”I work on the assumption that I don’t want to impose anything on the landscape. I don’t care where the landscape is… Just so long as it’s the sort of place where I can work freely.’’  Fred Williams (1978) from Queensland Art Gallery


Australian artist Fred Williams (1927-1982) may have said he didn’t care where the landscape was, but I think he did. After all, when he was in London for five years he thought of himself as a figure painter. Even his etchings were of people in the London music halls.

Place changes people. It changes the way we interact. It makes us see things differently. When Williams stepped off the boat on his return to Australia in 1956, he was struck by the light and landscape of his country. What did he want to paint?  Gum trees, he said.

And that was how Williams became ”Australia’s greatest 20C landscape painter,’’ according to Angela Goddard, one of the curators at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. The National Gallery in Australia says ”he revolutionized the way we see and think about the Australian landscape.’‘

I pop into the Queensland Art Gallery to hear a talk on Williams. Until yesterday I’d never heard of him. In fact, before I came here I sent an email to a friend asking whether his paintings were worth seeing.
I like his paintings, the way he captures an Australia that I recognize: the layers of dry barren colours, the raised horizon lines, the vastness, the movement of humidity in the subtropics. I like the Japanese and Chinese influence, the calligraphic tendencies of some of the pieces.After the talk I wander around the gallery.  I can see how other earlier landscapes by Australian artists of the European tradition look distinctly English, as if the artist were trying to paint English order and light and colour onto this random chaos of continent.

It is a pictorial representation of Australia’s conflicted identity.

Perhaps the greatness of Williams is that he painted a landscape that many Australians had never admired before because they were raised and nurtured on everything British: novels, history, food.
Perhaps what makes him so revered here is not that his work hangs in the Tate Gallery and the British Museum in London and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but that he validated this land for the descendants of convicts and settlers. He taught those people to see Australia for all its difference and uniqueness and to admire it for what it is.Imagine what people could have learned from Aboriginal artists.

Another example of Australia’s conflicted identity.