NB. I apologise for the lack of images in this post. Despite my numerous attempts to acquire some from the National Portrait Gallery they did not get back to me with any. I decided to publish the review regardless.
Paris to Monaro: Pleasures from the studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas National Portrait Gallery: 31 May - 11 August, 2013
Curator: Sarah Engledow
2013 is the centenary of the establishment of Canberra. As part of these celebrations the National Portrait Gallery is exhibiting the work of Hilda Rix Nicholas (1894-1967) a Ballarat born artist who later settled in the southern Monaro region, and produced many paintings of both its inhabitants and landscape.
Hilda Rix Nicholas lived at a time of change, for both woman and the world. She was fortunate to have a family that supported & took pride in her artistic endeavours, allowing her to study art at the National Gallery of Victoria, and later to travel and study in England &France. She also travelled to Morocco, following in the footsteps of artists such as Henri Matisse. Paris to Monaro includes sketches of her fellow students and other drawings, fully realised paintings, costumes that she acquired on her travels, photographs, ephemera, and a recreation of her studio. Her works have an emphasis on line, and her smaller paintings have the spontaneity of the quickly completed sketch, while her larger paintings display her facility with high keyed colour and short distinct brushstrokes.
Rix Nicholas’ early adulthood was marked with tragedy. Following her father’s death she travelled to Europe with her mother, Elizabeth, and sister Elsie, to further her artistic studies. Elsie and Elizabeth both posed as models for Rix Nicholas. A full size painting of Elsie in a Chinese gown, La Robe Chinoise (1913) portrays her as haughty, and shows Rix Nicholas’ ability to convey both character and paint fabric. The actual gown worn by Elsie is also on display next to the painting. A photograph from 1914 shows Rix Nicholas wearing the gown. It was fascinating to be able to see the actual costume in all its detail and compare it to the paintings where it features.
At the beginning of World War I the three women were living the northern France artists’ colony of Etaples. During their evacuation to England, Elizabeth & Elsie contracted typhus. Elsie died not long after their arrival in England,and her mother in March 1916. Later that year Rix Nicholas met Major George Matson Nicholas. After a brief courtship, during which she drew both him and his brothers, she married him in October 1916. By the end of the year she was a war widow. A particularly haunting self portrait in the exhibition dates from this time. It shows Rix Nicholas holding a canvas, her eyes displaying both her strength of character and the pain of her losses. The title Mrs George Matson Nicholas (1917), clearly states her position and identity as wife, yet the image shows her as an artist at work. Rix Nicholas later painted Desolation (c.1917) which showed the suffering and raw grief of widowhood. Unfortunately this painting was destroyed in 1930 and exists now only as a photograph, and as such was not included in the NPG exhibition.
Between 1918 and 1928 Rix Nicholas travelled between Australia, England and France. She successfully exhibited in Paris and London before returning permanently to Australia. She met Edgar Wright in 1922, and married him in 1928, moving to his property of Knockalong in the Monaro. In 1930 their only child Barrie Rix Wright was born. One section of Paris to Monaro focuses on ‘Rix’, as he was known. There are drawings, photographs and paintings of him dating from when he was a baby through childhood to adulthood. There are illustrations of popular nursery rhymes, and puppets of the same characters that his mother made to entertain him. There are also paintings of his nannies who also worked as jillaroos on the property. It is these images of women mustering sheep and cattle, such as Autumn Evening’s Golden Glow (1942), In the Bush (1927), Bringing in the Sheep (1936) and The Fair Musterer (1935) that Rix Nicholas is possibly best known. These are paintings that belie the idea of country women relegated to the domestic sphere of house and child rearing. Rix Nicholas shows the reality of life in the country for these women, participating in all aspects of daily life. Other paintings show familiar scenes of country life including The Shearers (1922-23) and The Fleece (1944) in which Edgar examines the quality of newly shorn sheep’s wool .
After moving to Knockalong, Rix Nicholas had a studio built along the lines of the one she had in France. She furnished it with pieces she had shipped back to Australia. Paris to Monaro includes a recreation of the still existing studio, with a half finished portrait of Elsie in the Chinese robe on an easel. There are sideboards, tables and chairs, clogs and embroidered slippers bought on her travels in Europe and North Africa, metal pots, woven baskets, and ceramic platters. It also includes the only non Rix Nicholas painting in exhibition – one of her studio in Etaples by Henry van der Weyden.
Paris to Monaro: Pleasures from the studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas, provides a comprehensive representation of the life of an artist who lived in a rapidly changing world, and experienced all the joy and grief that life offers. Much of the work and personal items (including photographs and ephemera) on display is from the Rix Wright Collection and other private lenders. As such many of the works have not been seen in public before, and their inclusion provides an intimate glimpse into the life of both woman and artist. The accompanying catalogue with essay by curator Sarah Engledow, contains reproductions of all works in the exhibition and is beautifully produced permanent record of this exhibition.
Elizabeth Little has a B. Art Theory (Hons)and M Art Admin, COFA UNSW. She lives and works in Sydney.