Frederick MCCUBBIN | Autumn morning, South Yarra

Frederick MCCUBBIN
Australia 1855 – 1917

Autumn morning, South Yarra 1916
oil on canvas
signed and dated 'F McCubbin/ 1916' lower left
68.2 (h) x 135.4 (w) cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne purchased 1955


Autumn morning, South Yarra is one of McCubbin’s most important late paintings. It is a larger version of his Winter sunlight 1908 (cat 11), depicting the same view of the corner of the bottom of the artist’s garden. However, subtle differences between the works allow for quite different interpretations.

In Autumn morning, South Yarra, McCubbin contrasts the domesticated with the natural landscape. There are two distinct halves to the composition. On the right is the ‘wild’ landscape, a tangle of dark trees which fills the image. On the left is the ‘civilised’ landscape, an open sunny view of distant hills and houses under a blue sky. In contrast to the right half, the left side of the composition is geometrically ordered into verticals and horizontals.

The wooden fence running through the composition separates these two realms. A note of disquiet is introduced into the scene by the opening in the fence into the dark forest beyond, and the beckoning gestures of the trees. Our eye is repeatedly drawn to this opening, and the dark area behind it, by the diagonal of the fence and the emphatic verticals of the tree trunks on either side of the opening. While chickens (and ducks) appear in many of McCubbin’s paintings, here they take on the role of protagonists. Their position near the opening leads us to speculate on whether they will cross over into the forest beyond; and indeed one appears poised to take that step.

Far from being a simple depiction of a rustic fence in the artist’s garden, McCubbin uses the fence opening as a metaphor for the threshold between light and dark, the known and unknown. This symbolic content is the essential difference between Autumn morning, South Yarra and his Winter sunlight painted eight years earlier. In Winter sunlight the forest does not appear so dark and mysterious, and there is not the same contrast between the right and left sides of the composition. It is altogether a brighter, more harmonious composition, a peaceful scene without the underlying drama of the later work.

Autumn morning, South Yarra is also a dazzling demonstration of the artist’s virtuosity. He built up a rich surface of overlapping paint layers using palette knives and brushes. In some areas he wiped the paint right back to reveal the texture of the canvas, in others he left the paint thick, or scratched into it using the handle of his paintbrush. Small strokes of paint create a vibrant web of colour across the surface of the work which we can look through to the underlying layers. From close up the work has a strongly abstract quality.

Elena Taylor

Tickets available online now | open 14 August – 1 November 2009