Visual Art

A drunken monk and an outdoor monk reunite as East meets West to illustrate the spirit beyond the surface. By Patrick Hartigan.

Ian Fairweather's Drunken Buddha works reunited at TarraWarra

Goes begging (1964).
Goes begging (1964).

In this story

During one of his last drinking sessions, before dying from the salt leek soup he would later that day eat, Tao-chi, the 13th-century Buddhist saint known as the “drunken Buddha”, recited a long poem in which he referred to the life of monks: “Circled by a monastery wall / Is not to know the world at all / Outside is all to gain.” This monk spent his life healing and writing poems – wandering through “the redness of a day’s waking” while drinking the many jars of wine required in summoning his extraordinary powers. 

Scottish-born Ian Fairweather, who translated and made a series of paintings as illustrations for the ancient Chinese novel The Drunken Buddha – reunited at Healesville’s TarraWarra Museum of Art, in Victoria, until March 15 – was also something of an outdoor monk. While reading about one monk can bring the errant life of the other to mind, to stand in this room among paintings so giving and celestial – so beyond their role as illustrations – is to enliven the already shimmering surface of water reflecting the two lives. It’s the first time the artworks have been presented together since their original showing at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1965.

On one level the book feels like a compendium of values through which we might intuit Fairweather’s priorities both as human and artist, the paintings that so idiosyncratically conjoined Eastern and Western principles being the outcome of these values. In this setting it is curious to see the original text beside the lines and shapes evidently influenced by Chinese calligraphy. The repeated rooftops in Goes begging (1964), for example, find visual equivalence throughout the printed passages. Meanwhile the room as a whole – full of those mustard yellows, deep reds, blues and pinks and situated at the core of the museum – has a distinctively Western warmth, evoking the mood of a chapel with light softly filtering in through stained-glass windows.

Like the recalcitrant monk, Fairweather’s priorities and choices reveal a figure hungry, desperate even, for the moment of “now” amid the otherwise fleeting and unreliable – “as water flows it passes by” – facets of life. It seems that painting was as much a response to this hunger as his attempted voyage to Indonesia in 1952 aboard the raft he made from various bits of junk. The paintings of Fairweather, who settled in Australia after decades of travel, are marked by journey: surrender to the currents, the slash and streak of windswept rain, the aimless drift of clouds, the tiny flecks of light and hope, the daubs of fatigue and rejuvenation. 

By his own measure, Fairweather most delighted in the “tightrope act” between representation and what he called “that other thing”. Not simply referring to abstraction seems telling for an artist searching for the structures and rhythms – the elements – binding and behind the world of solid, representable things. On Turner, one of his early influences, he commented, “you could see into water, you didn’t just see the surface of things”. This unutterable quality beyond the skin of a painting and its subjects, some deeper essence as it were, was more bluntly acknowledged in 1968, 15 years after moving to Queensland’s Bribie Island, when Fairweather pointed out that painting provided for him what religion did for others. 

In its more essential manifestation, painting reveals human presence. Like an explorer, which Fairweather was, carving initials in a tree, a painting will always express a “was here”. The power of these marks can be traced to the point at which a physical act reaches towards the metaphysical consequences of any life’s attendance; occasionally, as in Fairweather’s case, these incisions match the desperation of a person with the equilibrium of natural law. 

On the consistencies and differences of a life’s marks, according to both the physical surroundings and the underpinning values from which different artists “sign off”, I discovered an unlikely association a few weeks ago between Fairweather and the New York realist painter Chuck Close, whose various printmaking investigations are on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. 

The moment occurred shortly after seeing the pictorial experiments making bare the eccentricities of Close’s realism, when hearing the artist in an interview describe the collaboration of marks and colour in his portraits in terms of the way instruments playing in an orchestra unite to produce chords. In the work of both artists we can appreciate the way gestures – notes seemingly wayward and systematic – unite to become chords. In Close’s case, there’s the discipline and drama of symphony – composed along the tightly woven grid of Manhattan, perhaps – climaxing towards its grandiose crescendo. In Fairweather, we see and hear something of the vagary, abandon and invocation of religious chanting. The skill of the artists is their acute sense or presence of mind for how all the elements will co-operate to make a whole. 

Fairweather’s chords, following his renouncement of the more “scenic” conventions of Post-Impressionism, became less coercive – more tremors of nature than studies of it. Like the Buddhist anecdotes in which things most blatant about life seem to flower with freshness and paradox, his paintings uplift and ground in equal measure – bringing one off the ground just enough to feel the force of those material facts underfoot. In Fairweather’s case the materials were as humble – paint from the hardware shop on cardboard – as the sticks and leaves of the thatched hut in which he lived. 

In technical terms, the gravitational push and pull of Fairweather’s paintings relates to an inversion of historical Western painting methods whereby a sketch gets overlaid and hidden with many thin layers of paint. Increasingly working up his strata of colour, drawing and obliterating in equal measure, he tended to finalise the arrival with the immediacy of a line. If Turner and Fairweather met on the tightrope between abstraction and representation, they seem to have been going in different directions. 

Fairweather’s layers, while determining the tone and temperature of the painting, don’t hide so much as open and leaven. The process is necessarily gradual: “I like to have them on my wall cooking, and in time they grow by themselves,” he said in later life while living in the hut full of paintings. The image brings to mind Tao-chi’s assessment of a death in the monastery following a fire: “The skin bag burns / And sets the spirit free.”


1 . Arts diary

• THEATRE  Gaybies
Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Sydney, until March 8

• THEATRE/CINEMA  Melt: A Celebration of Queer Arts and Culture
Brisbane Powerhouse and Palace Centro Cinema, Fortitude Valley (Queer Film Festival), until February 15

• MUSIC  Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular
Qantas Credit Union Arena, Sydney, February 7

• VISUAL ART  Arthur Boyd: Brides
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Victoria, until March 9

Last chance
• VISUAL ART  The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until February 8

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 7, 2015 as "Holy alliance".

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