Thursday, 3 December 2009

On Rupert Bunny @ AGNSW

I'm not sure I recall when I last saw an exhibition as genuinely strange as the Rupert Bunny survey show just opened at Sydney's AGNSW. Stranger than any contemporary show I've seen in it we see an academic painter wrestle with a range of figurative painting movements from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries as he appears to try to create a style that might give voice to his own sensibilities. A stylistic journey is not that odd in and of itself, however this isn't a story where an artist blooms late after years of restless propagation. Bunny, it seems, never found his own voice so as we move from room to room, from movement to movement, there's a creeping sense of disappointment, made sad by the occasional glimpse of something acute and tender.

Bunny's beginnings as a kind of misty symbolist can only look profoundly strange to a modern eye. They have the titillating quality of Norman Lindsay but with brushwork that is far less precise an illustrative (or without the orientalist lecherousness), it is as though the traditional subjects of history painting, religion and mythology, were being translated through the lens of Impressionism. This might not be that strange, if you spent enough time with Velazquez or Rubens you might get a similar sense of loose brushwork animating the specific and concrete. However here it feels like an atmospheric veil, perhaps the first that Bunny donned.

His subsequent phase as a not very convincing Pre-Rapahelite shows a kind restlessness that might be the most consistent theme throughout his career. What's interesting here, as later, is that you see moments where Bunny might have come across a style that was both unique and his own, and then it's gone again. One picture, an annunciation 'Ancilla Domine', shows signs of life. Split down the middle with the virgin in a domestic setting on the left and the archangel framed against a solid sheet of red paint it separates the sacred and the temporal. The red tones in the background, in tapestry and drapery and even the virgins hair, should raise the emotional temperature. And yet the picture is disappointing, Mary is a limp Arthurian damsel, Gabriel as static as a mannequin. What seems to be an interesting stylistic detour is undone by a kind of bloodless academic style.

The problem is often that, perhaps harking back to monumental history painting, Bunny chooses to increase both size and the layers of trowelled on symbolism when he demonstrates ambition. 'Summer Time' is a tame fantasy in this manner that nonetheless has moments of intriguing strangeness. A group of women rest in a beach house, in a tableau of desire and propriety. In the middle two nudes achieve a kind of fleshy approximation of Rubens but the action is to be found elsewhere. In front of a blue wall, almost a shadow on the right of the picture, is a rough silhouette built out of red and black of a figure you could swear had horns, the intrusion of satyr like lust. To the left a woman, divided from the rest of the picture by a vertical post looks into a mirror. The only problem is that she doesn't look, her eyes are downcast, perhaps closed. We can only imagine that what sits to her right is her subconscious, a languorous frieze of sublimated passion. As I said, Rupert Bunny can be very strange indeed.

Of all the paintings in the show the works that are most striking are those where the intent, or at least the design, feels most modest. Three small studies of his wife hung next to one another show a woman caught in contemplation. The air of melodrama is minimized and a much more fluid impressionistic style conveys far more psychological precision. They remind you easily of Degas. Another study, of the Japanese actress Sada Yakko is a gorgeous tone poem in grey and pink where that might be by Whistler. It's no less good for its similarity but it is disconcerting if you believe, as I do, that art criticism should be something more than a list of influences and similarities.

What is it that Bunny is searching for? I think there are clues in some of his women. often but not exclusively, his wife. In certain paintings we see one of the subjects stare back at us, not novel in itself but shocking as they fix our gaze in the context of all of this decorum. There are two examples that stayed with me. In "Dolce Farniente" his wife is one of four women on a seashore, the scene is dreamy and vaporous, the tones of the the image of his wife in where she alone fixes the viewers eye. In another, a view of crab fishing on a Brittany beach a young girl looks back at us, as if she is the only one who realises she is in a picture rather than the water's edge. This image is made all the stranger by odd mix of styles. The back ground the figures inhabit is split horizontally between a watery field of blue and lumpy brown shore. It's disorientating effect might point at the avant garde were it not for the comfortable, Renoir-like, figures. The young girl on our left returns our gaze, it's almost as if she were saying "Is this what you want?" and I suspect that Bunny's stylistic restlessness might be saying much the same. It is that swing back and forth between the certainty in his wife's eyes and the question in the girl's that makes us at least carry on through the rooms.

That restless oddness never quite ceases. Bunny's mature style takes him through pieces that bathe in the influence of Gaugin, Cezanne and the universe of Art Nouveau to his final pictures that are almost pastiches of Picasso's big heavy sculptural women from his classical period.

It is a shame. It's hard to look at some of Bunny's works and not see that he does have a very real sense of empathy for women, that he can present them in quiet private moments when his palette suggests the tides of consciousness shifting. However I found myself keen to leave by the last room, the restlessness can make you sea-sick, the sense of an artist never quite finding his way is a little depressing and although this show is interesting it might be more disturbing than you imagine.

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