Visual Art

Lloyd Rees’s works remind that drawing is an expression of connectedness to our surroundings. By Patrick Hartigan.

Lloyd Rees drawings at the Museum of Sydney

'Port Jackson fig tree', 1934
'Port Jackson fig tree', 1934
Credit: © Lloyd Rees Estate/Licensed by Viscopy, 2015

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” tells the story of a man trying to come to terms with another man’s blindness. The blind man is a guest in his house, the cassette-tape pal of his wife who has just fallen asleep on the couch after some drinks and marijuana. The two men are watching and listening to the television, a program about cathedrals. The husband, growing uncomfortable with the thought of what his guest can’t see – on what he has never laid eyes upon – tries to describe a cathedral to the blind man before quickly becoming disheartened by the failure of his words to negotiate the vast canyon of incomprehension between them.

At the behest of the blind man, the two men embark on a drawing together. The husband puts a few lines down, crudely depicting the pointy edifice of a cathedral, while the blind man holds his hand. The blind man then tells the husband to close his eyes – “don’t fudge”, he insists – and keep drawing. Through this process, of a seeing man being led – having his imaginative brain cracked open – we are led towards the epiphany that is drawing.

Drawing is about much more than seeing. First and foremost, it signifies contact. In the case of figurative drawing, this involves a very particular form of cognition and co-operation between seeing and touching. Forms are translated through the central nervous system – a channelling process that refuses, regardless of skill, technique and intent, absolute stability and translatability. Drawing is something of a microcosm of life, performed along a continuum between severe control – the artist as commander – and surrender – the artist as follower. In much the same way that we “lead lives” the artist both leads a line and is led by it.

Lives and lines, the means through which we draw, often interact in interesting and telling ways. The incredibly detailed drawings Lloyd Rees made between 1930 and 1936 – on show at the Museum of Sydney until April 10 – were created in the shadow of the tragic death of his wife, Dulcie, from septicaemia, after the birth of her stillborn child. Subsequent to these events, Rees suffered a nervous breakdown, in part brought on by a lifelong condition, initially diagnosed as Bright’s disease, involving acute challenges to his nervous system. These incredibly fine, modestly sized graphite drawings reveal a man gripping his pencil as if for dear life.

Their even-handedness had me thinking for a few split seconds that I was looking at reproductions. My suspicions possibly relate to an experience at the Albertina museum in Vienna a few years ago, where I realised, with great disappointment, that a large percentage of the paper works on display were in fact astonishingly deceptive, dressed-up facsimiles – the originals deemed too delicate for any exposure to light. In reality, it’s the steady pressure of Rees’s hand, its careful regulation of tone and pressure spreading across the tooth of the paper in works such as Round towards Berry’s Bay (1932) and Rock formation, Waverton (1934), which contributes to this strange and impressive flatness. Along with the subject, scale and composition, it’s also that which closely links these drawings to the historical shirtfronters of mimetic drawing, namely the albumen photographic prints of the late 19th century.

My favourite group of drawings in the exhibition were of some Port Jackson fig trees drawn around McMahons Point, where Rees then lived. The ancient-seeming but relatively young formations are a prominent feature of Sydney’s foreshore. I recall the pleasure, as a child, of exploring these giant, gnarly forms: hiding in their murky hollows before schlepping home from family picnics with their leaves sticking to my feet. As a grown-up, it’s easy to see why Rees was so attracted to such obediently still, anthropomorphic muses: Port Jackson fig tree (1934) brought Leonardo da Vinci’s cadaver studies to my mind – each dip and twist in its sinuous and stringy architecture so wholeheartedly accounted for. While Study for The Port Jackson fig tree (c.1934), a detailed investigation of a single branch’s elbow, afforded a different kind of tenderness to the other muscular forms; as a less sewn-up proposition, it offered a welcome moment of reprieve and air amid this convention of filled pages.

A few years after perching himself around the harbour – a no doubt very still fixture among those he meticulously depicted during those years – Rees wrote an article about drawing in which he emphasised the need for drawings to reveal “what the artist is thinking and feeling concerning his subject”. The act of commitment these drawings demonstrate – of patiently guiding his pencil across a page while taking in the greater breadth of life forces immediately surrounding him, so indifferent to his hardships – would, I imagine, have been both an exercise in restoring contact, a tonic, and one enabling retreat. The power of these drawings lies in their quality of longing.

Rees’s comments about drawing judiciously step around one of art’s more tragic pathologies, manifesting in the opining of whether an artwork is “good” or “bad” according to its ability to match up with the world it supposedly tries to copy. The tragedy, emerging from the thoroughly misguided and pernicious view that as humans we are somehow privileged and separate from our surroundings, lies in understanding art as little more than the conquest of a “subject” by means of our materials or set of rules and methodologies. Seeing the landscape as a fixable notion and thing of taste relates to a form of blindness quite unlike the one that allowed Carver’s protagonist to see the world anew. Preventing us from being led in the first place, this form of blindness has a great deal to do with our current state of environmental panic.

Some 25 years after making these drawings, Rees, newly elected the president of the Society of Artists, more robustly stated that to be an artist was to be a “commander” rather than a “follower … submerged by materials”. The distinction presumably concerns painterly abstraction, the mode du jour, while some of his comments now read like SOS calls sent out amid the maelstrom of change and questioning then raging through art. But the image of commanders is most apposite in the context of works that could be, but aren’t, simplistic exercises in colonial arrogance. Good drawings of any kind, Rees’s among them, thrive on equal parts command and empathy. Above and beyond competence, these wraiths, created during the brief drama that is a life, register feeling.

The word “feeling” may be hard to bolt down, but is anything but intangible in this case. Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting on a rock or bench by the harbour: sunlight hitting the back of your neck, momentarily flummoxing your vision as it dances across the water or hits the bow of a ship, pouring onto the blank page resting in your lap, the tooth and rustle of that piece of paper, the razor blade’s steady and rhythmical abrading of the pencil, the smell of pencil shavings, squashed ants and sea salt, the paralysing mass of emotions and sensations still churning through you following the death of your loved one. Now imagine the activation of that vast network of nerves that almost left you dead a few months ago, as you put your pencil on the page and make a mark, that very first line.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2016 as "Leading the line".

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Patrick Hartigan is a Sydney-based artist.

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