Heysen’s iconic landscapes on show

By Jess Teideman June 11, 2010
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Sweeping portraits of Australian scenes are on display for the first time in 30 years.

AN EXHIBITION SHOWCASING THE dramatic and captivating portraits of Australian landscapes is now open at the National Gallery in Canberra.

Sir Hans Heysen, one of Australia’s most beloved and pivotal artists, is known for his sweeping portraits of the beauty and soul of the Australian landscape. This exhibition is the first one to show Heysen’s work in over three decades.
“Hans Heysen’s landscapes were ground breaking in their time and helped the way we view the Australian landscape. Heysen made the monumental gum tree a hero of his nationalistic Federation-period pieces,” says Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia.

“He appealed to Australians at the beginning of federation when they were really wanting and needing a symbol and the wonderful gnarled ancient gum tree became that symbol,” he says.

Born in Germany, Heysen immigrated to Adelaide, South Australia with his family in 1884, at the age of seven. Showing early signs of artistic skills at school, he had bought his first paints at age 14 and within two years had sold his first piece of art, “The Wet Road”, to his tutor James Ashton, owner of the Northwood Art School.

One of his favoured areas was the Onkaparinga Valley, South Australia, where Heysen could often be seen walking about with his stool and paint box.

Heysen holds a distinctive place in the history of Australian landscape art. He won the Wynne prize nine times between 1904 and 1932, the Crouch prize in 1931, and the Maude Vizard-Wholohan prize in 1957.

He was knighted in 1959, and died at the age of 90 in July 1968.

Australian epiphany

Despite spending four years in Europe, Heysen’s epiphany on the style of art came to upon his return to Adelaide in 1903. He later reported that the impact of Australian light – as he sailed up St Vincent’s Gulf on the southern coast of Australia – was like a slap in the face, profoundly affecting his attitude and vision.

After that point, Heysen turned his back on the art styles of Europe and concentrated on Australian landscapes, embarking on one of the most successful careers in Australian art.

Featuring romantic visions of the Australian bush, his paintings were punctuated with rich, warm yellows and reds and his images were saturated in light and color, shunning the greens and blues of his European counterparts.

Heysen used his own property extensively for subject matter and many of his favourite trees were located on his estate, The Cedars. A dedicated conservationist, he often paid substantial sums of money to landowners and councils to ensure the gums were not logged for timber.

One of the world’s most scenic and longest walking trails, stretching from Cape Jervis to Parachilna Gorge, South Australia, a distance of 1500 kilometres, has been named after him. The Heysen Trail traverses eleven of his favoured painting locations from his estate.

Hans once said of his work: “I am only trying to paint as truthfully as I can and that which my eyes see and perhaps what I unconsciously feel. Truth to nature after all is the goal but truth interpreted through temperament – it all seems to become more precious and beautiful the older one grows – and more wonderful. We are given all these marvellous gifts and yet what proportion of mankind really understands and appreciates that which we can have for nothing.”

The artwork, usually hosted at the Art Gallery of South Australia, will be on show at the National gallery until July 11.

Walking the trail of Heysen’s lanscapes
AG expedition along the Heysen trail