Painting XI 1960 signed and dated 'I Fairweather 60' lower left synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard 66.0 x 96.8cm (26 x 38 1/8in).
PROVENANCE Macquarie Galleries, Sydney Margaret Carnegie, Melbourne Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne Geoff Brown, Brisbane The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1993
EXHIBITED Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 1960, cat. no. 10 Spring Exhibition, Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 1969, cat. no. 31 Fairweather; A Queensland Art Gallery Touring Exhibition, touring exhibition, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane 1 October 27 November 1994; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 17 December 1994 19 February 1995; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 11 March 7 May 1995, cat. no. 42
LITERATURE Australia Today, October 1963, p. 72, titled Aboriginal Spring Exhibition, exh. cat., Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 1969, cat. no. 31 (illus.) Murray Bail, et al, Fairweather, Art & Australia in association with the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 1994, p. 114 (illus.), 143 Murray Bail, Fairweather, Bay Books, Sydney, 1981/2nd edn. Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2009, pp. 164-165, p. 171 (illus.)
Painting XI 1960 belongs to a group of works produced by Fairweather in two batches in 1959 and 1960. The first lot, painted mostly on newspaper (because he 'ran out of other paper'), were dispatched to the Macquarie Galleries on 11 November 1959 with a note from the artist describing them as 'soliloquies'.1 They were untitled, he wrote, 'for they really refer (mostly) to nothing in particular...'. He disliked the term abstract and whenever it was applied to his painting he would bristle.
'My paintings are not abstract. I was trained as a traditionalist and thence proceeded under my own steam towards the abstract; but never completely. Abstraction does not suit me and I will always put into my painting some representation.'2
In early April he sent down a second group to which Painting XI belongs, twelve larger paintings and four smaller works which were all exhibited at the Macquarie Galleries in July. They are amongst the finest abstract works in Australian art and can make a claim to be called 'masterpieces', though it is probably not a word Fairweather would have liked.3 Almost immediately a debate opened up between art historians and critics as to whether they were 'truly' abstract and if so, what influences Cubism? Abstract Expressionism? Chinese calligraphy? had exerted themselves. Fifty-two years later the debate is still going.4
What is not debated is Fairweather's own feelings about the works, which were as complex and multi-layered as his art. Perhaps the clue lies in his choice of the word 'soliloquy', which comes from the Latin soliloquium, (solus alone + loqui to speak), and means to 'speak to oneself'. These are conversations he was having with himself about the things that mattered to him art, life, people, belief. They are more about ideas and less about the material world which he thought frequently trivial and mundane. Fairweather was a well-educated, erudite man, a keen reader who had books sent to him on a regular basis from the library; his lifestyle, more that of a beachcomber than a conventional artist, belied his deep knowledge of literature, art, languages and a host of other subjects.5
In these works we see evidence of Fairweather's visual language expressing itself with a powerful individuality, bringing together all of his knowledge and experience he was, after all, almost seventy up to that point. Here are landscapes, people, ideas, feelings, the inexpressible, all expressed in a painterly language he made his own. He restricted his palette to earthy colours browns, greys and black, with the occasional dab of red or blue and bordered the works with painted blocks that serve as frames within the frame. This technique has the effect of making the viewer feel as if we are looking through a window, eavesdropping on a private conversation or spying something hidden and unknowable. Each one exerts an almost gravity-defying tug, pulling us into the plane of the canvas itself and fixing us there with a mesmeric force. They tease and trouble as we try to extract a meaning from their depths.
In Painting XI 1960, by using two lots of 'frames' one completely vertical and the second slanting backwards this energy is almost giddying. The perspective is, as Murray Bail has written, 'semi-aerial'.6 It is this technique, along with the use of strong blacks and browns,which makes it tempting to ascribe to it the influence of Aboriginal art. However, the dominance of the white line whether that of calligraphy or Cubism ties it much more to a non-Aboriginal tradition. Fairweather would use this same combination of colours and the dominant creamy-white line in Monsoon 1961-2 (Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth). Painting XI 1960 contains the same confident gestural power.
In spite of this, Fairweather's journey into complete abstraction was brief and by 1961 he had returned to representation. Ultimately, he was drawn back to what he called 'the history of man' which required some trace of the human figure.7 However,in creating these extraordinary abstract painting she has left us with a conversation worth having.
Dr Candice Bruce
1 Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather, Bay Books, Sydney, 1981, p. 160 2 Nourma Abbott-Smith, Ian Fairweather: Profile of an Artist, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1978, p. 130 3 Murray Bail, op. cit., p. 161 4 Angela Goddard, Ian Fairweather: Late Works 1953-74, exh. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2012, In her essay, Goddard summarises the development of the debate and gives further references. 5 He was privately tutored before being sent to Victoria College in Jersey which was bilingual. He also attended the Slade School in London. Apart from French, he was fluent in Chinese and most probably had a good working knowledge of Indonesian and several other Asian languages from his extensive travels. 6 Murray Bail, op. cit., p. 166 7 Nourma Abbott-Smith, op. cit., p. 31