The mystifying art of unknown Elioth Gruner

Gruner’s “Weetangera, Canberra”, 1937.

Gruner’s “Weetangera, Canberra”, 1937.

THE Canberra Museum and Gallery can breathe easy – at long last it has a major exhibition.

The opening of “Elioth Gruner: The Texture of Light”, curated by senior gallery staffer Deborah Clark, recently saw the gallery packed with arts identities, not least the reclusive Cooma-based artist Imants Tillers and the event-shy director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford, who was on hand to talk about the Sydney landscape painter he very much admired, but whose reputation he said had deteriorated since his death in 1939.

That is the mystery about Gruner, known among the cognoscenti as one of the finest brush technicians that Australia has ever seen – indeed, Clark believes he outclasses far more famous Australian painters – he is almost unknown to the wider public.

How could this be? Gruner’s importance had been recognised by his inclusion in the London Academy show mounted by the NGA last year and clearly, Radford remarked, it was “high time for a Gruner exhibition”. In his day at least, “his works were always loved by the general public” and the director praised his concern with light and the way, in many later paintings, “Gruner loved to emphasise the folds of the land” which he said were “sculptured by light”.

Visitors to this show will see his point. There are more than 30 paintings of the south coast and the Southern Highlands, Yass and the Murrumbidgee River valley, and Cooma and the Monaro plateau.

Noting that the Art Gallery of NSW had hitherto been the only gallery regularly showing Gruner, with its last major show in 1983, making a rare loan to CMAG of their 1919 destination piece, “Spring Frost” quite a coup. It seemed all the more mysterious that the reputation of such a considerable artist should have declined. “It doesn’t quite fit,” Radford said.

Curator Clark’s enthusiasm is infectious. “He is a bloody marvellous painter” she tells “CityNews” as she chronicles Gruner’s life, from his birth in NZ, through his cash-starved years studying part time, his artistic epiphany as he discovered plein air at Emu Plains and his growing profile via the Society of Artists and the Macquarie Galleries.

His devotion to his mother, his revolutionising visit to Europe in 1923 after her death, his excursions into the backblocks of Australia including a camping site on the periphery of pre-lake Canberra, and his private sexual orientation that he was largely obliged to conceal – Clark speaks of all of these as if she knew him intimately.

That’s hardly surprising, given that a large part of the six years since she started working at the Canberra Museum and Gallery have been devoted to the research behind this show where, among 70 paintings, no fewer than 37 are of Canberra’s immediate region.

Clark perceives in his work a transformation, probably deriving from his encounters with modernism in Europe.

“From this time on,” she says, his paintings become almost abstract, the colour tone changes, things become flatter.

“I think it’s a really truthful representation of the regional characteristics of the national landscape.”

“Elioth Gruner: The Texture of Light”, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Civic Square, until June 22.

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