Elisabeth Cummings: The Invisible Woman of Australian Art - Art Collector

Issue 22, October - December 2002

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Elisabeth Cummings lives a reclusive life in idyllic surrounds in western Sydney. Though barely represented in our public collections she has an avid following among private collectors and fellow artists, and as John McDonald writes, today she is producing the best work of her career.

Elisabeth Cummings is often referred to as a member of the artists’ community at Wedderburn, on the bushland fringe of western Sydney. But community is hardly the right word, while artists’ colony would be a complete misnomer. Instead of a group of bohemians clustered around some picturesque waterhole, it would be more accurate to see Wedderburn as the chosen abode of artistic recluses, driven out of the city by steeping real estate prices and the desire for a quiet place to work. These artists, whose ranks include John Peart, Roy Jackson, Joan Brassil, Su Archer and David Fairbairn, are monads rather than communalists. They love the bush, and get along well with each other, but their main point of contact is the occasional residents’ meeting where they discuss how best to discourage the local council from turning the forests into housing subdivisions.

Born in Brisbane, 1934, Cummings is the senior painter of the loose-knit ‘ecole de Wedderburn’. She bought a piece of land in 1970, and came to live permanently in the area in 1990. After losing her old studio in the bushfires of 1994, she used the insurance money to help build a bigger and better one attached to her house. Nowadays it is hard to say where domestic space ends and studio begins. The dining table is cluttered with diverse objects that are being turned, ever so slowly, into a still life painting; from the kitchen, Cummings can look across to a work-in-progress leaning against the studio wall.

In a previous life Cummings has been a wife and mother, she has resided in Glebe and in Florence. Now she is content to live alone with her dogs and her work, in a comfortable house of wood and mud bricks that seems to owe more to the natural environment than to human artifice. She paints in the daylight that streams in through the back windows of the house. From a verandah she looks out onto a gully in which several varieties of gum tree stand in familiar disarray. Large, blackened trunks still bear scars from the 1994 bushfires, joined by gangling saplings that strain upwards towards the sun. Brilliantly coloured parrots flit from one branch to the next. By late afternoon, this panorama of gums, rocks, grass trees, and sparse undergrowth, is bathed in a dappled light – revealing the soft greys, browns and greens that have found their way into so many of Cummings’s landscapes of the past decade.

In a way that is the exception rather than the rule among Australian artists, Cummings seems to be getting better as she gets older. There is general agreement that the work she is doing today is the best of her career. Yet it is surprising to realise how little attention she has received from the museums and the critics during 40 years of consistent application. When Cummings was given a survey exhibition by the Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery in 1996, I looked up the holdings of her work in public collections, and was amazed at the results. Her only painting in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW was acquired as part of the conditions of the NSW Travelling Art Scholarship, which she won in 1958, soon after graduating from the National Art School. A work in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia had been transferred to Artbank. In the six years since that survey show, nothing has changed.

This is not, however, a concern for the painter. She is represented in many smaller public collections, and has always enjoyed a loyal following among private collectors and fellow artists. Cummings may be the invisible woman of Australian art, but she has a sense of equanimity that is incredible for one who spends much of her life in solitary communion with a canvas.

Is she ambitious for her work? Maybe for the work, but not for her career or reputation. “It’s all very well to be ambitious,” she says, “but I’ve still got to do the paintings. All that stuff is so crazy. I don’t need much money anyway, and prices depend on your track record.”

The fact that the artist is so unassuming about her “track record”, is characteristic. By any objective reckoning Cummings has an impeccable artistic pedigree: she has been painting since the late 1950s, and exhibiting regularly for 20-30 years. The past decade has been the most productive of her life, at least in terms of exhibitions and sales. In an era when the demands of painting seem to be at war with those of professionalism, she has remained focused exclusively on the work itself. She likes the idea of painting as a kind of mysterious journey, with its own, unpredictable sense of movement and change. A work of art grows intuitively, not by means of rigorous analysis.

Throughout her career Cummings has been a tortoise in an art scene that favours hares. She watched the death throes of modernism with great fascination, admiring the hard-edged and lyrical abstraction of the sixties and seventies but being slow to assimilate such styles. By the time the lessons had filtered through, it seemed that everyone else had moved on. The artists she returns to, time and again, are the French modern masters, Cézanne, Bonnard and Matisse, although one feels that she has also learnt from the American abstract expressionists and from Ian Fairweather. Among her contemporaries, she admires the work of painters such as Ken Whisson, Aida Tomescu and John Peart.

Fundamentally, Cummings has never paid much attention to categories, styles and movements. She has always painted the odd “non-objective” composition, but the bulk of her work has a basis in landscape, still life, or – very occasionally – portraiture. In many of her early works her debt to Bonnard is unmistakable, particularly in a series of interiors bathed in the distinctive mauves and dirty yellows favoured by that artist. She persisted with such pieces throughout the 1970s, and into the following decade. In the 1980s the works became more rigorously abstract, incorporating a restrained palette and the occasional use of collage, although the compositions remained tight and orderly. It was not until the 1990s that Cummings reached artistic maturity and began to paint in a manner that was much more free, force-ful and confident than anything she had previously attempted.

In her 1996 survey, a work on paper, Shimmering light on the swamp (1992), signalled a breakthrough into a more intuitive and responsive style of working. In this picture, watery flicks of gouache dance across a stark, white surface that seems to exude light. Although Cummings uses a wide array of colours, each tone has its roots in the natural world, with the play of amorphous forms being held together by a tracery of lines as delicate as a spider web.

Cummings’s major paintings of the past decade have been distinguished by their scarred, heavily-worked surfaces and complexity of colour. They are mostly landscapes, based on the bush in Wedderburn, or Currumbin in southern Queensland, where a parental holiday home is now occupied by the artist’s brother. Like Ian Fairweather, she prefers to work from memories – sometimes dating back to childhood – rather than in front of the motif. She makes numerous sketches but they serve mainly as a visual diary, helping her remember particular aspects of form and colour. In the studio her paintings take on a life of their own, inflected by the light or the weather, or simply by the artist’s mood. Cummings says that a small, dark picture of recent vintage, quite unlike anything else in the studio, was painted while she was feeling ill with a virus that dampened her spirits.

The best and most typical of Cummings’s works are slow to impress themselves on the viewer. At first glance their colours may seem gloomy or dull, while her mark-making appears chaotic and arbitrary in its profusion. Yet as one examines the canvas at leisure, the work begins to reveal its secrets. The forms of trees, clouds or the moon detach themselves from the vigorous scrapings and daubings and stand out with clarity; loosely defined planes advance or recede, to create the impression of depth. Perhaps the most striking effect is the gradual unveiling of rhythms and colour schemes of unusual complexity. Soft, pale yellows and greys rub up against the shadowy greens and browns of the bush. In some works there are musky pinks, shades of rust, and vivid slashes of crimson. Little by little, the eye assembles the pieces of the puzzle, establishing a platform for further investigations. No second viewing of one of these works is ever the same, and this helps explain their appeal to private collectors and their neglect by institutions that tend to prefer works that make an instant, albeit superficial, impact.

More than with most artists, the works of this reclusive and dedicated painter are an acquired taste. Yet once the connection has been made it could never be easily severed. If Cummings has been a slow learner or a ‘painter’s painter’, always behind the times and the fashions, it may be because she has an underlying certainty that time is on her side.

Elisabeth Cummings in the saleroom

For an artist of the stature of Elisabeth Cummings, few of her works have been offered in the saleroom. Over the last ten years, only 22 works by Cummings have been offered and her average price for an oil painting is just $1,183*. A select number of paintings have been available and, of the best works, the prices fetched have been comparable to other painters of her generation. But for the canny collector, now is the time to buy Cummings’s work in the secondary market.

The top price for a Cummings painting is the $4,320 paid for After The Fire Wedderburn (oil on canvas, 180x180cm) sold by Sotheby’s in Melbourne in 2001. The next highest price paid was for Waterhole (oil on canvas, 167x116cm) also last year by Phillips Auctioneers (now Shapiro Auctioneers) in Sydney. Works on paper or other media are similarly underpriced at $420 for the gouache on paper work Indian Lake and $192 for the ink and wash drawing The Garden.

Works through her main gallery King Street Gallery on Burton in Sydney range from $1,650 for smaller works up to $11,000 to $18,000 for large canvases. Her works on paper are similarly affordable at $600 to $800. Cummings also produces occasional one-off monoprints that sell for between $800 and $1,500. Cummings is also represented by Chapman Gallery in Canberra.

Andrew Frost

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