The emerging faces of Fred

“Lightning storm, Waratah Bay” 1971–72.

“I’M going to paint the gum tree,” Fred Williams told his artist friend John Brack on returning to Australia from London in 1956.

“You can’t do that,” Brack replied, but Williams did, over and over again, bringing a contemporary look to the familiar eucalypt.

Deborah Hart, the National Gallery of Australia’s senior curator of Australian painting and sculpture, says that repeating and refining the same image was one of William’s hallmarks as an artist. Even so, of all our painters, he was the one who most frequently reinvented himself.

Hart is putting together what she calls “a big show” for the gallery. Comprising 85 oils and 45 gouaches, it’s a retrospective taking in the late 1940s to 1981. Partly because the National Gallery of Victoria is planning an exhibition of Williams’ prints, this show focuses on his work as a painter. Williams died of lung cancer in Melbourne in 1982 at the age of 55.

Largely made up of works from public and private collections in Australia and the Tate in London, the exhibition, “Infinite Horizons”, will start with a small selection of early works. The first room features some works he did from 1943 to 1947 when he studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, as well as works executed in London during the 1950s.

“I don’t know whether many people know that Fred Williams started out as a figurative painter,” Hart says, explaining that there will be portraiture in the show and  William’s  impressions of contemporary London life – music-hall performers, acrobats and one from the Tate, “Coal Delivery.”

The 1950s saw Williams moving firmly into landscape painting. His first Australian landscape series was based on the Nattai River, painted around Colo Vale near Mittagong – a Canberra-region touch. These early landscapes used a restricted, more tonal palette, replaced at the end of the ‘60s by a bolder approach to colour.

Playing with horizon lines and almost tilting the perspective, he extended during the 1960s into using flat-horizon, horizontal strips presenting different views of the landscape. Williams, Hart says, abstracted from the landscape, “feeling the essence of it… suddenly people started to see the landscape as he saw it”.  He also picked up on the randomness and flatness of the very un-European Australian landscape and daringly produced an almost aerial perspective.

Williams has remained popular over a very long period and lately his works have been selling for well over $1 million. And yet, Hart says, there are many people who haven’t heard of him. She remembers 25 years ago at the previous Williams retrospective at the gallery, a young intern exclaiming of his era, “you realise I wasn’t born yet?”

“I want to introduce a new generation to Fred’s work” she says.

Fred Williams, “Infinite Horizons,” August 12 to November 6 at the National Gallery of Australia.

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