Hans Heysen by Lou Klepac
One of the Giants in Australian Art
28 March 2017
Hans Heysen is one of the giants of Australian art and one of the greatest draughtsmen Australia has ever produced. No one has the same sense of structure or imaginative power. He completely changed how generations of Australians responded to the landscape.
However, his life spanned a period of change in art, and his achievement as an artist was overshadowed. His immense early fame and popularity caused later generations to dismiss him as part of an older, out-of-fashion Australia. Heysen’s world, of gums, horses and rural life, had no place in this new Australia, which was the domain of modern artists, many of them interested in social change and revolt. Heysen’s many inferior imitators had proliferated landscapes of gums and sheep, which had also created a prejudice against his subject matter. This prejudice has been so ingrained that even now few modernist-orientated curators can look objectively at Heysen’s works. To understand Heysen one needs to look at his work in a different way – to see how it evolved, and how he changed our view of Australian landscape.
At the end of 1903 after four years’ study abroad, Heysen returned home and set out to conquer Australia. Having sent some of his works for exhibition in Sydney in 1904, he had a major work acquired by the National Gallery of NSW, was awarded the first of nine Wynne Prizes for landscape; and when the other large work was returned to Adelaide it was acquired by the National Gallery of South Australia. By the end of 1904 he and his fiancé, Sally Bartels, were able to get married.
No artist has achieved such an immediate success and in such a short time. By 1912 he was able to acquire The Cedars in Hahndorf, where he spent the rest of his life, leaving behind one of the great serious and sustained artistic legacies in Australian Art. Most important of all it is the vision of nature and the magical light and atmosphere that one finds in his work, which is his legacy. Those who only see ‘gum trees’ do him great injustice.
Find out more about the legacies of Hans and Nora Heysen at Rediscovering Hans Heysen, Sunday 2 April 2017.