Lloyd Rees

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Lloyd Rees

Queensland Art Gallery
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

An edited version of this review was first published in TheCourier-Mail - 25 November 1998

LLOYD Rees was a pivotal force in Australian art, first for the strength of his early pencil and pen drawings, and later for his poetic landscape painting. The Brisbane-born artist developed his pen and ink technique drawing Brisbane's old houses and churches, and amongst his finest drawings are a number he made in 1915-16 of St Brigid's Church, Red Hill, designed by the prominent architect, Robin Dods.

In 1917, Rees moved to Sydney to take up a position in a commercial art studio, but soon made his name as an exhibiting artist with superb drawings of Sydney Harbour and paintings of New South Wales and European subjects.

During a long artistic careerspanning more than 70 years, Rees's early Queensland origins tended to be forgotten as he became the doyen of the Sydney art scene. But now the Queensland connection is being celebrated again.

Thanks to the generosity of the artist's only son, Alan, and his wife Jan, a group of 30 early Brisbane drawings has come to the Queensland Art Gallery, and a fine exhibition of 43 paintings and works on paper will be toured by the Rockhampton Art Gallery through Queensland and Australia next year.

Alan and Jan Rees live in Hobart in an apartment which, though modern and light-filled, holds memories of Lloyd Rees in every room -- from a sculpture in the hall by Daphne Mayo, for which the 28-year-old Rees posed nude, to drawings of Paris and paintings of Sydney, Italy and Hobart, including the artist's last oil created in 1988.

This final canvas, 'A blue image', a luminous abstract picture painted only months before the artist's death at the age of 93, is a testament to an extraordinarily full and creative life. Clearly, it will be a wrench for Alan and Jan Rees to part with it and the other pictures which they and their children are lending to the touring show, but they are happy to fulfill the artist's firm wish that his work reach the widest audience.

"We're going to miss them," says Alan of the pictures earmarked for touring, "but it's far better that other people see them -- we know that's what he would have felt.
"We've given a number of drawings to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and to the Queensland Art Gallery, and we always make a condition that the drawings be freely available for exhibition, rather than locked away for some future date. Dad recognised that all galleries have space problems, but it did irritate him when they would buy things and then stick them down in the vaults and never show them -- he just wanted the works to communicate with people."

Fortunately, the Queensland Art Gallery has been more than happy to comply with this request and some of the drawings which Alan and Jan are presenting to the artist's home state as gifts are now on view in a "Loyd Rees focus wall" in the QAG's permanent collection display.

Among the donated drawings is a nervy self-portrait in pencil, from a series drawn late one night in either December 1916 or January 1917, when Rees was en route to Melbourne and stopped for the first time in Sydney.

Jan recalls: "He had a night alone in a hotel -- this was after he'd had a potentially fatal kidney condition and been told by a doctor he should never be alone -- and he had a panic attack. So, he spent all night drawing himself."

Submerging his anxieties in the discipline of work was a characteristic act by this dedicated artist, who even in his 90s worked on his oil paintings six days a week -- and "rested" on the seventh day by doing drawings.

Yet this underlying toil and effort is never apparent in Rees's work; it is his elation in light and atmosphere, translated into drawings of crisp black and white line and landscapes of glistening colour and sumptuous glow, that we notice.

The drawings at the Queensland Art Gallery include views of the interior of St John's Cathedral and of St Brigid's (featured also in a new book on the QAG collection), the Treasury Building, Parliament House and the Cowlishaw family's house and stables.

"Dad has written about his early life as an office boy in Brisbane," says Alan, "when he used to look at the city and imagine how it might be -- as well as the realistic drawings, there are imaginary drawings, too, including one which has the Customs House and Treasury by the river with a sort of imaginary aqueduct."

This beautiful riverside drawing of a very Parisian-looking Brisbane is featured in the touring Lloyd Rees exhibition, along with self-portraits and family pictures, and paintings, drawings and prints of Sydney Harbour and the Derwent River, Werri Beach, Calabria, Venice, Paris, Greece and the cathedrals of Chartres and St Paul's, London.

An agnostic, Loyd Rees nevertheless was a very spiritual man, says Alan: "Cathedrals represented to him the physical embodiment of spiritual aspirations: he was enthralled by them, from a very early age."
Religion and agnosticism were only part of the mixture that made up this complex man, as Alan and Jan recall: in private Rees was a charming, sympathetic conversationalist but could also be a fierce champion of public causes; he was a family man and a solitary studio painter; a keen cricketer and an aesthete.

A proud Australian, Lloyd Rees, says Alan, was also very conscious of his ancient Basque, European heritage: "When he came across the concept of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, he felt that he, too, had a dreamtime, which he traced back to the prehistoric caves of Lascaux in France."

Loyd Rees's drawings are featured in the book, 'Brought to Light -- Australian Art 1850-1965', published by the Queensland Art Gallery, 320 pages, 192 colour plates, retail price: $65.

Brisbane architect, Robert Riddel, spoke about Rees's early drawings of St Brigid's at the Queensland Art Gallery Sunday 29 November 1999.

A touring exhibition of Lloyd Rees's art was held at the Rockhampton Art Gallery May 27 - July 4, 1999, and then toured to Townsville, Gladstone, Brisbane,Toowoomba, Bathurst, Geelong, Burnie and Hobart.

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

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