Fairweather, by Murray Bail (author of Eucalyptus), about the painter Ian Fairweather, is a beautiful book, not only because of the quality of the reproductions, but because of Bail’s insightful commentary.
There is something fantastical about Fairweather’s life, like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Fairweather, born in Britain, travelled eventually to Asia and China in often very trying circumstances. Clearly he had what we might call issues of some kind. He valued solitude and in Asia avoided fellow Europeans wherever possible, as well as taking all sorts of abruptly terminated jobs, all the while sketching and painting on whatever he could lay his hands on. He eventually turned up in Melbourne and for a brief moment, really the only one in his life, was part of a local arts community. Otherwise, for almost all his life, he despatched artwork to dealers by post and almost never attended even his own exhibitions. As with other artists (Van Gogh springs to mind), he was saved from destitution only by the tenacious support of particular dealers (such as Macquarie Galleries in Sydney). Fairweather himself “avoided the art world like the plague”. In contrast to say, John Olsen, constantly feted at luxurious Sydney restaurants by celebrities, Fairweather, suggests Bail, is often forgotten.
The hardships are amazing – painting and living in near poverty in China, in freezing conditions; living in the Philippines in a house in stilts in the jungle; his occupation of a rusting, partly demolished navy ship in Darwin, where rain would run down the walls; his self-constructed huts on Bribie Island, one of which was ruined by bushfire; his deportations as a vagrant; his death-defying raft journey across the Timor Strait. In London, a shipment of paintings destined for an exhibition arrived in one coagulated mess. In Brisbane he painted too dry and when they were finally removed from the walls of the abandoned movie theatre in which he was living, a group of paintings crumbled and flaked. The owner of the theatre found them and burnt them.
He was “not the most reliable commentator” on his own output. He wrote to a gallery owner disowning paintings that were clearly his. Titles of his paintings can be arbitrary. Critics that Bail quotes were clearly in two minds about his work, though he had his fierce enthusiasts, such as Robert Hughes.
Despite all this, his work displayed a delicate beauty. Although borrowing from the post-impressionists, his work has none of the garishness of the Fauves. It is all pale pinks, blues and grays, and fawny browns, splashed with calligraphic black. The boundaries between painting and drawing blurs. The influence of Chinese calligraphy is obvious – Bail writes that the strength of line keeps turning up in Fairweather’s work – a trait Fairweather had to work on, as initially, upon visiting master calligraphers, Fairweather himself suddenly saw his own work as lesser in comparison.
His landscapes at first glance can look insubstantial, then crystallise as something mutedly beautiful. His more abstract, cubist works show the influence of Asian and aboriginal art, and the influence of the Australian landscape, but he is markedly different from Drysdale, Nolan, Boyd, Williams and Olsen, and, says Bail, the comparisons are often as unhelpful as they are helpful. Bail argues that there is no artist quite like him.