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The legend of Ian Fairweather continued to intrigue audiences in a recent exhibition of his paintings curated by Steven Alderton at the Lismore Regional Art Gallery. Not only did the exhibition revive memories of some of Fairweather’s more important paintings, but it combined these with a selection of his early watercolours and a number of remarkable documentary photographs by friend and part-time photographer Robert Walker. The exhibition also included a screening of Michael Stevenson’s documentary film Making for Sheppey, 2004, which recreates Fairweather’s fateful journey across the Timor Sea aboard a flimsy handmade raft. What becomes immediately apparent in this exhibition is how Fairweather’s paintings and lifestyle have inspired and continue to influence many contemporary artists and their practice. The reverence Australian and foreign artists have for Fairweather has not only influenced the history of Australian art over the last half century, but reflects the universality of his project.
Fairweather was ahead of his time. He was able to transcend borders and engage Asian, European and Australian Indigenous art, which leads one to suggest that his was a truly ‘international’ style. As Bernard Smith states, ‘his art is diacritically international’, since it draws nourishment from Chinese and Aboriginal origins and assimilates the knowledge of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and primitive mythology, rather than simply reiterating European or American sources.1 Perhaps it is only with hindsight that one can reflect on the challenges Fairweather offered to us thirty years earlier. The quality of his work was only understood by a handful of other artists, photographers, journalists and critics in his own lifetime. Since his death in 1984, many more have become fascinated by the story of his life; his is one of the most inspiring of modern artistic biographies. So extraordinary are the circumstances and events in which Fairweather lived that it seems almost impossible to separate mythic embellishments from the truth.
The inclusion of Walker’s photographs in the exhibition provides an insight into the man-behind-the-easel and his alternative lifestyle on Bribie Island (just north of Brisbane). Fairweather was an elusive and eccentric character who only seemed content and relaxed in his island surrounds. Framed by overhanging branches from Casuarina trees or a dead hunk of driftwood below, Fairweather is captured strolling along the mudflats or disappearing into the undergrowth. He is a performer in front of Walker’s camera and happily plays the role of the lonely hermit who wanders aimlessly through life or the passionate artist totally consumed by his need to paint. Fairweather seems well aware of the photographer’s presence and appears to subtly orchestrate the scene from in front of the camera.
Walker’s monochrome photographs capture every hair, wrinkle and scar on Fairweather’s overgrown, weathered face. His leathery, sun-scorched skin disguises his true Scottish ancestry. Too many years of direct sun exposure from time spent combing beaches, hitch-hiking through outback Australia or cast adrift on a raft have left his complexion pock-marked and riddled with cancerous growths. In one photograph Fairweather’s mutilated ear appears to be a casualty of this reckless lifestyle, and as Walker confirms, ‘It was the result of a hungry goanna that had mistaken his ear for something more edible’. True or not, it is these curious stories that are fascinating to audiences. Fairweather has always had his critics, and while some may question the authenticity of his biography and believe his adventures may have been fictitious, staged or an exercise in self-promotion, nonetheless, as Walker’s photographs reveal there is some documentary evidence for their being.
Similarly, Michael Stevenson’s film re-enacts the sixty-year old Fairweather’s legendary raft journey from Darwin to Roti Island (Timor). However, Stevenson attempts to sail his vessel from Whitstable, Kent to the Isle of Sheppey in the United Kingdom. Stevenson built the replica raft to specifications Fairweather had described in interviews and reported in newspaper articles. The film begins with Stevenson and a team of assistants constructing the raft from three discarded aeroplane fuel tanks lashed together with used rope and freshly sawn saplings, adorned with a silk sail fashioned from an old parachute with the initials ‘IF’ printed in red. In the final scene he is filmed drifting haphazardly to the horizon steering with a crude rudder made from scrap plywood. The lack of manoeuvrability and stability of Stevenson’s raft highlights the danger Fairweather faced being lost at sea. Had his raft capsized or drifted one nautical mile further west, our intrepid adventurer could have easily been cast into the Indian Ocean and his fate sealed.
If Fairweather had disappeared in 1952, his famed mature style of abstract painting employing Chinese calligraphy and influences, as represented by four paintings in this exhibition, would never have existed. The only record we would have would be his early watercolours or gouache paintings, such as Coolie, 1949. One could assume that without the formation of his signature style of abstraction, Fairweather would never have been considered as important as he is. Prior to 1955 his focus was still primarily on figurative subjects in comparison to his later more abstract works. The exhibition lacked a work from his period of developing abstraction (1955-60) which would have provided a counterpoint to his more figurative work. Bent like a camel, 1965, taken from Fairweather’s The Drunken Buddha series, peculiarly straddles this divide between pure abstraction and his return to figuration, while Gekko, c.1962, is perhaps the most abstract of the paintings displayed. Despite this, Alderton has managed to represent a broad spectrum of Fairweather’s oeuvre and specific periods of artistic production from a small a selection of paintings. However, this exhibition represents more than the sheer beauty of Fairweather’s paintings and the audacity of his style; it recognises the debt contemporary artists owe to perhaps ‘the best abstract painter that Australia ever harboured’.2
1. Smith, Bernard, ‘Ian Fairweather and the Problem of Total Abstraction’. Island, 12 September, 1982. p.25.
2. Hughes, Robert, ‘Peculiar But Grand’, Time, 17 April, 1995, p.71.