The extravagant project

Donald Friend

I will admit a soft spot for the grand, somewhat imprudent or extravagant publishing project. Proust comes to mind, as well as Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. The diaries of Australian figurative artist Donald Friend, published in four large volumes by the National Library surely fall into this category. They are beautifully produced books, with illustrations throughout, thick, ribbed, embossed dust jackets, and (faux?) leather bindings. And there is something appropriately eccentric about the fact that the first volume is more squat than the other three, upsetting the symmetry of the volumes.

Donald Friend is one of those mid to late twentieth century Australian artists whose fame, unlike someone such as John Olsen (the epitome of the feted artist-elder statesman), has receded somewhat, largely (as one of the editors of these volumes points out) because he painted figuratively, and on media such as paper which necessitates the avoidance of his works spending prolonged time on display in galleries. He lacks the pop art-ish condensation of Jeffrey Smart, the iconic subject material of Sidney Nolan or Brett Whiteley, and the fireworks of more recent artists such as Howard Arkley.

But his writing does perhaps justify the expense. The diary, as is to be expected, has its fair share of gossip, and a laying bare of Friend’s personality, at times grouchy, selfish, tired, and self-important (interesting in itself). But although he protests at being a great writer, rather than a painter, these writings also display elegance and an ability to string together just the right choice of words in order to evoke a landscape and a mood. The writer has a decided painterly touch. And his diaries are peppered with references to his highbrow reading, indicating a mind inclined to the written word, and not just the pen or brush.

By the fourth volume Friend has settled in Bali (where he is visited by everyone from Barry Humphries to Mick Jagger). For those familiar with South East Asia, his descriptions recall the heat, foliage and smells. And although he notes thieving of art works, lazy and undependable staff and the like, it sounds idyllic. Alternatively, the descriptions of his less-than-buoyant moods remind one of the universal need for love and acceptance, and the emptiness that sometimes lies below the glamour of the artistic life.

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