The Renaissance Man
'WHEN I first came here, I was always Mr French. Over time I became Leonard, then Len. Now, after a quarter century, I'm Lennie. It's a gradual acceptance, you see, part of the slow intimacy of a country town -- even if everyone knows you from the moment you move in.''
In Heathcote (pop. 1725), a goldfields community an hour's drive from Melbourne, single-storey shops line High Street with shaded timelessness. It's an unpretentious place where old-fashioned values rule. Here, between a pharmacy and a garden supply shop, is the one-time McIvor's Flour Mill. In the past 140 years this tallest building in town has had many manifestations, but for the past 25 years it has been home and studio to the local luminary, artist Leonard French.
There was a time when French's name was known around the world. In 1950s Australia he was a rising star among a generation that included Clifton Pugh, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Fred Williams and John Brack. In the 60s his work was snapped up by significant private collectors in Australia and the US, was sought by national and international public collections, and won prizes with embarrassing ease.
By 1970 he was probably the most public artist in the land, acknowledged by his peers as among the top two or three performers. He was the confidant of the powerful and the famous, a player in the arts bureaucracy, feted for his internationalism, his murals and colossal glass works, like the ceiling for the National Gallery of Victoria and windows for the National Library and Monash University. Then almost overnight he seemed to fade away. As taste and art politics changed, he retreated to Heathcote. He continued to show in the 80s and 90s but was seen by a new generation of cultural commissars as yesterday's man.
That was a failure of perception, as the exhibition Leonard French: Dark & Light, which opened in Sydney this week, vividly demonstrates. The selection of 20 works from the past 20 years will surprise many with its strength and coherence. For dismissive arbiters, it will be a salient reminder of an important French motif: renewal.
Renewal is the key to his art. And as these works attest, renewal will be the key to critical appreciation. The French vision and idealism are unchanged but the expression of them has continued to evolve. All of which means that the art-world buzz is strong: Len French is poised for rediscovery and re-evaluation, especially in the salesroom.
You can't really say he's back because he's never been away. But you can say his absence from the critical lexicon represents intriguing curatorial possibilities. Works by Brack and Boyd, for instance, have attracted more than $400,000 at auction; paintings by John Olsen and Williams $250,000 plus. The record price for a French? $60,500.
AT the gate of French Inc, I'm met by a secateur-carrying artist restraining a Samoyed, the yard boss. French has been pottering amid the courtyard greenery shading the house, jittery, I ascertain later, not at my visit but at missing a day's work. ''My only regret with living here,'' he mentions as he leads me inside, ''is that the town doesn't have art as part of its life. They regard me as a bit of a curiosity -- I berate the blokes in the pub as being cretins and soulless morons, and they give it back to me.
''A couple of them looked at my paintings recently and told me I must be a pretty clever fellow. Just as I was preening myself inside, along came the kicker -- 'yeah, pretty clever to get people to buy that bloody stuff'.''
He laughs uproariously as we enter the Euro-Australian elegance of the house. Paintings crowd the walls, light fingers from unexpected angles to spotlight a New Guinean woodcarving, pre-Columbian pottery piece, an African artefact.
At a table hand-carved by his sons, we sit for a meal prepared by his wife Elaine. (''Dear girl couldn't cook at all when we moved in,'' French asides proudly. ''Now she's world quality. Who do you know outside a five-star restaurant who can cook Duck Galantine? She can!'')
Food is important to him. So too wine, which flows as generously as the anecdotes. For some years he was a partner in the local Mount Ida winery where ''we made lovely wines, prizewinners, but it cost me a packet -- should have been called Len's Folly''. As we relax over coffee, he mentions that ''the locals are convinced I dye my hair but they forgive me because I have a much younger wife.'' He laughs, boyishly buoyed. ''Can't convince them it's natural. This affronts my Italian hairdresser in Melbourne -- he's offered to sign an affidavit verifying the facts.''
A reformed cigar smoker, he plays with the condiments as we talk. His hands have the roughened solidity of a farmer but move with the deftness of a classical pianist's. For a man of 71, he's remarkably fit (''for all my boozing, I'm not in bad shape'', he agrees later) and conversationally invigorating. Talk ranges from classical literature to Minoan culture, from the Melbourne Cup to Dili, always with a humanist bent. ''Growing up during the Depression ... made you a life-long leftist, you had no choice.''
As we head for his large corrugated iron workshop he cautions that ''I never forget a painting but I'm hazy over dates, rely on Elaine for that.'' An art historian who lobbed into Australia in 1970 on a two-year expedition from Washington DC, Elaine Newcomb was recruited as dealer Rudy Komon's assistant and, says French, ''is the best work of art to come out of his gallery''. They married in 1974 and their closeness is obvious.
For French it is his third marriage -- his first was at 20 to the painter Joy McDonald, the second to celebrity fashion designer Helen Bald -- and he's somewhat bemused to have fathered seven children, from ''the twins'' of 49 to his youngest, 14-year-old Amy. ''I have no regrets about any of my marriages and ... I like the role of the patriarch in a way, sitting at the table with such a diverse group and thinking, Jesus, did I really have anything to do with this?''
In his immaculately ordered studio, I jaw-drop at the colour and intelligence of the paintings. He smiles quietly at my reaction then settles us in a pair of ragged armchairs. ''I start each day at 8am by sweeping out the studio,'' he says, ''a habit from my signwriting days. Then I work until lunchtime, have a quick pot and meal, get back into it until 6pm. Then I open a bottle of red.'' Six days a week, although Saturday is task day (he does his own stretching, sizing and framing, mixes his paints from powder pigments), which dovetails nicely with listening to the races and the odd bet.
A fourth-generation Australian of Cornish origin, he grew up in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. Life there was brutal; aesthetics had no place where survival was paramount. He taught himself to read at 10, left school at 13, became a signwriter.
Despite his lack of formal education, he had aggressive self-belief and a questing curiosity. He'd found solace in painting and reading, and the two became entwined, books providing the imaginative catalysts for his recurring theme of heroic grandeur and the heroic quest. ''Literature fed my imagination,'' he enthuses, ''the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was young, then Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Evelyn Waugh's Edmund Campion, the works of Marquez. They were all inspiring, had all the heroes, and a journey. The heroic is learning to behave, to have responsibility to what you can do. But the journey is the essence. I've always painted series, and each series is a personal journey of exploration.
''It begins optimistically and heroically, but you have to break the hero -- from the light inevitably you must go into the dark for it to have any point. The end of the journey is a death. And the death of the pictures ... it sounds pessimistic but when I get to that death of a hero, I frequently try to resurrect him. A curious resurrection, as though you killed him but then bring him back to perform in another way.''
It has very Catholic undertones, I suggest. ''When I was younger, the Jesuit Michael Scott suspected he might have a convert in me. Until I told him he was about the deep red Catholicism and I was about the black thing of Luther. Although I have no religion myself, I've always loved organised religion's cathedrals, incense and pomp.''
HE'S been lucky, he reflects, to have had a collection of influential mentors, beginning with the old man who ran a second-hand book stall and guided him as a youth ''to a world I had never imagined, of heroes, of Jules Verne and Homer. That helped spark my interest in art.
''Painting, which I began at 10, took me out of me initially, and later lifted me out of the tip that was Brunswick. Literally, for at the bottom of our street was a tip where we'd play. It was a festering mass where we'd chase rats up pipes and burn them. You never lose those images. The only peace I found was inside deserted tunnels at the brick kilns, watching birds fly out.''
When he needed an ''art father'', Victor Greenhalgh (the Head of the Art School at Melbourne Tech) ''is coming up the stairs as I drop some pictures from my signwriting portfolio. He helps me pick them up, looks at them, tells me I should study with him straight away. Can't afford it, I say. You won't have to pay anything, he says. At 18, he makes me a teacher of the painting classes. I was the youngest, least educated there so I grew a moustache for authority. Looked bloody absurd but it was the only way I felt I could age myself.''
Then there was the crew at the Swanston Family Hotel, the axis of Melbourne's Leftish bohemian illuminati. His university, he calls it. ''They drunk a lot of grog there but it was more important for conversation.'' The clientele included Barry Humphries, Judah Waten, Manning Clark, Boyd, John Perceval, Pugh, Olsen. ''Curiously, when I was in with all the left-wingers, I found myself unable to join any movements. I was a natural for the Communist Party but I went to a talk and was cured forever. I realised I could never be part of a group, would always remain a loner.''
He also attracted powerful champions such as Melbourne art critic Alan McCulloch, architect Roy Grounds and businessman Kenneth Myer. But it was his 25-year relationship with the entrepreneurial art dealer Komon that added finish. He parlayed French's status into international recognition; French talent-spotted for the dealer. ''He was important for my art but more important for my life. I'd come out of Brunswick eating pies and drinking beer and Rudy took me to all the great restaurants of Europe, all the great hotels. I'd have remained a bumbling bloody peasant otherwise.''
Komon never had an eye for art, he tells me as he pours us another glass, ''but he had a great ear for it. He listened to what artists were talking about, which is why he not coincidentally used to take them to dinner so frequently. It was free tips for him, listening to Brack and Williams discussing who was up-and-coming. That's what's wrong with dealers today -- they don't know the horse. Rudy always said, I don't want the sprinter, I want the stayer.''
After Komon's death in 1982, French's mainstream standing waned dramatically. ''Some chart my decline from Rudy's death but they don't realise I'd consciously determined in the early 70s to get out of the dealer-artist scene. I felt it might begin to interfere with my work. It's true there was quite a period when I didn't do well, but it's been like that all the time. I had early success, then unfortunately believed my own myth. Then I went into decline before breaking through again with my Campion series. It's nicer to be on the up than the down but overall it doesn't interfere with the work at all.''
Of all his mentors, the most important was Reserve Bank governor Nugget Coombs, ''the best public servant Australia's ever had. He was a man of enormous ethics, and although we were friends for 30 years I was always terrified I could never live up to his standards.''
Coombs was influential personally and professionally. Over an early morning coffee one day ''he said, 'we need to polish you up a bit. I'll send you some papers next week, you fill them in and send them back.' 'What for?' I asked. 'Harkness Fellowship,' he said. 'Christ,' I said, 'I have no qualifications except my signwriter's ticket.' 'Just put them in,' he said. Soon after I was at Yale.''
Another time he rang French to say he'd be getting a prime ministerial invitation to join the Art Advisory Board. ''Three hours later, another call. 'You're getting another telegram from the prime minister to put you on the board to build the new art gallery. You'll go on that.' He was the only man for whom I'd do as I was told. I trusted him totally.
''I kid myself I have no ego now,'' he tells me as we tour his pictures, ''but that's not quite true -- I've a different kind of ego. I don't need them to tell me where I am; you know where you are and it's a little bit disappointing because you had in mind since you were young that you would have gone a long way. At 70 you begin to think you haven't quite done what you were capable of [and] you're going to have to work terribly fast to finish.
'I DON'T mind dying, I just hope it's not too painful, but -- well, I've just started a Minoan series, and later I want to do a series on chaos. But I'll have to live too long to do them ... one would like another 10 years. I dread starting something and not being able to finish.
''I'm probably so conscious of time now because three of my friends in this town died recently and Brack's death really shook me. I was particularly fond of him, of his intelligence.'' As I mumble inadequately about mates, he cuts in sharply. ''I'm not sure I've ever been great mates with anybody, really. I talk a lot but I've got a funny reserve when it comes to affection. Never liked that side of me. A protective mechanism, I guess, you know never to let anybody get to you.''
He shrugs philosophically, turns to the unfinished painting beside us. ''My emotion is in my art,'' he says quietly, ''filtered through reflection. Often when I start the picture and the working notes for it, they are emotional. Not expressed but compressed. I can't draw at all, not like Olsen who can take a line and make magic with it. If I put a line in, I dissolve it to get edges. I prefer masses to lines. But it's hard to build the magic at times. Sometimes it's like going down a well to find it, as if you're in competition with yourself.''
And the need for renewal? ''I don't see renewal physically but in art itself ... it's the only desperate thing I have. It's purely you and it, and I've got to win on that. So when I said I don't have much ego earlier, I was wrong -- I have a gigantic ego actually. I don't want it halfway. Of course you only have to look at della Francesca and the other great painters to know you'll never get there but you touch the forelock to them, total humility. I don't touch the forelock to anybody here.
''I probably would have done better as a painter had I lived in Europe but as a man I couldn't. I'm very much an Australian man, my accent's the Black Stump and my manner is immensely Australian.'' For which Australia should be immensely grateful.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 13 Nov 1999. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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