Fred Williams bigraphy, stories - Australian painter

Fred Williams : biography

23 January 1927 - 22 April 1982

Frederick Ronald (Fred) Williams OBE (23 January 192722 April 1982) was an Australian painter and printmaker. He was one of Australia’s most important artists, and one of the twentieth century’s major painters of the landscape. He had more than seventy solo exhibitions during his career in Australian galleries, as well as the exhibition Fred Williams - Landscapes of a Continent at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1977.


After mainly working with figures in early paintings and etchings, he began painting landscapes after returning to Melbourne in 1957, which remained the major theme in his art.

While learning etching and printing in London, he produced vivid caricatured sketches of contemporary London life. It was during this period that he established his method of reworking the same motif a number of times in a number of mediums and very often over a number of years.

As an artist concerned with form over subjectivity, Williams' approach struck a jarring note against the unity of many of his close associates such as John Brack, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman, the authors of the famous ‘Antipodean’ manifesto of 1959. Williams' work was excluded from their major exhibition. As heirs to the expressionist tradition, the Antipodeans lauded a spontaneous, improvised approach to painting and saw the function of art as vested in its expressive potential. They had little time for - and, in fact, denounced - the 'new' art emerging from Europe, the influences which were increasingly informing Williams' development.

On his return to Australia, Williams saw the aesthetic potential of the Australian bush in its inherent plasticity. His interest in finding an aesthetic 'language' with which to express the very un-European Australian landscape. This was grounded in establishing a pictorial equivalent to the overwhelmingly vast, primarily flat landscape, in which the traditional European relationship of foreground to background breaks down, necessitating a complete re-imagining of compositional space. In this, Williams looked to the approach taken by Australian Aboriginal artists.

He did this by tilting the landscape up against the picture plane, so that frequently the only indicator of horizontal recession is the presence of a horizon line, or where clumps of trees huddle closer together towards the horizon, suggesting recession. Where no horizon is visible, the landscape runs fully parallel to the picture plane, as in the major You Yangs series of the mid-1960s. Here, calligraphic knots of pigment indicate the presence of single trees against the earth, as if seen from the air ().

Williams' first Australian landscape series was based on the Nattai River (1957–58).

Williams' landscapes recorded the passage of the Yarra River from its source to its mouth.

In 1960, Williams was invited to enter for the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Art Scholarship, the richest and most prestigious art prize at the time with an award of £1000 plus £300 travel expenses aimed at giving the winner overseas experience.Mollison (p. 48.) Five paintings were required for his entry and he selected Landscape with a steep road (1957), Landscape with a building I (c. 1957–58), The forest pond (c. 1959–60), Sherbrooke Forest (1960) and The St George River (1960). He won in 1963 and it proved to be a turning point in his career which, according to fellow artist Jan Senbergs, brought Williams wide acclaim, especially from many influential curators and critics. Sydney art dealer Rudy Komon took Williams on as one of his key artists which enabled Williams to discontinue his part-time work with a Melbourne picture-framer and paint full-time.

In 1969, Williams started using a horizontal strip format in his landscape paintings in order to present different aspects of one scene on the same sheet. In 1970, Williams produced a group of four large strip format gouache-on-paper paintings called the West Gate Bridge series showing the half-constructed West Gate Bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne. A section of the bridge collapsed on 15 October 1970, while it was still under construction, killing thirty-five workers. Williams had planned to paint the length of the river, but his widow, Lyn said he "lost heart in the project" after the accident. In his Beachscape with bathers Queenscliff I-IV series from 1971, Williams painted from the top of a cliff overlooking the beach during a seaside holiday. Each sheet is broken horizontally into four separate strips representing a different time of day and corresponding shift in the colour and tone of the scene as Williams recorded the effects of light on the landscape. By 1971 he had developed the technique extensively, moving from a vertical format to a horizontal format.

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