My copy of Artonview arrives. It’s the journal of the National Gallery of Australia, and one of my pleasures is leafing through it over lunch. A number of paintings leap out at me. They are by Fred Williams. I’m particularly taken by one that shows a seascape in four panels. The colours are luminous and the artist’s found a way to contain and express a very large view, showing both its scope and its detail.
I decide I must see the exhibition. In the past I’ve resisted what I saw as the bitsiness of Williams, but the sample images don’t suggest bitsiness at all. Maybe I’ve become far more familiar with the real landscape over the years and therefore more appreciative of representations. I’ve inhabited dry bush, seaside and the red centre and loved them equally. They are his subject matter.
I visit the exhibition the first time on a Monday morning just after it opens. I have time and space to wander through, reconnoitring, which is my favourite way to tackle an exhibition. The first painting – Tree loppers – is of dismembered trees – not what I want at all. The commentator talks about “paring away nonessential elements”. Branches seem to me to be essential elements of any self-respecting tree. Even as a painting I can’t see its virtues.
Fortunately Young saplings, Mittagong is nearby and enchants me with its vertical lines, its rich colours and its vitality. I’m a tree trunk and bark afficianado from way back.
I continue my reconnoitre and enter each chamber on a sub voce gasp. The rooms pulsate with the colours of hillsides, waterfalls, ocean, mesas, bush, waterholes, creeks. The horizon line is always interesting and unexpected. I like the hillsides that represent shape and steepness of the countryside. I’m particularly taken with Hillside 1963-64 and Hillside 1 1965 and stopped in my tracks by the circular format of Circle landscape 1965-66. Even the most minimal paintings draw my eye, those that aroused my youthful dislike. Landscape 69 triptych, 1969 – 70 has astonishing spatial depth despite its subtle ground and its sparse detail. The dates on these paintings indicate how Williams works on his paintings until he’s satisfied.
I spend a long time hogging the small video screen that enables me to leaf through his wonderful sketchbook of a visit to China, a perfect use for technology. I read in the catalogue that he often absented himself from the busy-ness of the tour of China and retired to his room to sketch and reflect. The heads, birds, mountains, statues, dragons are full of action and life.
I plan to return for a second visit, and buy the catalogue to prepare myself and remind myself. As I read it, I find the man behind the artist. Williams lacks the stridency of the stereotypical artist – no alcoholic binges or dramatic affairs. He dislikes being in the public eye, and his exhibitions are thoroughly considered. He doesn’t like the pressure of annual exhibitions. He’d rather prepare for six years and put together an exhibition that shows him, as well as the gallery browsers, something about the development of his work. He drinks up landscapes wherever he is and paints them over and over, solving technical problems as he goes. His diaries are thoughtful considerations of his craft and of the weather and his painting experience, full of the diffidence of question marks, and the immediacy of the present tense. He plots his own exhibitions, giving careful thought to what goes best with what. I like him.
I visit Infinite horizons again on a warm day 6 weeks later. This time I gorge on the close up. I stand with my nose up to the canvases and the composition boards, hoping my adoring breath does no damage. I find grounds that are brocaded with thick colour and textures and gleaming with the sheen that only oils can produce. I become fascinated by the pallor of his skies. I focus on a blob of paint – one of his “notations” and see in it the details of a closely observed landscape, a hint at a bird or a flower or a rock, through subtle stripes of paint that look as if they have just left his brush. I didn’t see any of this last time, and it’s something that the best reproductions in the world can’t capture.
I’m not enamoured of his portraits – I want landscape! However I am charmed by two. One of an elephant, light and full of motion despite his size, and one of Williams’ daughter Kate at the beach, a little girl surrounded by all the treasures that the beach offers.
I’ve developed a new interest in gouache, so I pay particular attention to paintings behind protective glass. I’m astonished at how close-up blotches of paint become rich representations of Sturt desert pea and at the characteristic care with which Williams paints a selection of mushrooms. Manyof his beachscapes are also gouache, sometimes mixed with sand. They are probably my favourites – until I move into another chamber and favour the Weipa paintings, or the waterfalls, or the riverbeds, or the billabongs and forest ponds.