William Robinson is known as one of Australia’s greatest landscape painters. His symphonic depictions of particular places are tied to his lived experience. Now 85, his legacy is assured: he is the only living Australian artist with an institutional gallery dedicated to his work. His paintings are currently the subject of two new major exhibitions: one in the aforementioned space at QUT and another at HOTA. When Louise Martin-Chew spoke to Robinson in his home studio she found his humour and his absorption in paint intact, albeit constrained by the vagaries of age.
Louise Martin-Chew: In both exhibitions your spiritual connection to the Australian landscape is laid bare, as is the extension of landscape traditions into new directions. How do you feel about this level of recognition?
William Robinson: I suppose, because I am 85 now, recognition doesn’t mean the same thing as it means in middle age. It means fulfilment of a sort and helps to unify everything in my life. When pictures are looked at from different periods of an artist’s life it is difficult to make the connections. These exhibitions show, more and more I think, how I have always related my paintings to what I am doing and where I live at the time.
LMC: The paintings are invested with the multiple perspectives you have employed since early in your career, which describe the experience of being in nature.
WR: That is a good way of putting it because, in order to feel you are not just an observer of nature and the landscape, it has to have a different stage or format, to include the experiences of the observer so that you can feel that you are actually in the landscape rather than just observing or walking through it.
LMC: In many of the early works, you and your wife Shirley are in the picture, but tiny, appearing almost as an anomaly—as are the domestic animals you kept. How did living on a farm affect your environmental awareness?
WR: Living on a farm had an enormous impact on our lives. Up until 1970 we lived in the suburbs of Brisbane. Of course, all of this time I was teaching art so I didn’t really have a painting career as such. My own work was a bit all over the place because I was very much connected to our domestic life. We took the plunge of moving to Birkdale and we were living on eight acres.
We started off with some goats and ended up with cows. I must admit that all of those sorts of things were like mini disasters. And with those disasters comes humour about things that have gone wrong. I have always been aware that I can’t actually paint myself as something more than I am. When I painted myself on a monumental horse for the Archibald Prize, my picture was more of a failed farmer, almost a failed human being.
LMC: In contrast to the humour of those works is the symphonic scale and tenor of the Creation Series that is the subject of the HOTA show.
WR: The Creation Series came out of where we were living at Beechmont, high country behind the Gold Coast. We had been living there for a while and had a child who, as an adult, had become ill. In 1988-1989 I was starting to feel the ravages of time if you like. By 1991 we had lost two children.
However, Creation Landscape: Darkness and Light (with five parts) is before 1991 . It still has a whimsical quality in the first picture (Darkness and Light I). The moon looks as though it is rolling down a clifftop (with some foreboding about the way the earth is going). The next out of the five shows a rather sterile moon, almost as though we were looking at its beauty and its deadness. The other side of the picture shows aspects of the sun and the middle picture shows an Adam and Eve in the cosmos, swimming in the creek. There is a ring of stars which forms the centrepiece of that picture. It was well and truly a comparatively isolated sort of place.
LMC: These paintings emerged out of a time of personal darkness. Does making something other—like a painting—ameliorate grief and assist you to have faith?
WR: Yes, it does, for a while. We all have to overcome all sorts of intense difficulties in life and find a way to live with those things which never leave us. I think I have, ever since that time, referred to an otherness. I brought this about by referring to the heavens, as it were, in a lot of paintings. Also, in the relationship with the landscape I moved to including a fourth dimension, time, so that you could crawl right into a painting. I couldn’t crawl into a painting until I discovered how you use time in a painting.
LMC: The QUT show is named Nocturne, a musical term. Curator Vanessa Van Ooyen suggests that these paintings explore multi-linear time and perspective. What interests you in these explorations and where do you hope that they will take your audience?
WR: Linear is a good word. It is like the linear sensation we have in a well-produced book, where the words are printed beautifully and it is not only words themselves but how close they are together, how the sentences and paragraphs within the page give you a sense of the silences. Then the taking up of the movement again in reading. It is much the same in a painting. Content is made up of visual words and visual sentences which take various positions in the painting.
Perspective itself can only really cope with three dimensions. Then it became a mechanical device where the eye was shifted in various positions to look at a scene or room in various positions, whether a vertical, ascending or horizontal plane. Yet there is some other sense which must be carried through in a picture.
LMC: Can you describe the routines of your day and your current work?
WR: It is very difficult to describe my 85-year-old routine—mainly staggering from one room to another. I do try to do the one thing that I can do: still life. I can’t drive very far, I can’t go into the country and work there. I have to work with what I have and that is made up of the objects that I have collected over a number of years for painting, flowers and fruit.
One thing has stayed with me. It is a big adventure I suppose, colour—how the life of a painting can be in its colour and the relationships. I do love some of the objects I have picked up over the years and I return to them. I look for flowers, any flowers that have their own colour without any artificiality and have a varied range of colour in a bunch. I don’t like when everything looks like it is perfectly cut. I find it hard to penetrate anything like that. It is difficult, but there is art for everybody in almost anything at all.