Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art
Hans Heysen is frequently grouped with quintessential painters of a nascent Australian nationalism, such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. Non-Indigenous Australians have drawn an enduring visual image of their connection to the land from his definitive portrayals of stately eucalypts, grazing cattle and drovers on the move and his powerful Post-Impressionist images of the Flinders Ranges.
And yet, nothing could be further from the historical truth. Heysen was a German immigrant – born in Hamburg, he came to Adelaide when he was seven and there endured the same suspicions directed during World War I at all children of enemies in other parts of the world.
Of course, it was nothing of the xenophobia experienced by ethnic Japanese interned in the United States during World War II. But the question lingered around him and his neighbours – were there spies among all those Germans who had settled in the wine-growing region of the Adelaide Hills and founded Lutheran townships such as Hahndorf?
Ironically, though typical of the vicissitudes of multicultural societies, his daughter Nora Heysen, also a painter, who worked under her maiden name, was an official war artist during World War II, depicting the men and women who fought against Japanese soldiers and tended the wounded in the Pacific theatre.
A new exhibition, called Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art, at the National Gallery of Victoria may go some way towards reviving the reputation of these two artists – both of whom have fallen into that sad category of widely known but rarely looked at anymore.
Hans’s famous paintings and watercolours of stately gums – the kind that graced a thousand schoolrooms and grandparents’ sitting rooms – had little to do with deliberately establishing an Australian genre, for example. Rather it was about his love of nature, the unspoiled environment, his interest in trees as botanical phenomena and his artist’s eye for the particularities of light in the landscapes that he studied.
Indeed, scholars of his work call his sensibility a very European one. Influences from Turner to Corot to van Gogh to Cézanne and more can clearly be seen. As with all of those artists, however, Hans sought to approach the reality before him, and his reality was South Australian. Any Australian-ness in his art, he said, was less to do with his subject matter and more to do with his own emotional connection to the “spireless cathedral” of Nature, with a capital “N”. And although all of his neighbours were Lutherans, “we were all little pagans”, his daughter Nora once said.
“Nora inherited this sensibility,” writes Allan Campbell, curator at The Cedars, once the Heysen family home in Hahndorf and now a museum, “and her still-life painting was always indifferent to any self-conscious Australian content.”
Heysen added land to the family’s rural holding, which was not farmed, to expand the space for his environmental protection. He paid the local council not to cut down trees, in order to maintain the beauty of rural drives in the region. “What was once perceived as an endearing mark of eccentricity is today identifiable as a strong and progressive proto-conservationist impulse,” writes exhibition curator Angela Hesson in her catalogue essay for the NGV show.
The Hesson exhibition is beautifully thought out and spaciously laid out. The bucolic video of The Cedars at its beginning, all rustling trees and birdsong, sets the mood. Rooms following are devoted to both Heysen’s still lifes and Nora’s flower paintings, her portraits as a World War II war artist and all his paintings of mighty trees and evocations of landscape.
The works demand reassessment of both father and daughter.
Nora Heysen, as a figure in art history, has become worthy but dull – her career mostly of interest to feminists, her self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery perhaps her only painting that would immediately spring to mind.
Hans is not only viewed, incorrectly, as highly nationalistic but also now as very old-fashioned. Robert Hughes, the famous Australian art critic, historian and author, damned his paintings and watercolours for posterity in the influential history The Art of Australia.
“Heysen’s large body of work was immensely popular; it has most of the textbook virtues and, for many years, no Australian business firm was considered quite solid unless it had a Heysen in its boardroom,” Hughes wrote. “The only deficiency of his art is that it has no imagination.”
In the flesh, unsoftened by print techniques, many of Hans’s bush paintings are in fact startling. His paintings from Scotland – Meadowsweet, Scotland 1904 and Springtime bluebells, Scotland 1902 – all bright greens and blues, show that he was captivated by colour. The “deficiency” Hughes noted may have had more to do with the gentle palette of the South Australian bush – the dusty browns and greens, which Hans portrayed faithfully – rather than with the artist’s unimaginative eye.
In paintings that capture clear air and bright sunlight, such as his magisterial A lord of the bush 1908, the sky is a vivid blue and the green of the eucalypt leaves is more forceful.
Hans’s first visit to the Flinders Ranges confounded him. “The subject was too new for him, with its vastness of space and intensity of light demanding a new approach which he needed time to think about,” writes Anne Gray, a former head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia, describing the trip.
The resulting works, made during several trips over two decades, are Cézannesque in their geometry but totally unlike the French Post-Impressionist in their colour and mood. They may look boring to our 21st-century eyes – thank you again, Robert Hughes – but they contain a grasp of colour and perspective in that very idiosyncratic landscape that assures them a place in Australian art history.
Back in the bush surrounding the Heysen home, the cattle depicted in Hans’s paintings of the great trees are no more than passers-by. The intrusion of landscape-changing agriculture was not his topic, though later glosses on his work made it seem so. The arboreal detail in one of his most famous paintings, Into the light 1914-21, is engrossing. The figures of horseman and cattle are almost sketchy by contrast and yet, in line with that redefinition of Hans’s place in Australian history, the picture was later renamed Droving into the light, the addition of that simple word privileging human intervention over the divinity of the landscape.
The exhibition shows that Hans was a fine still-life painter, as was his daughter. Hans stopped making still lifes when his daughter showed her skill at the genre, in order not to overshadow her work. Her examples are brighter, more modern. Both painted a still life with onions in 1927, the same arrangement of vegetables, the same bowl and bottle and draped black backdrop. Nora’s is the fresher, more modern result: the bowl more rounded, the bottle bigger, the light brighter, the onions themselves lighter and smoother.
Nora is best known for her portraits, peaking with the World War II commission, and her detailed flower paintings. At the NGV, in a confusing touch, Mozart’s 18th-century symphonic music is piped through the room containing her flower paintings – not a historical or artistic connection but a simple reference to the music she loved to listen to while she worked.
Among the portraits are several self-portraits and portraits of her female friend Everton Stokes. The exhibition’s catalogue refers to their relationship as scandalous, with Nora moving out from living with Everton under pressure from her parents – though no one actually spells out the reason.
The military portraits are the most compelling. They include commanders, doctors, nurses, scientists and more, at work or seated in formal poses. The most engaged are of her very handsome husband – Pathologist titrating sera (Captain Robert Black) 1944, which resides at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and a drawing, Male nude in moonlight, early 1950s, which is surprisingly erotic for its era.
Her interiors are charmingly juxtaposed in the exhibition. One, Cedars interior, c. 1930, shows the print of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring that hung in the sitting room and clearly influenced her use of colour in later still lifes. Another, London breakfast 1935, is a pared-down depiction of Stokes in her dressing-gown reading at the dining table, while a strategically placed blue-glazed bowl and jug holding flowers and a cut-open pumpkin allow her to play with Vermeer’s style of colour and light.
Another interior, Sewing, the (artist’s wife) 1913, shows Hans’s wife, Sallie, a scion of the prominent Bartels family in Adelaide. The light that filters prettily through casement windows and lace curtains to fall on the sewing table of the subject, whose back is intriguingly turned to us, is closer to the airy impressionism of Emanuel Phillips Fox than it is to his daughter’s sparer modernism.
The exhibition surprised and disappointed me. I thought far more of Hans’s work by the end of it than I had before. And far less of Nora’s.
Miriam Cosic travelled to Melbourne with the assistance of the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition runs until July 28.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "Family benefits". Subscribe here.