Our Knowing and Not Knowing: Helen Maudsley is an exhibition of recent works by the Melbourne artist. Maudsley studied at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School between 1945–7 and has had solo exhibitions regularly since 1957. The exhibition features paintings as well as a selection of Maudsley’s intricate drawings. Each work has a poetic title that provides an insight into the artist’s contemplations. Pip Wallis, Curator, Contemporary Art, spoke with Helen Maudsley about the exhibition and her practice over the last seventy years.
Pip Wallis: You have been playing with visual languages for seventy years – you’ve said your first teacher was the Flemish Northern Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck. Do you ever feel like there’s a limit to the visual languages that are available for your use?
Helen Maudsley: No, it goes on and on, it just gets more complex. You get more attuned to the visual grammar, and to ambiguity, analogy, and what you’re thinking about in your life – the ‘essays’ you’re writing.
PW: Over your career have there been significant shifts in how you approach painting?
HM: Earlier on I was trying to relate to a general sense of authority, which is what we all do, but it never worked out. There’s still a sense I’d love to be accepted, but you have to accept that you’re not going to be accepted, and then you can get on with it. While you’re hankering around the edges trying to make your work more accessible, you’re really heading the wrong way. So it’s a release when you stop bothering with that. When you can just do and not bother about whether people are going to say idiotic things, which they will, but that doesn’t matter.
PW: The title of your exhibition, Our Knowing and Not Knowing, indicates that we’re never quite sure.
HM: You can’t be sure. And even if everyone is saying how marvellous you are, you still don’t know if you’re on the right track because they might be saying it for the wrong reasons. There’s no way you can know, full stop. So there’s just doing and hoping that it’s not a waste of time.
PW: Your process involves a lot of drawing before you begin a painting.
HM: One thing leads to another, you’re trying out this and that. The drafts are all wrong but they’re nearly right. You keep on doing the drafts until you get it there. And it tells you when it’s right. That’s the thing, it tells you what to do, eventually. You’re not telling it, it’s telling you. I say to myself over and over again – when I’ve spent a long time doing just a little bit and then going away – when I come back and look at the painting again, I have to tell myself, ‘I’m not looking for, I’m looking at’. It does the talking, but first you’ve got to get it to that stage where it starts to do the talking.
PW: You talk about your works as visual essays. Some writers sit down to write without knowing what will be produced – how do you begin your visual essays?
HM: You’ve got something in your mind because you’re noticing the world all the time, you see something being repeated all over the place. You notice something around you and it nags at you. And you might just start by drawing a few little things and once you get into it, you’re on.
PW: Are there some observations that you have continued to return to over your career?
HM: Yes, I think so. For example, one of my paintings is about permission, how we want permission and affirmation, but then we get out of that and into our own minds. We all seem to be seeking affirmation, needing it even if we think we don’t. You believe there are these ‘significant others’ who understand something you don’t, who we think we need the help of. It’s not true but we have that all the time at the back of our minds.
PW: A self-doubt?
HM: Absolutely. We want to identify with significant others and we crave authority. When I went to art school I hoped I was going to be taught some technique, but of course I wasn’t. I didn’t learn any of the things I thought I would. I didn’t get much out of it except talking to people like the painter Arnold Shore, who was very influential. He would walk through the NGV and whenever he saw someone looking at a painting for a long time, he’d chat with them about it. As students we always spent lunch time looking through the Gallery trying to find things out. Arnold would say things like, ‘Well what do you think?’ On one occasion I was looking at a painting and noticed that a colour in one corner of the work was used differently in another area – the dark blue had become light. Arnold said ‘Ah yes, that’s ringing the change’, and I’ve always remembered that. He was saying that’s a technique you can use, and he was right. At the Gallery you learn from looking and from someone supporting you. Arnold and the curator Dr Ursula Hoff were very good like that.
PW: When you were at the National Gallery School in the 1940s, people were starting to talk about the ‘dawn of modern art’.
HM: We were hoping to find out what modern art was, what was so special about it, and nobody could tell us [laughs]. A huge influence on me was the Cubist language, which is a terrific language. Picasso’s use of ‘double image’, or ‘double orientation’, for example. When Abstract Expressionism came in everybody thought they had to do that, and then the next thing. Some people were changing their coat all the time and getting good reviews for doing so. That endless changing was silly, but it was so silly that it didn’t worry me after a while. If you don’t work at something, you don’t get further into its depth. There’s still a lot to learn from historic paintings – you find things that you didn’t notice before. You have to keep redefining – you’re not defining anything new, it’s just you’re redefining what you might not have noticed before, and that’s very intriguing.
PW: You went to the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the same time you went to art school. I’ve been thinking about the non-verbal relationship between music and painting …
HM: Music and painting have a lot in common, they’re both non-verbal. Like music, you’re considering the whole piece as you work on a painting; you’re thinking about how one form is calling to another across the surface of the painting. Another similarity between the two is sequences, the sequencing of notes or forms in the composition. Calculated sequences are important to me.
PW: The titles of your works have an almost poetic quality. Poetry also uses ambiguity and analogy.
HM: The titles are written thoughts. It does come out a bit like poetry, although I don’t intend it to. An old friend of mine had a lot of faith in me, but he couldn’t reconcile me with what I painted, so he said to me once, in the 50s, why don’t you title the paintings something to do with the thoughts you’ve put into them. So I started to do that, to be more specific, as a lead in for the viewer.
PW: I suppose people read the world with different languages. You mentioned, for example, that some people read your paintings in a psychoanalytic way and some do it in a more analogous, associative way.
HM: Yes, the psychoanalytic stuff is hopeless! Visual analogy is what it is, which has been around forever.
PW: The fascinating thing about language is that there’s often a gap between what two people mean when they speak.
HM: Yes, you’re using words and sometimes they misfire. There’s always a discrepancy. Say you’re visiting the doctor, or the electrician comes, and you’re trying to get your meaning across; in quite ordinary scenarios there’s a juggling to get to the point where you both understand the same thing. You’ve got to allow for that discrepancy. It can be frustrating.
PW: You often use letters as a form in your paintings.
HM: They’re geometric and they call to one another: a ‘w’ is the same as an ‘m’, and a ‘2’ is the same as an ‘s’ which is the same as a ‘z’. So it’s a sort of game – the forms morph and are fun to play with. For example, the fingers on a hand are like buildings. The column is also a marvellous form – it’s ego, it’s ‘I’, is authoritative. It’s so rich in meaning and I’ve used it many times for that reason. And then, in the centre of this painting are diamonds. Diamonds are knowing, clarity. You get to that clarity while working through the drawings, as you simplify the grammar of the painting.
PW: In four of the new paintings you’ve used groups of three colours.
HM: Yes, colour groups have a traditional history. For example, blue and gold signify the heavenly, and Cerulean blue has a different meaning to a cold blue. There are a range of colours that have a history of meaning. I have, in the past, tried to use pure colours but they kill each other; if you’re staring at a painting over time, some colours move forward, just as images do.
PW: The works in this exhibition are from the last five years, has there been a shift in this period?
HM: No, I don’t think so. But what happens in your life impacts the work. For example, my younger sister got dementia and I would visit her. You don’t know how dementia unravels people until you’ve seen it. You think it’s just a word, but when you see someone unravel, it shows you a new aspect of life. I made pictures about unravelling. Lots of things are just words until you face them, and once you face them, then you’ve got an essay.
Helen Maudsley’s exhibition Our Knowing and Not Knowing is on display on level 3 at NGV Australia, Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square 17 November 2017 – 12 March 2018