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Hunter, Phillip - 2002.37

Philip Hunter

[Untitled] 1985
charcoal, pastel and chalk on paper
49 x 64.5 cm
Donated by Dr. David Rosenthal 2002

Philip Hunter was born in 1958 in the Wimmera town of Donald. In the late 1970s he moved to Melbourne to study at Prahran Tech’s revered art school. Studying during a period dominated by the international trends of abstractionism and conceptualism, Hunter remained steadfast in his commitment to exploring and interrogating the possibilities of painting the Australian landscape, his lifelong conceptual raison d’être. For Hunter, the landscape was never merely a site awaiting an accurate topographical rendering; he was not interested in representation at its most basic level. He was concerned with how one depicts place, a landscape’s multi-layered cultural, geological and metaphysical history.

In 1985, Hunter became interested in Tower Hill, a man-made landscape constructed within the bowl of an extinct volcano in the Western District of Victoria. Tower Hill had been a site of artistic exploration for more than a century; Eugène von Guérard painted it in 1855, A.H. Fullwood captured its features decades later in the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia and Hunter’s peers Geoff Lowe and Tony Clark were also making work in response to it. Hunter’s series, including paintings and drawings, explored the history of Tower Hill in the context of Australia’s art-historical canon, its significance as a prehistoric site and symbol of colonial intervention, and as an example of human concern with the idealised landscape.

The notion of a utopian landscape is evident in Hunter’s title for the series, Cythera, the mythical island depicted in Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘Invitation to the Voyage’, which is revealed as a barren, rocky desert in A Voyage to Cythera. Tower Hill was similarly contrasting: an idealised world lost through neglect and then reconstructed after von Guérard’s original paintings. Furthermore, it rises out of the Australian flatlands like a mythical island in the midst of the ocean.

[Untitled]is an early work from this series. A work on paper, it depicts Tower Hill at night, floating in the middle of the composition as if oscillating in space or in a sea. Hunter often worked in the evening, when he could concentrate on the energy, rhythms and history of place. The work’s uncomfortable composition and the arcs that dominate its horizon and foreground define visions of geological markings such as inland lakes, the millions of stars that have traversed the sky and the activity – human, floral, faunal and elemental – that had been present, is present and will be present.

While both humble in scale and medium, this work is epic in its ambition to depict the diverse forces that have shaped the Australian landscape. Like Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams and Russell Drysdale before him, Hunter changed the way we look at the Australian landscape; he was a fearless pioneer. What began as a topographical exercise, the Cythera series became an extended and complex rumination on a mythical landscape, one which Hunter described as ‘geometrically unsound’[1] and which became the location that presented the opportunity for him to further pursue his quest of understanding and depicting the Australian landscape beyond mere photographic realism.

Dr Vincent Alessi is a senior lecturer in the Department of Creative Arts and English, La Trobe University, and a freelance curator and writer. His research interests include the life and work of Vincent van Gogh, 19th-century popular graphic illustration and Australian contemporary visual art and curatorial practice.

[1] Ashley Crawford, Wimmera: The Work of Philip Hunter, Thames & Hudson, Fishermans Bend, Vic., 2002, p.40.