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Living landscape

by Gillian Raymond, 15 December 2016

Gillian Raymond ponders landscapes as self-portraiture in Michael Taylor’s intimate expressionism.

Beach painting, 1966 by Michael Taylor
Beach painting, 1966 by Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor is considered one of Australia’s most important expressionist painters. A master of paint, his control of the medium and his fastidious layering convey a sense of effortlessness, belying the skill involved. His technique, admired by art historians and critics across Australia, is reason enough to become immersed in the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s (CMAG) current exhibition, Michael Taylor: A Survey, 1963-2016. And yet, further to this central facet, the exhibition also reveals a great deal about the artist himself.

Former National Portrait Gallery Director, Andrew Sayers, once noted: ‘National portrait galleries have been traditionally predicated on the idea that identity can be equated with individuality. In Australia, however, we have Indigenous traditions in which identity is actually lodged somewhere else – in relationships and in people’s relationships to land. One could do a very interesting exhibition called “Landscape as Portrait” in the Australian context. The idea would be that there is an emphatic relationship to the landscape, which makes landscapes embodiments, signs or projections of identity.’

Sayers’ observations can be drawn upon to contextualise Michael Taylor’s works. Taylor’s creative process is intrinsically linked with his individual experiences, and every painting springs from his environment – whether through inspiration gained during one of his long walks with his wife Rominie, from the countryside surrounding their home, from drives down long country highways, or on the many trips back to the sea at the south coast. Taylor’s ability to so effectively convey the heat; the tinder-dry grasslands; the reddish earth trapped by the intense blue sky of the Monaro plains; the multifarious moods of the sea; or the inherently Australian coastal scrub and mangrove swamps, only comes with years of detailed attention to, and complete absorption in, his surroundings. It is the intimacy, then, of Taylor’s work that means it can be considered ‘landscape as self-portrait’.

Growing up on the Lane Cove River was a formative element of Taylor’s childhood; it created a fundamental bond with the sea that remains in evidence in his seascapes. His father was a very keen swimmer and would spend hours in the water. Taylor himself began swimming at age five and grew up playing in and around the river: ‘We swam when it was raining. I can remember swimming in the rain and swimming in underneath nasturtium leaves and seeing the bundles of water held in the leaves – I must have been very young – but they had a silvery quality and something about the leaf of a nasturtium used to keep them in a very tight ball.’

Accordingly, Taylor’s intensely detailed observation of the sea, coupled with an acute sense of being fully immersed in the environment, is powerfully conveyed. Both Beach painting 1966 and Cape 3 Points 1969, with their rhythmic greys and whites, capture the diverse moods of the ocean at different moments in time; there is calm and rough, early morning fog and late evening sunsets, soft swells and underlying rips. The compositions, anchored by the geometric forms and the masterful, thin wandering lines of black or white, convey an inherent sense of calm. Compare this with the stormy Zane Grey pool 1979 – here, the water rolls and undulates and the cloudy sky scuttles and tumbles, forcing rain across the top of the image. The water churns, too, in The swimmers 1977 as the furious thrashing of limbs merges with the sea. On the drive down to Bermagui from their home in Cooma, Michael and Rominie would often stop near South Lagoon and spend time on the tidal flats, sketching, retreating as the tide came in. Mangroves 2004 and Hour before night 1980 are two representations of this environment, the latter beautifully capturing the last light of the setting sun reflected on the swamp through the knotted scrub.

The paintings created following the family’s move to Bredbo in the 1970s are those for which Taylor has become most famous. Here, the rough scrub of their previous locales in the Blue Mountains and the Sydney coastline gives way to the colours of the pastoral land on the Monaro plains. The hues and light around the Monaro region vary dramatically. On a fine day, the concentrated blue of the sky dilutes through to a hazy pastel colour just above the horizon line, met by the warm brown of paddocks and rolling shadows across the expanse of open land – it is a scene encapsulated in Landscape 1975. Pink Sky 1975, Winter Hill 1975 and Monaro light 1976 also resonate with anyone familiar with the region, so recognisably temperamental and changeable is the light. On a recent autumnal trip to Cooma to interview Taylor, my journey was appropriately framed by the colours of Monaro landscape 1973, with a brilliant shock of yellow poplar trees pushing through the lifting fog.

Taylor’s focus on a landscape-inspired abstraction does not mean the abandonment of figuration in his paintings; in fact, he has continued to paint figurative work throughout his career. However, the recognisable detail frequently becomes subsumed into the effect of landscape, and, interestingly, vice versa. The loose, carefree strokes that make up the painting of one figurative work, Mother and son 1963, belies the effort that has gone into the careful composition. The mother on the right is gently wrapping her child on the left in a towel, presumably after his bath. The expression in the light-coloured background brush strokes and the splotches and flicks of paint in the foreground conveys the flurry of a wet body being briskly dried. The sweeping foreground strokes express a nurturing warmth through the curve of the leg, which tucks in behind and around the child’s body, with the top left hand curve completing the circle of protection.

More generally, those figures that do appear are often very personal; indeed, perhaps the most powerful and enduring influence on Michael Taylor’s art and life is his wife of 63 years, Rominie. Rominie’s creative partnership and support has made an indelible mark on Taylor’s work, and her presence as muse is interwoven throughout.

One of the most important aspects of Michael Taylor’s art is that his ‘self-portraits’ are open and accessible enough for the viewer to imbue them with his or her own narratives. Whilst Taylor’s chronicle might remain a personal one, his ability to render the emotion of an intrinsically Australian environment encourages us to bring our own experiences to the work. Instead of portraying the specifics of nature in his paintings, he gives us a few broad swathes of colour, with drips and splatters that suggest, rather than represent. Allusions to recognisable subject matter – a stormy sea, a country road, a ragged cliff-face – are all enhanced by a sense of the essence of the environment. Finally, the figure is made manifest through a sense of the presence of the painter embedded in the middle – wrapped up and enveloped in his environment: ‘Painting means everything to me and it’s all happening so quickly that I don’t think about these things at all; I’m just painting, and that’s where I find myself, most living and most real.’