By Betty Churcher
Miegunyah Press, $44.99, pp 253
Betty Churcher is best known as a curator and arts administrator, and in her time as director of the National Gallery of Australia organised a procession of shows that cemented the institution’s position in the big league. She has also written a string of well-received books and managed to find the time to present a television series as well. In all this, it is sometimes forgotten that she is an artist of considerable ability, with natural talent that was honed by good teachers.
The voodoo card in this life of achievement was the diagnosis, received in 2005, that her eyesight was degenerating — awful news for anyone, but a particularly cruel irony for an artist. Churcher’s response was to revisit her formative territory in the UK and Europe to reacquaint herself with pieces that moved her when young, and to look again at her early scribblings and sketches. Notebooks is the result, and it is itself a fascinating, beautiful piece of work.
If some of Notebooks sounds like a visit to old friends (and finding them to be doing just fine), there are other parts where Churcher, looking from a perspective of maturity rather than youthful enthusiasm, picks up new details and meanings. Rembrandt is a particular favourite, and a comparison of two of his self-portraits, one at the age of 34 and another at 63, shows how the end can be faced without too much regret if there has been honesty and integrity along the way. And honesty is what Churcher sees in Rembrandt’s ‘Woman Bathing in a Stream’, a painting of joyful spontaneity which was probably deeply unpopular in its time.
There is a similar quality in Bellini’s portrait of The Doge Leonardo Loredan, which some people see as stern and cold but Churcher describes as commanding and serene. Either way: no compromises. From a different perspective, Vermeer’s luminescent ‘The Guitar Player’ has a remarkable solidity despite its light-hearted subject. Churcher’s sketch notes explain how the painting’s components were carefully brought together, with one shape echoing another and shadows changing tone as they move across different surfaces.
Churcher clearly appreciates technical ability but she makes a point of saying that knowing how to move a brush is not, in itself, enough. An element of risk is needed to lift a piece of work out of the ruck. She likes the relatively rough-hewn quality of Cezanne’s ‘The Card Players’ and ‘Man With a Pipe’, precisely because the technique reveals character in a way that a photographic-quality image could not.
Perhaps for the same reason, she sees Goya’s strange, somewhat disturbing ‘The Dog’ as endearing. The painting (in the Prado in Madrid) is mostly a plane of golden light; the off-centre focal point is the head of a dog. The image is open to interpretation, and Churcher explains that Goya did not intend it for public show, which merely adds to its mystery.
The Prado is also home to the huge painting by Velázquez, ‘The Family of Felipe IV’. The artist has inserted himself into the setting (in the act of painting) and a mirror reflects the king and queen. It is a strange tableau, and Churcher finds it deeply fascinating. At the same time she is interested in how Velázquez could paint an odd squiggle or a slash of white which would, at a certain distance, resolve itself into a perfect depiction of lace or fabric. Which raises another issue: why would he choose to do it this way, when he was quite capable of simple reproduction? Churcher does not offer a clear answer; maybe putting the question is enough.
Risk, again. Velázquez took another chance with his famous portrait of Pope Innocent X — quite literally, since a painter of that era who displeased his subjects could end up with a fate much worse than a poor review. It is a depiction of restrained power, carefully but effectively wielded. Churcher repeats the story that when the Pope saw the finished work he apparently said ‘troppo vero’ (too true) but nevertheless liked it. Everyone, presumably, heaved a sigh of relief.
The painting was used as the basis of a series by Francis Bacon, in which the Pope becomes a caged, screaming animal. Churcher can see the point, and notes that Bacon ‘can paint a scream’. Wryly, she adds that ‘Bacon can’t paint hands.’ This, she implies, is the critical limitation of art that is not firmly grounded in technique: once you’ve got the idea, that’s it. Depth comes from the fusion of ability and feeling.
We might all be a little poorer when Churcher steps back from public life. Notebooks is a valuable memoir, with the resonance of personal experience and
the quality of a well-cut gem.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.