Bridegroom drinking from a creek II 1959 signed 'Arthur Boyd' lower right oil and tempera on board 60.4 x 80.5cm (23 3/4 x 31 11/16in).
PROVENANCE Lady Elizabeth Oldfield, London Australian and European Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Part I, Christie's, Melbourne, 26 November 1996, lot 42 (illus.) Dr Reg Grundy AO, OBE and Mrs Chambers Grundy, acquired in 1996
EXHIBITED Arthur Boyd Retrospective Exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, London, June - July 1962, cat. no. 86 Arthur Boyd: The Bride, Gould Galleries, Melbourne, 16-27 October 2002 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE Bryan Robertson, Arthur Boyd: Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Whitechapel Gallery, London, June-July 1962, p. 27 Franz Philipp, Arthur Boyd, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, pp. 98, 146, 260, cat. 9.30
Arthur Boyd is most known for a series of allegorical paintings he worked up over 1957-59. Entitled Love, marriage and death of a half-caste, these paintings resembled scenes in a morality play about the doomed romance of an Aboriginal trooper and his mixed-race bride. His invented myth unmistakably dealt with the emotional materials of great tragedy, exploring passion, envy, betrayal, guilt, doubt, fear, compassion and acceptance. Yet beneath the racial conflict, Boyd's morality tale is underpinned by the theme of yearning for spiritual fulfilment.
The bride paintings came in several stages, initially fits and starts. The first lone work, Half-caste bride, which shows an Aboriginal male and a white woman embracing within a forlorn outback setting, was exhibited in the 1954 Contemporary Art Society Annual Exhibition. It was a visual experiment influenced by Marc Chagall, with a haunting jumble of out-of-scale figures and animals, some floating in the air, some passing through a shack like ghosts. Collectors were not interested, so Boyd's friend the struggling architect Peter Burns bought it in a gesture of support (and slowly paid it off over ten months). Two years later he painted a second picture, Bride running away, at the request of his friend Ruth McNicoll, a gallery manager who wanted a daring modernist picture to hang in a ceramic exhibition of David and Hermia Boyd.
Then, having been put on a monthly retainer by Melbourne's Australian Galleries, he spent much of 1957 working up a large series for an exhibition booked there by the gallery's owners, Tam and Anne Purves. Painted in the demanding manner of the Old Masters using oils upon tempera, these were big, thoroughly ambitious compositions of a scale rarely seen from modern Australian artists. Boyd had risked all with these confronting paintings. Their subject matter was potentially disconcerting, and they were physically impressive pictures, too. But viewers were enthralled. The sad, bewildered bridegroom and his waxen faced bride portrayed with subtle insistence not only the problems of the Aboriginal situation, but of human relationships as the couple found themselves pressured by others, pursuing impossible ideals, succumbing alternately to temptation and despair, and, finally, uniting in death within a bushy paradise. Torn between what they have and what they want, between what they are and what they fear, the couple are destroyed. 1
The artist's imagination ranged widely across various episodes, packing them with cyclical images of growth, decay and regeneration, even allowing settings to rhyme in sympathy with the characters' emotions. Some scenes were shadowy and bare, resembling the austere theatrical sets of Beckett's existentialist dramas; others presented a wounded land that had been scorched by fire; while the final group of compositions showed a fecund bushy paradise, often with symbols suggesting spiritual rebirth.
The April exhibition was a commercial success and gave Boyd the confidence to persevere with his ideas. The result was a second sequence of 'Bride' paintings worked over the rest of 1958 and through 1959.
Bridegroom drinking from a creek II was among this final group of distinctly dream-like major works. Gone is the stress and turbulence of the earlier series, as the groom and his bride are mystically united in a nurturing landscape. This sensuously painted work with its bravura brushwork features the characteristic black cave and waterhole-cum-creek in a regenerating bush gully. If in the earlier sequence of 'Bride' images the landscape progressively died off and was burned, here the tangled and scorched trees are regrowing. Boyd even puts in tiny dabs of high key paint to show wattles and wildflowers starting to burst into bloom as the wilderness grows.
The sky above is an intense blue, and the pool water is likewise clean and pure. The Aboriginal trooper, who now wears a sunny yellow uniform jacket (in the earlier pictures it was dark blue, then brown, then intense green), is sprawled face down on vegetation, drinking from the pure creek. Boyd has set an emerald green beetle beside the groom's hand, while black crows with blank red eyes gambol about in the air and scrub above and beside him, acting as witnesses. In middle ground on the left we spy concealed in a cavern the bride, this vulnerable spirit-creature, likewise watching her previously persecuted husband. She is shown in summary form as a hovering head with splayed veil, ginger hair and lacy dress beneath, acting as a hidden presence in the abundant landscape. Skilfully composed and brimming with meaning, this is serious, self-evidently mature painting.
Arthur Boyd's symbolism was now less cryptic, and surely easier for viewers to understand. There was no mistaking these works were about emotional renewal, with nature charting the couple's relationship. Figures being restored by water within a regenerating lush wilderness appear repeatedly throughout these 1959 paintings. In some works the groom gazes at his bride's reflection in a watery pool; in other pieces she has transformed into a life-giving rainbow, a fresh rain shower, or a gushing waterfall. Bridegroom drinking from a creek II is among several paintings which show a figure drinking from a pool or creek. Another work had the groom drinking, and there was a subsequent pictures which had the bride drinking from a pool. These motifs prompts Boyd's next series of pictures in 1960 when the bride at the waterhole becomes a fleeting nymph (which were prompted by Boyd learning that the classical Greek word for bride is the English word nymph).
Of course, sexual overtones are unmistakable in these images of passion and fecundity. The art historian and friend of the artist, Barry Pearce has claimed the V-shape of gorges, and the foliage fringed caves, were erotic compositional devices suggesting genitalia. 2From this viewpoint the picture symbolises sexual union, the bride and groom who have endured so many trials finally uniting in matrimonial love. All the same, Arthur Boyd's dominant theme continued to be metamorphosis and cyclical growth: as we see in Bridegroom drinking from a creek II, his mythic figures and the virgin landscape they inhabit are transforming into something else, something remarkable and, perhaps, uncanny. This is an ambitiously inventive painting, sitting in the front rank of twentieth century Australian art.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Barry Pearce, Arthur Boyd, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1994, p. 21 2 Barry Pearce, Arthur Boyd, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1994, pp. 20-21