There was a short item in last Saturday’s Age on one of my favourite painters, Hans Heysen (1877-1968).
Heysen did not view his role as an artist in the modernist way as being to provoke, shock, break down or unsettle. He succeeded in what I consider to be the true role of an artist, namely to literally “inspire” – to communicate to an audience a higher, spiritual experience.
He did so through what might seem to be unpromising material: paintings of cows in gum forests bathed in early morning light. When you see these paintings, though, you are drawn into the heightened response to nature which Heysen wanted to convey.
I admire Heysen also for his success in family life and for establishing a fine home, The Cedars, which is now a popular tourist destination close to Adelaide.
What I hadn’t been aware of until I read the Age story were the difficult circumstances in which Heysen began his career.
Heysen originally worked selling eggs and butter on his father’s cart, and had to wait for Sundays and holidays to sketch and paint. Then in 1899 an Adelaide pawnbroker recognised his talent and agreed to buy a number of paintings each week.
This allowed Heysen to paint full-time, but there were still financial hardships: Heysen was reduced to living off boiled rice and sleeping on a bare floor.
When I read this, I thought of the feminists who argue that male artists got where they did through patriarchal privilege. In so many cases, including that of Heysen, this is patently untrue. Male artists often had to take great risks and endure considerable poverty to develop their talents.