Close this search box.

Colour and Transparency – National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria 22 February – 27 April, 1986

Catalogue essay by Patrick McCaughey

Sensibility and Quality in the Watercolours of Lesley Dumbrell, Robert Jacks and Victor Majzner

The quality of the watercolours of Lesley Dumbrell, Robert Jacks and Victor Majzner may well come as a surprise even to admirers of their recent work.  Each seems to have discovered an intensity of effect in the medium which makes these relatively modestly scaled works equal to their larger paintings on canvas.  The effect is partly carried through the colour, more piquant and varied in watercolour than oil or acrylic, and partly through the personal, intimate nature of the works.  Whether real or imagined, we feel closer to the sensibility of the three artists in their watercolours than their grander designs on canvas.

The medium itself encourages the artist to expose his or her handwriting.  The fluidity of watercolour and the need to work with rapid fluency invite both virtuosity and decisiveness.  Watercolour has to be taken as a whole instantly, even when the compositions are intricate and elaborate as they frequently are here.  The watercolorist must keep the wright of the hand even across the entire sheet to maintain unity of touch so integral to the aesthetic pleasure of the medium.  In watercolour the artist works more closely to the pectoral field, never straying further than arm’s length from any part of the work.  The viewer’s experience is no less intimate; delight lies in viewing the work in close-up, sensing the medium as much as seeing the image.

All this contributes to our strong sense of watercolour as an art of sensibility where thought and feeling cannot be disentangled.  Yet the watercolours in this exhibition are not the hurried or deft sketches so often associated with ‘plein air’ watercolour.  Rather the three artists present works more akin to the ‘finished’ drawing or watercolour of the past, in which the whole of their artistic personality are contained.  All three artists are now at a stage of maturity when the full dimension of their artistic personality has emerged clearly.  Each in different ways reflects on the difficult and intricate path abstraction has taken over the past ten to fifteen years.  All have their roots in abstraction and have therefore developed a form view about the aesthetic probity of each individual work which has to be good on its own terms and not for any reasons external to it.  In their early work there was an exhilaration in this autonomous nature of abstraction: it freed them from prevailing aesthetic orthodoxies.  Although none of them shows a dissatisfaction with these earlier premises, each reveals in different ways a search for subject matter which can be accommodated within abstraction. Their watercolours, more personal in tendency than their larger canvases, are critical encounters in this search.

From the beginning, abstraction had its own distinctive iconography.  Gnosticism, spiritualism and the ambitious metaphysical claim were its chief features.  Abstract art simply by being non-representational offered its practitioners a window onto the non-material world, or so its early followers thought.  It put both artist and viewer in touch with realities and powers unseen and unknowable save through the intervention of the higher intrinsically good, so abstract art bore great truths to the world: but need it be so determinedly autonomous in order to achieve distinctive aesthetic quality?  Why can’t abstraction capture the vagaries of the personal life as well as the grander spiritual design of the universe?  Perhaps such questions are not asked in exactly those terms by artists but the evidence of these three groups of watercolours points to a shift in abstraction today.  All three artists want to retain its high seriousness, its self-conscious sense of aesthetic standards and yet move towards an abstraction where personal reference plays an explicit part.

The most striking demonstration of this can be found in Lesley Dumbrell’s watercolours.  No artist of her generation has been a more committed and thoroughgoing abstract painter.  Ever since she emerged as a distinctive artist in the late 1960’s, her work has had the impersonal exhilaration found in the best abstraction of recent years.  Her rhyming compositions which began with strongly optical formats have moved steadily towards a freer, more open way of working.  The rhyming elements are still there but the construction of the pieces has become more intricate, more dependent on moment to moment inspiration.  The chief agent of that change was the transformation of her palette over the past three to four years.  She had started out relatively austerely, working through tonal colour where balances of light and dark were as important as the interaction of hues, but recently the intensity of the hues – lustrous blues and purples together with sharp and rich warmer colours – have mattered increasingly to her.  Under their impact, the formats had to loosen up.  The result was an art of extraordinary decorative power although Lesley Dumbrell is too purposeful an artist to let decoration decline into mere pattern-making.  As her palette bloomed so did her artistic personality.  Her brilliant decorative watercolours of the early 1980s onwards had an internal pulse, a visual throb as she allowed one colour to vibrate against another: they had their own voice.

Colour, of course, reveals and registers individual sensibility more immediately than any other factor.  By letting colour and its frank, physical properties of vibration play a dominant part in the compositions, Lesley Dumbrell showed her hand as an artist as she had rarely done before.  There was an element of aesthetic ‘coming out’; letting her feeling and sensibility show instead of worrying about looking tough-minded.  The richer and more personal the colour became, the finer and more distinctive became the quality of her work.  She looked different, at a remove from the immediate scene, genuinely distinguished and mature.

In one way these wonderful constructions of 1982-83 prepare the viewer for the most recent works where surprisingly, direct images make their way through the decorative web.  Still life is directly alluded to, shapes lock into shapes in a distinctively figurative way and there is a clear sense of relationship, of conflict and its resolution, contained within these narrativeless, figural compositions.  In that sense the blooming of the palette prepared the way, but Lesley Dumbrell’s recent watercolours tell a more interesting story than just that.

The palate of these works turns out to be unlike, even a reaction against, the rich palette of the preceding phase.  She now inflects her colour, graining it, allowing back into the work a lot of local chiaroscuro which she had all but abolished earlier.  The half-tone is everywhere empaled to give the watercolours additional poetry and plangency.  What matters to Lesley Dumbrell turns out to be the stamp of the personal, even the private, in her work, and she is prepared to place in abeyance her considerable talents as a colourist while she explores another avenue of revealing the self.  Although no diary, no confessionary statement, the watercolours have an intimate, internalised quality which gives them a special place in her oeuvre.

Robert Jack’s path to his present watercolours is quite different.  A brilliant inventiveness of motif marks his debut in the late 1960s.  Drawing on images from Brancusi, Miro and Tanguy, Jacks produced one of the most original and spirited groups of paintings of that entire decade.  The pictures were an abstraction of fantasy – witty, elegant and impressive.  There was also an element of jeux d’esprit – a moment of inspiration which turned out to be hard to sustain beyond its initial impetus.  Jacks became increasingly enamoured of minimalism and the systemic and repeatable in art in its wake and drive his native inventiveness underground.

His work of the last five or six years has regained power and purpose.  Starting with small-scale works where patterned cross hatching showed his quick and dextrous hand had lost nothing of its touch during his minimal phase, Jack’s work grew steadily in confidence and independence from the scene around him.  Where he had looked uncertain of moving too far away from the ‘tough guy’, anti-pictorialism of the 1970s, he now began, albeit cautiously, to let his sensibility reveal itself again.  As always, the marks of sensibility show up in the least self-conscious part of the work; in Robert Jacks’s case in the mottled surfaces of his blocky constructions.

The palette itself remained grudging and ineloquent, splintering high-keyed colour into fractured tonal surfaces.  That’s where the present group of watercolours shows a marked development, shared equally by his recent paintings on canvas.  The palette has increased notably in its luminosity and trust in the values of individual hues.  There is a frank desire to win for his pictures a decorative elegance, even an occasional sumptuousness, which is one of the more attractive elements of Jacks’s artistic personality.

Jacks’s inventiveness and decorativeness constantly meet an opposing instinct or principle: his desire for a pictorial order or clearly perceived structural rigour to ensure that the works come across with seriousness and substance.  It is as though he cannot quite trust his own best instincts as an artist and has to reassure himself and his audience that there is more to him than dextrous elegance.  The sharp, architectural drawing style of the watercolours offers a distinctively satisfactory resolution of the problem.  Their lovely quality of fissured light is guaranteed partly by the light-generating washes of the watercolour itself and partly through the fracture red, cubist-like grid.  The linear drawing opens up the space just as the washes open up the surface of the work.  Poetic effect and pictorial structure cohere and underscore each other.  The tentativeness about exposing his more delicate, sensitive side disappears as Jacks’s feel for surface effects is confidently undergirded by the taut overall drawing.  As much as in Lesley Dumbrell’s watercolours, there is an artistic ‘coming out’ – a self-evident confidence in revealing his appetites as an artist and a capacity to make art out of them.

If Robert Jacks and Lesley Dumbrell’s watercolours represent an artistic ‘coming-out’, those of Victor Majzner are frankly personal, both self-dramatising and self-reflecting.  Superficially Victor Majzner looks closer to the new figuration of the 1980’s than either Jacks or Dumbrell.  His wayward palette shows an affinity with the unguarded qualities of recent painting but the garish palette is worked tightly amount obsessively, so that it pushes these remarkable works way beyond the fashionable mode.  They are notably unaccommodating in style and phantasmagoric in their imagery.  Such a combination springs from a desire to liberate certain kinds of internal experience and pressure, no matter how traumatic or discomforting.

The nub around which Majzner’s watercolours revolve is a strange interplay of landscape and city-scape – frequently desolate and formulaic – and mind-wrenching images of sexual intimacy which disrupt the scale and continuity of the landscape space.  The distance between personal experience and impersonal context collapses in Majzner’s work and leaves us with a giddy, vertigo-like world, alternatively traumatic and ecstatic.  The disruptive effect, a sudden eruption of volcanic sexuality, is absolutely the domain of Majzner’s palette: the irrational element of phantasmagoria is exactly embodied through wild and contradictory colour.  The luminosity and fluidity of watercolour are essential to the creation of this vertigo-like world in which one episode flows through to another, eliding differences of time and space.  The mode of these watercolours is that of fantasy, one image succeeding another; some brought from memory, others deriving from invention.

Victor Majzner’s watercolours are important because such a mode of feeling and thinking can be realised pictorially more readily in watercolour than on canvas.  To achieve the fluidity of episode unfolding on episode on canvas requires careful constructive designs which are inimical to the conduct of the fantasy itself.  Watercolour requires a rapidity of working method which exactly parallels the ‘rush’ of the fantasy life.  Making pictures so directly from fantasy is a much rarer and riskier undertaking than is communal recognised: artists guard their secrets as closely as anybody.  More personally traumatised and implicated than most of the new figurative artists.  Victor Majzner looks strikingly inward.  The sheer discomfort of his watercolours, even their sense of embarrassment, is a far cry from the ‘paperback pessimism’ of much of the new expressionism.

Throughout these remarks I have stressed the personal nature of the the three artists’ work which cannot be divorced from its aesthetic quality.  The discrimination of quality and the pursuit of excellence have not had a good hearing in the current art scene, or alas, in art museums.  Generally contemporary art is surveyed through the large anthology exhibition in which the current is prized beyond any other virtue.  The museums in a Gadarene-like rush are determined to prove that they are genuinely open to the very latest – unlike the museums of the past.  Artists are increasingly valued because they image the newest trent.  One hears a shameless and superficial historicism emanating from art museums: artists are ‘of the 70’s’ or ‘of the 80’s’  Neither art nor connoisseurship work to these formulae; for aesthetic quality arises form entirely unpredictable sources and is no longer the exclusive domain of the new.  Quality is not readily found or its discrimination easily achieved.  If they were, anybody could be a successful artist or art critic and as the present record shows that clearly is not the case.  It should not come as much of a surprise to find that a most remarkable and distinctive seam of quality in contemporary art comes from activities such as the watercolours of these three artists.  Here are works, not intended as the blockbuster entries in biennales or group exhibitions, but rather paintings made in the intimacy of the studio, in which the true voice of feeling is allowed to speak.  In such works we begin to find that the high quality achieved by the modern movement in Australia continues unabated.

Patrick McCaughey





… more coming in a few hours.