Archive for August, 2014

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise – Room with a view

In this exercise we are asked to analyse a painting that has a window as a significant feature, and to consider some specific questions.

I have chosen From a distant land (1889) by David Davies. This narrative painting held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) tells a classic Australian story. A settler, doing it tough, has received a letter from “home” and is lost in thoughts of another land, far from the hot, harsh bush seen through the door. My choice is based on availability of the work to view in person and my preference to give an Australian twist to this course.

David Davies From a distant land David Davies
From a distant land
1889 oil on canvas

davies_02The picture presents the scene at a slight angle. There are repeated verticals across the frame, indicated in the diagram in red, but nothing quite horizontal – the green lines showing the floorboards slope down to the right. The view seems to be from a corner, allowing us to see the dark, worn interior and also directly out the doorway to the brightly lit land. Combined with elements of linear perspective used in the fireplace, it may seem that the picture is slightly tipping out of its frame.

davies_03This potential movement is countered by a series of opposing diagonals in the composition. Lines in the figure’s body, the tilt of the bird-cage, the axe that can barely be discerned in the corner, davies_04even the movement of the departing horse and rider, work together to bring visual balance.

The diagram above shows in light blue an extension of the lines of the fireplace. I don’t see this as a true vanishing point – the visual clues are both insufficient and inconsistent to provide this. However the lines do draw attention to an area of the wall that contains significant narrative information. The newspaper and photograph support the sense of a third location, the unseen distant land that is the title of the painting as well as presumably the source of the letter and the subject of the man’s reverie.

davies_06The interior includes a lovely still-life on the table, laying bare the raw simplicity of this bush life. The figure’s boots are worn, the rough wooden floor uncovered. There are few comforts in this existence.

The interior is generally in dull colours, tones of browns and greens with some touches of red and orange in the glow of the fire and skin tones. It has been described as “pure Gallery Tonalism” (Splatt and Burton, 1973, p.56). None of the lighting appears directly from the bright exterior. Instead the internal scene is lit from the high left front, augmented by some reflected firelight. The corner near the door is in very deep shadow, providing maximum contrast to the external view.

davies_05This is not the only contrast. The colours of the exterior are higher in value and also in saturation. There are clear, bright yellows, pinks and blues. There is a sense of space, but trees and possibly a hill hide the distance. There is no use made of aerial perspective. Brushstrokes are more fluid and pronounced. It is “purely of the Heidleberg School” according to Splatt and Burton (1973, p. 56). There is a general feel of freedom and openness, for example the birds wheeling amongst the trees in contrast to the caged bird in the interior – the man’s only living companion in his lonely days of toil.

Astbury (1985, p. 40) wrote of this painting: “The painting creates a mood of pervasive melancholy and quiet introspection … frugality and hardship of his existence. The continued influence of Folingsby and Longstaff’s winning picture is felt in the firmly drawn figure, the sombre interior and the melancholy sentiment.” This painting is a student work by Davies. From 1882 George Folingsby was art master at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, and under his tutelage a repeated compositional device was “a darkened room a door opens out to the glaring sun of the Australian bush, allowing the interior narrative element to expand into the outside world” (Art Gallery of New South Wales, [n.d.]). Examples by other students include Home Again (1884) by Frederick McCubbin now in the National Gallery of Victoria (, John Longstaff’s Breaking the news (1887) in the Art Gallery of Western Australia ( and Flood sufferings (1890) by Aby Altson in the National Gallery of Victoria (

Judging from photographs of the other works, Davies’ focus painting shows more of the external world. This is of particular interest because it has allowed the artist to combine an academic style of painting in the interior with the artist-led “Heidleberg School” techniques. This movement is associated with “Australian Impressionism” and its use by Davies heightens the contrast – the conflict – of interior and exterior, and the sense that the seated figure is out of his element, in a land that is very foreign to him. He is yearning not for the world outside his door, but for the world he remembers thousands of miles away.


Art Gallery of New South Wales ([n.d.]) Collection: David Davies [online] Available from
(Accessed 31-Aug-2014)

Astbury, L. (1985) City bushmen: the Heidleberg School and the rural mythology Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Splatt, W and Burton, B. (1973) 100 masterpieces of Australian painting Adelaide: Rigby

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Exercise – Room with a view
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Exercise – Room with a view

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil

In this exercise we are asked to “research some of the ways in which trompe l’oeil has been exploited in works of art, particularly in decorative schemes”.

Petrus Christus Portrait of a Carthusian 1446   Oil on wood

Petrus Christus
Portrait of a Carthusian (and detail)
1446 Oil on wood
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Trompe l’oeil” has been defined: “Term applied to a painting (or a detail of one) that is intended to deceive the spectator (if only briefly) into thinking that it is a real object rather than a two-dimensional representation of it” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 636 (2012 printing)).

On the right is an example from 1446 – a fly apparently perches on the edge of the lower frame. It displays the skill of the artist, highlights the brief moment represented, perhaps serves as a symbol, momento mori, and presents the viewer with a momentary puzzle and surprise. However the artist has gone further. The lay brother is shown in a space, the corner of a room. It’s very hard to appreciate with modern eyes, but everything about the picture is presenting an illusion of three-dimensional space.

In his later discussion Chilvers distinguishes trompe l’oeil from other “pictorial illusionism” such as quadratura. This he defines as ” as type of illusionistic decoration in which architectural elements are painted on wall and/or ceilings in such a way that they appear to be an extension of the real architecture of the room into an imaginary space” (Chilvers, 1990, p. 507 (2012 printing)).

Masaccio The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors 1425   fresco  Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

The Holy Trinity, with the Virgin and Saint John and donors
1425 fresco
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s fresco of the Holy Trinity includes amazing architectural features. It’s always dangerous to judge from photos, but the pilasters, attached columns and barrel vaulting of this image appear incredibly realistic, the tomb below projecting into the body of the church, the chapel opening out behind. Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 420-421) explain “with the aid of the new system of perspective Masaccio painted all the figures to scale and set them within a single unified space. … Two levels of reality, temporal and eternal, are … indicated”.

"Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)" by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway - Church of Sant'Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Andrea Pozzo
painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio.
“Church of SantIgnazio (448552660)” by Tore Urnes from Oslo, Norway – Church of Sant’Ignazio. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Masaccio’s work was created fairly soon after the re-discovery of linear perspective in the Renaissance. It is thought that he may have been advised or assisted in the work by Brunelleschi, a pioneer in the technique.

Just over 160 years later, Pozzo’s amazing painted ceiling in the Church of SantIgnazio was created. In the photographs I find it virtually impossible to determine what is physical architectural detail and what is part of the extraordinary paintwork. This allegorical fresco celebrates the triumph of Catholicism in the Counter-Reformation, and in particular the contribution of the Jesuits. The vision of heaven is apparently only completely convincing from a single point given the complexity of lines of perspective and optical illusion, but such details are lost in reproductions (or possibly most photographs are either cropped or taken from that particular position). The heathen and heretics tumble, Europe’s natural supremacy over all other continents is presented as natural, inevitable, perhaps ordained by god.

Discussing this work Honour and Fleming (2009, pp 576 – 577) explain the European attempt to impose order on the peoples discovered in the various voyages of discovery in the period. A classification system “which implied a process of social evolution from ‘savagery’ to civilization” was adopted supporting “the Christianization and commercial exploitation of the territory”.

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

Sacred Heart Church, Beagle Bay

In this light it is interesting to view the interior of the Sacred Heart in Beagle Bay. I included an image of the interior when writing about my recent trip to Western Australia (see 26-Aug-2014).

030The traditional owners of this land are the Nyul Nyul people, and they call this area Ngarlum Burr. The European name was given in 1838, the first Catholic missionary arrived in 1885, French trappist monks in 1890, replaced by German Pollottine missionaries in 1900. The church was designed prior to 1908, and was based on a photograph of a German village church. It was built 1915 to 1918 when wartime restrictions were placed on the movements of the German priests and brothers.

048I believe some of the wall painting and decoration with different shells goes beyond simple decoration, providing a brief impression of a real object, in particular in the treatment of the thurible (hanging censer).

Considered immediately after Pozzo’s work, it could seem possible that Sacred Heart church was another statement of the triumph over continents and peoples, imposing German architecture and christian beliefs, exploiting ‘savages’. Although very uncomfortable about our colonial history, I think that would be major distortion. The church remains the centre of an active parish. It “stands as a testimony to the generous work of generations of missionaries and Aboriginal people who have shared in the faith and aspirations of the Kimberley mission” (Kimberley Aviation, [n.d.]). The decoration includes tribal symbols of the local peoples as well as christian symbols. The woman who led the Sisters of St John of God to Beagle Bay has been quoted: “Remember, the natives did not ask us to come. We are here of our own choice and can only remain by their goodwill and the grace of God” (O’Brien, 1907).

After that side excursion I’ll finish with two more examples of trompe l’oiel – one all decoration, one quite different.

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Masino Castle, Italy: the ballroom
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The first is extensive work in the Castello di Masino. The ballroom frescos date from around 1730 and provide colour, movement and interest in a rather sparsely furnished room (see for a limited amount of additional information).

In the ballroom rows of windows, external landscapes and interior furnishings are all created in paint. The original fortress was destroyed in the sixteenth century, and the many frescos created in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I would have like to learn more about this and the reasons for the frescos. They appear to be purely a rich and elaborate decoration, but the extent of the work seems unusual. Would it be a display of wealth, or would the painted rooms be a cheaper way of richly “furnishing” the castle?

Finally Stephen Pong’s Broken Well, included in the current Archibald Prize exhibition. This three dimensional work is purely an exploration of optical illusion, with no decorative intent. The artist states “We perceive what we expect to see until our brain is confronted with conflicting information. This sculpture creates such conflict as a result of the interplay between the physics of light, reflection and inanimate objects. Mirrors were used to create an optical illusion of a dark, bottomless well. The brick wall perimeter was carefully constructed so as to merge seamlessly into the mirrored reflection. The gripping hand has been incorporated to represent a person hanging off the wall and about to meet an unknown fate akin to the struggles and outcomes encountered in one’s lifetime.” The work uses concealed lighting as well as mirrors and careful restriction of field of view to create a quite convincing illusion.


Chilvers, I. (1990, 2012) Oxford dictionary of art & artists Oxford: Oxford University Press

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Kimberley Aviation ([n.d.]) Sacred Heart Church Beagle Bay Information flier available at church.

Mother Antonio O’Brien (1907) quoted in signage in Relationships Exhibition at the Old Convent, Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre, Broome

UA1-WA:P5-p1-Research Point – Trompe l’oeil
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project one: The interior
Research Point – Trompe l’oeil

Broome to Perth holiday

DetailMapI’ve been away – 16 days and almost 12,000 km (6,820 by air, 4,990 by road, and miscellaneous extras by boat). My mother and I flew direct from Sydney to Broome, a day trip up the Dampier Peninsula to Cape Leveque (Chomley’s Tours – highly recommended), wandered down to Perth (Outback Spirit – very highly recommended), then flew back to Sydney via Melbourne. This is a Big country.

We travelled with Outback Spirit last year too, exploring Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula, and I found that impossible to describe in a simple post (see my attempt 29-Aug-2013). This post will be just as incomplete – even more so as I’m saving some items for OCA course-related posts. For now a few photographs will have to suffice.

Overwhelmingly we saw land.

We saw water.

Lots of plants and animals,

and the traces of mankind.


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

August 2014

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.