Antony Symons’ Birds
Although the usual custom when describing an artist’s work is to speak about sets of works according to their media and dimensions, when considering works created over a period of several decades, it is at times more useful to consider how the same subject has been treated across a variety of an artist’s works.
For that reason, I’m going to treat a number of Symons’ images of birds. In doing so, I hope I will be able to make clear why I consider Symons an artist of uncommon ability and vision. What I find most intriguing in his work is the expression of a very different philosophy of art and its techniques as universal visual “language”.
Unlike many modern artists, who use some specific medium or style in order to define themselves as unique, Symons employs such things to more precisely express the unique character or quality within his subject. This distinction must be emphasised because we in the western world are now so accustomed to defining originality in terms of an artist’s limited use of styles, palette or media. These things – in our habit – permit a purchaser to display a piece as ‘obviously’ a Mondrian, Nolan or Whitely and so on. It is a practice which permits, and even encourages egocentricity in our artists, but this is not a point of view with which Symons concurs, whether or not he personally likes the style of one western artist or another.
His view seems, rather, to be that artists have (or should have) a common, universal language, though its vocabulary and dialects (as it were) differ from place to place and evolve over various epochs.
At the same time, and just as one may learn a past language or foreign language by labouring to acquire them, so too (as it seems to me) Symons has laboured and studied to expand his competence in the languages and dialects of art. To put it simply: any artist who masters a broader range of tools and techniques is then better able to do justice to his subject. At moments, and with subjects that have no appropriate ‘word’ in his first language, then he is able to turn to another in which that ‘word’ exists. It is just the same custom we use in our verbal language, where we may turn to the languages of France, Italy or Germany to express an idea or mood for which English has no term. Just so, Symons can draw from his wide range of ‘visual vocabularies’ to express a given mood or perception.
To convey a sense of gentleness, simplicity and a certain air of timelessness, Symon reaches for the Asian brush and ink and for simplicity and minimalism, one cannot fault his Tree-trunk and Bird. This masterpiece of understatement might by some be considered an abstract, but one thing which it certainly is not is an ‘imitation’ of Asian style. An imitation is visual babble, (as are Van Gogh’s efforts to imitate the Japanese style, to those who know Japanese art). Tree-trunk and Bird does not imitate Asian style; it speaks the language of art using an Asian ‘vocabulary’ of tools and technique. The artist’s focus is not himself; it is on his role as facilitator in communication of subject and viewer, a self-effacement from the process.
Symons believes so firmly in imagery as communication in and of itself, that he refuses to add so much as a title to most of his works. The picture which I’ve chosen to describe as Bird and Branch is a fine example of how, having studied the language of eastern art, he then incorporates its principles and its tools and techniques within an existing (and primarily western) history. This picture is one immediately legible – immediately compatible – whether one comes from a background of eastern or of western modern art. The next example, which I call Birds and River again has a composition evoking the silk scroll, and its treatment of water and birds on the stream belongs to the same milieu. But in this case the westerner feels none of the distance from his own way of seeing which our art books usually emphasise by separating pictures into works of one or another epoch, culture, place of origin or medium. Symons’ work tacitly disputes that habit of ours, and appeals to the image as that key to communication across borders, centuries, and spoken tongue.
Not that Symons cannot, if the subject warrants, limit his palette and technique – what I term his visual vocabulary.
Birds, dead tree and rocks speaks plain English, in its peculiarly Australian accent. Here Symons has employed the jagged line, with pen and wash, to speak in a dialect immediately intelligible to those who recognise works of 50’s landscape painters in Australia; but this is no effort at imitation or self-advertisement. Rather, it is another example of the way that Symons’ works constantly employ genre as a tool, and in a way exactly comparable to that which determines use of a given medium or colour range. In all these cases, the artist’s aim – if I read it correctly – is simply to add depth and immediacy in the dialogue between image and viewer.
Choices about style in drawing, then, are no longer intended (in Symons’ works) as a means to mark a given piece with an artist’s personal “signature” but are instead become exactly equivalent to the other tools and media he has mastered – his wax, bronze, canvas, brush, knife or palette. The fact that Symons has at his disposal so wide a range of these visual vocabularies, using them with complete confidence and competence is simply a tribute to the seriousness with which he regards art, and his role as facilitator in the visual dialogue. It is the very antithesis of egocentricity.
Indeed, Symons’ view seems to be that all artists have a tacit, universal, natural language – expressed by such traditional differences of style and technique that their common communications are often inhibited, but which are not in any sense substantive, being overcome in the same way that verbal language barriers may be: by dedicated and serious study. One can, as it were, ‘learn to speak’ in the terms of other times and places, so long as one never descends to mere imitation. Facile imitations mock their source, but Symons has clearly laboured to learn (and I think he has succeeded in learning) a wide range of artistic languages.
Among some others which he employs in his bird pictures are the ‘scientific’ – gained from the works of early naturalists whose aim was clear and accurate depiction of animals’ forms and their habits. To convey a rare empathy between artist and wild creature, Symons’ ‘Currawong and grasshopper‘ seems to me to speak in the tones of Beatrix Potter, a naturalist and painter of no little ability and sensitivity. Here, the medium of watercolour, the style of brushwork which he adopts, and the close-up figure of these two creatures seems instantly familiar to a western eye. What is less obvious to those unused to Asian art is that the quality of connection expressed here, the gentle humour and uncertain outcome, are absolutely compatible with the attitudes and subject-matter of eastern imagery, from the middle east, through older Indian art, to as far as China. It is truly an expression of that universality in art which forms the foundation of Symons’ long artistic development.
But now turn to Birds and Dingo and you are suddenly, and unmistakably in the unforgiving world of the Australian outback, an environment alien to most peoples of the world but here expressed using a palette, tools and stroke techniques which mark the whole as characteristically Australian. It would be just as plainly an Australian landscape and work if there were no dingo included.
What I mean is that Symons’ techniques and media are not intended as hallmarks for the artist’s continuing claim of ownership, nor for the convenience of the art historian or -buyer. They are intrinsic; they are part of the message, chosen as those most appropriate for this image.
Anatomical accuracy is, of course, the foundation from which all Symons’ images of birds depend, whether enunciated in literal, metaphorical or abstract form. Once the viewer has become aware of Symons’ philosophy and his expertise, both, across such a broad range of media and stylistics, it becomes easier to appreciate the extraordinary quality of his oeuvre.
In illustration, I’ll now take two works which invariably call forth a comment from the many visitors to the Rydal garden. One piece I’ve called Skull and Cock and the other just Rooster. I’m particularly drawn to the first, myself, for the way that the cock on this perfectly made human skull appears caught in the moment of transformation from a living bird to a mechanical parody. Rooster is just pure fun, and a very interesting contrast to the other. But if you look closely at their proportions, shape and attitudes you will see that both are equally informed by a clear understanding of the Gallus’ genus, and recognise the artist’s confidence in re-depicting the creature through these very different materials of cast bronze and worked iron. Each is, in every sense,a finished piece.
Overall, there is a pattern to Symons’ choices among his body of artistic languages: for a certain air of timelessness and tranquility he tends to turn to Asian media and brush; for ‘scientific accuracy’ to pen and wash, like the first European explorers of the Australian continent. For a peculiarly Australian art, his pen becomes sharp, the surfaces flatter but the lines more energetic. In the same way, Symons’ bronzes speak to the enduring forms in the natural world, they refer to the hope or the reality of survival beyond our own life-span. But to express the irony, humour and sometimes disgust at the parade of human antics, Symons often turns to the ‘found art’ genre.
His Fish-watcher is hard to beat for its pure humour. One cannot help but smile and admire his pugnacious Parrot in a cage, while the beauty of his soaring bird (part of the garden’s mobile sculpture ) depends not least on the truth of its proportions and its perfectly realised balance: this bird soars and hovers, where most mobile sculptures with figures are content to have them hang from their strings.
The Owl has a beauty which quite takes ones breath away; in its perfection a tribute to the classical traditions, and I regret not having a better photograph to refer you to. The original work can be seen at present in the regional gallery of Dubbo.
To conclude: I hope these comments have helped you gain a better idea of Symons’ ‘vocabularies’ and of the technical and philosophical underpinnings to his works. Of course, no words can serve in place of standing before these pieces themselves. I’m fortunate in being able to write this from a studio in the Rydal sculpture garden itself, and hope you too will be able to see them in the near future.
As far as any guest may urge their host to do this or that, I am trying to persuade Mr. Symons to hold a major retrospective exhibition in the near future. He has doubts about the word ‘retrospective’: