Carousel, by Ian Fairweather
Fairweather, by Murray Bail, Murdoch Books.
from The Economist
A STRANGE shy man with a cultured voice but almost penniless stepped ashore in Melbourne in 1934 and unrolled some drawings tied up in a singlet. “I was absolutely staggered,” remembered the first person to view them. “I was dumbfounded at the beauty of those things.”
Ian Fairweather was an artist of exceptional force and originality who, until his death in 1974, produced paintings that merged the diverse influences of cubism, aboriginal art and Chinese calligraphy. An art critic, Robert Hughes, believed that “the emotional range and sheer breathtaking beauty” of Fairweather’s finest pieces, such as “Epiphany”, surpassed all other Australian paintings.
In this handsome book of biography and colour reproductions (first published in 1981 but now greatly expanded and altered) Murray Bail goes a step further: “There is nothing like these paintings in Australian art—or anywhere else.” Yet who was this pathologically reclusive artist?
Mr Bail, a prize-winning novelist who wrote “Eucalyptus”, is a critic parsimonious with his enthusiasms, but he has devoted many years to beating Fairweather out of the bush that was the artist’s preferred habitat. A self-appointed vagrant who was “much travelled but unworldly”, Fairweather was born in Scotland, the youngest of nine children of a surgeon-general in the Indian army, and spent his first ten years in the care of Scottish aunts. After an adolescence in Jersey, he joined the army but was captured in France at the start of the first world war, passing some of his happiest years as a prisoner-of-war. He then studied at the Slade school of art in London, a favourite pupil of Henry Tonks, an artist who found him “profoundly melancholy”. From then on, “he avoided the art world like a plague”.
Few artists, Mr Bail demonstrates, can have enjoyed such poverty in such inhospitable surroundings. Fairweather worked as a farmhand in Canada, a road-inspector in Shanghai and a bush-cutter in Australia, living variously in a concrete-mixer and an abandoned patrol boat (Darwin), a converted cinema (Brisbane), an empty goat dairy (Cairns) and a tent (Bribie Island).
Patrick White, an Australian writer who once visited him, drew on him for the painter in his novel The Vivisector, but in his dogged modesty and solitariness Fairweather more closely resembled White’s desert explorer in Voss. Whenever he saw anyone approach, he rushed into the bush and hid. “Hell for Fairweather was other people,” writes Mr Bail.
A perfectionist who painted at night by the light of a hurricane lamp, Fairweather destroyed much of his art. The 500 or so paintings and drawings that remain are intensely felt, unsettling and resonate with “a searching necessity”. The act of painting was the thing: “It gives me the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.” He didn’t much care what happened to his work afterwards, to the extent of sometimes disowning it, or even not recognising it.