In 1859 the French poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire, famously distinguished between two kinds of artists: the ‘realists’ and the ‘imaginatives’. “A realist wants to represent things as they are, or rather supposing that (the self) did not exist”. And imaginatives “want to illuminate things with (their) mind, and to reflect (their) reflection upon other minds”.
One is tempted to say that a Romantic artist then is an imaginative realist, successfully synthesising “two absolutely contrary methods” of making art. But from Baudelaire’s point of view that would be a mistake.
The imaginatives do not copy nature - only copying nature, the realist doctrine that Baudelaire called the “enemy of art”. Rather they treat nature “in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul”. The problem is that as Baudelaire acknowledged, the imagination is mysterious; the rules if there are any, are unclear.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
And while Baudelaire insisted that the imagination still “demands” adherence to the disciplines or systems of making art, in all its forms, he felt he could only truly comprehend disorderly imagination through its products – “the monsters of my fancy” - insisting that “all the faculties of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination”.
Baudelaire argued that the “whole visible universe … is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform”. He celebrated the innate “originality” of the imagination, its power of “analysis and synthesis” in order to deconstruct and reconstruct “external nature”.
But he offered no further explanation or understanding of the rules it follows, implying that it has none, that there is something unruly about the imagination. The rules it follows can only be found at the furthest depths of the soul, an unfathomable place. He only knew that monsters rose from the depths of the imagination.
(Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, 1857)
William Robinson, Evening clouds, Nundimbah
Writing in 2016, two time Archibald prize winning (1987, 1995) acclaimed Australian artist William Robertson reflected on his inspiration, referencing Afanasy Fet, a Russian poet heavily influenced it is said by Baudelaire’s reflections on intimate relationships and half-forgotten memories.
I am eighty and for a while now the subject matter of my painting has shifted from the landscape to my house and garden. But my mind is never far from the farms and animals and they too are very close to where I live.
I remember a film made in 1956 when Picasso was a little younger than I am now. The French filmmaker was Henri-Georges Clouzot. The drawn images of Picasso were spontaneous and from memory. He went back over several motifs and I saw that in old age the artist had a whole visual history that he drew from. There was no sense that the artist should hesitate before re-reading the images of his life.
William Robinson, Blue Pools Springbrook, Springbrook to Beechmont Photo: QUT
William Robinson, Evening landscape with pandanus (2006) Photo: QUT
I did a great deal of teaching in Colleges and now if I am asked what advice I would give to young artists, I would say make a life, (and) create your art out of this life.
I am indeed fortunate that I made this life with my wife and family and they provide the life-spring for my art. This is always related to where we have lived – in the suburbs, on farms and near to the sea and some travelling ...
There is a short poem by Afanasy Fet which seems to say what is important and what is left:
My genius, my angel, my friend
Is it not here that, like an insubstantial shadow,
My genius, my angel, my friend,
You converse quietly with me
And hover quietly around?
And you give me timid inspiration,
And heal this sweet sickness,
And give me peaceful dreams,
My genius, my angel, my friend!
(William Robinson, ‘The artist’s garden, house and memories’, Australian Galleries, 22 June 2016)
Afanasy Fet (1820-1892)
Two years later, an exhibition of Robinson's drawings, 'Genesis' returns from Washington DC and Paris to the regional Victorian town of Hamilton. The accompanying exhibition notes say of this collection of drawings,
Since the 1960s, Robinson has produced hundreds of works in watercolour, graphite, gouache, and ink, as well as lithographs and etchings, created both as studies related to paintings and as independent works.
The exhibition brings together a selection of more rarely seen works alongside those that have been exhibited more widely, allowing the viewer to clearly see the development of Robinson’s distinctive use of colour and the artist’s move towards the multidimensional perspective for which his large landscape paintings are so acclaimed.
William Robinson, Creation landscape: Earth and sea 1995 (detail) Photo: QUT
While the spectacular hinterland of South East Queensland has provided unparalleled inspiration for much of Robinson's work, the artist draws equally upon his imagination and his capacity to summon memories and visual impressions of places he has experienced, offering a new understanding of Robinson's sophisticated vision of his lived environment, and how, while providing source material, the landscape is never a mere representation but an emblem of Robinson's world view.
William Robinson, Passing storm Photo: QUT
Robinson’s originality distinguishes his imagined landscapes from the art of the Australian Romantic realist and impressionist landscape painters of the 19th and 20th centuries and beyond. Robinson's inspiration is drawn from deep within his psyche, intimate relationships and experiences, forming indeed the life-spring and quiet inspiration for his imaginative imagery.
William Robinson Photo: QUT
Main Photo: William Robinson (1936 –), The sea with morning sun from Springbrook 1996 Photo: QUT Art Collection
William Robinson:Genesis runs to 22 July 2018 at Hamilton Gallery, Victoria and travels to Sydney's S.H. Ervin Gallery from 3 August to 7 October 2018
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia