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Elisabeth Cummings: Interior Landscapes catalogue essay

Elisabeth Cummings’ exhibition: Interior Landscapes, curated by Sioux Garside, showed at the Drill Hall Gallery in 2017. This essay by Terence Maloon was featured in the accompanying catalogue, published by Drill Hall Publishing. As the catalogue is not longer in print we thought you may enjoy visiting or re-visiting the show through the essay. Installation photographs can be found here.

Elisabeth Cummings’ Interior Landscapes
by Terence Maloon

A certain vibration of nature is called ‘Man’.

Vibration: the intermittences of the heart, those of death and life, of wakefulness and sleep, of heredity and of personality (originality).

Brownian movements, Francis Ponge.1

Elisabeth Cummings’ art is attuned to vibration – to thronging energies that course through a landscape, ricochet between the surfaces of a confined space, and riddle a painted surface to bursting-point. To meet and to match her impressions of this all-encompassing energy, Cummings has developed her resources in drawing and colour and her approaches to composition accordingly. Typically her images will strike a viewer first and foremost as concentrations of sheer visual excitement – before we are able to identify whether it is a landscape or an interior, before we can ascertain whether it is figurative or abstract, before we have had time to read the work’s title. As a consequence, the poet Francis Ponge’s allusion to Brownian motion touches on one of her work’s essential features – its irrepressible vivacity – and helps us identify her links with the works of her artist-forerunners and contemporaries.

Brownian motion is a phenomenon first recorded in 1827 by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown. He noticed that the grains of pollen in the water drop he was examining under a microscope were in a state of constant agitation. What was giving them the jitters? The inference that the pollen grains were being buffeted by invisible atoms or molecules began to gain credence. Proof that atoms and molecules actually existed was little by little extrapolated from Robert Brown’s discovery – culminating in Einstein’s publication of his famous “breakthrough” paper on Brownian motion in 1905.

More or less simultaneously an analogous phenomenon began to be observed in western painting, with repercussions that grew increasingly tumultuous and anarchic. Pierre Schneider has given the classic description of this phenomenon:

“Even in canvases where colour did not blaze openly, the stroke quivered, simmered, darted in all directions, spilled over the outlines of forms, seethed, scattered itself, whirled, melted and abruptly broke off.”

In other words, this strange parallel to Brownian motion had taken hold of paintings by Turner, the Impressionists, the Neo-Impressionists, the Nabis and Fauves – with the eventual result that “the realistic image was torn to tatters,” as Schneider put it. Yet it was not only the realistic image, but naturalism in its broadest application, and ultimately representation itself that fell afoul of what Schneider called “the maenads of colour.”2

Whether consciously or inadvertently, Elisabeth Cummings’ paintings return us to the crack-up of naturalism, refocussing our awareness on its historical perpetrators, Bonnard and Vuillard first and foremost. She became aware of Bonnard and Vuillard when she was a student at the National Art School in the 1950s at the urging of one of her teachers, Wallace Thornton – and they are “still the ones I respond to a lot,” she told Leo Robba.3

There is an extraordinary letter that Vuillard wrote to Maurice Denis in 1898, where he described the crisis of confidence that was affecting his ability to work at the time. It had forced him to dispense with many traditionally sanctioned aspects of painting and drawing, which he had come to consider inessential, inartistic and unsustainable. As a consequence his work had become “more elementary,” he told Denis.

In reassessing Vuillard’s achievement of the 1890s, it is his astounding economy of means and the untrammelled, hands-on immediacy of his technique that strike us today as virtually ageless. Much of his work is astonishingly “ahead of its time,” some of it wellnigh abstract. The art historian André Chastel has commented apropos: “Abstract art could have been invented around 1895 had the Nabis [Vuillard, Bonnard and their associates] wanted to make such a bold decision.”4 Despite his agonies of doubt and restriction to unprecedentedly “minimal” pictorial means, there were consolations and compensations associated with his dilemma, as Vuillard admitted to Maurice Denis: “I have friends – and with their support I have kept my faith in simple accords of colour and shape. Leaving this aside, the important thing is that there is enough there to go on working with.”5

Consequently Vuillard didn’t experience his “crisis of modernity” entirely negatively, nor was it so for his closest kindred spirit, Pierre Bonnard, nor for the legions of other artists who followed in their wake and were able to profit from their lessons. The “realistic image torn to tatters” gave rise to a more specialised focus on “simple accords of colour and shape,” and the upshot of this was much less a shutting-down than an opening-up of possibilities. The latent energies of media – the dynamic association of lines, colours, shapes, textures, patterns, etc – could be seen and enjoyed independently of their representational function, and painting could then become truly painting, autonomous and free. Elisabeth Cummings described the liberation she inferred from looking at Cézanne’s work:

“I didn’t really understand it until then – that inner life. Cézanne’s paintings were rocking with that tension and life, they were energy and life. It moved, it moved. To have that life in the painting…”6

Bonnard articulated the modern painter’s credo: “It’s not a matter of painting life, but of bringing painting to life.”7 And: “The principal subject is the surface which has its colour and its laws above and beyond the objects.”8 Yet despite his acute awareness of an abstract substrate underlying his compositions, he was never tempted to cross the frontier into total non-objectivity: “It’s always necessary to have a subject, no matter how minimal, to keep one’s feet on the ground,” he declared.9 In her words and deeds Cummings expresses a similar wariness of the borderline of abstraction, although it is apparent how she crosses it time and again in the formulation of her images.

She also shares with Bonnard his propensity for the oblique – her work implies a similar categorical distinction between “the model before one’s eyes and the model one has in one’s head,” as Bonnard put it. The model before one’s eyes might serve as the stimulus or pretext for one of Cummings’ paintings, yet the painting is understood to be a wholly independent entity whose ultimate reference is “the inner life” and “the model in one’s head.” Direct (too-direct) observation of the model was a taboo for Bonnard, as it is for Cummings. The mere idea of transliterating a motif part by part and detail by detail was abhorrent to Bonnard, the epitome of everything commonplace, unintelligent and inartistic. (“People always speak of submission in front of nature, but there’s also submission in front of the picture,” he protested.)10 Wallace Stevens expressed in verse the modern painters’ antipathy to realism:

It was difficult to sing in the face
Of the object. The singers had to avert themselves
Or else avert the object…

They sang desiring an object that was near.11

It is commonly supposed that plein-air painters (the Impressionists in particular) bare their souls to nature and transcribe the sensations they receive with dogged literalness, yet Bonnard had a very different understanding of how painters engage with their motifs. He thought that they developed methods and devices to ward off the authority of the motif, to prevent themselves from merelycopying what they saw: “The painters who were able to approach the motif directly are very rare – and those who were able to extricate themselves [from the spell of the motif] did so through a very personal means of defence.”12

In the twenty-first century it might seem completely beside the point to draw attention to the obliqueness of Cummings’ approach (the artifice, the abstractness of her painting) and to want to attribute it to a defence against the priority and precedence of the motif – since there are untold thousands of twentieth-century painters whose approaches to their subjects are so much more obtuse and distanced than her own. Nonetheless it is important to recognise that Cummings’ paintings are less representations than they are radical metaphors or equivalences – and that they derive so much of their freshness and expressive force by perpetuating the most extreme aspect (the “tearing to tatters” aspect) of Nabi painting.

Studio (2000) is a case in point. The tremendous vivacity that the image communicates to a viewer derives very much from its quality of openness – from the explosive, free-floating patchwork; from the loose, fluttering association/dissociation of planes; from the sense of pulsating movement conveyed through discontinuous colours and tones that “travel” through the image in beautifully judged modulations and mutations. The sense of light and mood pervading the image is so strong that we may not notice that the warm/cool alternation – the succession of tans and greys – is doing the work of light-and-dark, and that this image, so splendidly resolved and complete in one respect, is strategically “unfinished,” slightly garbled and partly indecipherable in another.

Elisabeth Cummings, Studio, 2000. oil on canvas, 110 x 135 cm. Museum of Brisbane. Gift of Mr. Peter Jackson, 2008

There was a portfolio of Vuillard’s lithographs published in 1899 with the title of Paysages et intérieurs (Landscapes and interiors). Vuillard’s abstracting tendency was very much in evidence here, but something strange had occurred in the juxtaposition of landscapes and interiors. The interiors had acquired diffuse, sprawling, massy, jungly qualities and the outdoor scenes were enclosed, patterned and intimate. In effect the genres had become blurred – presumably because they were converging in a common denominator of abstraction. These were not quite landscapes, not quite interiors, but more aptly interior landscapes. That was the term that Picasso adopted in 1956 for the series of paintings celebrating his villa, La Californie, and the term could apply to Braque’s magnificent series of Ateliers too. Interior landscapes is a term that pertains extremely well to Elisabeth Cummings’ paintings from the 1990s onwards and it serves to link her endeavours with those revered antecedents.

Art is the love of truth and the love of falsehood: of truth because art is based on the search for the exact relationships between things; of falsehood because it always ends up with an artificial result. But if fiction is to merit our consideration, its creator needs to be impelled by a great love of truth.

In art the love of truth entails negation and destruction to an extreme degree. There is therefore a mysterious limit that the mind needs to know how to reach and not overreach.

Nature is complicated. What a tangle of lines, shapes and colours.

But because it is true, nature’s rapport with the mind is simple.

Pierre Reverdy13

1 Francis Ponge, ‘Notes premières de ‘L’Homme,’’ in Le parti pris des choses, Gallimard, Paris, 2015, p 216.
2 Pierre Schneider, Matisse, trans M Taylor and B Stevens, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984, p 115.
3 Elisabeth Cummings interview with Leo Robba, Artist Profile, 2010, p 66.
4 André Chastel, ‘Vuillard et Mallarmé,’ in Fables, formes, figures, Flammarion, Paris, 2000, vol 2, p 422.
5 Édouard Vuillard, letter to Maurice Denis (19 February 1898), quoted in Terence Maloon (ed), Paths to Abstraction, Art
Gallery of New South Wales, 2010, p 131.
6 ‘Elisabeth Cummings in conversation with Sioux Garside,’ Elisabeth Cummings – Observing nature, ANU Drill Hall
Gallery, Canberra, 2017, p 49.
7 ‘Les notes de Bonnard,’ in Dominique Bozo et al, Bonnard, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p 202.
8 Ibid p 191.
9 Ibid p 202.
10 Ibid p 198.
11 Wallace Stevens, ‘Credences of Summer,’ in Collected Poems, Faber.
12 Angèle Lamotte, ‘Le Bouquet de Roses, Propos de Pierre Bonnard recueillis en 1943,’ Verve, vol 5, nos 17 & 18, Paris,
August 1947, np.
13 Pierre Reverdy, ‘Le Gant de crin,’ in OEuvres complètes, Flammarion, Paris, 2010, vol 2, p 543.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.