As a painter, Fred Williams (1927-82) is renowned for his innovative use of aerial perspective and abstract forms to represent the Australian landscape. Trained in Melbourne and England, Williams began his career as a figurative artist before developing an abstracted visual language to depict space. Whilst living in post-war London in the early 1950s Williams started printmaking at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and he maintained this practice throughout his career after returning to Australia in 1957. The Fred Williams: Painter, Printmaker exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery provides a unique opportunity for viewers to compare some of Williams’s most iconic landscape paintings with his extensive work as a printmaker.
The exhibition features a variety of figurative prints from Williams’s ‘Music Hall’ series, which he made whilst living in London in the mid-1950s. Printmaking was a useful medium for Williams because his materials were portable and he could work in the low light of the London music halls. There is a sense of melancholy in Williams’s ‘Music Hall’ series as the artists depicted in these prints were part of a ‘dying’ tradition. Mad Pianist 1955-56, for example, shows a performer hunched over a grand piano, his face obscured by the brim of his hat. This print provides the viewer with a front-of-house view, which is characteristic of Williams’s ‘Music Hall’ series.
Following his return from England in 1957, Williams spent much of his career painting the Australian landscape. Williams experienced a conflict between the time he spent outdoors painting the landscape and the time he devoted to printmaking. According to one of Williams’s Australian contemporaries, John Brack, the latter’s printmaking practice introduced a deliberate formal order into his practice.
During the early 1940s Sidney Nolan created a sense of aerial perspective in his paintings of the Australian landscape by raising the horizon line to the top of the canvas, thereby tilting the picture plane to open up a sense of vast space. This technique – seen in Nolan’s paintings Flour Lumper, Dimboola 1943 and Railwayguard, Dimboola 1943 – was encountered by Williams who sought to go beyond Nolan’s modern use of perspective. Williams’s etchings, You Yangs landscapes 1963-66, each feature a high horizon line. This suggests that, by the mid 1960s, Williams had not moved beyond Nolan’s representation of aerial perspective. In these etchings Williams has reduced the landscape by using a random scatter of marks to suggest trees, bushes and rocks.
This distillation of the landscape is brought to a natural conclusion in his iconic painting, Australian Landscape III 1969, also featured in the exhibition. Here Williams takes Nolan’s concept of aerial perspective a step further by excluding the horizon line altogether, thereby opening up the landscape. This painting is experiential rather than representational: it is a painting of space. Small specks on the surface of the painting suggest infinitesimal objects scattered across the vast Australian landscape. Meanwhile, the vertical strips running up and down the painting evoke a sense of infinite depth (and can be compared to Barnett Newman’s work). Since there is no focal point, the viewer’s vision of the landscape pulsates between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. Overall, the stylistic comparisons between the prints and paintings seen in this exhibition suggest that Williams’s extensive work as a printmaker formed a key aspect of his practice.
By Rachel King
Fred Williams: Painter, Printmaker, Queensland Art Gallery, 2 November 2013 – 16 March 2014
Image: Fred Williams, Mad Pianist (from ‘Music hall’ series) 1955-56, Etching and engraving on paper, Queensland Art Gallery