An appreciation through an examination of his collaborative projects with Arthur Boyd (1920–1999)
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
The death of his first wife in 1974, prompted The Cost of Seriousness: “The stricken tenderness [of his poetry] of grief finds perfect forms for bleak apprehension that ‘What we do on earth is its own parade/and cannot be redeemed in death’”.2 Porter’s collaborative projects with fellow Australian, the artist Arthur Boyd provided the necessary catalyst for Boyd’s precocious career to continue to great heights, after himself also moving to London, in the 1950s. The power and scope of Porter’s poetry were a gift to an artist of Boyd’s calibre, though the extent of his debt to Porter has not been adequately recognised. Whereas Porter remained in a rented apartment in London for the rest of his life eking out a living on Author’s Royalties, Arthur Boyd’s material success and subsequent generosity to the nation of Australia, in gifting property and art works was spectacular, highlighting the disparity between words, and “images as product”. At the beginning of his career, as Clive James points out, Porter was “punished in Australia for trying to please the Poms, and punished in the UK for being an Aussie expatriate with a frame of reference above his station. Later on, he won acceptance in both camps, and by the time of his death he was a living example of the old country’s culture reinforcing itself with the energy of the new, and of the new country’s culture gaining scope from an expanded context”.3 In all the obituaries in the UK the collaborative projects with Arthur Boyd have not been mentioned; on www.contemporarywriters.com, only Mars, the fourth and final collaboration with Boyd is listed in his bibliography. Based on interviews with Porter and Boyd over a ten-year period, from 1987, for my PhD at the University of St Andrews (2002) and for Arthur Boyd: Art and Life,Thames and Hudson, London, 2000, the following appraisal of a remarkable creative union will point to the necessity of abandoning the romantic notion that a creative genius flourishes alone.
In 1987, with reference to his collaborative projects with fellow Australian artist, Arthur Boyd, Peter Porter observed that the modern poet, painter, novelist, composer “is cocooned in his ego and isolated from both the world of his fellow artists and that of his public by his inheritance of 19th-century individualism”.4 As a poet, Porter also collaborated on many musical projects, but there were, he admits, as many failures as there were successes. Over a period of 15 years from 1973 to 1988, the poet Peter Porter, collaborated with Arthur Boyd on four major projects: Jonah (1973), The Lady and the Unicorn (1975), Narcissus (1984) and Mars (1988). The collaborations were pivotal to the careers of them both.
Like Boyd, the Australian Peter Porter was to spend most of his working life in London, having arrived there in 1951. Although Porter had been recognised by critics in England from the early 1960s when the first volume of his poems was published5 his distinctive qualities were not widely appreciated until very much later. When over 300 of his poems were eventually published in the Oxford Poets series,6 he was widely acclaimed, both in Britain and Australia, being regarded by many reviewers and critics as equal to any contemporary poet in the English language. Alan Bold, editor of the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, summed up Porter’s social vision as a search for “grace in a grotesque world”.7 Assessing Porter’s place in Australia’s literary history, Julian Croft has written:
More than any other Australian poet, Porter combines with ease and fluency both the traditions of early modernism and the directions taken by English poetry in the 1930s and 1940s. His debt to W.H. Auden is evident, as is debt to the anti-romantic social commentary of the Movement, but in his combination of a sceptical distrust of any system and a sense of the individual’s powerlessness he is an Australian modernist poet, as he is in his belief that there is a redeeming force in human affairs — and for Porter, that force is art.8
In his critical biography of Peter Porter, Bruce Bennett observed that while Peter Porter was critical of tyranny from above, he was also critical of the tyrannies of mass culture.
He wanted democracy to be large enough to include doubters, sceptics and critics and to prevent the relegation of ‘high-art’ to the status of an upper-class activity … Porter’s social poetry cannot be separated from his personal poetry as some of these reviews and commentaries might suggest — world, author and text are in a process of continual and dynamic interaction.9
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Studio International invited him for a Comment:
It seems to me, therefore, that we should cease trying to make our world safe. We must learn to live with jeopardy and fight Nihilism with a firmer belief in our own decency. This might seem impossibly idealist, but what else can be done? A return to the principles of fairness, a rejuvenation of egalitarianism, and an acceptance of limits in aspiration to riches, should be our programme. Religion of whatever kind should be content with the inevitability of each human life ending in death, and so curb its apocalyptic fantasies. Lastly, I hope that artists will modify their perverse love of irrationality and violence, and recognise that music, painting and literature work best when most responsible.10
In the early 1970s, the issues of exile and identity preoccupied Porter, for, although fascinated by European history and culture, he felt drawn back to Australia. Then in 1974 the suicide of his wife “led to a deepening appreciation of the complex relationship between pain and art”.11 He was left to raise his two young daughters. Porter increasingly felt the need to write about life in an urbanised, industrialised society in which there was generally little awareness of the past and the significance of history, combined with a marked decline in religious faith and observance. He was critical of simplistic political and economic solutions to the world’s problems. Ideologies both of the Left and the Right had already proved too dangerous. Even the rhetoric and actions of the most high-minded environmentalists could be exposed and satirised.
Jonah. Secker & Warburg, London, 1973
The two Australian expatriates, Arthur Boyd and Peter Porter, had met on various occasions in London in the 1960s. In 1971 the publisher T.G. Rosenthal (at Thames and Hudson, London and then Secker and Warburg, London) proposed that they collaborate on a major work combining their spheres of art and their creative talent. Rosenthal subsequently commissioned all the Porter/Boyd collaborations. After considering several possibilities, they both agreed on the biblical allegory of Jonah, which proved to be a rich source of inspiration for each in turn.
In the parable of Jonah, God calls Jonah to go as a prophet to the city of Nineveh (capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire in the 7th century BC). He is to warn the people that God will destroy their city if they do not repent of their evil ways. (It is an historical fact, that Nineveh was in fact destroyed, by the Babylonians in 612 BC). Jonah does not want to do this, so he decides to go in the opposite direction, away from God’s presence. He boards a ship bound for Tarshish. God causes a great storm. Jonah hides in the bottom of the boat. Everyone else on board fears shipwreck. They find Jonah and question him. They cast lots to discover who has caused their plight: it falls on Jonah who admits he is to blame because he has disobeyed God. They are reluctant to punish him but he offers to let them throw him into the sea. As soon as they do so, the storm stops; Jonah is gobbled up by a whale. While in its belly for three days, Jonah prays to God for his release, promising to do whatever God wants. The whale is made to spit Jonah out on a beach — that is, release him from his punishment. Jonah prophesies to the people of Nineveh; they repent. (Jonah had hoped that God would destroy them.) God then teaches Jonah a lesson in compassion, using a gourd plant as an illustration.
The last section of the story of Jonah carries its essential theological message. God is infinitely more compassionate and merciful than we can imagine. God cares about all those people in the city of Nineveh, and even their livestock. Having given them the chance to repent and seen them put on “sackcloth and ashes” (the traditional Jewish sign of repentance), God withholds the wrath that otherwise would have befallen them. Jonah is really quite petty and self-centred in his response: he sulks because God has not destroyed them, yet he himself has only recently been spared mercifully by God after repenting of his own disobedience in running away from his responsibility.
Recalling the experience of the following year, Porter writes:
Arthur and I hardly consulted each other; I simply sent him the poems in batches of threes and fours as they were finished. I remember starting the whole series in Venice and ending it in a spurt a year later in London. I was not prepared for the scale and opulence of Arthur’s response. He poured into our collaboration an extraordinary cornucopia of pictures — charcoal and ink drawings, etchings, drypoints and, for the cover, a beautiful colour painting of Jonah being vomited on to the beach by the whale … In many respects, this our first book together remains Arthur’s most prodigious response to my writing. Here are many images new to the Boyd iconography – the predatory gull, the night-time womb, the foreshortened corpse …, the magic mirror, and assorted flowering gourds, pharoses, palms … Also are such abiding Boyd images as dogs muzzled and unmuzzled, the garlanded penis …, sharp-beaked birds, and all the writhing lovers and wrestlers. There were originally over a hundred pieces of art work and Rosenthal and I were determined to get as many into the book as possible, with the result that we overcrowded it and perhaps muffled the effect of Boyd’s prodigious imagery.12
For his part, Arthur Boyd appreciated the “powerfully pictorial” qualities of Porter’s poetry, its emotional range and inventiveness.
His language is universal ranging from humour to great tragedy so that my response to his work was automatic. I have always felt that as far as I was concerned there was no stage at which I was ever stuck for a stimulus and I’ve never known this same rapport. His work seems to me to combine delicacy and strength. The whole of each group of poems always gave me all I needed, and more, to create the visual contributions to those joint ventures.13
The Lady and the Unicorn. Secker & Warburg, London, 1975
In the writing of their second collaborative work, The Lady and the Unicorn (1975), which had been suggested by Georges Mora, owner of Tolarno Gallery, Melbourne, Porter reveals that neither he nor Arthur Boyd saw the famous tapestries in the Musée de Cluny in Paris until after they had completed their own interpretation of the myth, though Porter at least had seen some reproductions of it.14 Unable to find adequate authentic information on the subject, Porter says, “I made up much of the material myself”,15 though including in the epilogue, imagery similar to that of the Cluny tapestries.
The myth of the Lady and the Unicorn tells of an Emperor who collected animals. He orders his officials to arrange for every kind of creature to be collected into his menagerie. As time goes by he becomes more fanatical about possessing every type of real and imaginary animal but still he has no unicorn. This mythical creature is believed to live in the region but no matter how hard they try to devise traps for it, they are unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the Unicorn falls in love with a young lady. For some time they are happy together but the Lady becomes bored and betrays the Unicorn to agents of the Emperor. Following its capture, the unicorn dies in prison.
The moral of the story is that acquisitiveness leads to disappointment, if not to wanton destruction although Boyd and Porter focussed their attention on the changing relationship between the Lady and the Unicorn, rather than the acquisitive Emperor. The final product was a unified body of work, a book of twenty poems, each faced by a large-scale etching. Porter himself felt that he achieved “the necessary virtuosity” in The Hunters Set out to trap the Unicorn, and was pleased with “the chic irony” of The Unicorn before the Emperor; his parody of Auden in The Lady’s Wedding, and “imaginative prose writing” in Death of the Unicorn.16 Continuing his assessment of their combined work, he writes, “Boyd’s pictures are striking in every sense. Each picture is white on intense black and the mastery of sheer line and complexity of drawing is virtuosic, surpassed in Boyd’s work only by the similar extravagance of his pictures for Narcissus”.17
Narcissus. Secker & Warburg, London, 1984
The legend of Narcissus tells of a handsome young man who becomes so infatuated with the reflection of his beautiful face in a woodland pool that he cannot bear to leave it. A nymph called Echo falls in love with Narcissus but her attentive presence tends only to increase his obsession with his appearance. Inevitably he disregards everything around him including his own physical and mental wellbeing. His death might have gone unnoticed but, following the best tradition of classical mythology, he is saved by the gods, undergoes a metamorphosis and is immortalised in the lovely golden flowers of the daffodil family which grow under trees beside pools and appear to be looking down towards their own reflection in the water. “Narcissus” is the botanical name for daffodils and jonquils. Sigmund Freud used the term “narcissism” to describe not simply vanity but a pathological state in which a person’s entire attention is focussed on self-indulgence, leading to gradual deterioration and ultimate self-destruction.
In 1975 Porter and his two daughters spent five months in Sydney. Their visit to the Boyd home at Riversdale on the Shoalhaven River led Porter to a new appreciation of Australia, which Boyd was already re-discovering for himself after a 12-year absence. Much later Porter wrote:
Both at Riversdale and Bundanon he has found an Arcadia, which is neither idealised nor compromised by Rousseauian preconceptions. The many paintings, which Arthur has made of the river and its environs are, I believe, the most important breakthrough in painting of the Australian landscape since the days of Streeton and Tom Roberts. Soon after Arthur went to the Shoalhaven he told me of his vision of the river and the rainforest behind it as a sort of paysage for Narcissus. Water is not only the element of reflection and of self-knowledge, but its laziness is the other side of the coin of its life-giving function.18
Years later, Porter composed River Run, tracing the river’s course and using this as a kind of allegory of human life from birth to death. His initial response to his first experience of the rainforest near the Shoalhaven River was to write The Orchid on the Rock.19 It is interesting in retrospect to compare ideas and images in this poem with themes in Narcissus especially the emphasis on “self” and “reflection” in the first two verses:
Two hundred yards from the houses
Where the sounds of trees commence
With water always in descent
From the hundred veins of the creek,
The orchid rears its dozen necks
On a cushion of self: not scent
But a colourless colour, so intense
It eats the light, brings us up close.
Perhaps fifty years’ battening on
Its own dead limbs have sent
Those roots like rivets into the rock —
The air brings stories of other lives:
Lemons returning to wildness, leaves
A hundred feet overhead which mock
The ferns, a fallen cedar bent
To the creek to kiss the sun.20
Porter’s poetry in Narcissus, expresses ideas originally suggested by Arthur Boyd and derived from an idea Boyd himself conceived for Narcissus, subsequently jointly developed by both of them over a period of about nine years. Bennett, observed, “It is not surprising that in the period following his wife’s death, Porter should have puzzled deeply over whether a self as dubious as his own could be lovable”.21 Yet Porter admits to finding solace in Blaise Pascal’s notion that “the self is somehow hateful and lovable at once”.22 This seems to account for Porter’s introduction of the beast or monster, to disrupt the tranquillity of Narcissus’ idyllic world, not from outside but within:
Porter’s original satire on those who would assert that Greek legends cannot be transposed to an Australian landscape is found in Echo’s Moon-Calf, Part XIII, a barbecue with the poet Les Murray:
Trust the Greeks to get the legend wrong.
I was out walking the world of myself
sniffing subtleties of reflections
in patches of the rain forest, nymphing
the shade with my very pretty toes,
when I came across this obscene beast
picnicking. He had his Esky,
three pounds of sirloin steak,
Alice B. Toklas’s relish in a cup
and cole slaw vacuum-sealed. His barbecue
was across two rocks and he was throwing
gum-balls on the fire to make it flame.
To cut a long story short, it was
Narcissus – not considering his own face
but loving his own body by stuffing it
with food. He gave me half a glance
and hid his uncooked steak.
Tell the researchers this,
I’m the one who’s self-obsessed,
I’m always coming back to find where I have been,
to hear the world anticipate my voice.
And this uncouth Caliban has had
my fame. I’m supposed to be mad for him
and die in the hills when spoken to.
All he said to me was a lot
of trendy trash about the need for truly
Porter’s appraisal of Boyd’s response arguably surpasses any art historian’s account:
Arthur Boyd’s Narcissus engravings are among his most audacious works. The cover and the image facing poem 12 are colophons of the self-loving spirit prostrate before its own existence. Pelicans, ferns, rainbows, crows, lyrebirds, tooth-baring heads strangely like pictures of fibroid growths, fossils and skulls, and Arthur’s ever-present flowering penises dominate an iconography which is always self-consuming. Out of this welter of threat and vanity, he has made an amazingly beautiful world where all things are contingent upon each other. The picture attached to Echo’s Farewell, shows Boyd’s art at its most commanding and elegant. A wild Narcissus leans from the river bank to embrace a swan, which is reflected in the water, though he is not … Even without having to decipher the significance of the symbolism, the viewer is conscious of the link between self-love, beauty and death.25
The question of the use of classical imagery and eclecticism is raised by Porter’s poetry and Boyd’s art at a time when narrative was considered to be an enemy of the avant-garde. Indeed there followed a sophisticated dialogue with art history and classical sources that make much Postmodernist appropriation since, look somewhat gimmicky. The Boyd/Porter collaborative projects are based on sources from the past and they work on the respective subjects from different perspectives. For Boyd and Porter, the use of art and literature from the past stems from an appreciation of visual culture in reproduction, in Australia. Both Boyd and Porter drew on the European tradition from early on in their careers, in spite of the prevailing taste for abstraction and formal preoccupations. Both sought to infuse contemporary issues of morality and politics with classical mythology and biblical texts.
The actual issue of myth and its contemporary relevance is confronted in the Narcissus poems where Porter mocks the notion that in Australia there is no place for the Classics:
Porter’s use of figures and references from classical mythology and the European cultural tradition met with criticism from fellow Australian poet Les Murray who claimed that Australian culture should draw from its own experience and not depend on the European cultural tradition.27 In defence of his own position Porter points out that, “you can turn the characters of early history into mythology but what you cannot do is produce a unified myth system because that takes generations to build up and in any case what we call myth is really religious belief and theology”.28 He defends his use of a wide range of sources from antiquity and literature by pointing out precedents throughout history – that a Shakespearean play, for example, contains an unself-conscious blend of Greek and Roman antiquity and Christian iconography. In the Australian context Porter adds that the British immigrants were themselves a cultural mix and what they transferred to the New World (Australia or America) was not a pure cultural heritage.29 In a poem called The Prince of Anachronism he writes: “All ages are contemporary, the present is made up of the past”. He has never felt embarrassed by the anachronistic combining of aspects of Australia and what is known of Classical Greece.30 Boyd felt readily able to exploit Peter Porter’s poetic talents, whose views on art and literature were both considered and articulate. When Boyd first worked with Porter he told his friend and dealer at Fischer Fine Art in London, Jutta Fischer, that he felt very privileged to be working with a poet of Porter’s calibre.31 Porter provided great inspiration over a considerable period of time and on as many as four impressive projects.
Narcissus combined a number of themes of interest to painter and poet. Boyd was in the initial stages involved in both his new property and home on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales (after a long absence from Australia) and also in the mythological subject of Narcissus. He interested Porter in the prospect of another collaborative project, who then agreed to write fresh poems, on Boyd’s new subject. The Narcissus project was therefore Boyd’s idea. Artist and poet agreed that the project would address the “prevailing solipsism of self-awareness”.
In Australia the question of the validity of the use of European classical myths in an Australian context had been posed before. In poetry the verse of Hugh McCrae or in art Sydney Long’s paintings of nymphs were examples of previously acceptable works.
However, during a national revival of the arts in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, the claims of the Indigenous Australian stories and experience, were understandably being pressed by certain artists and critics, following their neglect through a protracted history of Australian cultural subservience…
The new work of Boyd and Porter was therefore destined to swim against some prevailing currents. This was a situation to which Porter warmed, enjoying the adversarial role. He entered this part of the project with ebullient humour and, in a spirit of multiculturalism, ridiculed the ‘exclusion’ by some Australians of an allegedly unhealthy migrant.32
The Australian poet Judith Wright had written on the subject of Narcissus. Her approach, however, was metaphysical where Porter and Boyd focussed on “the implications of sexual narcissism. Images of erotic excitement or gratification through extreme admiration of the subject’s own attributes recur throughout Narcissus, and are given special intensity by the spellbinding etchings of Boyd on their intense black background”.33
Boyd and Porter planned to deal with Narcissus from a number of different angles, however, from each, Narcissus would be seen as a kind of protagonist. The first poem was written by Porter, in Sydney, in 1976, on return from a visit to the Shoalhaven, where he stayed with the Boyds.34 The Painters’ Banquet eventually became the fourth poem in the published collaborative project. The poem was started as a tribute to painting per se – following an interest in the Renaissance architect and chronicler Giorgio Vasari – Lives of the Artists (1550/1568).
The basic image is of eating. Painters like to represent banquets but they are also like caterpillars in museums. They like to eat their way through paintings. I called it The Painters’ Banquet because in Vasari he describes how shepherd boys started to draw on rocks and were noticed and brought to Florence.35
So Boyd takes his cue from Porter’s last verse – the idea of the shepherd-artist taken up by a patron having an obvious appeal. It is a tender, almost naïve image visually but the unlikely juxtaposition of the head in profile, the descending coins of patronage and the innocence of the young aspiring artist creating an image of a lamb (of God?) presents a poetic visual image to accompany and embellish Porter’s words in The Painters’ Banquet:
This is the sumptuous gallery of those
Who have eaten the world. Oh the ochre,
Burnt Sienna, the pulverising red
Which rocks have earned from the sun –
In little spaghetti-making towns
The dead artificers’ creations burn
All sophistry from pilgrims’ eyes.
It was a wonderful party to be at
We write our thank-you letters
In the world’s far-reaching galleries
Who will clean up now? All the water
In the reservoirs won’t remove the stain
From Golgotha. We think back instead
Narcissus as a project is characterised by the juxtaposition of unlikely events and descriptions both in the poetry and the etchings. It is a “cabinet” piece in the sense that it resembles a collection of ideas, apparently random but refined and brilliant combining tributes to music, painting and animals. Porter and Boyd comment on the concept of Narcissus as Critic (“Narcissus could not live he could only look at himself which of course made him a very good critic.”37) and Porter chose Narcissus among the Anthropologists (“I’ve always disliked anthropology, regarding it as a form of eavesdropping.”38) Some poems, for example, At the Palace were just fantasies. Towards the end Porter wrote a poem about a Rainbow Maker, which Boyd followed with a number of fine paintings.
For Boyd the introduction of a rich collection of literary images and ideas was a great gift. He responded to Porter’s elegant and complex associations with enthusiasm and great sophistication. A number of Boyd’s images are violent and dramatic matching Porter’s brutal words; Narcissus Laments Orpheus is a particularly hellish picture of iconoclasm and murder. Porter describes:
We are a disgusting species really. Human beings are greedy, nasty and cruel except they do have a few divine attributes as well. Narcissus is all about awareness of self that is hateful and out of that you create and understand the world around you. You have the only material to make anything that is beyond yourself. Pascal said ‘the self is detestable but if you are too aware of your detestableness it gives you carte-blanche to hate everybody else. Narcissus was just the Greek who looked into the water — it’s the myth of self-absorption.39
In Piero di Cosimo on the Shoalhaven, Porter transports the Florentine painter to Bundanon, Arthur Boyd’s property in New South Wales. On the subject of myth in general in the context of the Narcissus collaboration Porter states:
The only actual centralised myth that exists in Australia other than what we have built up from historical events are Aboriginal myths. I don’t believe that they can be used by white men unless they have managed to absorb it, as naturally as say, the Renaissance absorbed the Classical mythology.40
MARS, Secker & Warburg, London, 1988
The final collaborative project on which Boyd and Porter worked was Mars, published in London in 1988. For Boyd the Mars project illustrated with drawings precipitated a great many important large paintings. Mars was the Roman god of war thus it gave both Porter and Boyd the opportunity to focus on the issues of war, the arms race and the environmental disasters caused by materialism and avarice. Mars is dramatic and energetic after the self-reflection of Narcissus. Boyd had addressed the subject of war in his paintings of the late 1940s; his response to the Holocaust, for example, was expressed in Melbourne Burning (1946–48).41 In Mars, Boyd and Porter deal with the seriousness of their subject with ironic humour.42
Mars is placed in the modern milieu of America. Porter makes allusions to Nixon, impeachment, Vietnam, missiles. Boyd uses the digger’s hat. The multiplicity of images and metamorphoses are very powerful:
This is strong material, showing the endless recurrence of war despite the best intentions of peacemakers. The warlords change, but the perversions of lust and power remain. In one of Boyd’s images, while Mars molests a naked woman above planet earth, her tears of blood rain upon Australia. Australians are part of this world of powerful play, violence, anger and lust, attracted, like others, to a ‘heedlessness of life’.43
Porter’s poetry and Boyd’s drawings and subsequent paintings are demanding works. Both present original and sophisticated social comment as well as a sustained psychological insight that is rare in contemporary art and poetry. Boyd and Porter were a forceful combination and produced collaborative projects on a truly great level. Boyd’s most outstanding painting on the subject of war, with Mars on centre stage was The Australian Scapegoat Triptych (1988). Although he benefited greatly from his collaborations with Porter, he continued to develop his own imagery when the published project was complete. The painting shows Boyd’s gift for drawing together a plethora of remarkable and pertinent images from cultural sources, autobiography, and natural phenomena. No artist in Australia has presented his audience with such audacious and dramatic statements about all aspects of life, love, death and the future.
10. www.studio-international.co.uk, October 2002.