You Yangs landscape 1 1963 signed 'Fred Williams' lower left oil on masonite 137.0 x 180.3cm (53 15/16 x 71in).
Provenance The collection of the artist James Mollison Ivor Braka Ltd, London The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1993
EXHIBITED Georges Invitation Art Prize, Georges Gallery, Melbourne, 9-30 May 1963, cat. no. 43, titled Landscape Helena Rubinstein travelling art scholarship, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 10 July 4 August 1963 [and touring], cat. no. 52 Heroic Landscape: Williams-Streeton, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 16 October 22 November 1970, cat. no. 34, (label attached verso) titled You-Yangs The Australian Landscape, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 3 March 3 April 1972; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 4 May 4 June 1972; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 4 July 4 August 1972; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, 5 September 1 October 1972; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 November 17 December 1972; Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle, 17 January 11 February 1973; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1 March - 1 Apr 1973, (label attached verso) titled You Yangs landscape A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987, cat. no. 46 titled You Yangs landscape 1
LITERATURE Brian Finemore, et al, Heroic Landscape: Williams-Streeton, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1970, npp. The Australian Landscape, exh. cat., Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, (touring catalogue), 1972, npp. Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, Penguin, 1984 (revised edition), p. 219, fig. 89 (illus.) James Mollison, A Singular Vision: The Art of Fred Williams, exh. cat., Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987, pp. 77-82, p. 78 (illus.) Dana Rowan (ed), Fred Williams: A Retrospective, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987, p. 10 Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams, Bay Books, Sydney/3rd rev. ed. Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2008, pp. 156 (illus.), 375
The first You Yang series was painted in 1963 and marks a major turning point in Fred Williams' career. You Yangs landscape I as the prime mover of the group has a special place, the classic work of the series from which all others proceed. Williams worked on this painting with special care. As well as the customary preliminary sketches, he painted a full-scale oil study for the final painting (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). John Constable was one precedent for Williams in this regard, painting full-scale oil sketches of his 'six footers' for the Royal Academy, thus instituting a procedure that was widely followed in the nineteenth century. Williams, at his most experimental, was happy to work within such a time-honoured tradition of landscape painting. He knew he was on the brink of an important new development and he wanted to 'get it right', to work through the composition thoroughly and bring his art to full concert pitch. It accounts for the richness and density of You Yangs landscape I without, miraculously, detracting from the brio and spontaneity of the work.
The You Yangs, those low, scrubby and stony ranges of hills between Melbourne and Geelong, were a sacred site for their traditional owners, the Wathaurong people. Water collected in some of the caves that could sustain the tribe through dry seasons. In turn they became a place of special regard and importance for Williams, a place of renewal and familiarity, for he returned to them often during his painting career. The suggestion that the distinctive markings of the You Yang paintings somehow emulate or anticipate the 'dot' paintings of contemporary Indigenous practice in contemporary Australian art is spurious and happenstantial. The You Yang series were painted a decade or more before the revival of contemporary Aboriginal painting at Papunya got going. (Williams, one should add, both admired and was interested in that important stirring in contemporary Australian art.) The hills themselves would provide a motif, but in the first series it was the view from them which constituted the subject of the paintings.
'View' is hardly the appropriate word because the plain which stretches from the You Yangs is dull, flat and featureless. Dun coloured in all seasons, its monotony and extensiveness are its chief features. The absence of the picturesque is what attracted and challenged Williams. For this flat and dusty plain, divided into anonymous paddocks and crossed by roads and fences marked by lines of straggling gums, was the essence of the Australian littoral. If that could be successfully realised in paint, then a familiar and essential almost unconscious element of the Australian experience would be articulated and shake the viewer into a new awareness of the landscape. Not that Williams ever had such a conscious plan or program, but the generic quality of the You Yang plains, the challenge to make a commanding art out of such a nondescript landscape, was part of the enterprise of the series.
Williams always repudiated the idea of painting 'views' of the landscape where the picturesque and atmospheric qualities of a particular site were recalled. He wanted to get at the bones of the landscape, its structure and enduring qualities. Through the 1960s he came to believe that the Australian landscape had a commonality to it even as you moved from region to region. The first stirring of this belief came in 1963 in the You Yang paintings.
The series marks a remarkable shift within Williams' work. The forest and sapling paintings, which had dominated his art through 1960-62 with their enclosed, wall-like compositions, suddenly gave way to these expansive, even panoramic visions of the landscape. The pattern of internal reaction on Williams' part, moving from one type of landscape to its opposite, would become the underlying rhythm of his creative life. He never settled for the tried and trusted but kept pushing his art to the new and unexplored. Williams knew that distance, space and extensiveness were as much part of the Australian landscape as the claustrophobia of the bush. He saw from the elevation of the You Yangs the repetitiveness and featurelessness of the Australian landscape: how could he translate that into vivid pictorial form?
In You Yangs landscape I Williams made the flat surface of his canvas the equivalent of the dry and dusty plain that ran limitlessly away from his vantage point. He painted the ground almost monochromatically but varying the tone so subtly that the plain heaves and breathes in its warm, inviting tonalities. The random distribution of trees, scrub and rocks, whatever littered that landscape, he caught with individual touches, dashes, circles and accents of paint. They were like a shallow bas-relief against that wonderfully rich tan and gold ground. To give the painting tension and relieve the all-over repetitiousness of his accents, Williams drew them into a right-angle, just off centre, suggestive, perhaps, of intersecting roads or fence lines where gum trees collected. The geometry tightened the whole composition without manufacturing some picturesque feature.
Williams found his handwriting in You Yangs landscape I, a way of placing his observations directly on the canvas and relaying them to the viewer. He could take in every part of the landscape no matter how insignificant and register it with one of those vivid, creamy touches of paint. Interestingly it is a landscape without hierarchy: every part of the experience is equally valued in paint.
From the moment Williams showed the You Yang paintings publicly, they resonated with their audience. Here the space of the Australian landscape, its distances and its emptiness, were set forth in a new and startling way. The viewer could sense the panoramic amplitude yet the textured circles and patches of paint brought the touch and feel of the landscape alive and made it an intimate experience. The totality of the landscape is given to you immediately and then you are invited to explore it, touch by touch. The You Yang paintings retain the shock of recognition: the known and the familiar world is returned to the viewer, freshly imagined and realized.
Williams won the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship with a group of them in 1963 - a measure of their immediate connection and authority over the viewer. Rightly they have earned their place as classics of Australian landscape painting as significant as the first stirrings of the Heidelberg School in the mid-1880s. They established Williams' reputation as one of Australia's major painters, a reputation that has deepened with time and never altered.