Whispers of Immortality

The 'humus' of the past includes Porter, Boyd, Roberts, Folingsby, Lahey, Ramsay; T. S. Eliot, Bosch and Brueghel.

Whispers of Immortality. 

In 1900 I did an investigation of the collaborative objects produced by Peter Porter, poet, and Arthur Boyd, artist. In consultation, sometimes together, but often apart, Porter and Boyd had worked on producing the poems Jonah, The Lady and the Unicorn and Narcissus, and the accompanying illustrations.

What struck me most about both Porter and Boyd was the way in which their lifestyles, their baggage of experiences and knowledge, formed extended fragments of the poems and pictures. Both poet and artist agree that the past plays a very important in providing the 'humus' out of which ideas grow. Porter sees himself as a filter through which greater things than self pass, and Boyd wants to get as much out of the past as possible. Neither see themselves as inventing the wheel anew aided only by an arrogance of ignorance.

Both owe some debt to another cultivator of the past, Thomas Sterne Eliot. Eliot's aim was to bring the past alive again in the present. In a world shattered both physically and spiritually by WW1, Eliot saw that the only means of survival for individuals as worthwhile human beings, was to reconstruct the symbols that had sustained the imaginative and spiritual needs of the past.

It is no coincidence that the writings of these three recyclers of ideas have influenced me in turn. Being a hoarder, a collector of 'stuff', and somewhat of a cultural wanderer I have always been fascinated by the echoes of the past - those in my own past as well as those from history.

Perhaps coincidence does come into play at times, or it may be more aptly called serendipity, but finding myself in Toowoomba, completing my study of Porter's work and visiting the Jondaryan Woolshed, brought myself, Porter and the Jondaryan Woolshed together.

My later visit to the convict site of Port Arthur in Tasmania joined yet another link of the past into a whole network of ideas. During the past two years the "Whispers of Immortality" have been getting louder in my mind, and finally the shadows took form in this series of paintings.

A strategic reference point in my own background memories is a woolshed similar to the Jondaryan that was on our family a property in western NSW. A strategic jettison point for Porter was his school days at Toowoomba Grammar School. I use the term "jettison" because it was at school here in Toowoomba that Porter was thrown into a study of the classics. He admits to hating school and his inability to fall into the stereotyped role of rugby hero, or such, excluded him from the 'norm' and pushed him towards seeking some form of escape in a world of past ideas.

The two unlikely fragments of Porter and the Jondaryan have collided in my mind. While my connections may not be the same as those experienced by others, they do bring together two powerful forces that have fused in this particular site, the paintings.

In his writings Porter stresses his "living in a calm country". This is no particular geographical location, but is the cave of his making, his mind. This "country" has no boundaries, and so so I feel quite comfortable extending some of Porter's 'paddocks' to house the Jondaryan phantoms of the past. As he says in Poem Waiting To Be Translated:

     Why not remember the heroes

           of hard situations,

For me in particular, one of these heroes is my father who had an abiding love and respect for the land - the harshness, the droughts, the volatility of the wool trade, the full catastrophe.

While I have borrowed much from Porter's ideas and expressions for the titles, I have included the "visible part of dreams" in written diary entries from my father's 1939 Cooper's 'bible', (found in every country homestead). Superimposed images from the past include reference to the works of Roberts, Folingsby, Lahey and Ramsay.

Further links in the chain of the "dead (who) walk the land casting no shadows" were found in Tasmania when I attended a conference there last year. As proceedings drew to a close I took a day out to visit Port Arthur. It was mid winter and the drive from Hobart was windy, wet and cold, but the sun shone on arrival at the historic convict settlement. Somehow this seemed to release the daemons of the past. I was struck by the natural beauty of the place while at the same time, rain having kept most visitors away, I could walk alone through the cells as the phantoms of "a hundred visions and revisions" hovered in the "waste land".

During the following months I replayed images of Port Arthur in my mind and another connection was made. This time the poet Thomas Sterne Eliot and his vision of reconstructing the symbols needed for survival came to mind. But symbols of destruction also haunted me. The grotesque images of Bosch and Brueghel seemed apt partners for Eliot's notions of the materialistic age dying, the fiery purgation and the victims portrayed in The Waste Land. Again I became the link between my immersion in Eliot's poetry, my awareness of Bosch and Brueghel's work and my reaction to Port Arthur as a site where "Death had undone so many". In Eliot's words from The Burial of the Dead you could almost hear the question:

     That corpse you planted last year in the garden

     Has it begun to sprout?

In the series of five paintings from Port Arthur I have again no hesitation in borrowing titles from Eliot's works and hinting at images from Bosch and Brueghel.

For me the links between the Jondaryan Woolshed and Peter Porter, and Port Arthur and T. S. Eliot, between images from the past and my own, are not only Australian, but connect the legends of our past into a much wider pilgrimage towards making the static memories more real in the present.

Karen Knight-Mudie  (Introduction in Catalogue, 1993)