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Friday, 2 February 2024
Lavender Bay Gallery, Lavender Bay
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC KC

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

In saying good evening to you in the language of the Gadigal, the traditional owners of the land on which Government House stands, I thank Annette[1] for her Acknowledgement of Country.

Thank you, John[2], for your welcome and introduction and, in particular, for the invitation to attend tonight and to make a few remarks. I did wonder whether you extended the latter part of the invitation with a degree of trepidation: I am not an artist, gifted or otherwise, and those who are not artists or performers tend to become critics, which usually has a negative connotation. But any negativity would have been an insuperable task tonight, which in more ways than one, is a tribute to Greg Hansell.

The opportunity of seeing a selection of Greg’s works across the span of his career in one place is rare. It is fitting that it occurs here, at the Royal Society of Art, somewhere we might call, as Christine[3] does, “Greg’s second home”. This occasion is a double-barrelled delight with the anticipation of the soon to be released book: Greg Hansell: The Purity of Australian Light, compiled by art historian Lou Klepac, which twins the work in this exhibition and more.

Tonight, I am not going to focus so much on the personal background of the artist, nor how his career evolved. His works are on the wall, and, in any event, Lou wants you to buy the book when it is released, so that in your own time you can savour his superb curation of Greg’s work and appreciate his development as an artist as described by Carol Roberts and Greg himself.

Rather, I wanted to focus on light and its interplay with the environment as interpreted by the artist. 

I can still recall the first time I viewed a work of Titian. I was transfixed. From that dark palette something magical emerged. For the early Australian artists, mostly trained in the European tradition, the natural light of the Great South Land also worked its magic: think Streeton, Condor, McCubbin, and Roberts.    

Greg has a filial-like artistic connection with these painters, and Streeton in particular. Lionel Lindsay saw in Streeton’s masterpiece The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might, “the intuition of genius.”[4] 

Streeton painted The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might in 1896. In the early 1990’s, almost a century later, Greg and his friend and fellow artist, the late Brian Jones, searched out the bush of Freeman’s Reach up on the Hawkesbury, and found the high spot where Streeton placed his easel.[5] Of the play of light on the water and distant landscape, Greg simply said: Streeton ‘really nailed it’[6].

Although Australian art history places Streeton and his contemporaries in the Heidelberg School, in truth a better, or at least more literal appellation, might be: ‘The Artists of Australian light’. Having coined that characterisation myself, I rather like it, because it doesn’t cocoon that period of great Australian art to a point in time.

Rather, it continues its relevance and keeps open the door for further artistic exploration of the Australian landscape. Greg Hansell is a rightful member of that School. Indeed, I would suggest, Greg not only continues, but expands its primary impulse: to capture the light – so pervasive across and intrinsic to – this unique land around us.

People respond to works of art in different ways: the response is as much an aspect of the viewer’s personality as a painting is that of the artist. Except perhaps for the skilled eye of the collector, there is no talent and certainly no genius, in the viewer. That is because the viewer is an onlooker, appreciating, interpreting a two-dimensional representation arising from a process of which they are not an intimate part.  

The genius of the artist is not only to react to the subject matter of the painting as an individual: it is to transpose that reaction to the canvas. 

A contrast between the works of Geoffrey Smart and Greg’s works, especially of that most utilitarian and Australian of stuff, corrugated iron, provides the perfect revelation as to how this comes about[7].

In the ‘corrugated iron’ series, the genius is in repetitions, rotations, reflections of shape and pattern, the play of light in the lacework of shadowed leaves of a tree off-frame, the fastidiously observed details left by the passage of time – the dents, the holes, the ripples, the rust spots. In this compositional stillness, there is an immediacy: the viewer is left in no doubt that a story lies behind the corrugation. The painting is an invitation to go beyond the exterior, to explore the interior.

The corrugated iron works, like Smart’s, are strongly geometric - but in Greg’s works a geometry crumbling before your eyes. In contrast, Smart’s compositions in the Precisionist style are hard edged representations of a constructed landscape, the constituent elements subtly adjusted through countless studies and versions before the work is resolved: a theatre of the mind, as it were, leaving the viewer with the intrigue of a landscape which, with true irony, is neither real nor unrealistic. 

In these contrasting approaches, there is another intrigue:  Smart’s paintings usually include the human figure, Greg’s landscapes rarely do. One exception. His friend Brian Jones, who went on that trek with him to the Hawkesbury, appears in the small pastel: Brian Jones Painting ‘Tara’ from the Garden.

I could say much more, but I think that is the perfect note on which to finish this tribute to a great modern-day artist, whose generous spirit is encapsulated in that work. 

As Patron of the Royal Art Society of NSW, it is my profound privilege to now declare open this exhibition: Greg Hansell – The Purity of Australian Light.



[1] Ms Annette McCrossin

[2] Mr John Perkins, President, Royal Art Society of NSW

[3] Ms Christine Feher, Secretary, Royal Art Society of NSW

[4] Lionel Lindsay, ‘Streeton’s Australian work’, in Sydney Ure Smith, Bertram Stevens, and C. Lloyd Jones (eds), The Art of Arthur Streeton, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1919, p. 14-15.

[5] Carol Roberts, ‘Greg Hansell and his World,’ in Greg Hansell – The Purity of Australian Light: Pastels 1982-2023 (forthcoming), Beagle Press, 2024, p.15

[6] Greg Hansell, quoted in ibid

[7] Jeffrey Smart, an artist Greg admires, and who purchased one of Greg’s early corrugated works, was once complaining at an art opening of being asked so often why he cropped his images so much. He turned to Greg and said: ‘You know why I [do it]’: Lou Klepac, ‘Introduction’, in ibid, p.9; Greg Hansell, ‘First Steps’, in ibid, pp.23, 24

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