Fred Williams

<strong>Fred Williams</strong><br/>(1927-1982, Melbourne)<br/><br/><i>Forest of Gum Trees</i> 1965-6 <br/>Created in Upwey, Melbourne, Victoria <br/>Etching, open biting, mezzotint, printed with plate tone <br/>Impression 3/35; signed l.r.; not dated; taken to 5th & 6th states in 1972 <br/>34.7 x 27.6 cm [image] <br/>Charles Darwin University Art Collection – CDU120 <br/>Image © the Estate of Fred Williams

Acquired to commemorate the opening of the Northern Territory University on 28 April 1989.

So often do we read that contemporary Indigenous art in Australia has transformed the way we see the continent, that it is easy to forget that many Australian artists of European descent have successfully achieved the same aesthetic goal.  Fred Williams, undoubtedly the most distinctive and distinguished late Modernist painter of the Australian landscape, was described by his biographer Patrick McCaughey as having ‘changed the vision of a whole generation’ of Australians, by teaching us to see the familiar bush and outback landscape ‘differently’.  He stood ‘unselfconsciously’ within the Western landscape tradition as received in this country, yet transfigured it dramatically.

Renowned equally for landscape paintings created from the late 1950s onwards, as a vast body of complementary and interdependent graphic work (prints and drawings), such as Forest of Gum Trees 1965-6, Williams’ initial training in Melbourne and abroad was in figure painting.  His rediscovery of the native landscape came as a ‘shock of recognition’ upon his return to Australia from a six-year study term in London where, in 1954, he began producing his first etchings. 

According to fellow-artist John Brack, the deliberate and often labour-intensive process of intaglio printing introduced discipline and formal order into his art – crystallizing a spare but distilled syncretic vision of the land.  During the 1960s, prints became an increasingly important aspect of his work, integral to his studio practice and creative evolution as a painter.

In this etching, Williams’ familiar iconography of loosely applied but rigorously structured dashes, dots and lines – his pictorial equivalent for the structure of the landscape – betray his admiration for Chinese landscape painting and calligraphy.  Yet the starting point for his work was always something seen and recorded in the landscape itself, often during outdoor sketching trips.  The aim was not however to create a sublime view or picturesque vista, but to capture the flinty essence of the Australian bush: its infinite indifference, expanse and monotony.  Eschewing conventional landscape schema, there is no central focus, horizon or vanishing point to ground our line of vision.  The view is aerial, the picture plane tilted upward and thrust forward, creating energy rather than atmosphere in a crater-like, pock-marked field of scribbles and shadows.  Although Williams’ art was grounded in the experience of landscape, subject matter itself was never his principal concern, although it has been said that he single-handedly resurrected ‘the maligned eucalypt’ as a motif in Australian art.   For Williams, art was its own subject with its own reason for being: all else merely ‘something that the artist hangs his coat on’.

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