In 1963, Fred Williams's You Yangs Landscape 1 was greeted with incomprehension. Fifty years on, John McDonald discovers the artist constructed an entirely new vision of the world
Upon returning to Australia in 1957, Fred Williams astounded his friends by declaring: "I'm going to paint the gum tree." After five years in England, applying himself to a stale, clichéd Australian landscape tradition might have seemed the last thing an aspiring painter would want to do. Regardless of local preferences, the cutting-edge style of the day was Abstract Expressionism.
In September this year the Royal Academy will host a landmark survey of Australian landscape art, covering 200 years. Is this too long? Although the sun-drenched canvases of Australian Impressionists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton are distinct from the works of the French and British artists who inspired them, it is not until the mid-20th century that an original style of landscape painting emerges.
One might make a case for Sidney Nolan or Russell Drysdale as pioneers of a new landscape, but if there is one artist who deserves to be internationally recognised as an innovator it is Fred Williams (1927-1982). Williams's You Yangs Landscape 1 (1963) is the top lot in Bonhams forthcoming auction of 90 works from the Reg Grundy Collection. It is a painting that has virtually no precedent in modern art.
We can trace Drysdale's debt to artists such as Graham Sutherland or Henry Moore, and view Nolan as an Antipodean Expressionist, but Williams is one of those rare artists who seem to have constructed an entirely new vision of the world. If he has not received due attention from international art historians, it is because that vision was inextricably bound up with the place where he lived.
Williams was born in Melbourne and studied at the National Gallery School (1943-47) and the George Bell School (1946-50) before his first commercial exhibition in 1951, at the age of 24. The following year he took the traditional path for aspiring Australian artists and made his way to London, where he lived and worked from 1952 to 1956.
In London, Williams found a job with the picture framer Robert Savage, which brought him into contact with well-known figures in the British art world, including painters such as Francis Bacon and Roger Hilton. He attended classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic, took life classes at the Chelsea School of Art and studied etching at the Central School of Art, but Savage's was his real academy. He acquired an impressive technical knowledge of frames, canvases, varnishes, supports and painting techniques. He put this expertise to good use, creating pictures that were meant to last. His varnishes darken slightly over time, 'completing' a work that had been hanging on a collector's wall for years.
At Savage's, Williams studied many kinds of painting at close quarters, including works by Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In a letter to painter John Brack, he raves about a Renoir picture he was allowed to take home for a few days. In his spare time he frequented museums and music halls, creating a series of genre paintings and etchings that echo Sickert and Daumier. His immediate dislike for Turner was gradually transformed into reverence.
Of all the artists Williams admired during these apprentice years, Cézanne had the greatest impact. This became apparent to me when I was asked to write an essay on Williams, shortly after viewing the Cézanne retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1995. After an intense exposure to Cézanne's work, I could see what Williams had taken from this maverick master. It was not a style, or a way of putting on the paint, but an attitude – the need to go beyond appearances to find "the truth in painting" that Cézanne once promised to reveal to Emile Bernard.
True to his word, the paintings Williams made in places such as Sherbrooke Forest and Mittagong on his return to Australia were filled with gum trees, although they bore little resemblance to anything painted by earlier artists. These pictures, with their dull colouring and vertical patterns of sharp, spindly tree trunks, had echoes of late Cézanne, but also of the Cubist works of Braque and Picasso.
They were sufficiently abstract that in 1959, when the art historian Bernard Smith put together a manifesto and a group of artists to defend "the image" against trendy abstraction, he did not invite Williams. Although stung by his omission from The Antipodeans – the group folded almost immediately – Williams saw this as an added impetus to follow his own path.
By the time he discovered the You Yangs, granite ridges some 55km south-west of Melbourne, Williams had begun to realise that the distinctive feature of the Australian landscape was the lack of obvious focal points. This was precisely the opposite of the picturesque conventions made popular by Claude, in which a view might be framed by trees. There would be a glimpse of water, a view of distant hills, and perhaps a ruined temple. In many parts of Australia, water and hills are as rare as temples. Williams saw this as an opportunity. "If there's going to be no focal point in a landscape," he said, "then it had to build into paint."
In the most important paintings of the You Yangs series, Williams dispenses with sky and horizon line. We are faced with an earth-coloured canvas covered in dots, dashes and other painterly hieroglyphs that suggest trees, shrubs, rocks and fences. Many of these dabs are evenly spaced, with occasional clusters. There is an almost subliminal geometry that barely registers on the eye.
You Yangs Landscape 1 was the first of the series to be exhibited, but when Williams entered the painting in the prestigious Georges Invitation Art Prize in May 1963, it was greeted with incomprehension. One critic described it as "gutless"; another complained that it "didn't measure up to the standard set by [John] Olsen, [Roger] Kemp or [Leonard] French".
By dispensing with focal points, Williams had set himself against an Australian taste for iconic forms and grand statements. But within months that initial hostile response had given way to a growing admiration. The You Yangs paintings were unusually subtle, with strong abstract tendencies, but could not be seen as anything but landscapes. Even though they did not resemble any particular place, these works conveyed a sense of the Australian environment.
After the You Yangs pictures, people began to find that a landscape resembled a Williams, rather than vice versa. In an era dominated by abstract art, he had injected new life into an old genre. He showed that no subject is exhausted if one can overcome convention and look at the problem afresh. His discovery transcended the provincial world of Australian art, and broke down the ideological barriers between figuration and abstraction. Perhaps in today's globalised art world it is time to admit that Williams's version of landscape was one of the last revolutionary gestures of the modern era.
John McDonald is the art critic for The Sydney Morning Herald.