic meaning admired by early viewers of The mourners: Arthur Boyd's crowd have discovered the reality of suffering and intense pain, where Norman Lindsay's massed Olympians had only jeered and mocked.
As in several pictures by Boyd at this time, some of the closest figures also appear to be sly images of the artist's friends. The curly haired, pointing young girl on the lower left recalls his portrait of Betty Burstall, and the gesturing young man with closed eyes at the foot of the ladder resembles several drawings of Boyd's brother-in-law John Perceval.
A landmark painting in Australian modern art, The mourners sees Arthur Boyd grappling with the great moral questions of the war years.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Franz Philipp, 'On Three Paintings by Arthur Boyd,' Present Opinion, vol. 2, 1947, pp. 9-10; Barry Pearce, Arthur Boyd, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1994, pp. 16-7