Arthur Boyd, AC, OBE, is one of Australia's most important modern artists. Alongside Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and John Perceval, he was a member of a group who became known as the Angry Penguins. Their work drew upon European modernist styles, especially expressionism and surrealism, which were developed towards quintessentially Australian imagery and narratives.
"Australian Scapegoat" is a major work produced late in Boyd's career. The painting freely mixes references to classical mythology, Christian iconography and Australian history in the context of the Australian landscape. Engaging with key themes such as love, heroism, death and the futility of war, Australian Scapegoat depicts a tragic narrative of epic proportions, in a bold, expressionist style. As an expression of anti-war sentiment, and the horrors of war, the work also can be seen in relation to important works internationally, such as Francesco Goya's "Disasters of War" series and Pablo Picasso's "Guernica".
Australian scapegoat's action takes place under the stars, on a precarious strip of land, across which a series of symbolic figures play out an absurd theatre of the carnivalesque. The scapegoat of Christian parable is an innocent victim, and appears variously in Arthur Boyd's work - as crippled dog; the artist himself; or the scapegoat soldier, victim of war. Here, the Australian Scapegoat leans over water, echoing the self-examination of Narcissus. The figure might also be identified as a prototype digger, or soldier, branded on the forehead with the rising sun insignia.
The doomed scapegoat is centrally placed between Venus, the goddess of sensual pleasure, and Mars, the evil god of war. Mars is represented as a youth holding his vindictive mother, Juno, the wife of Jupiter and queen of the heavens. Throughout Australian scapegoat, Boyd's figures are at turns reverential and iconoclastic. At the left of the painting, an unnamed soldier stands tenderly behind his mother, who is an innocent victim of war, whilst the unexpectedly grotesque figure of Venus, goddess of love, violently holds aloft a dead chicken. Vulcan is depicted as a naked soldier whose head is buried in a theoretical book, the contents of which are digested and excreted as gold coins.
In his appropriation of such figures, Boyd uses myth to comment on the moral bankruptcy of war. He also asks us to reconsider colonial depictions of the Australian landscape as a romantic Arcadia. Finally, the artist represents himself as tragic witness in the guise of both cripple and clown, in the margins of the painting, armed with his crutch and paint brushes. This image of the artist as a figure of both potential creativity and futile paralysis is typical of the 'collision of opposites' Boyd sought to represent in his work. It also highlights the work as part of a highly personal and visionary expression of his experience of the world.
Opposite the painting is a round stained glass window by Lindsay Clark, designed by Leonard French – famous for his design of the ceiling of NGV’s Great Hall.
This post is part of the Mural Monday meme,
and also part of the Blue Monday meme.