Nobody can have any idea…unless they have lived in Paris and in Paris art circles of the intense vitality of art there. Out here [in Australia]…art is not the living breathing thing that it is in Paris…Here art is an entity; there an atmosphere…
Rupert Bunny, 1911
In essence that statement describes Bunny’s canon of artwork collected at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from the end of November 2009 to the end of February 2010. What lies at the heart of this exhibition is the sheer talent developed within Bunny by being exposed to a way of life absent from his home shores. Supported by a cast of other artists and a country built around a sense of nurturing creativity, Bunny flourished during the period of time he spent in Paris from 1886 until his departure in 1933 when he returned to Australia, a widower and verging on penniless.
Those fifty years spent abroad are mapped beautifully by the exhibition curator Deborah Edwards as she outlines his time as a mischievous twenty-four-year-old in the late nineteenth century right through to the days just before he left Paris to return to Australia as a seventy-year-old. Showing the influences upon him by the artists with whom he worked throughout his time in Paris we see Bunny’s focus move from painting what he saw around him to the world of mythology to his fascination with capturing the lives of the women of the time.
His feminine period is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition as he records the daily goings-on of the well-to-do and creative women of Paris. Central to these works is his eventual wife, artist’s model, Jeanne Morel and she plays a huge part in the development of his work throughout this period. He in effect is creating what amounts to a reality-television record of the Paris Hilton and Britney Spears’ type of the day, representing the lounging and sheer excesses of the wealthy and free-spirited. It’s an interesting section of the exhibition and a nice contrast to the following shift in Bunny’s work presented.
The move towards his extreme use of colour in his pre-World War I series depicting his interest in the world of dance and then towards his tapestry-like paintings of the 1920s are then again contrasted by his intriguing and ultimately disturbing production of both monochrome and colour monotypes. It is this inclusion of a slightly unexpected experimentation in texture that highlights Bunny’s move away from an influenced young artist to a rather influential one in his own right later in his career.
What one gets ultimately from this exhibition is a sense that here was a handsome, talented and inspired young Australian who sought a chance to grow and experience and eventually express in the best environment he could. For viewers of Rupert Bunny: artist in Paris it’s a joy to behold and an ode to a city to which we, like Bunny, owe a lot.