If we were not in the presence of the paintings, as we are so appropriately this evening, and were asked to describe the characteristic manner of Fred Williams, we would, perhaps, conjure up a picture that was dominated by vertical lines, and was greyish-brown in tonality. We would, in the mind’s inaccurate eye, see a schema of vertical lines giving a geometric severity to the painting, as well as a balance. The grey-green would add to the general sobriety of impression. It would be easy for us to transfer this painted greenness and verticality to our local landscape, particularly to the characteristic Dandenong country – Sherbrooke Forest, or Upwey. It is a mark of the success of Fred Williams’s painting that we, particularly in Victoria, have accepted the appropriateness, the veracity, of such a view of our immediate bush, and that we have embraced Fred Williams’s very modern reading of it.
Yet no picture really fits the specifications that I have just mentioned. That measured and austere vision is the first that struck us in the 1950s. It was something new in Australian art, and in landscape painting in particular. It was a non-indulgent and classicist version of our bush. It also made Cubist painting become relevant to our own landscape: to its monochrome nature, and its latent geometry. Take The charcoal burner, for instance. It is easy to see this painting in the context of cubism. Inevitably, we must admire the leap in time and place that an Australian painter had to make to see the relevance of Cubism to mid-20th-century Australian painting. But come within three feet of that canvas and you see the contradictions: the scoops of cobalt blue, the ‘expressionist’ detail. Or take the Nattai River landscape that at present hangs in the entrance hall. It is the most conservative, the most traditional of the National Gallery’s Williams pictures. It is khaki brown and sombre, dominated by that heavy pile of rocks. But, close up, you find that the gum trees are imbedded in lilac and pink.
Both of these paintings show that the activity of painting for Fred Williams was not just going out into the landscape to put down what was there, to see what was in front of him, and to render it in its most characteristic terms. Of course, it was that, and that is why we recognise him as one of the most important in our essential tradition of landscape painters; we are still colonials desiring to learn of our landscape. But Fred Williams was concerned with the epistemology of painting: with the knowledge the painter could engender in terms of his subject, but also with the knowledge that painting must be conscious of itself, aware of its own nature and its own vocabulary, conscious of its own coding process.
Much of 20th-century painting has been concerned with cutting out the very dexterity that blurs the line between the depicted and the depiction. Much of 20th-century painting has sought to establish that painting is not just about rendering things as they appear, but using lines and colours in a way that allows them to signify moods and human states. Fred Williams was deeply aware of that dimension of painting, and his mastery of painting’s intrinsic abstraction is one of the more original aspects of his Australian practice. He was an intellectual painter; which is not to contradict his passion, both as an observer and as a painter. One does not have to approach the paintings very closely to find that the experience of the painting process is overriding: to see that the placement of even the most random of dots or the most sensuous of colours was an exercise of extreme care. Too often in Australian painting we are led to believe that feeling has to be rough, and gutsy, and supremely spontaneous. Fred Williams provides the contradiction, even within a single painting. His marks can pay homage to spontaneity, but they belie it; they are as calculated as the few notes in a composition by Webern.
Yet the concern is not only painting, or landscape. We cannot escape the view of man – man in absentia. The landscape depicted in the paintings is most often in the coastal areas where the land is cleared and only tree-breaks remain. Inhabitants are invisible, non-existent. The brilliance of the aerial viewpoint is not so much that it grants us a new angle, and that we are able, by virtue of modern machinery, to look at the top of trees. It is also that we have caused – or inherited – the irrelevance of the figure of man on the face of the earth.
Paintings of hillsides frequently show the edge of the earth, as it were, in orbit, with the trees themselves only barely hanging on. In the most formal compositions, not in the gouaches and watercolours which are more resilient and lyrical in their viewpoints, the sky is obliterated; or it is as bland as outer space.
The sky is not the chief organ of sentiment, as Constable, the romantic, described it. It is hostile. Beneath it the land is scraped clean, except for powerful but minute eruptions of gum tree, coastline, or river gorge. Light and shade, mood or weather, those Impressionist concerns, are redundant somehow. In short, we feel the earth (and it is for us a very local earth) as a part of the planet, endearing because we recognise its accents, but alien too. We are only molecules. The paintings teach us that we are transitory inhabitants.
It is important to recognise the modernity of Fred Williams. To see him in the tradition of Daumier, of the Impressionists, of the Heidelberg School, of Matisse and the Cubists, is already to acknowledge the knowingness of his art: its variety of take-off points, and the universality of its reference. As the body of art expanded through the decade of the sixties the evidence of an even more contemporary practice emerged: the random notations, the calligraphy, the acute sense of figure and ground, the few (minimal) accents, showed Fred Williams to be as contemporary as The Field* though more modestly scaled. Being aware that one painting, or one period in an artist’s life might slice off too little, he looked for the antidote to the limitations of minimalism. In the seventies, after relative drought and austerity, he searched for the first pond, the expressionist colour, the more rugged brush stroke.
I am trying to say that the paintings, in fact, show us our century. They record how painting has been regarded, and how art itself is compelled to pay homage to its own traditions. For one artist to respond in so many ways to the often opposed concerns of modern painting is unusual. It might be easier for an abstract painter. Fred Williams saw painting to be transparent, and valued it as a means of looking through to the subject. Painting remained for him a means of reading the environment.
I began by saying that we recognise the validity of the geography. Further than that, Fred Williams has told us, very topically, about our life on planet earth. He gives a view of man in the landscape that is negative. Man is, in fact, absent, dwarfed out of recognition. It is not immediately easy to find that man on the horse in the painting of that title.
The paintings are more than a sum of the art movements of the 20th century, more than an abstracted update of the Heidelberg school. True, the landscape offers its sensuousness, as does painting itself. There is the lushness of the forest pond, and the caked blue of the gorge where the water falls. But there is also the knowledge of the austere, of the uninhabited earth.
The intelligence and the maintenance of the scrutiny that has produced these paintings is impressive. The artist embraces contradictions and gives the hope of the difficult reconciliation of opposites. The constancy, then, of one painter’s self-critique is before us, in each of these paintings, and in all of the paintings, over this career, together.
Painting – art in general – is not merely aesthetics. If it ever was, it isn’t any more. It is about a view of things. Painting, etchings, portraits, landscapes, all these aspects of Fred Williams’s oeuvre, are records of constant seeing and appraisal. They have, and they acquire, a moral dimension. They go beyond an expression of the mastery of the skill of the craft as it has survived into the late 20th century. This moral dimension is rare. It will be constant in our view, not only of the Australian environment, but of human existence.
Margaret Plant, Professor of Visual Arts, Monash University (in 1982).
* Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, 1968.