First Published in The Independent Monthly, 1996

Arthur Merric Boyd died at the Mercy Hospital in Melbourne on Saturday 24th, April 1999. He was one of Australia's greatest artists - and one of the world's great painters. He was deeply concerned about political and social affairs and from time to time leant his name to human rights and environment causes. The following is believed to be the only political interview with Arthur Boyd. He will be missed by all who are concerned for art and social justice.

Arthur Boyd, circa 1995. Photo: David Langsam

In a unique interview, 1995 Australian of the Year and world leading artist, Arthur Boyd, spoke with David Langsam about his motivation: the politics and philosophy of a great painter sitting at his daughter's dinner table looking through large glass windows over Lederberg Gorge State Park, Arthur Boyd says his work has always been about the environment. The elder statesman of Australian art, is surprisingly forceful when asked if he would talk about current affairs including environmental issues.

"Everything I do is the environment," Boyd exclaimed, gazing across the dark green hills to Mt Macedon, puzzled that a thousand landscapes could be mistaken for anything less.

Yes, there are pretty landscapes, biblical scenes, mythology, portraits, sensual etchings and dead animals, crazed goats and pencil nudes, but beneath a career spanning most of the 20th Century, beats the depth of thought of an artist distilling and representing the mood of the era.

Where there appears to be little controversy there is much. His easy - almost careless - technique deceives. A gentle leprechaun (Irish-Australian of the Year 1988) Boyd says the word "art" means deception.

Much has been written about Boyd's technique and style and pages have been devoted to interpretation and meaning, but the artist's political beliefs have rarely been discussed. What is the core philosophy in Arthur Boyd's work?

He didn't join the Communist Party of Australia when writer Frank Hardy invited him to at a public meeting. He was not one of the Angry Penguins. He visited social realism, but moved on. He was a member of the Contemporary Arts Society. Artist, Yvonne Lennie, Boyd's wife of 50 years, was a Communist Party member. Arthur was a sympathizer, not a joiner.

Always a radical painter, using bold colours on large canvasses, Boyd regrets his work was not more able to effect change. He says his earlier paintings could have been more political.

But his use of emblems can be easily overlooked. 'Picture on The Wall, 1979-80' includes a Magritte-like restatement of the Shoalhaven landscape as a painting, but who could tell the white shape in the restatement is both a skate (a Boydian symbol for wastage) and a nuclear mushroom cloud.

A most important work, 'Australian Scapegoat, 1990', was mistaken by a leading British critic as showing a goat grafted to a soldier's knee, but Boyd had painted the soldier unmistakeably buggering the goat.

Boyd, like his pictures, is subtle. Deceptive. Eschewing public political comment, when he speaks privately it is with a telling clarity. He has said that artists work with a single vision and when asked to define his, responded: "Compassion and understanding". Simple qualities which could mean anything or everything. In the context of the discussion, they meant the need to think beyond one's self.

With compassion and understanding, politicians might not test nuclear weapons, sell arms to despots, exterminate native fauna or destroy fragile inner city amenities with car races. They may gain respect for the environment and other people.

On the gift to Australia of Bundenon on the Shoalhaven River, Boyd says an endangered wallaby species lives on the property... and it must be protected. He is passionate about nature.

The $20 million 1,000 hectare Bundenon gift is a very personal redistribution of wealth by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd to the people of Australia, primarily because the property and art collection are too important to be left in private hands.

Boyd's political views were shaped in the "shared suffering" of the Depression

"There was a different type of misery in Australia. Everyone was very poor and hungry and there was a lot of helping. It was a very hard life, especially on someone like my mother who had five kids and wasn't very strong and my father being an epileptic. He was a very hard worker, extremely prolific and a very good sculptor and painter and potter, but he was not able at the best of times to make any money.

"We had a rough time in the Depression, but so did everyone else."

When serving in the Cartographic Unit during World War II a rare overtly political painting earned Boyd a reprimand for depicting Britain and America "sucking the life blood out of Russia, when the second front wasn't opened and the Russians were being chewed to bits by the Germans".

"It was confiscated and I was called up to answer why was I doing this. There was a very anti-communist element in the Cartographic Unit. There were a lot of masons and they weren't very happy about the picture." The picture's fate is unknown.

In 'Progression, 1941' Boyd's brother David pushes neighbour and potter, Carl Cooper, in his wheelchair. "That was a social realist picture in a way. But not quite gloomy enough, probably." Boyd's political commitment has not wavered with the years. He has donated paintings to the Save Albert Park Committee and subscribes to the British centre-left weekly, the New Statesman and Society. He has spoken out against French nuclear testing.

Prime Minister Paul Keating said Boyd should be congratulated for "removing Australian art from this realm [permanent Anti podean arcadia] of provincial complacency".

"For the last sixty years, despite the fashions of the moment he has been there taking our spiritual temperature and offering his prognosis for our national well-being," Keating wrote.

Described by publisher Tom Rosenthal as "possessing intellect, vision and daemonic technical virtuosity", the painter is a faintly inarticulate speaker who "watches listens waits and then distils it all to a comment and he's quick, very quick."

Rosenthal says the Bride series on Aborigines is Boyd's "most strongly Australian element" and that Australia, like Hardy's Wessex, is the setting rather than the substance of the work. (Boyd is strongly anti-nationalism although he does have a design concept for a new Australian flag (see below).)

Arthur and Yvone Boyd, circa 1995.
Photo: David Langsam

Boyd's relationship to Nature is in "endless and successful attempts to come to terms with a landscape so dramatic," wrote Rosenthal. "If the white settlers had taken a page out of the Aboriginal 'book' they might not have ruined the landscape," Boyd has said.

DL: There does not appear to be much politics in your painting, but you are endlessly concerned with social and political events. You painted with Yosl Bergner who depicted quite stark scenes of human suffering, but you didn't.

AB: Yosl did a painting of Aborigines chained to a tree. [1941] That was pretty raw stuff. Nobody did that.

DL: Why didn't you? Or is it there and I didn't see it.

AB: If you found it there, it'd be good, but I'm not too sure about that. I certainly wish it had been there. Art doesn't alter things. It points things out, but it doesn't alter them. It can't, no matter what a painter wants to do.

DL: Did you know when you did 'Cyanide tanks, Bendigo, 1950' that it was a massive poison going into the ground as they tried to leech the gold out?

AB: I knew it was a massive poison. There's a horse drinking at a tank with puppet heads in the background. But it's not what you call obvious. But it is obvious a bit. But it's not written. There's not a caption on it.

I felt slightly uncomfortable not doing things that were more pointed to the social conditions and that's one of the problems I have in my early paintings - the sheep on the landscape with the high skies - I didn't think it was bad doing those things, because I thought they were pure. I thought it was poetry.

I also did another one where the sheep look like tombstones, if you can imagine them in the long grass. That's the nearest thing to social realism.

DL: Are people right to read politics into your work? Ursula Hoff says that during the Vietnam War you were affected by self-immolations on Hampstead Heath near where you were living.

AB: That's right. It was a deliberate thing. Nebuchadnezzar [1966-68] was set alight by his own guilt. He transgressed. The scapegoat came out of that. It was Old Testament stuff.

DL: But then there was the English art critic who told his readers that The Australian Scapegoat featured a goat grafted onto the soldier's knee, whereas what you had painted was a soldier buggering a goat.

AB: Yes. It was to do with Simpson and his donkey. Simpson the hero - the story was mucked up by whoever started it - he used to go around rescuing soldiers from the trenches. It's like a batch of impotent characters trying to produce nationalism, because this was what we were taught at school about Simpson and his donkey. So wanted and so brave, but he was being wanted and brave so they could cover up the rubbish of winning wars and killing people.

So someone like Simpson, who was not a scapegoat dressed up in his slouch hat and he is pushing the donkey or the black goat along - it's a scapegoat... to be eaten by the wolves to save the flock.

DL: There is a distinct jump with the Bride series [1957-59] which is Arthur Boyd stating loudly "We're treating Aborigines extremely badly."

AB: When I went up to Alice Springs, I saw Aboriginal brides standing up in the truck. It didn't look too good. And I did one of Aboriginal shearers playing for a bride. They were sitting in the whirly, this tin lean-to, sitting there with cards in their hands. And the terrible conditions in the creek beds and being kept out and not being people at all. It's only in the last few years that they have had any status.

DL: Tom Rosenthal says the Bride series is your most strongly Australian work. Is it the first clear political statement?

AB: Well I suppose it was the first clear one. I'd been making - or I thought I'd been making - political statements as well as doing a picture. I think the most Australian element are pictures from 1941. They are primeval and full of people being pushed down the flooded rivers and creeks. I thought they had the most Australian flavor of anything I'd done. But very little notice was taken of them.

DL: What motivates you to consistently paint the environment and destruction of the environment?

AB: Habit is one. The other thing is enjoyment - when you're painting outside, especially. And the satisfaction of hoping that you will do something that you haven't done before. And that's fairly strong in my motivation that you want to do something that will add to your idea of what's possible.

DL: Are you more politically outgoing?

AB: You get a bit browned off with nothing making any difference. No matter what sort of protest there is and what sort of things happen one year, the next year it is all on again. It's very very enervating because no-one ever gets the message that guns and manufacture of guns, weapons are only there to kill people. They're not there to protect people. How can they? It seems so absolutely patently obvious.

If you make a gun, you are either going to sell it or you are going to use it. And if you're going to sell it, someone else is going to use it. It's almost deliberatly not wanting to think about what's happening in the world.

No matter what you say, people will get it wrong. They will think you are saying things because you feel morally strongly about them. But if you say them, you mean them and they are morally wrong and if other people can't see that, that's a terrible pity.

DL: Would you like to see Australia out of the arms trade altogether?

AB: Altogether. I think if you sell any guns or buy any guns, you're not going to win anrself with talk, you won't be alive to protect yourself with guns.

DL: The Japanese have done reasonably well without guns over the last 50 years.

AB: It was an expensive start.

DL: Back to environment. What are you showing us in your landscapes, that we are messing up the environment or that it is really beautiful?

AB: I'm saying it's beautiful in the same way as you might describe a bomb going off as beautiful, but it's extremely damaging. The landscape is always pristine, even when it's half dead, it's pristine.

When I go out to paint a landscape I'm less concerned with what it's about but more concerned with how it looks. Not putting any connotation. Paint it as it is, not as you would want it to be.

DL: The bathers at Shoalhaven, (Bathers with Skate and Halley's Comet, 1985) received the comment that narcissim shows no imagination, but hedonism shows no awareness. Are they spoilers of paradise?

AB: It would be very unlikely that they would be aware of being spoilers of paradise and if they are they don't know it. And it would be cruel to point it out if there was no hope of stopping it. If you want to inculcate guilt it's not very hard.

DL: How do we save paradise?

AB: We save paradise by an intense education program where you get people that you can trust to talk sanely about the environ ment and hope that the message will get through.

The paintings are not going to alter people's way of looking at things, so much. You might make them aware of what's around them or make them look. I don't think an effort or impression made on the landscape is going to show anyone anything. They've got to be able to see it themselves. I don't know if seeing things through art... the very word 'art' means deception...

DL: You've given pictures to Greenpeace, to the Save Albert Park Committee and to Jill Hickson (wife of former NSW Premier Neville Wran) to set up the Arthur Boyd Fund for Marine Mammals.

AB: I've only done them prints and things that they've sold and I've signed.

DL: But you are making the statement that you don't think the Victorian Grand Prix should be run in Albert Park.

AB: I don't think so. I don't know what a Grand Prix means except a lot of noise and air pollution. There's something a bit banal - whizzing around a track. You could do it anywhere. It's not very good. No good. I don't think they'll be able to stop it. If money is really tied up it is very difficult. It's hopeless, if there's big money in something.

DL: What do you think of politicians who support these plans, like Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, bulldozing them through?

AB: Kennett? Well, I don't like their politics. I'd love to believe that some people are better than others. I don't know about Mr Kennett. Except that I believe that he's not the best... but he mightn't be the worst either. He might be. There are priorities and that [the Grand Prix] is not one of them.

DL: What about Keating? He's said very nice things about you. He's got many facets.

AB: He's stuck his neck out in lots of areas and this [the Bundenon gift] was one of them. There's a liability in accepting any gift, especially if it's a gift with conditions. And the only condition of this gift is that it manages to keep going.

DL: And Keating as a representative of Australia on the world stage?

AB: I like his politics compared to Mr Menzies and a lot of other people, too. I think there a seriousness about him which is a bit gratifying to note. I don't think he's a bully. He's a measured soul and I think that is better than being a larrikin.

It's a pity about the English Labour Party. They've sold themselves out on socialism a bit.

DL: There aren't too many politicians that you do admire.

AB: It's not really something you can do to a politician, because the very word means diplomacy of some kind and I don't see how you can be diplomatic and get things done, if you're weaving around.

DL: They certainly did that over French atomic testing, with Gareth Evans initially saying it was better than it could have been and we shouldn't worry too much about it.

AB: Did he really say that?

DL: Something like that.

AB: ... Don't worry too much.

DL: And now he's pretty much out of the picture and Keating has taken over as the nationalist.

AB: No I don't like nationalism. It's a bad concept somehow. It involves flags - don't like flags. Never liked flags. Do you like flags? You wouldn't like flags.

DL: I like the National Aboriginal flag. It's gotten me out of trouble a number of times.

AB: I'm not sure that they're not picking up bad habits. My idea of an Australian flag is to have a black and a white woman or man or two men and two women, on the flag and when it fluttered in the wind they'd be writhing in a marvellously sensual way. Now they're not going to adopt that.

DL: On the nuclear issue, you said the French had used up all their good brains on their artists. It was very diplomatic.

AB: I thought that was probably a tactful way - not tactful - more pointed than just saying 'they're very bad' or something. They're very nationalistic the French - or they used to be. Very insular. Pretty arrogant.

DL: Are you disappointed in the Evans reaction?

AB: No. I wouldn't expect much else. I regret that. What do you do? Ban all Moet & Chandon? I don't think I would pour it down the sink. I could think of a better way of getting rid of it. I'd like a stronger response from everyone. But I don't know how. You can't make people respond.

DL: Why have you decided to give your life's possession to the people of Australia rather than leave it to your family?

AB: I doubt that I would have done it if my family had been destitute. I didn't want to see a repeat of the history of the family - as soon as the relevant people died, the houses were sold up and there were marvellous works which were just sold up for very little. I didn't want that to happen again. So gradually, Yvonne and I have built up this collection.

But there's thousands of pictures in public collections, which in one way would have been better if I'd kept them for here. Now, a law has been passed [in Victoria], that they have permission to sell any works whatsoever in their possession. Twenty years ago gifts were fairly sacred.

DL: What is the core philosophy of Arthur Boyd that says give it to the people. It's a great leap of socialism of some sort.

AB: I think it would be better if nobody owned anything, but they didn't starve. Had enough paint and enough pianos and everything else.

DL: So this is a personal act of redistribution of wealth?

AB: That's right. It's closer to an Aboriginal idea of property. Because they had this marvellous attitude to property.

DL: You want to rid yourself of possessions?

AB: I think everyone does eventually. But if you've got a family of squalling kids and nothing to live on, you'd think twice about it.

DL: You say people carry one vision through life. What's yours?

AB: I think that if I did a good picture, I'd hope it would have understanding and compassion of the subject and the world. And not just the subject, but in general. An attitude that would show that you are not doing anything brittle.

I don't like people stiffening up when I touch them. I don't want anyone to be unget-at-able. I want to be able to get at, and walk around, talk to and have a reciprocal relationship. Not one where you mustn't touch.

You should really have no territorial claims on anything. You should react in a compassionate way - and that's what I think a Prime Minister should have - compassion.

DL: Do you think Prime Minister Keating has compassion?

AB: I think it's possible. Whitlam certainly did. But I think Hawke was pretty intolerant.

Tiring at the end of a day which included meeting visitors to the property, a promotional video and an interview with the local paper, Arthur Boyd chatted as we walked to the car.

"You'd think language was simple. It's not. It's open to interpretation," Boyd says of the process of change through education... with a subtext for this writer. He's quick, very quick.

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