Spring has well and truly sprung! Which got us thinking about the radiant work of Elioth Gruner, whose painting Spring frost in the Art Gallery of NSW’s permanent collection, was one of the first tiny brain worms that helped evolve the Southern Wild Co brand. We remember standing in front of it and feeling buoyed by the light of it, the evocative energy of Gruner’s brushstrokes and the smell of it. Yes, we can smell paintings, can’t you?
Spring frost (above) is one of Elioth Gruner’s most critically acclaimed achievements with it’s 19th-century plein-air conventions overlaid with a thoroughly modern poetic. To complete the painting – one of his largest compositions – Gruner built a structure to protect the canvas from the weather and wrapped his legs with chaff bags to avoid frostbite. Now that’s what we call commitment!
Born in 1982 in New Zealand, Gruner immigrated to Sydney, Australia when he was just one year old and is today, one of Australia’s most well-known landscape painters, famous for a unique, stylistic approach that sees him conjure in paint the ephemeral effects of light-play on and in the Australia-scape.
Gruner won the Wynn Prize for landscape painting seven times in all, the most wins of any Australian artist besides Hans Heysen, with Spring Frost taking out the prize in 1919. The painting has since become one of his best-known works and is regarded as the most loved Australian landscape painting in the AGNSW’s collection. They acquired it in 1939, the year he died.
Gruner’s mother encouraged his love of art from a young age and Gruner began attending art classes with Julian Ashton from around the age of twelve. After the death of his father when Gruner was fourteen, he was forced to work long hours as a draper’s assistant at Farmer’s department store in order to help support his family. He continued to take art classes at night and painted on weekends.
His first exhibition for which he submitted a still life in 1901 was with the Society of Artists. He continued to paint still-lifes throughout his career, most often when he was at home in Sydney, but he always preferred to paint landscapes when he was able to paint outdoors en plein air. And he loved painting the Australia-scape in the manner of the Impressionists he so admired, loving as he did their ability to go beyond the surface, to imbue wonder and emotion through texture, tone and light, light, light!
By 30, Gruner was in demand enough as an artist that he could paint part time, he worked for Julian Ashton as a gallery manager and then as a teacher to support his professional practice.
From 1915 Gruner travelled to the farmlands of Emu Plains, west of Sydney, where he painted some of his most prominent landscapes, including Morning light (1916) which won the Wynne Prize that year. Gruner preferred to rise early in order to capture the long shadows of the rising sun and the atmospheric and filmic qualities of early morning light (we really have to wonder if filmmaker Terence Malick was inspired by Gruner’s painterly light play).
Morning Light, Elioth Gruner
Gruner’s masterpiece of the Emu Plains series was our beloved Spring frost (1919). ‘The dappled foreground of Spring Frost is rendered in short daubs of paint, blending perfectly to mimic the long shadows of the cows amid the green pasture. The cows, more finely painted, are outlined in white and gold paint and the farmer’s translucent pink ears perfectly render the effects of the rising sun behind.’*
Our other favourite work, also part of the AGNSW’s permanent collection is Wattle painted no doubt in the Spring of 1919. The unique perspective in this magical work and its focus on the radiating tree, dappled within sunlight is so transcendent. That special way he had of capturing a direct stare at the sun-source, like being underwater and looking up only into the weather, dizzying and exquisite!
The Wattles, Elioth Gruner
The Emu Plains series got Gruner noticed for his incredibly expressive and skilful captures of light within mood. He worshiped the Australian landscape and particularly the pastoral ambience of that time in history which seems to us as if it could be now (still).
‘On the impetus of ideas simmering within him for his own approach to landscape he went to Emu Plains, and there produced these most astonishing morning light subjects ... It must have been with a queer exultation of inspired emotion that Gruner, wrapped in chaff-bags to keep the chill out of his blood, watched for those clear colourless dawns to arrive, with a palette set to a key that would paint the unpaintable, light itself.’ – Norman Lindsay, 1918
Frosty sunrise, Elioth Gruner
Mingoola Valley, 1920, Elioth Gruner
In his 40s, Gruner spent time in England, France and Italy (from 1923-25) where he was exposed to the work of the post impressionists like Cézanne and Gauguin. ‘He produced high-key works inspired by European modernism, such as Devon pastorale and Aloes, St Tropez both ca. 1924. On his return to Australia his works of the late 1920s showed aspects of modernism in their broad, flat planes of colour and simplified forms.’*
Back in Australia, Gruner continued in his passion for en plein air and worked all over Country and from around 1926 he began to spend significant amounts of time in the Canberra region, often staying with pastoralists and painting landscapes including On the Murrumbidgee and Weetangera, Canberra both of which won the Wynne Prizes in 1929 and 1937 respectively.
A memorial exhibition of Gruner’s work was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1940, a year after his death with major celebratory retrospective exhibition at the AGNSW in 1983. The exhibition Elioth Gruner: The texture of light was held at Canberra Museum and Gallery and Newcastle Art Gallery in 2014.
We love that title, ‘the texture of light’, and we would add to it…the texture of light and scent!
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