Lloyd Rees - Review of European Sketchbooks at the AGNSW

Published Monday, February 18, 2002

The 19 sketchbooks on display in this exhibition cover the four major European tours of Lloyd Rees and his wife Margaret between 1953 and 1967.

Rees was a prolific draughtsman; he began sketching around Brisbane when he was a young man and continued the practice of sketching throughout his life. He first traveled to Europe in 1923 to meet with his friend, the sculptor Daphne Mayo, but the sketchbooks from that period were lost. So the sketchbooks on display in this exhibition date from his subsequent trip in 1953.

Lloyd Rees is one of the few prominent Australian artists who did not live for an extended period of time in Europe, unlike his peers and younger contemporaries. Apparently, Rees was content to reside in Australia and periodically travel to Europe as a tourist rather than an expatriate. Does this diminish or enhance our view of his European sketches? This is one of the questions you may ask yourself as you walk around the exhibition. The sketches are by nature ephemeral, not produced for, or with any expectation of being seen by, a large audience. They were created as part of the daily routine in Rees’ professional life as an artist keeping his skills tuned by sketching. For Rees, holiday snapshots were better drawn than photographed and in these sketches we sense his discipline and pride in his hard work

What did he choose for his subjects? Well, the normal tourist attractions –the Eiffel Tower viewed from the Tuileries, village streets in Portugal and Spain, landscapes in Tuscany, all however, captured in a totally natural manner. Those who know Lloyd Rees’ beautiful drawings of rocky outcrops by the harbour and cuttings in and around Sydney are aware of the fidelity of his pictures, his empathy with natural forms and the relationship between architecture and the environment.

So it is with interest that we view the selection of subjects he chose to render - images from Chartres, where he stood, like many before and after, in awe of this cathedral and its extraordinary atmosphere, sensual Tuscan vistas and twisting village streets. All the images displayed on the occasions I visited this exhibition were timeless – there is no reference to the industrial society and more broadly to the 20th century.

What of the drawings themselves? Beautiful, crystal clear lines displaying a mastery of line and containment of light and shadow. In his later sketches colour washes were also used but to my eye the simple sketches are the most beautiful. While the sketches from the later trips are noticeably looser they retain the characteristic charm of his earlier drawings. What never seems to evolve is the subject matter – timeless views of rustic life and cities unblemished by industrialization.

Think for a moment about world events during this period: the Cold War, the developing crisis in Vietnam, and growing civil unrest in America and parts of Europe, all things Japanese were considered with suspicion, and contrast the relative prosperity and stability in Australia In these images from Europe, we witness simple, happy scenes nothing of post war or the Cold War has spoilt his vision of Europe – and that is more than just Rees’ perception: it is what Australia at large was like at the time.

By Martin Shub, February 2002

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