Gamelan 1958 signed with monogram 'IF' lower right; inscribed 'Gamelan' lower right gouache on cardboard 126.5 x 189.5cm (49 13/16 x 74 5/8in).
PROVENANCE John D. Altman, Melbourne Bonython Galleries, Sydney, c.1967 Australian Galleries, Melbourne Australian Paintings, Geoff K Gray Auctions, Sydney, 13 February 1974, lot 33 Jack Kohane, Melbourne Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1996
EXHIBITED Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 1958, cat. no. 2 Festival Exhibition, Royal South Australian Society of Arts, Adelaide, 1962, cat. no. 25 Australian Irresistibles 1930 1970, Bonython Gallery, Sydney, 1970, cat. no. 47
LITERATURE Fairweather, Murray Bail et al, Martin Armiger, 'Fairweather and music', Art & Australia Books in association with the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1994, p.57, pp. 58-59 (illus.) Murray Bail, Fairweather, Bay Books, Sydney, 1981/2nd edn. Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009, pp. 146-7, 150, 151 (illus.), 255
Fairweather arrived in Bali in March 1933 on a ship bound for Australia and after three days decided to stay a while. He thought the island 'a painter's paradise' and for the first time felt completely happy, 'somewhere near to heaven.' 1 He found the Balinese simple and uncomplicated and yet innately cultured and artistic. At the end of each day, he observed, after their usual tasks were finished, they applied themselves to some artistic endeavor painting, sculpting, carving all as a means of honouring the gods. 2
Balinese art was on the cusp of change in the 1930s but Buleleng, a small village on the northern coast, was more remote than other centres and it is likely that the local artists there still depended on traditional methods, using pigments taken from mineral and vegetable sources such as clay and ground stone, soot and powdered animal bones. Canvases commonly were made from cloth treated with a white clay ground and most works still used natural earth colours with strong outlines, rather than the bright colours of later art.3 The art of carving, in both wood and stone, was also an important part of traditional culture and Fairweather would have been constantly exposed to stone murals in Balinese temples. Their flat, two-dimensionality and lack of deep perspective may also have been an influence on his later work. Fairweather did not much like talking of influences but it is perhaps of relevance to Gamelan 1958 that the two major works he sent to Rex Nan Kivell at the Redfern Gallery in London after his Balinese visit were large horizontal works which were mural-like in scale, such as Bathing scene, Bali 1933 (Tate Gallery, London).
In the later 1930s and1940s, he would depart from this large format but return to it in 1957 and 1958 when he painted a series of large works that he indeed described as 'murals' rather than paintings, and which, he admitted to his gallerist, Treania Smith (Bennett), were not easy. They had given him hell, he said, and were 'an attempt to climb up to something out of something else,' a phrase that nicely summarized both the nebulous quality of creativity and the struggle typically involved in expressing in two-dimensions what is only present in the artist's mind. 4 In this period he was also moving towards abstraction, something he would wrestle with, and finally reject, though all the works from 1958 show him moving between representation and abstraction to somewhere in between.
Gamelan was one of four works, along with Kite flying, Gethsemane and Last supper, all exhibited in November 1958 at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney, which are described by Murray Bail as a 'crucial group of four'. They all have a ceremonial dimension to their themes and turn away from the every day subject matter of the previous years. Fairweather was aiming now for something more elegiac, 'in feelings as well as size'. He seems to suggest that they were not destined to be domestic works 'at home in living rooms' but in his modesty and natural reticence, he hesitated to claim them as suitable for public collections. 5
The word gamelan comes from the Javanese word gamel which is a type of hammer used by a blacksmith, and to a Western ear, gamelan music can seem at times discordant and unmelodic. Using an array of percussion instruments, gongs, cymbals and drums, along with flutes and strings, gamelan music sits at the very core of Balinese culture. It is played at virtually every ceremony, as well as at theatrical performances of wayang, or shadow puppets, and its importance cannot be overstated. Fairweather would have become very familiar with the sounds of the gamelan during his residence in Bali and perhaps had the echoes of it still running through his head while he painted this work twenty-five years later. There are many different varieties of gamelan music but Fairweather probably heard the gamelan gong kebyar, the version of gamelan popular in Bali in the 1930s in which large kettle drums, suspended from a frame, are beaten with gongs. Similarly, he would have seen many performances of wayang which told and retold stories from the classic Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Wayang are also depicted in the famous murals of the Court of Justice at Klungkung which Fairweather possibly was taken to see as they were going through one of their lengthy periodic restorations in 1933.
In his essay, 'Fairweather and Music', musician Martin Armiger discusses the vast quantity of musical instruments used by the artist throughout his work, whether mentioned specifically, as with Gamelan, or simply suggested as with Procession in Bali 1933. 6 Unlike other works that are perhaps more literal representations of instruments, such as Piano tuner, with this work Fairweather has attempted an abstracted representation of gamelan music, of its aural qualities, rather than a visual image of the orchestra. The composition resonates with the sounds of the gamelan.
Here one can almost 'see' the music in all its explosive power, its syncopations rising in tempo and pitch towards its climax. Long vertical lines run jaggedly down the work like the swishes and clashes of the gongs and all is dynamism and movement. At the centre of the painting two blue lines echo each other and perhaps represent the kendang, which like most gamelan instruments are both gendered and paired, with male and female counterparts, one higher and one lower. Shadows seem to move and dance and jostle each other and there is no one disappearing point but several, scattered unevenly across the plane.
'The people themselves', Fairweather said of the Balinese, 'have the beat of music in their blood'. 7
Dr Candice Bruce
1 Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather, Bay Books, Sydney, 1981, p. 21 2 Nourma Abbott-Smith, Ian Fairweather, Profile of an Artist, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, p. 50 3 Balinese art as we see it today did not develop until after 1936 and the rise of the Pita Maha school under Walter Spies. 4 Murray Bail, op.cit., p. 149 5 Murray Bail, op.cit., p. 149 6 Martin Armiger in Murray Bail [ed.], Fairweather, exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery and Art & Australia Books, 1994, pp. 55-59 7 Nourma Abbott-Smith, op. cit., pp. 49-50