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Marc Chagall, Arthur Boyd and bridal couples

The Antipodeans Group consisted of 7 painters plus art historian Bernard Smith. They compiled The Antipodean Manifesto, a declaration fashioned from their commitment to modern, figurative art. The artists were Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh (all from Melbourne) and Robert Dickerson from Sydney. I want to focus on just one of them.

In 1950 and in 1954, Arthur Boyd (1920–99) visited Central Australia for a month, travelling from Melbourne by train to Alice Springs. Then he went by jeep into the desert where people lived in forlorn humpies clustered on the outskirts of towns. Boyd was shocked and depressed to witness the plight of Indigenous peop­le, seg­reg­ated and dehumanised by the white population. He was equally distressed by the situation of those of mixed descent, isolated from both the indigenous and white communities, suspended in a no-man’s-land. Boyd was always the cons­c­ientious objector.

It was on the road to Alice Springs that Boyd witnessed a truck carrying a group of Indigenous brides, whose white wedding attire contrasted sharply with the rattly vehicle normally used for transporting cattle. Back at home, The Contemporary Art Society’s annual exhibition was imminent, so Boyd made a single painting based on his Alice Springs memories, to submit for that show.

Chagall, The betrothed and Eiffel tower, 1913, 
77×70 cm,  National Museum Marc Chagall, Nice

Marc Chagall, The Bride and Groom on Cock, c1939, 
oil, 46 x 36”, private collection in Munich. 

The bride theme came from Marc Chagall, a jumble of out-of-scale figures and animals, often floating in the air defying the gravity of a troubled Russian world below and of the trauma of Jewish life. Boyd loved Marc Chagall’s beautiful and serene bridal paintings, but the Australian didn’t want his own wedding paintings to be pretty; he wanted a more menacing atmosphere. We can often see a surreal wilderness in Boyd’s works, a strange place of nightmarish dreams.

Later, by 1960, he created The Love, Marriage and Death of a Halfcaste/aka The Bride series, an elaborate morality tale of an Indigenous trooper and his half-caste bride. For Boyd, the half-caste was the neglected outsider, neither black nor white, a nobody. Half-castes suffered the fate of the marginalised, isolated in a world of greed and selfishness.

The series repres­ented a peak in the artist’s career and in C20th Australian art, offer­ing a humanist critique of Australia’s racial divide. The two main protag­onists in the allegory, an Aboriginal man and his mixed-race bride, faced a love upset by pers­onal and cultural conflict. The Brides were produced in stages, with the first lot exhibited at Australian Galleries in Melbourne in 1958, then again with new additions at Zwemmer Gallery London in 1960. The series earned Boyd critical acclaim, before his 40 bride paintings were gradually spread across international public and private collections.

Boyd may have been influenced by Charles Chauvel’s film, Jedda, released in Jan 1955. The film was the first to feature Indigenous people in the leading roles, telling the story of an Indigenous girl reared by a white family who was wooed by an Indigenous outcast, Marluk. The film ended tragically after the couple were chased by the white police. Boyd’s paintings responded to a contemporary trend among artists and writers who argued in favour of improved conditions for Australian Indigenous people. Yosl Bergner, Noel Counihan, Russell Drysdale and David Boyd etc sought to make a moral issue of the desp­erate plight of Indigenous people. But I cannot tell how welcomed these comments on indigenous and rac­ial issues were, in mid-century Australia. 

In 1975, Arthur Boyd gave many of his works to the National Gallery of Australia. But this collection did not include any of his works from the Bride series. In 1999, the NGA happily accepted the splendid Reflected bride 1 (1958). His painting called for recon­ciliation, understanding and a tolerant acceptance of old cultures in modern Australia.

Boyd, Bridegroom waiting for his bride to grow up, 1958, 
Oil and Tempera, 137 x 183 cm, Artnet 

Boyd, Persecuted Lovers 1957-8, 
oil and tempera, 137cm, Heidi 

Boyd, Phantom Bride, 1958
160 x 137 cm, Artnet

Boyd, Three shearers playing for a bride, 1957,
oil and tempera on canvas,
150 × 176 cm, NGV

Boyd, Reflected bride,1958, 
oil and tempera, 122 x 91 cm 
National Gallery Australia

Boyd's Bride paintings from the late 1950s were reunited at Melbourne's Heide Museum of Modern Art in 2014-5. His menacing brides lined the walls of the main gallery, presenting vivid, powerful tableaux of strong, dark colours. There was a sombre and surrealist edge to many of them.

The book Arthur Boyd: Brides (2014) by Kendrah Morgan, Marcia Langton and Stuart Purves is well worth reading. Heide curator Kendrah Morgan saw the bridal paintings for the first time and was struck a] by how they were unlike anything else in Australian art back then, and b] by the political aspects of their subject matter. In terms of Boyd’s attempt to raise awareness of dis­crimination against Indigenous people and highlight social issues, the series advanced local modernism. What was new was that Aboriginal scholar Marcia Langton’s analysis represented the first indigenous reading of Boyd’s Brides. Throughout this series, Boyd’s protagonists were an Aboriginal man and his mixed-race bride - a collection of enigmatic, dramatic and ambiguous moments in their journey. Mind you, Boyd had explored these themes throughout his career: disfigured subjects, tormented lovers, beasts, fear, injustice and conflict. Also read Christopher Heathcote in Quadrant


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