Fred Williams is an artist who, perhaps more than any other, challenged the colonial gaze, dismantling the classical perspective of traditional European painting.
In its place, he presented a more immediate and experiential vision of the Australian landscape. He studied in Melbourne at the National Gallery and George Bell schools (1944–49) before moving to London in 1952 where he studied at the Chelsea School of Art. Upon returning to Australia in 1957 Williams was struck anew by the light, scale and featurelessness of the landscape and it became the main preoccupation of his practice. He applied the formal lessons learnt from the French Post-Impressionists Georges Braque and Paul Cézanne to create his own abstract language to describe the unique qualities of the Australian bush.
From 1963-69, Williams lived with his family at Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. The title of his painting Lysterfield (c.1966) refers to a nearby semi-rural area to which, attracted by the sparseness of its landscape, he frequently returned. Unlike more traditional approaches to the landscape which are structured around significant formal features in the landscape, Williams sought to capture its unremarkable aspects, its qualities of sameness and repetitiveness. As the artist acknowledged in an interview with James Gleeson: ‘Yes, it is monotonous … it is perfectly true that in Australia there is no focal point … ’ In this work, Williams translates this observation into paint utilising the formal devices of abstraction: flattening the picture plane and dividing it into horizontal bands to denote foreground, middle ground and sky. This geometrical division generates the space upon which the artist applies his fluent daubs and textured strokes to evoke the trees and scrub which populate this nondescript stretch of bushland. The narrow range of earth tones and densely coloured array of sculpted painterly forms uncannily corresponds to our experience of this kind of endless but instantly recognisable landscape of scattered trees and open plains.
- Fred Williams, ‘James Gleeson interviews: Fred Williams’, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 3 October 1978, p. 5, http://nga.gov.au/ Research/Gleeson/pdf/Williams.pdf accessed 10 February 2015.