Yesterday I arrived in Sydney half asleep or close to sleepwalking. The night before had been a roulette of small snatches of sleep – about leaving Mum for two nights, about waking early for the plane trip.
It was a struggle in the Mitchell only because of my lack of presence. The letters themselves offered the principal of yin, yang, the purchase of a Sung vase, a lengthy discussion between brothers and a scathing attack on banks which seems to be echoed in this weeks media.
On the Sung Vase:
‘I have now a Sung vase. At least I have paid a portion of the price, and when you have these lines before you I shall have, doubtlessly, access to the company of so beautiful a thing as a rare article from the days of early Chinese work in such directions. I bought it only with due consideration, though such reflection really only took the formal character of allowing a sensible amount of time to elapse. I liked it from the first and, in exploring and comparing mood, I examined the collection of the British Museums and saw nothing which gave me more satisfaction. I feel I have a pleasant thing with me, a thing which has both the satisfaction coming from its painting and a pleasing excitement coming from its form.’ (Letter to Lew 29/5/37 held in the Mitchell Wing of the SLNSW)
Today though, I awoke well for a train trip a few hours out of Sydney to meet Tom Thompson to discuss, over a cup of tea, Miller, art and the post war climate.
Tom picked me up at the station and took me to his home a short distance away. We entered via the back door under a verandah-line of socks and singlets and a small chair with the remnants of green enamel paint. The scene was reminiscent, and Tom commented later, of the detail from his work of the Annunciation. We entered the back door and took seats in the kitchen sharing tea and biscuits, all the while speaking on Miller, on art. There was no pretence in the kitchen; all was laid bare on the laminex table where I took my first steps at a critical glance of individual works by Miller. ‘It’s a quest, like belief is a quest, not a reality, not a surety and that is the adventure of it’, was Tom’s precise expression, and ‘there are some works when you know he has realised something, is close… These are the works to note.’ I asked him about the Nude and Moon at Te Papa because the apparently severed leg troubled me and Tom merely dismissed the work and talked on… I learnt there at the kitchen table that I had the faculty to dismiss art works too… I learnt a second lesson in seeing.
Tom shared with me copies of his sketches of the NAS staff and the one of Miller is a small piece, an attempt to acknowledge Miller’s initial shyness, his enigma, through a
drawing with a hat half over his face.
In discussing Miller’s work Tom felt he didn’t reach toward abstraction but contraction – the bringing together of detail in lines and curves, allowing these to shift in relation to the Golden Mean, into rhythmic, animated forms, a climax and fall or overflow to come to rest again within the one canvas. We looked further into the works, from John Henshaw’s book on Godfrey Miller, examining the curves by turning the paintings upside down, sideways entering into the worlds of Miller’s quest. This is a pattern largely in mature works but the interest in geometry is also present in earlier, less evolved works, where the style is perhaps more post-impressionist but where the negative or void spaces are as important as the positive for the balance or unity of the whole. The sketches though are often abstract where Miller’s lines resist each other to suggest the figure. Tom defines abstraction as the taking away, and contraction as the building of details toward… We talked also of Paul Gauguin, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Picasso, Cézanne, Velázquez, William Blake and Leonardo.
When we waited on the station for my train I asked, ‘Why the post war days are often described as such halcyon days by, the then, young people of all nations?’ Tom’s answer was firm: ‘the atomic bomb changed everything philosophically, spiritually and threw us back to the basics of physics. It challenged every metaphysical notion … the shock of the bomb was devastating…and physics then delivered the big bang and black holes and so it went on…We had to get to know each other better and to think it all out again and that was the excitement…’ We kept talking then about war and the delivery of white feathers to young men in civilian clothing but my train pulled up before I reached the stories about the artistic quests that followed the multi-faceted levels of destruction contained in those acts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.