FRIEND, Donald; Adam and Eve
In his search for tropical and exotic environments the prominent Australian artist, Donald Friend (1915–89), made numerous visits to north Queensland and also spent time in Nigeria, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) before finally settling in Bali. The first of Friend’s series of decorative doors — which are among his largest, most complex and engaging works — was painted in Brisbane in 1955 for Robert Haines, then director of the Queensland Art Gallery.
Friend produced an outstanding array of decorative paintings while he was living in Ceylon. He departed his home at Hill End, New South Wales in the company of Timothy, the son of his close friend Russell Drysdale and arrived in Sri Lanka in 1957, which was to be his home for the next four years. Amongst Friend’s first commission was a pair of trompe l'oeil doors titled An exotic garden viewed at different levels (purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1988), which he painted on the estate of architect, Bevis Bawa. Other commissions, such as the door-panel Adam and Eve, soon followed.
The top panel of the Adam and Eve door depicts the Biblical story of Adam in the Garden of Eden receiving an apple from Eve and feeding the serpent with another. The entire scene and its elaborate foliage is shown as a bouquet presented by the hand of God. The bottom panel depicts the Greek legend of Orpheus playing his lyre to tame wild beasts. The four smaller panels are also quasi-mythological: a sleeping satyr; a naked winged female figure in a night sky, figures fleeing from an erupting volcano and an Egyptian couple seated in a papyrus boat.
This panel bears many similarities to the City of Galle mural, which was commissioned in 1961 by Mackinnon Mackenzie & Company, then the premier shipping agency in Ceylon. The fortified city of Galle, then the premier port, was established in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese. Friend depicts the busy activity of the port in the large central panel — the walls of which suggest a medieval city with 12 small panels of birds, animals and scenes indigenous to the area at each end — with the whole unified by the richly gilt ground.
The character of Sienese paintings of the early Renaissance in disjunctive perspectives and elaborate tree and flower patterns is also reflected in Adam and Eve. This panel is a charming melange of Friend’s experience and influences: the structure of the Orisha shrine doors he saw in Nigeria in 1938–40, lustrous gold leaf grounds, and a blithe mixture of Christian icons and Greek mythology. Although the early history of the door-panel is not known it is probable that the panel was commissioned by a British expatriate whose tastes, like that of Friend himself, leaned to Christian and Greco-Roman mythology.
Donald Friend was a leading figure in art and architectural decoration during the short time he spent in Ceylon and his example and visual legacy inspired the next generation of Ceylonese artists. Adam and Eve is one of Friend’s decorative masterpieces and merits his description of a related door, which could well be used to describe the artist himself: ‘brilliant, complicated, sumptuous and slightly absurd’.
Adam and Eve is a decorative tour de force and the most significant work by Donald Friend in the Queensland Art Gallery Collection.
Glenn Cooke, Artlines 1-2011, p.36.