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Recent Donation to the ANU Art Collection: Idris Murphy

The Australian National University Art Collection is once again the benefactor of a generous gift by the artist Idris Murphy.

The magnificent trio of paintings, made during the artist’s Western Front residency in France in 2017, join two other works previously gifted by the artist’s gallery King Street Gallery on William, providing an important addition to the ANU’s art collection, and one that would enrich the cultural, visual and intellectual fabric of our campus.

Image: Idris Murphy, Somewhere in France 1, 2017, acrylic and collage on aluminium, 154 x 141cm. ANU Art Collection. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2022.

In 2017, twelve leading Australian artists including Idris Murphy visited the First World War battlefields of the Western Front, a century after the conflict that claimed so many lives.

Idris Murphy wrote:

These paintings are the outcome of a painting trip, visiting sites on the Western Front in both France and Belgium, which I cannot easily extricate from recollections of my two separate trips to Gallipoli in previous years.

Before considering any writing that I might add in relation to my paintings, there is a series of problems, not the least of which for the artist is confronting views of battlefields 100 years after the event. And then, what can be said that still has any meaning; outside the painting themselves which throw up their own contradictions.

However, three quotes do come to mind, which far outstrip any words that I might add.

The first comes from an essay by French philosopher, Simone Weil called ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’.

Such is the nature of force. Its power to transform a man into a thing is double and cuts both ways; it petrifies differently, but equally, the souls of those who suffer it and those who wield it.’

The second is from American writer Susan Sontag, from her essay “An Argument About Beauty”, in which she introduces, a letter written by a German soldier standing guard in the Russian winter in late December 1942.

‘The most beautiful Christmas I had ever seen, made entirely of disinterested emotion and stripped of all tawdry trimmings. I was alone beneath an enormous starred sky, and I can remember a tear running down my frozen cheek, a tear neither of pain nor of joy but of emotion created by intense experience.’

Finally, a transcript of part of a letter written by my grandfather, Idris Charles Pike, in Gallipoli on September 18, 2015.

We had some fun in the trenches this morning, as you know only a few yards separates us from the Turks, so we threw some tinned beef and jam over to them, they soon raked them in to their trenches, and in return they threw tobacco and cigarette papers. A couple of the parcels had notes in them written in French, one ran something to this effect. Our Friends the Enemy.’

Idris Murphy, Extract from Salient Book, 2017

Image: Idris Murphy, Somewhere in France 2, 2017, acrylic and collage on aluminium, 154 x 141cm. ANU Art Collection. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2022.

Born in 1952, Idris Murphy developed deep roots in the history of painting as well as a profound feeling for the natural environment. Murphy’s idiom transcends “either/or” — it is indistinguishably landscape painting and painterly abstraction all at once. Arising from a sort of improvisatory incantation, the most vivid metaphors of land, space, light, mood and feeling seem to coalesce spontaneously and unbidden.

This happens even when Murphy’s pictorial means strike us as most improbable and outlandish: recent paintings make abundant use of metallic pigments and wildly abstruse colour combinations. Despite their bizarrerie and casual-looking primitivism, each painting resolves brilliantly into its surface and shape, and exudes a rare poetry of “place”.

Image: Idris Murphy, Somewhere in France 3, 2017. acrylic and collage on aluminium, 154 x 141cm. ANU Art Collection. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2022.

Although his idiom is largely abstract, Murphy’s work might be seen as a form of Romantic landscape paintings. Like the Romantics, looking at the natural world also becomes a looking within the self, or the search for a relationship with the Creator of both self and world. One could adopt a more formal, secular perspective, but the brooding nature of his imagery suggests a deeper source of motivation.

         John McDonald

See relates exhibition, Idris Murphy: Backblocks, Drill Hall Gallery, 2022.

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.

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