Fiona Somerville

Fiona Somerville has met the challenge of the light of the Australian desert. The fun of her paintings distracts from her technical achievement. Sustained by masterful drawing, she paints history in place.

Fiona Somerville was born in Adelaide, where nineteenth century European settlers built a stately colonial city on the fertile coastal plain, surrounding it with a formal ring of parks, the town plan emphasising the cool of the Torrens River. The city climbs up its surrounding hills; it seems every citizen is a gardener. But however domesticated, europeanised – the place is circled by the South Australian desert, and the light of the city is the clear bright desert light that bleaches colour. How to convey that relentless light, its effect on perception? The problem remains with artists from South Australia, wherever they go: Jeffrey Smart took the glare of the coastal plain to Italy, Hans Heysen gave us the mists and shifting light of the hills; Clifton Pugh’s South Australian desert dealt with the vast spaces and the high skies. Fiona Somerville’s technique provides the shifting absolute bleaching effect that affects the way you see things out there.

Somerville spent three years at Prahran Tech (now Prahran College) studying drawing, then another three years at the Victorian College of the Arts; it can be expected that her approach to her work is conscious and methodical. To convey the light and its effect, the surface is first striped with colour, then washed with multiple thin layers of white house paint, so they become soft and blurry. In the desert, it’s a struggle to see. Somerville conveys that struggle.

As we walked to the pub with Winkie the Australian Terrier, I thought about art itself, the work of the artist. An ophthalmologist researching artists’ eyes told me they varied from the normal: does the desire to “be” an artist derive from a need to show what you see, because what you say you see doesn’t accord with what people around you see? It is always show and tell for visual artists. Whatever the experience or event or idea, the purpose is to distil it and convey that distillation.

James Gleeson, in Australian Painters (Lansdowne Press, 1976), wrote of the Australian Impressionists: “At this point, in Australia, there were still great stretches of the country that had never been seen by an artist. For Australian painters the imperative task was to clarify their vision of the country and to establish its appearance in art.” In 2009 in Modern Painters 1931-70 (also published by Lansdowne) he added that for three-quarters of the twentieth century, even Fred Williams and Sidney Nolan “turned their backs on the central aesthetic problems of our time and have felt compelled to complete the work begun more than eighty years ago by the Impressionists.”

Artists consider art history: or one could say, look at each other’s work. The sticks that float about Somerville’s pictures such as House Rain and Flies, 2013 or Goldmine, 2015, were suggested by the sticks in Nolan’s 1946 Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan. Somerville’s pictures are landscape: she is using ideas suggested by the landscape to engage with aesthetic problems. Whatever the experience to distil, the idea to convey, the material thing, she examines through art history and articulates through elements of and objects on the landscape.

She is interested in space; she’d like to do an MA looking at Rubens’s and Fernand Léger’s approach to space. Usually, space is indicated by perspective points; Rubens and Léger manage the eye through a grid. Both use a stage: they fill the proscenium, the wings, and then the backdrop provides the illusion of depth. Deconstructing perspective, Three Storeys, 2023, adds theatricality to disintegration. The ropes might be steel, holding a window together, or of a structure on its way to restoration.

Somerville lives in what was a town built in the gold rush; near enough to Melbourne to have tree changers and people wanting a holiday home. Where thirty thousand once lived, there are now four hundred. We walk past restored brick and stone buildings and converted official buildings; in what is now only a village, past abandoned houses lonely and decaying in nearby paddocks. So history is both present and vividly absent.

Her paintings consider all this, and they have the desert in mind. Somerville sees the landscape, its multifarious histories. The curved formal marks are sand. These lines as sand began before Somerville came to live in the Wimmera, and here that method has settled. The sand/hills reference is not surprising. Somerville doesn’t mention dunes, nor that sand everywhere moves and shifts, but as she shows me more pictures —Boree, 2021, or the 2023 Boort Scene, for example, the movement of the pattern across each picture, and from one to another, suggests those possibilities.

There are small circular marks across the paintings. She calls them dots, explaining the dots are flies, that you are never without flies out there. The dots also serve a purpose in the composition: crisp against the blurred white-on-colour, in Batch and Borée, and Steel Humpy, both 2016, they catch the eye, beside the vivid compressed images, making the background recede. This creates space, so that the action is located in a shallow foreground, framed: as if on a stage, or looking out from a verandah. Sometimes, as in Louth Tower, 2017, she outlines an interior shape, to emphasise the stage effect. The background becomes the pale sky, leaching colour, forcing the eye to work to see in that unpolluted air.

In traditional realist painting, Somerville says, an object within the picture, or going beyond the edge of the picture, was ok. But the illusion of three dimensions ends if it leans against the edge. Leaning Hut, 2022, has some thin logs: sticks, really; and corrugated iron. With a descending section of a brick wall, they lean against the edge of the picture. The dots hold the background in place. So she’s solved that problem of perception.

She remarks later that her paintings are not drawn in the way some artists draw; but her drawing certainly supports the paintings. There are dwellings, abandoned, houses, a garage, Besser-Brick lavatories: MEN and WOMEN. Her trees are all very formal: Mulga, the desert tree, especially the grey droopy Borée, 2021. Bunchy branches appear again and again like the sand shapes and the building materials, always patterned but not formulaic. The building materials are precisely rendered, whether Somerville is painting a disintegrating architectural image, or slices of corrugated iron, sections of a brick wall, cables or ropes, or tubular sticks of wood flying through the air or floating on the waves of sand. The composition of the paintings is…informed by geometry, but nothing is flat or rigid. The objects, even a grid of arches, are three dimensional and fluid. Even in those paintings where the dwelling is whole, where the sand is contained by a picket fence and is not about to enter the building — where no sections of corrugated iron float or fall — where logs of wood pipes form patterns as they move across the canvas: in Cloud, where rain dangles like strings from a cloud, Somerville controls the images in space.

Despite powerful contemporary interpretations of place, the form being used to raise social issues, there is an attitude that denies Landscape painting the status accorded more modern genres: “Landscape is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Somerville is no scoundrel. Hers is an original approach to landscape. It sets and solves aesthetic problems, incorporates historic, social and political comments; it makes the viewer look twice, and again. Since the 1970s, with the embrace of Indigenous painting, the work begun by the Impressionists continued. Serious work. Maybe this is why I resist adding that Fiona Somerville’s paintings are full of humour. Intelligent, technically original, ironic, beautiful. And it does not devalue their force to say her paintings are fun.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

Central Goldfields Gallery, Victoria 
15 June – 13 August 2023 

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