Untitled (Man walking a dog)
This small etching shows us what a consummate draftsman William Robinson is now and always was. In the silhouette of the man walking his dog we see so much; the rolling walk of the man, the alertness of the dog as he impatiently pulls on the lead—this way, this way. The man concentrates on the dog, the dog on the way ahead. It’s a wonderful little ode to man’s relationship with his dog—something seen briefly that has left an image indelibly stamped on the memory.
Not all the puddles are blue—only one in fact—then it becomes a muddy water landscape. This is the most splendid story. The red shirt and straw hat figure is at the puddle furthest away, while the male with the big hat looks into the big blue pool at his reflection, just like the cows!
The red bird flying past gives the painting’s perspective another dimension of space. I could simply look at this image for ages and ages. The clouds in the far left corner drifting in behind the red shirt person (I know this is Shirley, but that is neither here nor there), and there are more clouds in the water’s reflection. The artist is playing a game of space here. I suspect he has painted this day on the land with his cows simply as he sees it—not trying to be particularly clever with composition or perspective—and this is exactly what being an artist is all about: having an individual language and making up stories in colour (in this case, on a flat surface of linen), but the end result is tumultuous in its extraordinariness and so we all celebrate in William Robinson’s way of looking at his universe.
Self portrait with goose feathers
One requirement of a portrait is a good likeness. Another, often forgotten, is that it should create—in iconographical terms, as Robinson does so superbly here and elsewhere—an image that is immediately memorable. Robinson often appears in his own works. Drawings, paintings, sculpture, on ceramic plates and vases; sometimes in the company of cows, goats and chickens; sometimes with his wife, Shirley. Here he stands alone and full frontal, the centre of attention, but of what sort of attention? This is a self portrait, a representation of how the artist sees himself, or wants or is willing to be seen. But we have only to think of similar portraits of Rubens, Rembrandt, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to see how quirky this one is. Why is the painter wearing a monk’s hood knocked up out of a chaff-bag? Where is he exactly? Is he levitating? Why is he holding two goose feathers?
In the Renaissance portrait, every detail of dress, accouterment, pose etc., is part of a language, an emblematic code that tells us things we need to know about the sitter: his status, his trade—whether he is an artist, a merchant, a man of power; something of how he stands in relation to the world; his character or soul. What, if we attempt such a reading here, is the artist William Robinson? A goose of another sort? A Holy Fool? It takes us a moment to move beyond questions of why and where, and beyond playful humour, to look close and discover the painter here: in the way stillness becomes tension; in the boldness of the colours, yellow against grey/green/black; in the rendering of the goose and the island of feathery cloud under the figure’s feet; the perfect organisation of all this within the picture’s space; the language of painting itself in the hands of an artist at the peak of his form.
Passing storm, late afternoon, Beechmont
We are fortunate, in the case of one of William Robinson’s grandest landscapes, Passing storm, late afternoon Beechmont (from the ‘Mountain’ series) 1993, in having the pencil sketch: the moment of vision from which the later painting springs, in whose rapid lines we catch, in a first fine careless rapture, the artist’s hand, eye, mind, but also the full range of his senses as they engage with the actual and then translate and organise it to make the finished view. All the rich and highly worked elements of the painting—the light, the thrust of tree-trunks up and downward, the solidity of the land-masses that in the painting are so plastic, so tactile—are already there in the sketch. We see clearly for once, and appreciate, the mysterious and on our part barely graspable distance between the bare bones of the painter’s first glimpse of the thing and what, in the final work, paint can do to flesh it out, and make it, to our senses as we take it in, a special experience, and apprehension of light, colour (the luscious greens, violet, orange, yellow, indigo), weight, texture, play between closeness and distance, that makes the picture as a visionary moment so immediate and ‘real’. The image, as Robinson presents it, is already numinous before we recall the biblical and later romantic associations (Wordsworth) of the rainbow as covenant; its place in the relationship between God and Man, and the natural link, in its essential colours and the guarantee in its curve, of a completed circle between sky and Earth.
Self portrait with Panama and shells
This exhibition shows us that Robinson is at home with any medium: oils, watercolours, pastels, lithography, lead pencils or ceramics; and any subject: a chook, a vertiginous mountain ridge, or, in this case, himself sitting on his verandah. This self portrait is wonderfully accurate. The Panama hat is essential for Bill in the harsh Queensland sun—there are hats everywhere in the house, to remind him never to leave the house without one—but the yellow flower jauntily claims centre stage. Everything is tangibly real. You can imaginatively lay your hand on each item in the picture, feel its texture and its weight. He allows the light to articulate the self portrait, the curve of his bald head, and the three splashes of light giving volume to the torso. It is reassuring to see that drama and profundity are not confined to sublime river valleys and mountain cliffs; it’s also here on the verandah of his inner-city Brisbane home.
The above images and words are extracts from from the exhibition catalogue William Robinson: Insights, showing 15 June 2012 – 16 June 2013 at the William Robinson Gallery, QUT, Brisbane
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