Jan Senbergs: Neither Firebrand Nor Interior Decorator - Art Collector

Issue 44, April - June 2008

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Jan Senbergs, one of Australia’s best known and admired artists, spoke to art critic John McDonald on the eve of a comprehensive exhibition of his screenprints and paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

For the past few decades Jan Senbergs has been in the habit of confounding his critics, his admirers, and himself. When he began teaching at the old RMIT in the 1960s his colleagues believed that he couldn’t draw. Today he is considered one of the outstanding draftsmen of Australian art – a status reflected by the large number of his drawings now in public collections. For much of his career he has worked in a manner contrary to the prevailing fashions. He stuck with figuration when most of his peers dabbled in abstraction. He painted landscapes and vast allegories when postmodernism’s brief efflorescence sent artists into the maze of appropriated imagery and indigestible theory. Through instinct alone, he has always avoided being “cool”.

Senbergs, 69, is happy to be thought of as a maverick, but not as a stubborn old curmudgeon who has deliberately set up fortifications between himself and the Zeitgeist. When one looks back over 40 years’ work in Patrick McCaughey’s 2006 monograph, Voyage and Landfall: the Art of Jan Senbergs, it is amazing to see the degree of surrealism, expressionism, and even abstraction in his paintings, prints and drawings.

McCaughey says that it took the mines and slag heaps of Mt. Lyell in Tasmania to turn Senbergs towards the landscape for the first time in the early 1980s. Instead of the picturesque and pastoral, he sought a landscape impregnated with meaning: a place where heroic industry had transformed and degraded an entire region. It could have turned into one of those statements about the environment that artists are fond of making, but Senbergs’s Copperopolis series of 1982-83 is as much a celebration of the miners as it is a meditation on a man-made wasteland. The ambiguity is typical of an artist who likes to weigh up the good and bad in any subject. He is a habitual skeptic, with a distrust of movements, ‘isms, and ideological certainties.

This even extends to his own predilection for latching onto a theme and producing a series of works. “In the end,” he confesses, “the subject doesn’t matter that much. If you rely on subject matter alone you might have an interesting story but be doing terrible paintings. Even though it seems like a contradiction in my case, I really feel that the subject matter is less important than the actual way you make a picture.”

The key to Senbergs’s approach to art probably lies in his early years. He never went to art school, being turned down by RMIT – the college that would eventually give him a teaching job, and – years later – an honorary doctorate. His only option was to undertake an apprenticeship as a screen-printer, learning how to mix colours, cut stencils and transfer images. In the late 1950s, when real artists painted with Dulux on masonite, these skills seemed irrelevant. There was no connection to the work of those painters Senbergs admired, such as Leonard French, Roger Kemp and Leonard Crawford.

It was only after winning the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship in 1966, and spending a year in England, that Senbergs began to appreciate the value of his apprenticeship. He found that Pop artists in Britain and America were making major works using a silkscreen-printing technique. The most famous, needless to say, was Andy Warhol, but Senbergs never cared for his work, finding it too willfully banal.

For almost 10 years, starting in 1968 and finishing with an enormous commission for the High Court of Australia, all of Senbergs’s paintings were based on silkscreened images. He would lay in objects and forms drawn from many sources, and then paint over and around them, creating works that retained a strong graphic dimension. His subjects were often imaginary landscapes or fantastic feats of architecture, charged with apocalyptic menace.

In 1975-76, when he lived in Canberra, Senbergs gave up screenprinting. “The screenprints are all tightly constructed,” he says, “and that’s what got to me in the end. I felt I was pushing myself into a corner. The technical construction of a screenprint also changes the way you think. It is more conceptual. It requires an inventiveness of form, and I became obsessed with sculptural, ambiguous images. I would never put in a figure because it gave a sense of scale, and I wanted that ambiguity.”

Senbergs had mixed feelings when Hendik Kolenberg, the Senior Curator of Australian Prints, Drawings and Watercolours at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, suggested a show that would include all his old screenprints.

“When Hendrik said: “I’d like to show them all”, I replied: ‘You’ve got to be kidding. Some of those early things are awful!’ But he insisted that they were important in retrospect because they led into other areas. In Hendrik’s opinion nobody else was doing the same things with screenprinting at that time in Australia, nobody else was working like that. He said my techniques anticipated the works younger artists are making today with a whole new technology. I wasn’t really aware of any of this.”

The exhibition will be divided into three parts. All the early screenprints will be in the first room; the second will contain the large-scale paintings on screenprinted backgrounds that Senbergs made throughout the 1970s. In the third and most gratifying room from the artist’s perspective, there will be recent paintings, including Landfall (1994), and some of the large pictures that Senbergs painted a few years ago in Wollongong. These were works that summed up a period in his life and sent him off on a new tangent. The show will be accompanied by a publication that includes a catalogue raisonné of the prints.

Senbergs admits: “there’s not much link between the prints and the recent paintings. It’s more of a separation really. But I’m glad Hendrik didn’t decide to end in 1975-76. I did all those prints a long time ago, and it was a phase that ended quite abruptly. After Canberra I felt I’d got too sophisticated with the screenprinting technique. I didn’t want to go there any more.”

Since arriving as a refugee from Latvia at the age of 10 Senbergs has spent most of his life in Melbourne, but has often found Sydney to be more receptive to his work. His happiest relationship with a dealer was with the legendary Rudy Komon, who also established a Sydney market for artists such as Fred Williams and John Brack. He feels a little sad that the National Gallery of Victoria has been so reluctant to organise surveys of the artists of his generation, but is quite familiar with the experience of sitting on the sidelines.

“Art’s always been like that,” he reflects. “A lot of the more interesting people have been sidelined, buried away somewhere on their own. I don’t really believe there’s an avant-garde any more, but what passes for an avant-garde is terribly intellectually conformist, right round the world. Look at the biennales! You don’t want to be part of that. You’re better off sidelined.

“I’ve always had this romantic thing about Max Beckmann,” he says. “To me he almost seems the greatest painter of the twentieth century, even better than Picasso and Matisse. I’ve always admired painters who’ve worked in their own particular way. You think of Soutine, Beckmann, and in more recent times, some of the School of London. At heart I tend towards the spontaneous artists like Soutine, but always find myself drifting back to a more structured beginning. I suppose I like to start in a structured way and then mess it up as much as possible.”

Senbergs says that he clings to the same naïve belief in the importance of originality that he had in his early twenties. He has been aware of all the movements but never wanted to join any of them. He has tried to be open to new experiences and new directions, even when it meant taking the occasional wrong turning. He can talk about certain works as “diversions”, but finds it impossible to identify any consistent thread that runs through his career. “Perhaps it’s just a series of diversions,” he muses.

If there is a constant element that links the early prints with the late paintings, it may be a sense of absurdity, nourished by the writings of Italo Calvino and Donald Barthelme, and the folly architecture of those French Revolutionary fantasists, Boullée and Ledoux.

“You’ve got to retain that slight sense of absurdity,” he says… “not take it too seriously. Otherwise you become a buffoon! Considering what’s happening all around the world we artists are in a privileged position. You can carry on in a strident way with causes and become quite hysterical, but as you get older you use up your available store of clichés. When I was younger I used to see constancy as a prime virtue, but you change with different life experiences, and everything else changes around you. We move around and respond to different things, occasionally taking a wrong turning. You try and keep a balance, because in the end you don’t want to be seen as either a firebrand or an interior decorator.”

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