Rupert Bunny was conventionally of his time, assimilating aspects of Symbolism and Aestheticism and adopting similar allegorical subjects as a number of his European contemporaries. Water was recurrent in his imagery; it had a special role. The artist’s strong feelings about water can be traced back to childhood, when he saw a group of people strangely dressed in long white gowns walking into the sea near his home at St Kilda, Melbourne. From where Bunny watched, he did not realise that the solemn ceremony was a Christian ritual of baptism. Bunny’s first lonely adult grief also involved water. Aged 19, he escorted his dying father on a journey across the world to try the cure of the Karlsbad waters. Bunny in adult life coped with personal stress – and the rashes resulting from it – by bathing in warm water. Baths were, he said, the only cure.
In a series of paintings produced in the 1880s and 1890s, water was present as the ‘natural’ element of strange sea people. Bunny first sketched sea nymphs and tritons in 1887, in the French province of Brittany. In his sketchbook, among drawings of ancient menhirs, steep cliffs and sea, one image shows a nude female whose legs end in fishtails, lying back over a rock in the sea. Brittany, known as a region of myth and legend, and a resort since the 1860s for painters inspired by its exoticism and the mystery of its silver light, therefore appears to have been one source of inspiration for Bunny’s images of tritons. Another source was the Swiss romantic artist Arnold Böcklin, whose paintings abound in centaurs, tritons, nymphs and extravagant creations of fancy.
The 1893 painting was Bunny’s second ‘pastoral’ – ‘oddly enough named’, said the Magazine of Art, ‘seeing that it is, above all, a seashore picture of ideal nymphs’.1The 1890 Pastoral had also been a seashore picture. Judging from these paintings, Bunny’s conception of a pastoral was an allegory of the sort popularised by the French painter Puvis de Chavannes. Van Gogh wrote about Puvis de Chavannes’s seashore picture Pleasant land c.1882, in terms that encompass Bunny’s pastoral idea: ‘you feel you are witnessing ... a strange and happy encounter between very remote antiquity and naked modernity’.2 The encounter between antiquity and modernity is crucial to the way Bunny’s pastorals were conceived and the feelings they evoke. The mood is not so much nostalgia as an awareness of contrast: Bunny’s pleasant land exists side by side with modernity, in critical relation to it.
There are contrasting realms within each of Bunny’s pastorals. Though the images are quite different, both are divided into realms of land and sea, each with its pagan inhabitants: mermaids and mermen in the sea; monkey-like fauns on the land; and between them, literally filling the space between, the ‘ideal nymph’ mentioned by the Magazine of Art and a handsome youth. Bunny’s nymph and young man are of the pure modern type extolled in aesthetic novels and the pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Slender, pale, discreetly clothed and virginal, they possess a gentility conspicuously lacking in the naked creatures on either side. The youth in both paintings is seated on the bank with legs dangling and plays upon a pipe; music, for Bunny, is the element that binds these disparate realms together. The sea nymphs look towards the music, the fauns cup their hands behind their ears to hear better and the nymph listens with her head on the youth’s shoulder. Red poppies, symbolising sweet dreams, flower in the grass. White cliffs and a grotto in the distance suggest that Bunny may have had in mind the chalk cliffs of Brittany and Normandy. However, he was not interested in describing either a particular site or even a specific effect of light. His concern was to evoke a world of reverie.
1 London Magazine of Art, vol.17, 1894, p.70.
2 Translated from Letters of Vincent van Gogh 1886–1890, facsimile ed., 2 vols, London: Scolar Press, 1977.
3 Mary Eagle, The Art of Rupert Bunny, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1991, pp.22, 28–9.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002