50 of Australia's Most Collectable Artists: Philip Wolfhagen - Art Collector

Issue 51, January - March 2010

This profile appeared in the "50 of Australia's Most Collectable Artists 2010" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2010"

Philip Wolfhagen is a perfect example of an artist who seeks universal truths by concentrating on the narrowest range of subject matter. Wolfhagen was born in Tasmania in 1963 and has spent his whole life on the island, apart from five years’ residence in Sydney. Upon returning home in 1995, he applied himself to an intensive examination of the Tasmanian landscape. The paintings he began to produce – their surfaces a seductive mix of oil and beeswax – have been eagerly sought by private collectors and public galleries.

Since that time Wolfhagen has worked through one series after another, exploring the same simple, insistent motifs: the sky, the clouds, the sea, the hills and plains of the Tasmanian landscape. He has become skilled at extracting the most sublime atmosphere from these very ordinary subjects. This is partly due to the unique surface texture of his paintings, but mostly because of his ability to capture the play of light.

Like Turner, Claude, and all the great landscapists, Wolfhagen has found that by manipulating the light in a picture and setting a distinctive tone, he can convey mood and emotion. If those feelings are often melancholic, they are in harmony with life in Tasmania, where the sorrows of the past are deeply embedded in the countryside and the people.

Wolfhagen lives in Longford, a farming community to the south west of Launceston, founded in 1813. His studio must be one of the oldest in Australia, set in a stone building constructed by convict labour.

A sense of history and a respect for artistic tradition is important to Wolfhagen. For his most recent exhibition, held at Sydney’s Dominik Mersch Gallery in September 2009, he contributed a statement that paid homage to Claude and his British disciple, John Glover, who painted in northern Tasmania during the 1830s. Wolfhagen wrote: “I felt the need to go back into the past in order to comprehend the landscape of the present.”

The new paintings had moved on from the sparse vistas of earlier years. Although the works had the same subdued palette and atmosphere, Wolfhagen had begun to experiment with obstructed views. The receding landscape was framed by the shadowy silhouettes of trees and twigs. The contrast between darkness and light was articulated with a new vividness, but the drama was mitigated by the loneliness of these scenes.

For Wolfhagen, the challenge was to combine the unchanging, classical elements of landscape with the untidiness of shrubs and trees that grow each year in disorderly profusion. Even though there are no figures in these paintings, the trees act as a metaphor for the brevity of human life and aspirations set against the great canvas of the natural world. In the expansiveness of that view we become conscious of our own smallness.

John McDonald

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