Robert Macdonald, a painter and printmaker, has become known for his paintings of landscapes and farming life around his home in the Usk Valley near Brecon. Robert does not see himself first and foremost as a landscape painter, but much more persistent has been an urge to explore psychological aspects of painting and printmaking, to create works that draw on the inner imagination and embrace legend, myth and the irrational. As a student at London Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art, he was deeply influenced by the psychologist Carl Jung. Jung’s theories of inner archetypes – the universal unconscious and the interpretation of life as a mythic journey towards wholeness, helped him make sense of his own childhood upheavals and the forces at work in his own painterly process.
The pictures in this exhibition span a period of over 40 years in the life of Robert Macdonald, who was born in 1935 in the small market town of Spilsby in Lincolnshire, and who spent much of his early life in New Zealand. The paintings reflect his unusual artistic background. The earliest works, dated 1971, are two large canvases painted in acrylics using the ‘Hard Edge’ technique of 1960s abstractionists. Going against the perceived artistic wisdom of the times, which maintained that paintings should deal only with form and colour, Robert used the technique to dramatise figurative content, exploring subject matter which held close personal meanings for him.
Robert attended the Central School of Art in London for a period in the late 1950s, but had earlier trained as a journalist in New Zealand, and throughout much of the 1960s he worked in Fleet Street. Throughout this period he painted in his spare time, and his works were often satirical; the journalist observing the world around him with cynical eyes. In 1970 he gave up Fleet Street in order to paint, but became ill, developing an allergic reaction to turpentine and other oil painting materials. A visiting friend from New Zealand (the painter Don Peebles who was to become New Zealand’s foremost abstract artist) urged him to switch to acrylics. Exploring the new medium, Robert took Victorian paintings of Maori chiefs and expanded and abstracted the images on large canvases, creating elaborate patterns from the portraits.
He produced a series of six canvases, inspired by the paintings of the Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer who travelled in New Zealand in the late 19th century. These works were exhibited in New Zealand House, London, in 1972, to coincide with the unveiling by the Queen Mother of a huge pouihi or totem pole carved by the Maori artist and opera singer Inia Te Wiata. After this event the Maori chief paintings were rolled up and stored for many years. The painting in this exhibition, based on the chief Te Hira Te Kawau, has only been seen in public once before, in 1976 when a retrospective exhibition of Robert’s work was mounted by the Brecknock Museum & Art Gallery in Brecon.
‘Into Battle’ dates from the same period as the Maori chiefs, and is rather jokey in mood, looking back to the satirical quality of much of his ’60s work but also presaging a more serious group of canvases which he was to work on later in the 1970s, when he was admitted as a mature student to the painting school of the Royal College of Art (he was one of the few students accepted without a first degree). In Britain during the Second World War, Robert’s family lost their home in a German bombing raid in 1942, and for the rest of the war he was an evacuee in Somerset before the family emigrated to New Zealand in 1945. At the Royal College Robert confronted frightening wartime memories in his painting, but ‘Into Battle’ is much more decorative and light-hearted than these later canvases. Brought up in New Zealand with a South African mother whose military ancestors fought in almost every one of Queen Victoria’s imperial wars, Robert appears to be mocking the medals, decorations and vainglorious charges that were part of British colonial history (tellingly he wrote on Africa during the 1960s as Commonwealth Correspondent for ‘The Scotsman’, one of the only two British newspapers giving support to African independence movements).
During his years of work as a newspaper correspondent, Robert had occasionally illustrated articles with his own ink drawings, and early in his career dreamed of following in the footsteps of Rowlandson and Daumier as a satirical commentator on life. But as a painter he found himself drawn to imagery more irrational and perplexing. Exploring the writings of the psychologist Carl Jung gave him some insight into the workings of the unconscious in artistic creation. After three years at the Royal College he went on to work in the printmaking department of the Central School once again, and while there produced etchings and drypoints which embraced this urge towards freedom of imaginative expression. One of these etchings, ‘Journey to the Sorcerer’, was purchased for the Victoria & Albert Museum print collection.
His experience as a journalist and an artist became intertwined when he left the Central and undertook a commission from the publishers, Jonathan Cape, to return to New Zealand for a period and write a book on the changing nature of life in that country. In New Zealand he was invited by Robert Mahuta, a leader of the Tainui Maori tribal confederation, to accompany his people on a great hikoi or protest march from the centre of the North Island to Waitangi in the far north, where in 1840 Maori chiefs had signed the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document which handed authority in that country over to the British Crown. Robert’s book, ‘The Fifth Wind’, was published in 1980 by Bloomsbury in Britain and by Hodder & Stoughton in New Zealand, and details the struggle of the Maori to regain their treaty rights. It received glowing reviews and was illustrated with the author’s own linocuts.
Much of the book was written in Wales, in a remote cottage in the Brecon Beacons which Robert took over after returning from New Zealand, and where he also worked on his linocuts. He stayed on in Wales after the book was published, finding himself at home in the Welsh hills, and his work as an artist became a painterly exploration of the Welsh landscape and of the myths and legends of the Brecknock area. This exhibition reveals the profound change in his work as an artist which took place after his move to Wales.