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Boyd to man

by Dr Christopher Chapman, 23 June 2016

Christopher Chapman looks at influences and insight in the formative years of Arthur Boyd.

Arthur Boyd's studio
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Arthur Boyd's studio

When artist Arthur Boyd died just shy of his seventy-ninth birthday in 1999, the obituaries recalled a man defined by a gentle disposition. Fondly reminiscing decades later, Barry Humphries wrote: ‘of all the friends I have had in my life, I miss Arthur Boyd the most’. Humphries remembered Arthur as ‘loveable, decorous, slightly apologetic’. Art museum director James Mollison described Arthur as ‘a deeply humanitarian man’. 

Photographs show the young Arthur as a man with soft features. Aged twenty-one or twenty-two, a slight smile plays across his lips, and his rounded cheeks provide a cherubic counterpoint to the intense look in his eyes. A group photograph from 1945 shows Arthur in his mid-twenties surrounded by friends; his brother David is at his side and his betrothed Yvonne stands behind him, claiming Arthur as her own. His face is gentle and his eyes are shadowed. They are all gathered in his painting studio, and Matcham Skipper holds Arthur’s painted self-portrait aloft for the occasion. Albert Tucker was behind the camera. As Patrick McCaughey recently wrote, the self portrait depicts the young artist as ‘self-questioning’, a ‘perplexed young man’.

As a boy aged fourteen, Arthur looked intently at those around him. The portraits of his mother and father show his capacity to convey the nuances of his sitters’ psychological and emotional bearing. He had already left school, and, at fifteen and sixteen, turned his gaze upon himself, attempting to manifest through paint on canvas the complexities of his own inner workings. Living with his beloved grandfather and making light-filled paintings of the countryside and seashore, Arthur was also painting those around him. ‘I painted the Driscoll kid’s portrait today’, he wrote to his mother. Written in winter, Arthur’s letter, sprinkled with idiosyncratic spelling and grammar, is intent on reassuring his mother that he and his grandfather are warm and well:

I hope everybody is cosy as can be at Murrumbeena because Gramp and I are as cosy as cosy as cosy as can be, so don’t you worry about us one scrap Mummums. The little flowers you picked are still in their pot on the table and are almost as fresh as the day when they were picked. Well good bye for the present my own sweet dear little Mummums with tons and heaps and heaps of love from your ever loving son Arthur Chook Chooks.
Yvonne Boyd (1945, not dated) by Arthur Boyd
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Yvonne Boyd (1945, not dated) by Arthur Boyd

His guardianship of the family’s chickens as a child, another footnote to the young Boyd’s gentle nature, earned him the affectionate nick-name ‘chookie-boy’. Accordingly, at boy scouts, fourteen-year-old Arthur was known as ‘Chooka’ Boyd. 

Two young men entered adolescent Arthur’s life at this time, both of whom were to become role models. The scoutmaster of the 2nd Murrumbeena Troop, Max Nicholson, became a close family friend of the Boyds. A student of English at Melbourne University, Nicholson was a man inspired by intellectual adventure. He introduced Arthur to the literature of Arthur Rimbaud, James Joyce and Franz Kafka. 

There was also the painter Wilfred McCulloch, who Boyd met on one of his solo painting expeditions to Wilsons Promontory, high above the seas of Bass Strait. Arthur was aged fourteen, Wilfred twenty-four. The two became good friends, and Arthur painted with Wilfred, his brother Alan, and Max Meldrum at their artists’ camp above Gunnamatta Ocean Beach. Boyd and McCulloch travelled and camped together along the coast to Sydney. McCulloch was sent to Singapore in late 1941 as a stretcher bearer, and was killed after three months’ service, aged thirty-one.

Wilfred painted a portrait of Arthur when he (Boyd) was eighteen. Arthur is enclosed by the army-green canvas of their tent, his bare torso lean and pale beneath prickly pink sunburn across his skin. His shoulders and neck are strong, his haircut ‘short back-and-sides’ with a mop of hair falling across his forehead. His serious expression is the visage familiar from his own self-portraits. 

Arthur Boyd c.1938-39, by Wilfred McCulloch
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Arthur Boyd c.1938-39, by Wilfred McCulloch

Another of Boyd’s formative friendships was with the young painter Yosl Bergner, the two boys about seventeen years of age when they were introduced by Max Nicholson. Bergner had been brought up in an intellectual household – his father Melech Ravitch was an important Jewish essay-writer and poet. Before Germany invaded Poland, Ravitch brought his wife, son, daughter and younger brother to Australia; Yosl arrived in Melbourne in 1937. Ravitch’s mother is believed to have died in the Belzec concentration camp, and his older brother had committed suicide before Yosl was born.

Arthur and Yosl became firm friends, both exploring life through art and ideas, with Bergner’s openness and sensitive nature appealing to Arthur. Yosl was frank in his critique of Arthur’s landscape paintings, and helped draw out the psychological intensity in Arthur’s work. Arthur recalled that Yosl made paintings based on the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky – also an influence for Arthur. Taking his cue from Dostoyevsky’s moral drama The Brothers Karamazov, Boyd painted head and shoulder portraits of himself and his two brothers Guy and David, in deep intense colours. The sense of dark stillness in this picture would foreshadow the flurry of portraits he painted aged in his mid-twenties.

Self portrait, 1945-46 by Arthur Boyd
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Betty Burstall, 1945 by Arthur Boyd
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Arthur’s self portrait, painted when he was twenty-five, is among one of the most forceful visions of selfhood in Australian art. Arthur’s soft features are made angular, his gaze penetrating. He looks out at the world with a resolute desire to comprehend its darkness as much as its light. His portraits of those around him are equally moody. Wheelchair-bound pottery-decorator Carl Cooper sits against a nightmarish sky. Arthur’s portrait of deaf neighbourhood boy Douglas Woods is solemn and poignant. His portrait of Betty Burstall – who would go on to found the La Mama theatre – was painted near the time when she lost her baby. Arthur captures her distant gaze.

A group of portraits painted by Arthur Boyd around 1945 have been gathered together to complement those in the National Portrait Gallery collection; they are borrowed from the National Gallery of Australia and Bundanon Trust. These form a focus exhibition showing until 14 August at the Portrait Gallery that reveals the culmination of Arthur Boyd’s young manhood – a vision of himself and of the world shaped by a psychological insight perceptive and sensitive in equal measure. 

Carl Cooper, 1945-46 by Arthur Boyd
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Douglas Woods 1945 by Arthur Boyd
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