Guy Warren is widely regarded as one of the important elders in Australian art, not because he is a centenarian but because of the exceptional and unusual contribution that he has made to the visual culture of this country.
He was born in 1921 in Goulburn in rural NSW to a father who was a pianist and a mother who played the violin. It was a family receptive to the arts and to the natural environment but he grew up during the Great Depression when the pressure was on economic survival and art was thought of as commercial art rather than as art for art’s sake. He fell into being a professional artist with a long and celebrated career almost by accident – it was as much a surprise to the artist as to anyone else.
In 1941, when Guy Warren commenced his war service, he was sent to the Canungra Military Area in the Gold Coast hinterland in South East Queensland. At the Land Warfare Centre, he was prepared for jungle warfare in a thick rainforest. Although the training was tough, he fell in love with the rainforest with its steep ravines and gullies, rushing streams and lush vegetation. This became his ‘soul country’ that has permeated much of his art. When sent into combat in 1942, it was into Australian Papua and New Guinea and Bougainville Island, where Staff Sergeant Warren was once more surrounded by jungle with its exceptional fecundity of plant and insect growth. His love affair with the rainforest was to last a lifetime, so when he married after the war, he took his bride to Canungra for their honeymoon.
The Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme took Warren, together with scores of other future artists including Tony Tuckson, Robert Klippel, Tom Bass, Bert Flugelman and John Coburn, to study art at East Sydney Tech (later known as the National Art School). Many of these artists became lifelong friends. In 1950, Guy Warren moved to London with his wife Joy for eighteen months to continue his studies at the Chelsea School of Art, London School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. The London sojourn lasted eight years and when he returned to Australia, accompanied by his wife and two children, he had acquired a painter’s toolbox of skills. However, despite his best efforts, he could not be drawn into British modernism or paint the park-like English landscape.
While still in London and trying to find his feet, he painted a number of memory paintings based on his experiences with the local indigenous people in Bougainville where he was amazed by their body decorations and innate sense of patterning. By chance, on television he had seen a BBC documentary about the Mount Hagen dancers in the New Guinea highlands and enquired whether he could purchase some of the photographic stills as source material for his paintings. It turned out that the young film producer was David Attenborough who was more than happy to give him some photographs and Warren rewarded him with a painting. The two have remained friends ever since.
The attraction to New Guinea that both he and Attenborough shared was for people living as one with their environment, something he also experienced later in Aboriginal Australia. The desire to be part of the landscape, the environment, and to paint from within and move inside the landscape rather than observing it from outside has been central to Warren’s practice through to the most recent paintings.
He bought a block of rainforest land at Jamberoo, on the south coast of NSW near Kiama, and the sculptor Bert Flugelman became his neighbour. While spending time teaching and working in various administrative roles, he would spend weeks in the rainforest painting. In 1985 he was awarded the Archibald Prize for his painting of his neighbour from Jamberoo, titled ‘Flugelman with Wingman’.
A recurring theme in Guy Warren’s art that is evident in his recent paintings is the idea of the figure not only being in the landscape but appearing as part of this landscape. For many years, like his great idol in Australian art Ian Fairweather, he would paint in acrylic standing over the canvas on the floor mapping out the landscape forms and the figures. In more recent years, when the physical effort of standing over the canvas became too arduous, he turned to painting at his easel in oils with a heightened tactility and frequently a great lightness of touch. Some of his most successful late works are highly textured pieces in oil stick on paper where there is a sense of illusion – a visionary fleeting image – a spiritual quality. The rainforest is rarely distant from his art with the idea of overlapping forms that surround you from all sides and that encourage you to call upon your imagination to travel within them.
For Guy Warren, the art process involves something intuitive and not a programmed act and there is a stage where the painting or drawing takes over and the artist’s intellect moves to the background. As he recently said, “The great problem in making art is this battle we all have between intuition and logic; one can become too logical about the work. If one could only get back to the innocence of childhood – where one doesn’t think too much but simply does – then I think it would be a great deal better.”
In 2021 Guy Warren became one of Australia’s best-known artists as the subject of Peter Wegner’s portrait of the artist at the age of 100 for which he was awarded the Archibald Prize on the Archibald’s hundredth’s anniversary. Being a hundred for an artist in Australia is no longer such as rare phenomenon – Erwin Fabian and Inge King are two other recent examples. What is changing is that we now look up to artists like Guy Warren as elders who have attained experience and wisdom that they share with us through their art.
from “Guy Warren: Life’s Great Wanderings” in current issue of Art Collector, issue 90 p 132 – 144
Photograph Riste Andrievski