Ferns Diptych, 1968 Ferns I, 1968 Ferns II, 1968 signed 'Fred Williams' lower middle left oil on canvas 183.7 x 306.3 cm (72 5/16 x 120 9/16in).
PROVENANCE Estate of the artist Rex Irwin Art Dealer, Sydney (label attached verso) Private collection
EXHIBITED Ten Australians, Australia Council and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, then touring France, Italy, West Germany, United Kingdom, 12 December 1974 4 January 1975, cat. 37 and 38 Fred Williams, Undercroft Gallery, The University of Western Australia, Perth, 25 February - 12 March 1978, cat. 20-21 Fred Williams, Contemporary Art Society, Adelaide, 16 March 6 April 1978, cat. 20-21 Focus '79, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne, 10 May - 1 June 1979 Fred Williams: A Retrospective, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 7 November 1987 31 January 1988, then touring to National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, cat. 106 and 107 Fred Williams - A Working Method, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, December 1995 - February 1996, cat. 27 Fred Williams, Regeneration - after the bushfires 1968-1969, Rex Irwin Art Dealer, Sydney, 11 August - 5 September 2009, cat. 10-11
LITERATURE Fred Williams: A Retrospective, catalogue to accompany the touring exhibition, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1987 James Mollison, A Singular Vision, The art of Fred Williams, Australian National Gallery and Oxford University Press, Canberra, 1989, p. 128, pp. 130-131 (illus.) Patrick McCaughey, Fred Williams 1927-1982, Murdoch Books, 3rd revised edition, Sydney, 2008, pp. 204-205, pl. 111-112 (illus.) Fred Williams, Regeneration - after the bushfires 1968-1969, Rex Irwin Art Dealer, Sydney, 11 August - 5 September 2009, cat. 10-11 (illus. no pagination)
Fred Williams' Ferns Diptych is a startling and idiosyncratic masterpiece whose genesis lay in one of the most tumultuous events in his life. The pair of paintings brought the Fire series of 1968 to a resounding climax. The bush fire that inspired the series impinged directly on Williams. It was ferocious and dangerous and left a lasting impression on the artist.
In the summer of 1968 Victoria experienced one of its hottest summers with numerous days of total fire ban and temperatures in the high forties. A persistent drought and high winds added to the risk of catastrophic fires. On Monday, February 19 in the middle of the day, a fire started in The Basin and quickly spread to neighbouring townships in the Dandenong Ranges. Lyn and Fred Williams with their daughters were living in Upwey right in the path of the raging fire. At 3pm a local policeman alerted them to their extreme danger. Lyn Williams remembers, "...we couldn't see out. There was this great orange flame and black clouds." She left immediately with the children and Fred Williams remained with other volunteers to fight the fire and salvage what he could. His studio and many of his works were stored in the Upwey house. He too recalled, "a huge pall of orange flame and enormous black clouds coming over the horizon." The fire swept through Upwey. Several houses in the immediate vicinity to the Williams' were burnt to the ground but theirs was miraculously spared. As a desperate measure Williams had taken a number of paintings out of the house and they suffered some minor damage. Williams described the hours when the fire constituted an imminent threat, "like living in a war."
Just days afterwards Williams, sometimes in the company of fellow painters Clifton Pugh and Hal Hattam, went out to explore the devastated Dandenongs. He was amazed at what he saw. Where once dense bush had covered hillsides and valleys, he could now see clearly for miles. On one occasion he came across a huge gum tree still burning long after the fire had departed. Sometimes he broke off a charcoaled twig and drew with it. Those early fire gouaches depict the landscape like a battlefield blackened and broken. The idea of making a series of paintings, gouaches and drawings of the event and its aftermath came readily to him. The experience was just too vivid, too intense: it could not be left alone. Williams would paint full-scale pictures of the fire coming over the hill towards his house. The burning gum trees provided another powerful image and there were extensive panoramas of the charred landscape, as though it were seen in X-ray.
Although the heat and the danger continued until the end of February, some light rain fell in March. At the end of the month on one of his painting expeditions, Williams noticed that the tree ferns were beginning to sprout green shoots. Lyn Williams recalls the effect strikingly, "...the most amazing sight were the tree ferns in these wonderful damp areas. In particular I'm thinking of the area around One Tree Hill. They were just black stumps everything else gone, but there were these tree ferns, tall, great, magnificent ferns. It made you weep to look at them. And within a month there were small fronds, starting at the tops."
Williams painted Ferns Diptych towards the end of 1968 after making a series of meticulous studies of them in charcoal that looked and felt like Old Master drawings. Deliberately he made the Diptych the finale to the Fire series, leaving the larger truth to emerge from this traumatic experience until the end: the power of nature to renew and regenerate itself even after the most destructive catastrophe.
In Ferns Diptych Williams drops some of the fern trees in from the top edge as though defying gravity. Others float free on their warm or cool grounds. The ferns bristle and surge with new life. Vertical forms play against curving arabesques in a majestic dance in nature. Notably, Williams elides the landscape context in order to focus exclusively on the thrust and drive of the ferns. The new growth is signalled through the richly coloured patches and touches of impastoed paint, making you feel and see the regeneration of these ancient plants.
Ferns Diptych gave the Fire series closure to the terrifying event he had witnessed. They brought to Williams a new awareness of his familiar landscape, recording in his Diary the sober truth of the event:
"There was this small extraordinary landscape where you felt there was no hope of recovery; and yet within five years things had regrown. Which just shows the nature of our Australian environment, and how accustomed it is to adjusting how fire is probably a natural part of the cycle here."
The Fire series was painted and drawn in an extraordinarily short period, less than ten months. By contrast, in the years 1965-67 Williams would frequently work at a major painting over months, even years before completing them. The fire and its aftermath engaged the artist so profoundly that it released an expressive vein in his art that Williams had largely reined in during the 1960s. In that regard they look forward to the great change, which overtook his art in the 1970s when he gave colour a more prominent role in his art. In so doing he revealed his own passionate feelings about the Australian landscape and the capacity of his art to communicate it so vividly, so memorably and so lastingly.
Patrick McCaughey Patrick McCaughey is a former Director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
The quotations from Lyn and Fred Williams are taken from the excellent account of the Fern Drawings by Ted Gott, Fred Williams: drawing the Exotic Museum of Modern Art Heide 1995 pp. 12-16
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