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Late paintings reveal Lloyd Rees' landscapes of light

Liz HobdayAAP
Lloyd Rees' Tasmanian works, like Morning on the Derwent (pictured), are luminous. (HANDOUT/TASMANIAN MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY)
Camera IconLloyd Rees' Tasmanian works, like Morning on the Derwent (pictured), are luminous. (HANDOUT/TASMANIAN MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY) Credit: AAP

Luminous large-scale paintings by renowned artist Lloyd Rees are on show together for the first time, in an exhibition revealing an inspired late period influenced by the landscapes of Tasmania.

Rees, who died in 1988, was one of the leading Australian landscape artists of the 20th century, influencing generations of artists including the likes of Brett Whiteley and John Olsen.

The body of work he made in Tasmania is not widely known, but it's markedly different to the rest of his oeuvre (he was best known as a Sydney painter) including the largest and most impressionistic paintings Rees had ever executed.

The first exhibition to bring together these artworks, Lands of Light: Lloyd Rees and Tasmania, is on show at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.

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The paintings represent a spectacular late flowering of creativity, according to author Peter Timms, and no less than a "triumphant final act" for one of Australia's greatest artists.

Rees began visiting Tasmania regularly in 1967 after his son moved to Hobart, and finally moved south in the 1980s as his health and eyesight deteriorated.

The artist was searching for fresh inspiration during this period and found it in a different quality of colour and light, and a move towards what he described as "almost abstract" painting.

Like J.M.W Turner 150 years earlier, Rees suffered from failing eyesight, with light and atmosphere becoming his subjects in the final years of his life.

Just as Turner had, Rees began working with a reduced palette (from 26 colours down to half a dozen) and pushing the pigments further - he found Tasmania demanded a different colour of blue to the mainland.

The light on the Derwent River, and Mount Wellington which overlooks the city, were some of Rees' favourite subjects, and one painting on show, The Edge of the Forest, Tasmania, 1967, the artist described as "perhaps the most truly Australian painting I ever painted."

Director at Hobart's Colville Gallery, Trudi Curtis, has had a long association with the Rees family, and has researched the artist's Tasmanian output over the past seven years.

She pored over catalogues and auction records to identify dozens of works in private collections that had not been on show to the public for decades, if ever.

It built a picture of a substantial body of Tasmanian work, that Curtis belies is crucial to understanding Rees' development and career.

"These late works are really important because they are almost the essence of the artist in front of a canvas," she told AAP.

"They're really big, luminous paintings... this was the last few years of his life and he no longer was out painting in front of a landscape. It was more from memory, his feel and his passion."

The Rees family helped curators develop a comprehensive database of Tasmanian artworks, and the hope is that private collectors might let the gallery know the fates of works that could not be located.

The Tasmanian paintings also deployed a perspective and composition markedly different to the rest of Rees' work, Curtis noticed.

While most of his Sydney art was executed with the water at eye level, the sky taking up much of the frame, in Hobart he enjoyed a view from above, from Sandy Bay to the coastline, making for a composition dominated by water.

The first part of the exhibition introduces some of Rees' more typical landscapes and his precise architectural pencil drawings, while a second section explores a more gestural period, before the final room is filled with the large canvases of his late period.

Over winter, the gallery will open an additional part of the show, including prints, videos, and memorabilia including Rees' easel and painting jacket.

For TMAG curator Peter Hughes, the show also demonstrates that while Rees may not have followed art world trends (he stuck to representation when others had turned to abstraction) he was constantly reinventing his approach.

Rees would craft the surface of his paintings not only by painting, but scraping, splashing and even stabbing at them, said Hughes, who believes the late paintings exemplify this continuous adaptation.

"In his later paintings he is developing workarounds, so he can still create meaningful work despite his condition," he told AAP.

Rees won the Wynne Prize twice during his lifetime, the first in 1950 with one of his revelatory drawings of Sydney, titled The Harbour from McMahon's Point.

His second win was in 1982 at the age of 87, and it's fitting that he took home the prize with a Tasmanian painting, Morning on the Derwent.

These artworks are not only important for Australia's understanding of one of its major artists, according to Timms, but for Tasmanians' perception of themselves.

The later Rees paintings "give Tasmanians a confident new way of looking at themselves and their environment, not to cast aside the legacy of their troubled past, but to navigate a way through it," he said.

Lands of Light: Lloyd Rees and Tasmania is on show until October 27.

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