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Here’s looking at: Rottnest by Guy Grey-Smith

Guy Grey-Smith’s Rottnest connects strongly to the land. Detail from Guy Grey-Smith, Rottnest, 1954-57, oil on canvas, 61.2x76.5 cm (h,w), The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Tom Collins Bequest Fund, 1957, © The University of Western Australia

Here’s looking at: Rottnest by Guy Grey-Smith

In 1907, Rottnest Island – located off the coast of Western Australia – was designated as a “park for the people” because its unspoilt, idyllic environment was considered efficacious to health and the pursuit of leisure. Often visitors from outside the State reel back in horror, amazed that anyone could find this bare outcrop of rock with its primitive accommodation tolerable, let alone alluring.

Its terrible history as a place of incarceration for Aboriginal prisoners, a reformatory for recalcitrant youth and a POW camp during the first and second world wars are seen as a further deterrent to enjoyment. Yet Rottnest has retained its iconic status for Western Australians as a place of escape to languid fun-filled days where commonplace routines can be put aside.

As that extraordinary polymath George Seddon explained in his 1983 essay The Rottnest Experience, it is a:

simpler, better, truer world that the one we usually tread.

It is this “truer” world, vibrant, stark and blisteringly hot, that Guy Grey-Smith captured in his painting Rottnest, completed in 1957. The clarity of his vision and the intensity of his colour give concrete form to Seddon’s words in an enduring image that has been burned into the consciousness of Western Australians.

Guy Grey-Smith, Rottnest, 1954-57. Oil on canvas, 61.2x76.5 cm (h,w), The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Tom Collins Bequest Fund, 1957, © The University of Western Australia

Two lighthouses punctuate the long, thin stretch of Rottnest visible from the mainland, the most clearly discernible located in the centre of the island. These two features not only contribute to its distinctive profile on the horizon, but each has a significant role in orienting holiday-makers.

From the settlement looking inland the island is dominated by the tall, thin column of the main lighthouse situated to the west of Lake Serpentine on Wadjemup Hill, the highest point in the landscape.

This was the view Guy Grey-Smith documented in a series of small oil studies and drawings made in 1953, in which he contrasted the forms of the indigenous vegetation with a spatial movement outward towards the lighthouse.

The final painting may have been begun in England while he and his wife Helen undertook further study at the Central School. Whatever its genesis, the painting proved difficult to resolve and back in his Darlington studio it remained in a “state of becoming” until 1957, when the artist was finally able to incorporate the ideas learned from Matisse during a visit to an exhibition in Paris in 1954.

Matisse’s influence is evident in the vermilion red addition to the blue underpainting of the sky, reflected back in the salt lake. It generates an extraordinary quality of oppressive heat. Of course, this colour is so strident that on first impression it seems alien or unreal.

Taking a break c1968. Guy and Helen Grey-Smith. (Guy’s painting Cricket next to Helen). Courtesy State Library of Western Australia, Battye Library

Rottnest is a soft grey green, the lakes a pale pink, the sky an intense but less powerful cerulean; so where does the cobalt, vermilion and lemon yellow come from?

One obvious answer is that they come from the artist’s imagination or from Matisse’s palette, but on closer observation of the landscape they can also be found in the fragments of rocks, the small accretions of salt and the dense shadows of the trees. The artist has simply highlighted the colours, foregrounding their brilliance.

The stark simplification of the distinctive flora into black, rhythmic cones and circles, and the direct, almost crude handling of the paint, also echo the Fauvist concern for a totally expressive picture. As Matisse explained in his Notes of a Painter (1908):

The simplest means are those which enable an artist to express himself best. If he fears the obvious, he cannot avoid it by strange representations, bizarre drawing or eccentric colour.

The main lighthouse on Rottnest Island. aussiejeff/Flickr/ Taken early 1986 by Jeff Crisdale.

What seems so obvious now, but was less easily identified before Grey-Smith fixed it in our visual memory, are the insistent rhythms of the indigenous vegetation and the rolling, flowing movements that take our eye meandering across the landscape and back towards the horizon. Rottnest’s topography has the same slow, lazy rhythms of the lifestyle it promotes, and perhaps that is part of its secret.

Establishing a connection to place requires a creative leap, which George Seddon described in The Rottnest Experience as taking “imaginative possession”.

It is a process that enables individuals to become rooted in a particular environment and make it their own.

“An environment becomes a landscape only when it is so regarded by people, and especially when they begin to shape it in accord with their taste and needs,” Seddon wrote.

It is this activity of bringing inherited and adopted cultural assumptions and expectations into contact with the actual conditions of life in a new place that enabled Guy Grey-Smith to find equivalents for its unique forms, which although inspired by European models, has become assimilated into a local cultural context.

The influences of English painters Ceri Richards, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland are also evident, but the resulting image transcends its influences and in its vigour and freshness creates a new schema for a uniquely local experience.