River red gums in Australian painting: a presentation

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This is a transcript of a presentation I made as part of Canvassing the River Red Gum, held at the Great Hall, City of Whittlesea on Saturday 2 September 2017

The iconographic context of the red gum in landscape has always been evoked throughout the history of Australian painting.

Colonial painters best known for the tree as a motif, range from Von Guerard, W.E. Johnstone, John Glover to many more and culminate with Louis Buvelot who seemed to hunt out all the districts of Victoria where the red gum proliferated. His dedication to the tree can be seen in the red gums he painted in the Yarra Valley, Heidelberg, the Western district and Bacchus Marsh.

Waterpool at Coleraine by Buvelot (Barbizon influences)Waterpool at Coleraine by Buvelot (Barbizon influences)

Buvelot laid the foundation and inspiration for the Heidelberg School whose work became attuned to the instant depiction of light atmosphere and distance of Plein Air painting.

A Streeton painting of a red gum tells us more about an instantaneous impression of a gum tree in a landscape than earlier paintings as does a Withers painting or works by McCubbin and Roberts. Heidelberg and surrounding districts prolific in the red gum pastoral attracted these painters.

The Red Gum Tree by Arthur Streeton 1920’sThe Red Gum Tree by Arthur Streeton 1920’s

Hans Heysen – the king of red gums in painting, like Streeton uses the red gum as an adjunct to the motif for the expression of light and atmosphere but brings to it a greater understanding of form in the classical sense and a monumentality often omitted in the works of the so called, Australian Impressionists. That category has very little to do with French Impressionism which was based on scientific optics.

Red and Gold – Hans Heysen 1910Red and Gold – Hans Heysen 1910

Treatment of the red gum can be highly subjective in creative painting and should say as much about the artist as the tree itself. 

Moving further into and towards the mid 20th century we find the works of more popular painters all to a degree following in the steps of the Heidelberg School. Such names as W B McInnes, John Rowell and Penleigh Boyd spring to mind – and many more.

Silver Sheen W.B. Mc InnesSilver Sheen W.B. Mc Innes

His use of red gums and other species were incorporated into painterly compositions of a panoramic nature.

With the advent of the early modernist period – late 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s was my old friend William Frater. One finds here the discovery of spectrum colour used to express form rather than chiaroscuro of earlier gum tree painters. Basing his paintings on Cézanne’s theories of structure and classicism, Frater brings a new concept of architectural synthesis into Australian landscape.

Bush Hut Wollert William Frater 1960Bush Hut Wollert William Frater 1960

Likewise, his contemporary and another friend, Arnold Shore advances the cause of Post Impressionism in Australian Art. An emphasis on colour was the big discovery for these painters. It is interesting to speculate what Van Gogh would have done with the rhythmic and colourful qualities of the red gum but the closest we can come to seeing that is probably in the works of Arnold Shore and later John Perceval. Here we see the beginnings of expressionism in their works, very much influenced by Van Gogh. These paintings tell us very much about the artists and their states of mind.

Red Gum Corroboree South Morang  Arnold ShoreRed Gum Corroboree South Morang  Arnold Shore

Later day cubists and post impressionists interpreted red gums to arrive at a personal image of the tree with emphasis on the manipulative quality of paint itself. One was Fred Williams who used cubist space and limited colour and conceived red gums as exploding forces of tonal scatterings on skylines on geometricized hillsides emphasising a new way of looking at the Australian landscape.

It is the shapes, rhythm, monumentality, mass, lines and unique patterning of colours in the trunks and barks that are present in red gums which make them such wholesome models for artists. 

Hans Heysen whom I visited twice in the early 1960s at Hahndorf, maintained that the gum tree was best seen as a flattish shape in profile against a light or darker background and that a thorough understanding or study of the bark patterning were essential observations in the expression of the character of the tree. But that is only one theory. In this brief historical survey, I have not ventured beyond Victorian based artists except Heysen, nor have I the time to discuss the different interpretations of the host of watercolourists of all periods in Australian Art who have celebrated the red gum as a major motif in their paintings. Most of the chosen artists have worked in this district. Close to Melbourne the greatest numbers of red gums and some of the finest examples are still to be seen here in the Plenty Valley.

We have sadly lost a lot of them along with the continuity of the red gum pastoral landscape because of housing development. It is to be sincerely hoped that those unique specimens that remain, together with the surviving woodlands on the basalt plains, will not be further interfered with by those developers who seem to have little respect for heritage landscapes.

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