Pictorial Banquet

During some twenty years of writing regular art criticism largely for British and Australian newspapers and magazines, I had the great good fortune to receive many hundreds of exhibition catalogues, art magazines and books as well as massive monographs simply as part of my work. I sit surrounded by many of these as I write.

To say that the recent addition of The Woodblock Painting of Cressida Campbell to my collection has brought particular pleasure is thus meant as a special compliment to the artist and those others who have had an active hand in producing a remarkable book. Here is a monograph which can provide untold hours of pleasure, partly because the transition from the works themselves to the reproductions does not involve massive alterations of scale. Some of the reproductions in Campbell’s book, such as that of Music in the Kitchen (1994), are more than half the size of the originals. The book’s matt, slightly creamy paper also reinforces a sensation that the reproductions resemble the originals infinitely more closely in style, size, texture, feeling and overall appearance than is usually the case with major catalogues or monographs.

To give merely one example of what I mean, the catalogue for the finest exhibition I have ever seen—that of the major paintings of Velazquez at the Prado, Madrid, early in 1990—shows the artist’s wonderful The Surrender of Breda in a reproduction of 16 x 20 cm whereas the painting itself is 307 x 360 cm. The Surrender of Breda is housed more or less permanently in the Prado, where I have had the good fortune to see it four or five times. The catalogue can thus provide only a very minor reminder of a quite extraordinary and irreplaceable experience: that of standing directly in front of the painting itself.

Happily for her, Cressida Campbell discovered the way she wanted to create images while studying in Japan at the age of twenty. She has subsequently adapted what was the dominant pictorial mode in Japan in the eight-eenth and nineteenth centuries—Ukiyo-e—to her own purposes and environment. Unlike Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro, she does not design woodblocks for multiple prints but creates a single woodblock from which she subsequently takes a solitary print. The painted woodblock itself and its mirror-image print are thus her sole signature pieces.

Unlike many critics, I come myself from a background of painting and exhibiting, so I am particularly intrigued by the means by which others arrive at their finished images. Cressida Campbell designs her woodblocks with an inbuilt awareness that the resultant print will be “back to front”, whereas I tended to use a mirror regularly to check that compositions worked equally comfortably either way.

Campbell has a gratifyingly wide range of subject matter extending from still life, flower paintings and portraits to rural and urban interiors and landscapes and wide-angle views. Foreseeably it is in the last that reversed images occasionally look awkward, not merely through any familiarity we may have with an actual location but because most of us are right or left-handed and thus tend to regard the world from a particular pictorial point of view.

Campbell’s images have a gentleness and tranquillity, allied to intensity of observation, that has been increasingly rare in art for more than half a century. It is generally the unimaginative who imagine that the lives of other people are uneventful. The critic John McDonald deals with this issue sensitively in his spirited introduction to Campbell’s book, contrasting her accident-prone travels in company with her stoical husband with the strength and certainty of her art.

Philosophically Campbell points to the beauty, oddity, complexity—and perhaps transience—of the everyday and invites us to partake in the ever-available wonder of ordinary life. On the whole, Australia has lacked its fair share of gently observant chroniclers in literature or in art.

Unlike many contemporary artists, Campbell does not make her pictorial points with a sledgehammer. Thus in From the Balcony (1995) she contrasts a small slice of elegant interior, glimpsed through an open door and a shrub-laden balcony, with the world of tangled telephone wires, television aerials and bland, speculative building which the balcony overlooks.

This and many other such works are compositionally ambitious but handled with great composure. Like almost all other artists Campbell must occasionally have questioned herself when tackling compositions of ludicrous-seeming complexity, but she seems, over the years, to have acquired the confidence that she will conquer them. In a work such as Interior with Black Lacquer Chair (2007) she demonstrates what self-belief can achieve.

Here is a vast and truly wonderful book containing a cornucopia of images representing much of the artist’s best work. Great thought has gone into its production, with consequent pleasures for future owners.

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