The art that made me: Cressida Campbell


Image: Cressida Campbell Photo: Hugh Stewart

In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by Cressida Campbell first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.

‘Her work is a joy to behold in reaffirming, as it does, the opportunity for beauty and intimacy in the most familiar and prosaic of subjects,’ former Gallery director Edmund Capon writes in the forward to The woodblock painting of Cressida Campbell.

But what artists does the Sydney-based painter and printmaker admire? ‘I like a lot of contemporary art but I tend to go back a bit in time,’ she told an audience of her fans at a recent Gallery members' In conversation event. ‘If I’m attracted to a work of art by someone else, it’s usually not the subject, but the way the subject is interpreted, its transformation.’

A similar transformation of familiar subjects often defines Campbell’s own work. It’s evident too in her favourite collection works shown here. As she says of Portrait of a young woman: ‘Although appearing quite realistic, the subtle stylisation of the face, with her alabaster-like skin and rigid head dress, gives us an image from an imagined world.’

In 1983, the year after my father died, my mother and I caught the train to Cookham from London and had a magical day wandering around the quiet village where Spencer painted many of his pictures. We walked among the gravestones he’d painted in the churchyard and visited the Stanley Spencer Gallery, curiously and perhaps suitably, housed in a chapel.

I remember seeing white swans on the river, reminding me of his famous painting Swan Upping at Cookham 1915, and yellow mustard seed in the surrounding meadows. As we wandered around I felt like I was actually inside a Stanley Spencer painting, as his subjects were everywhere.

AGNSW collection Sir Stanley Spencer Cookham Lock 1935
AGNSW collection Sir Stanley Spencer Cookham Lock 1935

This finely painted Japanese scroll has a wonderful charm and gaiety about it. Your eye wanders along it as if you are walking in a quiet garden.

I love the way the artist has seen beauty in supposedly humble plants that some would regard as weeds. In this aspect the work brings to mind the exquisite drawing of weeds and grasses by Albrecht Durer.

Although Nozaki Shin’ichi has very skilfully composed the meandering picture, he has managed to give the pure, uncontrived feeling that only nature gives us.

The rich blues seen in the Morning Glory flower, combined with delicate yellows and jade-like greens against the soft washed out colour of the silk, create a work of delight and peace.

In the film Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, David Hockney talks about a Chinese scroll that depicts everyday life on a river. As the scroll is gradually unrolled, the camera follows the continuing image and Hockney comments on the painted journey. This Japanese scroll has a similar fascination for me, as it takes you slowly through a garden of sometimes unnoticed creatures and their surrounds, that may otherwise be taken for granted.

I can’t not think of my great friend Margaret Olley when I see a Morandi, as she was a devoted admirer. This work was purchased in 1997 with assistance from the Margaret Olley Art Trust. I painted an interior in Margaret’s house years ago and in the picture was a shelf of Morandi-like objects she’d collected and painted herself over the years.

There is a meditative feeling to Morandi’s paintings that is both calm and exciting. His subtle use of colour never bores the eye. There’s usually a slash of brightness to contrast with the softer tones, like the little bit of dusty coral orange in this picture.

The placement of his collected objects is very original, defying any conventional rules and the application of his paint makes his images shimmer like a mirage.

Whenever I am in a gallery, anywhere in the world, and I enter a room where there is a Morandi – often among other great and larger works – it is the small Morandi that dominates the space. It reminds us that the power of an image is not necessarily due to its size.

AGNSW collection Giorgio Morandi Still life 1957
AGNSW collection Giorgio Morandi Still life 1957
AGNSW collection The Master of the 1540s Portrait of a young woman 1541
AGNSW collection The Master of the 1540s Portrait of a young woman 1541

I have always loved great portraits and am fascinated by the way subjects who are not conventionally beautiful can be transformed by a brilliant painter into an object of beauty, without a trace of sentimentality.

The young woman in this painting has a melancholy appeal. There is a sadness but strength in her eyes and something makes you want to continue staring at her.

The unknown artist has been able to capture a moment, creating an electrifying stillness while at the same time conveying the life of flesh and blood.

Utamaro, for me, is one of the world's finest draughtsmen, a kindred spirit to the French painter Edgar Degas. Both artists combine a daring sense of composition with acute observation.

In this picture every line, including Utamaro's signature, is necessary to create its perfect harmony.

Although the artist is a master of editing the drawing to its bare essentials, so that nothing irritates the eye, he is as inventive with so called humble objects like the knife that peels the persimmon and the chopsticks in the woman's hair, as he is with the more obviously decorative elements such as the patterned kimono. All play a crucial part in the picture’s overall design.

I have loved Ukiyo-e prints since I was very young and continue to feel an affinity with the way their world was depicted, using the combination of detail and areas of plain space.

AGNSW collection Kitagawa UTAMARO (Mother with child peeling a persimmon) 18th century-19th century
AGNSW collection Kitagawa UTAMARO (Mother with child peeling a persimmon) 18th century-19th century
AGNSW collection Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu Untitled 1997
AGNSW collection Kutuwulumi Purawarrumpatu Untitled 1997

I first came upon this artist's work in the 1990s and loved it immediately. She was then known by the name Kitty Kantilla.

I don’t know if her works tells particular stories, but I respond to the images purely at a visual, abstract level. I love her sense of composition, pattern and colour. There is both a delicacy and terrific daring in her work.

Some of her pictures remind me of the beauty seen in Persian and Turkish carpets and textiles.

In Islamic designs there is often a fault purposely made in the pattern so there is an imperfection, because only things created by God can be perfect. I always like the so-called ‘flaw’ in the designs as it gives a liveliness in its lack of symmetry, hence the term ‘Flawed Beauty’.

In a curious way, it is in its slight awkwardness where this painting gets its beauty.

Although Kitty Kantilla’s works are complete in themselves they have the unusual freshness of an unfinished piece. They sometimes appear to me as if the lines were drawn in wet sand and were about to be washed away.