Brisbane! I hated it at first after moving there from the northern beaches of Sydney in 1973. Rafferty’s rules seemed to apply. Rain in summer, drivers who gave way to the left instead of the right, mad untidiness, pot-holed roads patched up annually only to be washed away in the same places in the next few months. Eventually I came to love the haphazard nature of this city and its relaxed way of living. The environment is mildly tropical and the nearby countryside is lushly forested and hilly.
These days I relish any chance to revisit dear friends in this interesting city. Two weeks ago one of those chances occurred. The week included lots of times with those friends, but also time to roam.
Brisbane Town Hall houses a magnificent museum including pictorial displays and exhibition spaces. Current shows are “David Malouf and Friends” and “Euan Macleod: Moreton Bay.” While David Malouf is one of my favourite authors, my major interest was Macleod’s outdoor paintings but I almost ran out of time for him. I will leave you the link if you have a moment to follow it up!
The Malouf and Friends show included paintings, drawings and installations inspired by Malouf’s writing. The most evocative were the works by Bruce Reynolds who used many layers of torn linoleum to create 2D classical vase shapes.These images were reminiscent of Malouf’s descriptions of his childhood and his most highly regarded works, one of which (An Imaginary Life) was the story of the poet Ovid’s life in exile.
The inspiration? A ten-minute video interview with David Malouf. I first heard him speak years ago at Writers’ Week at the Adelaide Festival. I had been a bit disappointed. His voice seemed thin and his presentation was not lively, not like his writing at all. I have since enjoyed several of his radio and television interviews. It is not surprising that someone feels more relaxed in conversation than public speaking. In this particular video, Malouf talked a little about the artists’ responses to his writing and about his own process of creation. He talked about his own curiosity, and how unanswered questions in life “get their hooks into you.” His work on these questions to draw out the unknown has often underpinned his writing. Malouf also revealed that his early memories fill out and colour his work. So there you have it. Deceptively simple, but much of his writing is like that. I have struggled with his allegorical novels but really enjoyed the more straight-forward but no less poetic ones, such as “Flyaway Peter”, “Johnno” and his collection in “12 Edmonstone Street”. In these works, Malouf reflected the Brisbane I had come to love. The interview reminded me that the simplicity and directness of our reactions to place can be a meaningful part of our creations, visual or otherwise.
On Sunday, the second of two ferry trips on the Brisbane River gave me time to reflect on the week’s doings and the precious connection with our friends over the years. The river’s course through the city seemed to create a puzzle as it made narrow loops of land. It was easy to lose a sense of direction on the ferry and the only way I could fathom it was with a map. Perhaps a bit like life (but where is that map)? With the excitement generated by David Malouf’s comments I felt the beginning of a narrative painting all about the week in Brisbane. I imagined the shape of the river coursing across and around the vignettes created by the holiday, mixed with older memories. The flat layout with lots of little figures looked naive but I wasn’t sure how to make it work otherwise.
On a visit to the Queensland Art Gallery on Monday morning, another insight popped up. German Renaissance painters would not be first on my must-see list, but there was a grouping at the top of the escalators which I could not avoid. While my off-sider went to find the Impressionists, these paintings stopped me in my tracks. A triptych showing Mary flanked by many saints with their symbols was a narrative which suggested another way to solve my pictorial issues. The background was mountainous like Brisbane’s backdrop and there were layers of the land between this and the foreground where the glowing figures were. I think there was even a river. The figures themselves were telling the story.
Perhaps there are two paintings there! Or more. There could be something exciting ahead! Don’t you love beginnings?