BOYD, Arthur; Sleeping bride
Alongside his contemporaries Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd is among the towering figures of the Australian modernist movement. From his celebrated allegorical series of paintings titled ‘Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste’ — often known as ‘the brides’ — Sleeping bride 1957–58 is one of the Victorian-born artist’s defining contributions to Australian art. Boyd’s ‘brides’ persist to this day as one of Australia’s most intriguing and immediately iconic series, next to Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ paintings and Tucker’s ‘Images of Modern Evil’, both from the 1940s.
Born in 1920 into a family of artists, potters and sculptors, Arthur Boyd is arguably the most pictorially and creatively inventive of the twentieth-century Australian painters. Early in his career, he was drawn to a mutable and occasionally explosive form of expressionist figuration — most were Melbourne-centric, a playing out of the psychic end-dramas of a world consumed by war. At the outset of a career characterised by unending stylistic oscillation, he soon found a rhythmic and pictorial reset in the bucolic hills around his Berwick home. By then, Boyd had located what would be a lasting affinity with both European art history and its Christian symbolism and mythology.
In 1953, Boyd took what became a definitive trip to central Australia. He visited artist Rex Battarbee, who’d had such a formative influence on Albert Namatjira; travelled on the Ghan from Port Augusta to Alice Springs; then finally ventured out to the former mining settlement of Arltunga, where he camped and drew incessantly. For the first time, Boyd encountered Indigenous Australians in shanty towns along dry riverbeds, living under corrugated iron in squalor and abject isolation from the nearby white population. This had a stunning and lasting effect.
The watershed series that arose from this encounter, and to which Sleeping bride belongs, didn’t fully crystalise in Boyd’s imagination until 1957–58, when he painted 16 ‘bride’ pictures, first shown under the title ‘Allegorical Paintings’ at Australian Galleries in Melbourne, then in Adelaide and Sydney. The series eventually consumed him and he went on to create more than 40 major paintings, this one included, leading up to 1960, with the last executed in London. Although there is no coherent narrative linking the works in the series, unlike Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’, different paintings register very different levels of cultural agency, tension and even violence, giving the ‘brides’ a ballad-like cadence. The crux of the story is the doomed affair between a man of mixed-race and his so-called ‘half-caste’ bride who, in some paintings, also appears in reflection or as an ethereal doppelganger. This marked a turning point for Boyd, and for the representation of Indigenous Australians by artists of European descent.
The ‘brides’ were painted in the later years of the federal government’s assimilation policy and the Stolen Generations, which saw children of mixed race removed from their homes. Indeed, this history is embedded in these elusively episodic, psychological, and sometimes brutal paintings. In the rhythm of the series, however, Sleeping bride marks a comparatively tender interval, an exhalation of breath, a rare vision of the bride alone. The dark, blue-tinged landscape — likely set by Boyd in the Great Dividing Range — puts us in an ambiguous realm of half-light. Perhaps it’s an early morning light not yet fully awakened, like the bride, from a suspended dream state. This is, indisputably, 1950s Australia.
There is also the symbolic anatomy of this painting, a very particular ‘Boydian’ iconography, which includes a luminous green scarab beetle, an Egyptian symbol that refers to the rebirth of the sun each day; a hybrid ram and ox, entirely invented by the artist to suggest strength and fertility; and, of course, the crow, harbinger of doom or death. Finally, there is the posy of flowers. They could denote an imminent or recent wedding, or foretell a funeral — and might not the blue ones be anemones, ancient Christian symbols of sorrow and death? Taken together, Boyd is registering a remarkably complex state of mind, one in which his bride finds herself abandoned to her sleep.
Sleeping bride is an exemplary painting from a highly significant moment in Australian art history, one that will dramatically expand the dialogue we can create involving our holdings of works by Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Albert Tucker and William Dobell, as well as Boyd himself. This major, mid-century modernist painting from the artist’s most prominent series will have an unmatched effect on our Collection. As influential critic and curator Bryan Robertson, who first showed the ‘brides’ at Zwemmer Gallery in London, once said:
These paintings do not require any explanation.
They speak with their own voice of something
which the artist feels very passionately. They
are tough pictures, filled with an almost lurid . . .
intensity of movement, stillness and colour.
And it is just that: a deeply felt, deeply human painting.