Queensland artist survived prisoner of war camp, near drowning and arrest to become one of Australian art’s most influential figures
Tuesday 2 December 2014 02.08 EST
In the pantheon of 20th century Australian artists, the reclusive, eccentric and much-travelled painter Ian Fairweather has an exalted status. He’s the dedicated painter who gave his life to his art and whose influences – cubism, abstract expressionism, Chinese calligraphy, the art of the Pacific and Indigenous Australian iconography – melded into a strikingly individualistic style.
He was also a man who looked back favourably on his time in a German prisoner of war camp because it allowed him to draw more – and study Japanese.
Fairweather said of painting that “it gives me the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people” and his works include a series of paintings based on the life of the mischievous and inebriated Buddhist monk Chi-Tien, who lived in China in the 13th century.
He created the works after first translating the original tales about Chi-Tien from Mandarin, a language in which he was fluent. The Drunken Buddha series has just gone on display at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, north-east of Melbourne, the first time the paintings have been brought together since their showing at Sydney’s Macquarie gallery in 1965.
The University of Queensland Press had only agreed to publish Fairweather’s translation if there were illustrations, explains curator Steven Alderton. They expected him to knock off a few line drawings but several months later publisher Frank Thompson discovered the 73-year-old had completed 13 large canvasses in his bark-shack home on Queensland’s Bribie Island.
The paintings were incorporated into the book, which became an instant collectors’ item and has now been republished to accompany the Tarrawarra exhibition.
“For me a Fairweather show is a spiritual moment,” says Alderton. “You can walk in and feel the energy of him. His lines are very dynamic. There’s great simplicity yet great complexity in Fairweather’s work. That’s what makes it so successful.”
Fairweather was totally dedicated to his art, adds Alderton, and to nourishing his practice through travel and scholarship, often in the face of extreme poverty
Following his first world war experiences as a prisoner of war, he travelled throughout Europe, Canada, Asia, the Pacific and Australia, where he settled in the 1930s. A decision to build a raft and set sail from Darwin to Timor in 1952 ended in near drowning, his arrest by the Indonesian authorities and deportation back to Britain.
For the last 20 years of his life, Fairweather led a spartan existence on Bribie, painting by the light of a hurricane lamp and using an eclectic range of materials including house paint and toothpaste to create his works.
Gosia Wlodarczak’s Found in Translation: The Drunken Buddha (2) 2014. Photograph: Gosia Wlodarczak/Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne
Tarrawarra’s director Victoria Lynn has curated two smaller exhibitions to accompany Fairweather’s work: the 1950s paintings of Australian artist Tony Tuckson – 22 of whose works were recently bequeathed to the nation – and the performative drawings of Gosia Wlodarczak, created on the interior walls during her voluntary incarceration in a cube at Melbourne’s RMIT gallery in 2012.
Both artists, says Lynn, have been influenced by and reference Fairweather. His impact has been profound, agrees Alderton: “I don’t know any Australian artist who doesn’t know of him and many see him as the exalted figure in Australian art history.”
• Ian Fairweather: the Drunken Buddha is at Tarrawarra Museum of Art until 15 March, 2015