INFINITE INSPIRATION - THE SIREN CALL OF SYDNEY HARBOUR
By Michelle Bowers
For ‘The Rocks Experience' Magazine Summer 2007/08
From the palettes of convicts to the installations of the ultra modern, Sydney Harbour is an unshakeable artistic influence, writes Michelle Bowers
Whether the harbour is first glimpsed through the sandstone heads, from the 20,000 feet above or is part of an everyday childhood, the fingered waterways and brilliant diamond light invoke sentiment in us all.
“There is something about the water that is dreamy,” muses the Museum of Sydney’ former senior curator Peter Emmett. “It evokes a sense of loss, of coming and going.”
As the driving force behind a series of exhibitions at the museum which explored artists’ experiences of Sydney, and a keen kayaker in his spare time. Emmett is no stranger to the allure of the harbour.
In stark contrast to the way the harbour is now viewed, early colonial artists were not enamoured by Sydney. Many painted the harbour to document the scenery and the growth of the colony but found both Sydney’s natural, and gradually developing built landscapes, uninspiring.
Sydney Harbour’s sandstone cliffs surrounded by dry scrub and bewildering flora did to live up to artists’ idea of beauty found in the tames, lush scenery of Britain.
Thomas Whatling, who is thought to have created the first oil painting of Sydney in 1794 and left behind a legacy of early colonial art, wrote of his frustration and his struggle to paint conventionally beautiful landscapes in letters home to his aunt. “Artists were infatuated with the exotic (landscape),” explains Emmett, “but few had a love of the place or a sense of belonging.”
As painting and artefacts were sent back to Britain and settlers joined the colony by choice, attitudes towards Sydney Harbour began to change. Arriving in 1835, travelling artis Conrad Martens became fascinated by the play of light on the harbour and is hailed by Emmett as the first Sydney artist “with desire to explore the atmospheric effects of the harbour and his emotional response”.
Illustrious Sydney Harbour painter Lloyd Rees was also intrigued by the harbour light. Described his style, Emmett says: “He didn’t paint the Sydney icons but the atmosphere and ever-changing light on the water.” Rees was spellbound y Sydney and the elusiveness of the harbour and harbour and continued to find new ways to paint it for much of the 20th century.
The seductive harbour light has been the trigger for myriad artists, not leat the city’s pre-eminent photographers, Max Dupain and David Moore, both of whom were beguiled by its effects. In his quest, Moore shot the haunting Sydney Harbour from 20,000 feet (1966) – a work which Emmett admits to having been “drawn to, almost obsessed by, because it captures the extraordinary sense of the harbour”.
But if the light on the water is a dominant theme, it is only part of Sydney Harbour’s siren call – imagination also its role to play.
Distinguished by his mystical paintings, John Olsen is best known for the mural, Salute to Five Bells (1963). Harnessing the atmosphere of Kenneth Slessor’s famous Five Bells and his own emotional involvement with the harbour, Olsen describes working the painting outwards like a see bursting into life, with the harbour as its source.
In the Museum of Contemporary Art, imagination abounds but it may seem like Sydney Harbour is no longer and inspiration. Not so says the museum’s curatorial assistant Naomi Evans: “Interpretations can be so broad and a correlation with the harbour may not be so obvious. Artists are changing the familiarity and rethinking the traditional images,” Evans says.
A work by young emerging artists Jess MacNeil in a recent exhibition is a case in point. Opera House Steps December (2006) shows footage of visitors ascending and descending the famous steps, but the artist has edited out the people to leave only their shadows and the distant cries of seagulls in a world seemingly dislocated from its harbour reality.
However, for others who grew up b the harbour there is no distant from its reality. Water and harbour traffic dominate the work of celebrated artist Peter Kingston and it’s not by coincidence that he has never lived far from the harbour. “Brett Whitely and I grew up in Parsley bay,” Kingston says. “He moved to Lavender Bay and when the house came up next door so did I. We’re attuned to the harbour, we grew up with ferried and tides and oysters and dinghies and storms. It’s just the way it was.”
Ferries feature heavily in Kingston’s work and it is these vessels that he uses to express the harbours dynamism and to speak of a time gone by. Referring to his favourite work, Still at the Bay (2005) which depicts the old Lavender Bay ferry, The Emerald Star, Kingston says, “It (the ferry) is an excuse to paint energy and movement. The ferries come from another age – they’re beautifully made. They have integrity.”
Artist Elizabeth Wadsworth is renowned for her waterscapes and draws inspiration from a life inextricably linked to the harbour. “I surf, swim and scuba dive – I feel very drawn to the water,” Wadsworth says. Surrounded by her large, energetic abstract canvasses, Wadsworth admits that the line is blurred between her technique and her stimulation. “Water is spontaneous; it is constantly changing and layering and moving and you never know what’s going to happen. That’s also my style.”
Even those who are lured away by the rich history and culture of Europe and America almost always return to the Harbour’s embrace. For Brett Whitely it was the sharpness of the light, the ambience and intense ultramarine blue that kept him “returning to paradise” and Wadsworth agrees. “Our light is so bright and the sky goes on forever. The blue is amazing – you just don’t get that overseas.”
Glancing out at the Harbour Bridge, The Rocks and the cobalt blue of the water on a beautiful sunny day, Kingston smiles: “It would be hard to live in New York after you’ve had this. I don’t really want to leave anymore. I mean, why would I?”