Interior landscapes by Elisabeth Cummings. ANU Drill Hall Gallery. Until April 9.
Elisabeth Cummings is a veteran Sydney-based painter aged in her early 80s, who is the subject of a survey exhibition curated by Sioux Garside, which is commencing its NSW tour at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery.
Although in recent years, Cummings has been lionised by some in the Sydney art establishment, she is less well known nationally and hence a thumbnail biography is in order. She was born in Brisbane in 1934, the daughter of an architect and a teacher. At the age of 19, Cummings moved to Sydney and studied at the East Sydney Tech, which was the leading art school north of the Murray River.
On being awarded the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship, she spent the next decade in Europe, based mainly in Florence, but with extended visits to France and a spell at the School of Vision in Salzburg with Oskar Kokoschka.
Cummings was back in Sydney in 1969, where she commenced teaching at East Sydney Tech on a part-time basis, as well as at numerous other art schools, something that she continued to do for the next 30 years.
In 1970 she settled in Wedderburn, a rural retreat outside Campbelltown on the Georges River south of Sydney, together with a group of other artists. Today she divides her time between Wedderburn and Sydney.
There have been several survey exhibitions devoted to Cummings' art – in 1996, 1997, 2012 and 2013 – but this is the only one to be shown in Canberra. The older Canberra art audience would be familiar with her work through frequent exhibitions held at the Chapman Gallery between 1997 and 2005.
Cummings is an artist who has improved with age and although she has always been a competent painter, it is only over the past few decades at Wedderburn that she has found her own voice. In some of her earlier paintings, she employs the lingua franca of painters emerging out of East Sydney Tech in the 1950s with their John Passmore-inspired interpretations of Cézanne.
In other paintings, including the glowing Interior (1974), Cummings embraced a little too closely the French Intimist painters, Vuillard and Bonnard, coupled with an awareness of the late painted interiors of Grace Cossington Smith. Giorgio Morandi was another of her early gods that she brought back from Europe and integrated into her art practice.
The best of Cummings' paintings at this exhibition generally take the landscape as a point of departure, which she interprets with confident, sweeping gestural marks that negate the literalness of the image. Her earlier, heavily and thickly painted canvases subsequently gave way to a lightness of touch with a drier, scrappier surface that could bring to mind a parallel with Ian Fairweather. Wedderburn Spring (1993) is one of her early major canvases, while Granite country (2015) is a beautifully controlled painting, where heavily textured areas are contrasted with passages of breathing calligraphic lightness. I am not aware of Cummings' exposure to the work of the late Cy Twombly, but obvious parallels spring to mind.
The exhibition breathes with freshness, energy and great visual excitement. The paintings, almost without exception, are beautifully structured, highly personal, lyrical and frequently possess a touch of whimsy. The work is frequently understated, humble and lacks the pomposity of some of her male counterparts.
The ranking of artists is not the role of contemporaries, but belongs to posterity. However, Cummings has suffered decades in which she has been overlooked by curators and now has been heralded as one of our neglected greats.
She is, without doubt, a good painter and an interesting printmaker (pity that none of her great monotypes are included in this exhibition), but how does she compare with her contemporaries, such as Michael Taylor, Yvonne Audette and John Olsen? Looking at this exhibition, she may not be as consistent, intense and diverse as these three artists but, nevertheless, Cummings is a free creative spirit who has created a very personal and intimate relationship with the landscape that she has grown to understand "from the inside".
This sense of excitement and intimacy is shared passionately with her audience and perhaps more convincingly than many other artists.
While Cummings' formative years were spent in Florence, setting her main direction in her art, she subsequently discovered Arshile Gorky, Frank Auerbach, Richard Diebenkorn and Ken Whisson, among others, and managed to emancipate herself from her early sources without rejecting them. She has created her own distinctive, vibrant, yet intimate image of the Australian landscape imbued with a distinctly female sensibility.