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Creation stories: works of wonder and mystery

13 Sep 2021

Creation stories: works of wonder and mystery

The passion of our Lyrical Landscapes: The Art of William Robinson guest curator, Dame Quentin Bryce, has flowed through the halls of HOTA Gallery since the very conception of the exhibition.

A consistent champion of one of Australia’s greatest artists, their friendship was born from a fateful crossing of paths when Bryce attended one of Robinson’s musical performances during her schoolgirl years. She could never imagine that an enduring, unshakeable admiration between the pair would soon follow and grow to become a bond of two great intellectuals with a shared passion for art, music, and culture.

We’re fortunate to have Quentin’s own words to encapsulate the relationship between the two and the immense career of a living legend.

Read her essay with The Australian below and book your tickets to experience the monumental work of William Robinson.

Creation stories: works of wonder and mystery

The works of William Robinson dazzle in their virtuosic demonstration of technique, their luminous colour and their worldly perspective, writes Quentin Bryce.

By Quentin Bryce

I am told there are three categories of art-gallery goers: those who look for a few minutes to check out the names and titles; those who spend 30 minutes reading interpretative panels and thinking about them; and those who like to sit for hours to absorb the art, perhaps to dream. Seats, then, are a must for the latter.

For this amateur curator, it has been an enriching and rewarding learning experience to observe the craft, organisation, teamwork, and exquisite attention to detail driving this new exhibition at the new Gallery at HOTA, Home of the Arts, Surfers Paradise, an exhibition dedicated to the work of my friend William Robinson.

Immediately, it was obvious that before us was the most splendid opportunity tounite the sublime landscapes painted by our artist at the height of his powers. Theseworks of wonder and mystery are grand in every aspect, spiritual in concept, andmonumental in scope: they are the seven symphonic works that comprise theCreation series (1988-2004).

And let’s not forget that awe-inspiring, epic exaltation of the Australian landscape, The Rainforest (1990). This much-lauded, simply titled painting was awarded the Wynne Prize in 1990. It carries deep meaning for Gold Coast art lovers, who raised funds to acquire it for the Gallery the following year.

It seemed a given from the outset that music would be as integral to the exhibition, titled Lyrical Landscapes, as it is to Bill’s everyday life. The story of the choice he made at 21 to cast aside his ambition to become a concert pianist, and his decision that art would be the substance of his life, has become the stuff of legend.

As a schoolgirl, I was at that fateful concert at the City Hall in Brisbane in 1957when he performed Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 2 in C Minor, prior to his dramatic change of direction. I could never have imagined that I would listen to him play the piano again, more than 50 years later, at his home in the Brisbane rainforest. It was Schubert.

My husband Michael and I treasured our visits to Bill and his wife Shirley, drinking tea and eating sweeties dusted in icing sugar. Sometimes, we took little souvenirs from our travels – Turkish pots in vermilion and lapis lazuli, soft coloured shawls of silk. Bill has tucked these into several still-life paintings.

It is as joyous to talk to him about music as it is about art. Whatever the subject, Bill never fails to test, to enchant and to sparkle, with his intellectual rigour and his wry sense of humour. A master of listening and of the pause, Bill considers his words carefully.

In contemplation mode, Bill speaks mostly about music; in the past, he has calledthis “another world … I can express emotion through music”.

People assume that as we grow older, we have more time. But that is not so –indeed, there is less. We distil the things that really matter to us. We love more deeply, feel more deeply – this is certainly so for music.

The music for Lyrical Landscapes would need to be Bill’s favourites – Brahms, Telemann, Handel, Bach, the Grieg in the background as he painted the Tone poem series, and perhaps some of Elgar’s songs. Southern Cross Soloists, the pre-eminent chamber music ensemble, were booked early. Artistic director Tania Frazer commissioned film composer Joseph Twist to prepare a new work that will be performed in October.

During the uncertainties and anxieties that began to beset us more than a year ago, we acquired a clearer, deeper understanding of the way the arts speak directly to the soul.

We have learned that they hold stores of resilience, mental and physical strength. We are wiser in our understanding now that these are also to be found in the natural world.

The magic and grandeur of nature are nowhere more magnificent in their expression than in the rainforest. This is what Bill and Shirley discovered early on, when they started bushwalking. Their lives, while encompassing much hard work and many challenges, have been peppered with great pleasures: picnics, driving out of the city to enjoy nature, artist camps, the Lamington Plateau, not to mention romance, marriage, babies.

As we reminisced about those years, Bill spoke to me of Shirley’s lifelong support for his work, the “enormous ask” he made of her for his art. This young city woman, who grew up in a business family and had ambitions of becoming a commercial artist, moved home many times for Bill’s pursuit – from the suburbs to the farm at Birkdale, to the rainforest, the seaside, to the city again.

Shirley discovered the Beechmont place in 1972. When they went there to live in1984, the conditions were very basic. Shirley remembers chopping wood and how much she loved the goats – even going on to become a goat judge. We shared hilarious tales of farm life, of milking Jerseys and Guernseys, and observing the way cows have unique personalities – equally calm and playful … Oh, the warmth of friendship and delight in nostalgia.

Not all of those years were enjoyable; Bill acknowledged the long days spent driving every day from Beechmont to teach at the Brisbane College of Advanced Education(now QUT), describing it as “a ridiculous way of life”. Bill and Shirley didn’t mix a lot with other artists; he wanted to keep his independence from contemporary developments.

During those tough years, Bill broke new ground. In 1987, the Queensland Art Gallery commissioned his first multi-panel work, the Four Seasons series. Comprising blues, the palest greens, peachy tones, a brush of gold and shining stars, they also house birds, a rainbow, parrots, eagles, and cows. The vitality of the subtropical forest draws the viewer in, encouraging them to look up, down, and to immerse themselves in the paintings.

In Bill’s words, he has constantly sought to include his viewer “to live in the vision itself”. I have observed that many of his works achieve this, but I remember especially how often it happened in response to Springbrook With Lifting Fog (1999).

This immensely popular rainforest painting was on the wall of my office at Yarralumla, on loan from the National Gallery of Australia. I noticed again and again the way visitors were captured by the sensation of fog, mist and sunlight. I also recall with fondness showing it to Bill and Shirley there, with cockatoos in the gums peering in through the windows.

On another occasion, Bill told me that he always painted what was there. Gentle interiors, farm life filled with animals and poultry, gorges, valleys, rainforest, ocean, birds over the sea, purple edging on waves – all scenes viewed close to his home of the time.

The first of the monumental Creation series was created in 1988. Its large canvases are subtitled Darkness and Light, tackling the metaphysical concerns of life. When I asked Bill what he remembers of producing this series and of its importance within his oeuvre, his immediate response was that it marked the first time he was painting “without external influences”.

The grand finale of the series, the seventh and one of his most highly acclaimed, is Dome of Space and Time (2003-04). It presents a panorama encompassing the Nerang River, Tallabanna and Mount Warning all at once. One can see great details of the mountainous rainforest while also experiencing the sky above and the sea beyond.

In their own delicate way, so too are the Tone poems suite, beautiful expressions of personal thoughts and feelings, painted at New Brighton, in a holiday home near Brunswick Heads, not far from Olley country. So much of this part of the world is familiar to me. I’ve loved it all the while.

Those from my generation – kids of the 1940s, especially those of us from bush Queensland – carry enduring happiest memories of holidays here. Mornings on sand and surf, afternoons on Nerang’s edge.

On overcast days, my sisters and I would climb into the back of our parents’ black1938 Oldsmobile to head to the Hinterland, Tamborine, Springbrook, Beechmont, Purling Brook, Tallabanna; we’d swim in pools under waterfalls. Lyrical Landscapes has filled me with a longing to go back.

I find little grandchildren are the best companions. Oh, their enchantment in being immersed in the lushness, the mist, the cool, and surrounded by fronds of ferns, mosses, lichens.

On our way from Repeater Station Road to the Best of All Lookout, my granddaughters and I see them – three great Antarctic Beeches, standing side-by-side. Their 2000-year-old trunks seem to reach up forever to the sky, shrouded in almost emerald green.

At home that evening, I show Ellen and Isla the lavishly illustrated books and catalogues on Bill’s work. They are utterly convinced that we had stood at the exact place where he had painted the ancient trees. I decide to leave it at that. Next time I will tell them about the way that Bill uses memory, about the way it all starts with walking, observations, experiences, looking – and looking again.

On my last visit to the Robinsons, I remember walking down the stairs past deep crimson blooms in the side garden, greens in profusion, and feeling wrapped ingratitude for our afternoons with Bill and Shirley, and for our meandering conversations about darkness and light, rivers lit by moonlight, fires on the top of the mountain.

As grandparents unfailingly do, we discussed the most important things in our lives: our children, their futures, their world. In these uncertain pandemic times, Bill sees in human nature a degree of self-concern that leaves little for others. I thought I observed a sadness as he spoke. The artist is now 85. He seems to me to have about him a deeper introspection and a gentler spiritual contemplation.

But, shining through is his enduring belief in the possibility of world co-operation and in the inherent goodness of human nature.

This is an edited extract from the catalogue essay for Lyrical Landscapes: The Art of William Robinson, Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, July 31 to October 3.