It’s often been said: ‘To be successful in business you need to have skin in the game’ – something to lose. I’ve always believed that to make a good painting an artist must leave blood on the canvas – commit fully by exposing inner thought and feeling, risking the danger of misunderstanding and ridicule.
Looking at the National Gallery of Australia’s latest Arthur Boyd exhibition, Agony and Ecstasy, there’s no doubt Arthur needed a complete blood transfusion after every painting. This poetic genius held nothing back: dug deeply into his soul, upbringing, fears, life pressures, forbidden and unfulfilled love and every nightmare he struggled with. It’s all there; everything there is to know about Arthur Boyd as a human is splayed open in front of us.
First a bit of background: Arthur Boyd grew up with his father Merric habitually regaling him with stories from the Bible, even reading aloud to the young Arthur and John Perceval as they worked for him in his Murrumbeena pottery. Merric suffered from bad bouts of epilepsy and Arthur always feared the same might eventually happen to him. He worried, too, that he could go completely mad, as his grandfather did and his father appeared to have.
The denial of sex played a heavy hand. Arthur saw his mother refuse his father entry into the matrimonial bedroom – I guess there were no acceptable contraceptives available to their religious stance back then, who knows. Merric was often seen more or less begging at the bedroom door, being turned away, and humbled to the point of cringing in the corner. Couple that with the bombardment of Bible stories: Adam and Eve, the expulsion from Eden and the sins of the flesh; it’s no surprise that good and evil, sex in all of its confused and complicated states, played a big part in his work.
Arthur was a committed pacifist, totally outraged by the gruesome death and destruction of the Vietnam war. In the mid-60s his son Jamie was in line for conscription into the Australian Army. That terrified the life out of Arthur, so much so that he wasn’t game to leave England and take his family back to Australia. It was impossible to avoid the news of the orange-robed Buddhist monks self-immolating in protest against the brutality of this war, then awfully, In February 1967 a distraught man did the same thing on Arthur’s beloved Hampstead Heath where he always took his morning walks before commencing to paint. There was no hiding from the menace of mankind’s evil.
Just look at his painting Nebuchadnezzar being struck by lightning 1969, so shocking, so moving in its horror and sadness – and as conflicted as Boyd himself. Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon who as the myth relates was punished by God for his greed and brutal treatment of his people, banished for seven years to the desert, where he went mad. No doubt the myth of Nebuchadnezzar was a perfect allegory for Arthur’s feelings.
And who were the powerful exercising brutality against their people, carrying out the killing in Vietnam? America, ably followed by Australia – ‘All the way with LBJ’. Arthur hated it. Frenzied, he belted out scores of Nebuchadnezzars with torturous red flames streaming from his beast-like back, incinerating him.
In the case of this painting there are no flames, but a bolt of white lightning striking yellow penetrates his brain as it starts cleansing him of his madness, much like electric shock treatment – possibly a reference to Arthur’s fears and memories of his father.
Nebuchadnezzar inhabits a dark, deep emerald-green landscape reeking of disaster, with a cloud of depression blackening his world, much like Arthur’s Heath may have appeared to him after that tragic suicide.
Confronting him right to his face is a black, devil-like ram. It’s the moment Nebuchadnezzar views himself, like looking in a mirror, seeing what his selfishness has turned him into. Now he has a chance to make amends: the electric shock is starting to work. He’s painted as a lonely pathetic creature in need of our sympathy.
Like all of Arthur Boyd’s work, Nebuchadnezzar being struck by lightning has many dimensions with repeated motifs. I’ve seen those hills before, as the roof of the cave in Bride in a cave with a rainbow 1958, where the white bride and the black groom hide out from the gaze and torment cast upon them by social mores unforgiving of their love.
The ram, the bull and the dog are often used in Boyd’s work. Sometimes copulating, sometimes observing what might be interpreted as secret lovers doing the same thing in the landscape. Possibly the painting is about Arthur viewing himself. Maybe in the end, it’s more about Boyd’s internal turmoil, the thing that tormented him all of his life: how to reconcile sex, desire and lust with approval from God and the world around him. It’s no accident that Nebuchadnezzar’s genitals are in full view, reinforcing the connection between bodily desires and sinful behaviour. Arthur once said the only way to deal with his demons was to confront them by painting them out – painting them away, a sort of exorcism.
Because of the intricately woven threads complicating the nature of Boyd’s work, it’s best viewed through many paintings in order to fully take in his depth and courage. If you go to Canberra to see Agony and Ecstasy, I’m sure you will agree with me that you came out better than you went in, knowing you’d witnessed one of the greatest shows ever seen.
Arthur Boyd never wanted his works to be resolved or fully explained by the viewer. Whatever interpretation people put on the work, he held, however it affected them – that was the right response. So when you go to see this spectacular, remember: Arthur says you’re the expert.
Arthur Boyd: Agony & Ecstasy
Until November 9, 2014
Entry from 10am-5pm daily
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Place, Parkes, Canberra, ACT
Tel 02 6240 6411
Paintings in the studio: ‘Figure supporting back legs’ and ‘Interior with black rabbit’, 1973–74
oil on canvas, 313.5 x 433.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The Arthur Boyd gift 1975