In this extract from In Praise of Landscape: The Art of John Borrack (2012) by Lucy Grace Ellem, the author explores the structural influence of French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne on John Borrack’s personal style.
If Modernism may be defined as problem solving, then during the late 1950s and 1960s Borrack’s devotion to the Modernist enterprise was particularly concentrated. Borrack’s aim was daunting: to synthesize landscape painting — which he understood as the expression of the artist’s sensibility and response to nature — with the form and colour construction of Cézanne and Turner’s magnificent radiance of light. In so doing he aimed to engage with and extend the ‘great tradition’ of landscape painting in Australia. But to achieve this synthesis, this transformation, he had first to understand the elements that would be its instruments. The decade of the 60s saw his continuing exploration of two major strands of European landscape painting — Cézanne’s concern with the structure of the physical world and the laws of its pictorial presentation, and Turner’s dissolution of that world in atmosphere and light.
Of all Borrack’s teachers at RMIT, William “Jock” Frater was the most influential, but not only for his classroom teaching. Frater encouraged Borrack’s interest in the tradition of landscape painting descending from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, especially Cezanne, for whom he was a passionate advocate. From their first meeting in 1958, their shared passion for plein-air painting had led to the development of a close friendship. By the time Frater joined the RMIT staff in 1959, their painting excursions together were an established practice, and regularly joined by A.W. Harding, George Christiansen, Gordon Speary and other painters, and from 1960 and less frequently by Arnold Shore. Borrack also shared Frater’s passion for Cézanne and his discovery of Georg Schmidt’s Water-colours by Paul Cézanne met with an enthusiastic response from Frater.
The impact of Schmidt’s book was immediate and profound. Borrack had already been exposed to the art of Cézanne, not only through Frater but also through the RMIT emphasis on composition and structure, and the importance of Cézanne and Cubism. In Yan Yean Farm of 1959 Borrack had explored the more structural aspects of Cézanne’s art and its legacy in early cubism. Erle Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition had been a major text at RMIT. Loran stressed in Cezanne’s art the “profound importance [Cézanne] attaches to the arrangement of volumes in space, the control of the negative space, both in depth and in surface pattern.” Loran cited André Lhote, another important text used at RMIT, on Cezanne’s respect for the picture plane: “The picture, regardless of the exigencies of the subject represented, must remain faithful …to its fundamental two dimensions. The third dimension can only be suggested.” Lhote emphasised, in Cézanne’s art, the need for a return out of depth, the absolute necessity to avoid creating “a hole in the picture”. Schmidt too, in Water-colours by Paul Cézanne, noted that “Cezanne does not seek the spatial, but rather avoids it...” in a passage marked by Borrack, who also noted other passages to do with the avoidance of deep space: “ Cézanne… does not use colour perspective” and “Aerial perspective too (increased brightness and decreased sharpness of detail from front to rear)…means …little to Cézanne…because he distributes light and dark over the whole picture plane purely according to considerations of two-dimensional rhythms….”
Eroded Creek and Bush, Eden Park, 1959, Oil on Masonite, 61 x 76 cm.
All of these concerns surface in Eroded Creek and Bush Eden Park — “the 2nd painting made outside with Frater” — executed in 1959 in the environs of the Plenty Valley. In this painting, Borrack worked in oils, adopting Frater’s vigorous brushwork, simplified forms and strong tonal contrasts. The line of a creek bed draws the viewer into the picture space, but then turns abruptly, ending in a curve parallel to the picture plane. A tree trunk and bushes bring this line back to the foreground, the return from depth necessitated by respect for the picture plane. There is no aerial perspective - a dense screen of trees closes the view. Their foliage is modelled in colour transitions from yellow to green to blue-green, with blue shadows, and had a specific source. Borrack had marked in Schmidt’s text the discussion of Cézanne’s use of colour modulation to suggest the volume of forms, and had also annotated one of its plates, Cezanne’s The Viaduct in the Valley of the Arc 1883-7, noting the colour transitions Cézanne had used to give volume to the trees and indicating the movement of each transition to the next by an arrow “Blue [to] Blue Green [to] Yellow Gn [to] Yellow”, to which he added “to violet”. Perhaps as a result of this close study of colour in Cézanne’s late watercolours, there is a lightness and freshness in Borrack’s work that, together with a concern for transitory effects of sunlight and shadow, distinguishes it from the more muted colour and even tone of several of Frater’s landscapes of the late 1950s and early 60s. In this small oil painting, Borrack shows his awareness of Cézanne’s concern for pictorial unity and respect for the picture plane, the need for a return from depth, and the use of colour modulation to build forms.
John Borrack, ‘Jock’ Frater and George Christiansen painting at Trawool, Vic. 1959. Photograph: George Christiansen
Borrack continued his exploration of Cézanne’s watercolour technique on an outing with Jock Frater and George Christiansen to Trawool on Melbourne Cup Day, November 1959. A photograph taken that day shows Borrack, left, at his easel, Christiansen seated on the right, and Frater in the centre “holding his painting and skiting like hell!” Borrack paints a Cézanne motif, rocks in front of a steeply climbing hill and a screen of trees. A similar subject, Rocks at Trawool, Vic, 1960, painted with the lyricism of Cezanne’s late watercolours won Borrack the Cato Prize for watercolour, jointly with Len Annois, at the VAS Autumn Exhibition in 1961. It shows a close examination of Cezanne’s watercolour technique – the active role of the reserved white of the paper; the subtle building of volumetric form by overlapping thin transparent washes; colour modulations to create forms. The palette is limited to a few prismatic colours, green, yellow, violet, blue with touches of red – the “pure colours of the spectrum” and “few basic colours” of Cézanne. Borrack uses a limited pictorial space and devices to bring back to the picture plane the space created by the volume of objects: the geometry of the strong, crossing diagonal lines, the linking of foreground and background through the tree on the left, the establishment of strong surface rhythms; and the simplification of forms to repetitive shapes, especially in the foreground bushes, massed like Cezanne’s in a surface climbing, narrow pictorial space.
Rocks at Trawool, Vic, 1961, Watercolour on Paper, 38 x 42 cm. Awarded the Cato Prize, VAS, 1961 (shared with Len Annois)
Cathedral Mountain, Taggerty, 1959-61, Watercolour on Paper, 38 x 56 cm.
Borrack took up another Cézanne motif in Cathedral Mountain Taggerty 1960, which transposes Cezanne’s watercolour Montagne Sainte-Victoire to an Australian setting. Struck by the resemblance of the Cathedral Mountain to Cezanne’s iconic image, Borrack explored aspects of Cézanne’s composition but in a bolder, less lyrical style. Borrack’s mountain rises from an extended plane above a foreground of rhythmically disposed trees. Cezanne’s distinct colour shift — the blues of mountain and sky contrasting with a warm foreground of yellows and yellow greens — is displaced by a greater unity of colour, welding foreground and background together and reducing the space initially set up by the sweeping curves of the composition. The broad directional brushstrokes create a faceting effect and, acquiring the flat-pattern character Schmidt had remarked upon in Cézanne, create a strong physical presence. Strong, simplified colour modelling of the trees in the foreground, and the faceting strokes of the more distant bush, mountain and sky recall aspects of Analytical Cubism, and serve to integrate surface rhythms.
Grand Ridge Road, 1961, Watercolour on Paper, 38 x 50 cm. Geelong Art Gallery, Victoria, Awarded the F E Richardson Prize, 1961.
A third watercolour in this series of explorations of Cézanne, Grand Ridge Road 1961, returns to a more lyrical approach. As in Cezanne’s Provencal landscape 1885/86, reproduced in Schmidt, the painting is unified by an extensive use of the reserved white of the paper, and by repetition of colour throughout. A series of repeated shapes – in Cézanne, flowing horizontal lines of landscape, in Borrack, the curving outlines of hills – create a surface patterning that prevents deep recession in space. Thin, overlapping planes of translucent colour mould forms and build up edges, creating a strong sense of volume in a work which overall respects the autonomy of the picture’s surface. Grand Ridge Road was awarded the F.E. Richardson Prize for Watercolour at the Geelong Art Gallery.
This is an edited extract from In Praise of Landscape: The Art of John Borrack by Lucy Grace Ellem (Macmillan Art Publishing) published 2012. This magnificent book is available from a number of online booksellers.