Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Lina Bryans: The Babe Is Wise

William Frater
The Red Hat (1937)

Lina Bryans
The Babe is Wise (1940)

"The Red Hat" stopped me in my tracks on my very first visit to the NGV, back in the days when the Australian collection still lived at St Kilda Road. New to Australia, I had never heard of Lina Bryans. (I had never heard of wombats or Vegemite either – there were many treats in store for me in my new country!)

I made a mental note to look up who this cool, elegant young woman with the self-assured gaze was … a little later I knew at least that she was a painter, when I came across "The Babe Is Wise": her striking, iconic portrait of Jean Campbell.

Lina Bryans (néé Hallenstein) was born in Hamburg in 1909, while her Australian parents were touring Europe. They had arrived in Germany from Italy, where they had climbed the Dolomites and hiked across the craggy uplands. During the last stages of pregnancy I was more inclined to put my feet up and read a novel than clamber up mountains (and foreign ones at that), but I daresay Lina's mum was a woman of more fortitude than I.

Be that as it may, the Hallensteins, a prominent and wealthy Melbourne family, returned to Australia none the worse for wear and Lina grew up in privileged circumstances, along with her sister Margaret. She attended St Catherine's School where one of her classmates was Elisabeth Greene, who later became Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and was a life-long friend.

Mrs Hallenstein took her daughters on regular trips to Europe, where they attended the races at Ascot and Longchamps, shopped at the couture houses and explored London, Paris and Venice. They visited all the great art galleries. Lina was especially entranced by the pure colours and decorative style of Ucello in the Louvre, but a lot of the art she saw and admired, influenced her later work.

Back in Melbourne, the family observed the rigid social code of etiquette that prevailed in their circle. Lina spent a short time at Melbourne University, but hankered for independence from the constraints Society placed upon young women of her class. In her late teens, she took a first step towards independence by moving to Sydney to stay with relatives. Here she started to paint for the first time.

Her aunt must have been a bit of a lackadaisical chaperone, because soon 19 year old Lina took the radical step of moving into a flat of her own, and getting a job in a bookshop cum tea room. She also sold bags and ties in unusual designs, which she made on a handloom she had bought in France. After a couple of years of asserting her freedom, she was pressured into returning to the family fold in Melbourne.

She dutifully conformed to the social whirl of parties and balls, and gratified her family by marrying Baynham Bryans at the age of 22. Her son Edward was born in the following year, but by the time he was two years old, the couple had separated and Lina moved to a flat in South Yarra with the little boy. She formed a close friendship with the watercolourist Iain MacKinnon, who painted her portrait and inspired her to take her own painting seriously.

She learnt a lot from MacKinnon, but in 1936, when she was twenty-seven, her life changed when she met artist and stained-glass designer William "Jock" Frater. He spurred her on to become a fulltime artist, and gave her the use of his city studio while he was away for a few weeks. On his return, she showed him an abstract in greys, pinks and mauves, which he liked. Using this canvas and leaving bits of her painting to form the background, Frater painted his first portrait of her:"The Black Hat". This picture is currently in the National Portrait Gallery.

"The Red Hat", painted in the first flush of their close relationship, reveals Frater's attraction to the liberated spirit and sophisticated elegance of this woman, twenty years his junior. It is a very striking portrait, with its muted tones, the sitter's milk-white skin warmed by the cherry red hat. Dressing her in a working painter's smock in contrast with the fashionable hat, he indicates her dual persona as an artist and a stylish, independent woman.

Over the next few years he painted her at least five more times. I would have liked to see "The Blue Dress", acquired in 1945 by the Tasmanian Art Gallery, which is described by Gillian Forwood as "a remakable piece of portraiture in which the swirl of the dominant blue colouring flows evenly through the flesh tints in daring and astonishing harmony". Sounds great, doesn't it?

Sadly, the Tazzie Art Gallery's website is unique among those of the other Australian States in that they don't have any part of their collection online, not even a catalogue of their holdings! You can read all about their opening hours and you can order a calendar or a tea towel online, but if you want to know what they actually have hanging on the walls, never mind take a look at it, you have to pop a couple of Dramamines and brave the Bass Strait.

However, I was able to find two more of Frater's homages to Lina : The National Gallery in Canberra holds "Portrait of Lina Bryans" (1936), a head study in which the sitter's slightly smiling, sensual mouth belies her cool, somewhat imperious gaze.

One that I like even more, is simply titled "Portrait of Lina" - a dramatic and somewhat exotic picture, the barely restrained passion evoked by the blazing, sunlit background and the swirling skirt having the air of a Picasso about it. However, the sitter's half-swooning expression and the hand at her breast makes her a much softer and more yielding figure than the haughty Lina of the other portraits.

Their unconventional relationship caused a certain amount of turmoil as Frater had by then been married for 12 years to Winifred Dow, and had four children. During their affaire, which was to last for ten years, they always had separate studios, but were seen everywhere together and were regarded as a couple.

According to an anecdote told by Murray Bail at the opening of an exhibition of Lina's work in 1995: "As a young student, John Brack watched Frater promenading down Collins Street with the beautiful Bryans on his arm. It was at that moment that Brack decided to become an artist." Presumably so that he, too, could have a Lina on his arm! She must indeed have been a femme of world-class fataleness to cause such an epiphany.

I thought that kind of thing only happened in fiction! I went to dig out my yellowed old Penguin paperback copy of Ernest Bramah's "Golden Hours of Kai Lung", so I can accurately quote his description of a young man who was similarly overcome by a woman's beauty: "After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants." Fortunately for us, Bracks turned to the palette rather than the ankus.

Bryans and Frater gathered around them a coterie of artists, writers and thinkers. In 1937, when young Edward was six years old, Lina emancipated herself still further by packing him off to a "preparatory boarding school" (I refrain from comment) and moving into Oxford Chambers, Bourke Street.

Embracing the bohemian lifestyle as a New Woman of the Thirties, complete with married paramour, was a very courageous step. It is difficult for us to understand how much it went against the grain of acceptable standards – she incurred the shocked disapproval of the upper echelons of Melbourne society and her parents never visited her.

Many Melbourne artists moved to the country: Heidelberg, Warrandyte, Eltham, Ivanhoe, Heide … and Darebin, which had the advantage of being within spitting distance of metropolitan Melbourne while still being countrified. In 1940, Lina took a room in Darebin Bridge House, where Ada May Plante also lived.

The house was an old hotel which had been converted into a rooming house. On the death of her parents, Lina came into an inheritance which enabled her to buy the house. She renovated it, painted the outside pink and it became known as The Pink Hotel.
Frater converted a big garden shed on the premises into a studio for himself. His family lived nearby at Alphington, which made for a bit of an awkward situation, especially as his children were very fond of Ada May Plante and frequently came to see her.

Darebin House became the hub of an artists' and writers' community – Lina gave intimate dinners and threw parties for upward of fifty people in the three downstairs living rooms. She was related by marriage, through the Baillieu family, to Sunday Reed and the Reeds invited her to join their Heide group. She was attracted to the more advanced and experimental spirit of Heide, but decided to stay within the establishment with the more conservative Darebin group, largely because of the conditioning of her background, and her strong affiliation with Frater.

She painted nearly a hundred portraits during her career, nearly all of them of friends. Very often she gave the portrait to the sitter. Her most frequently reproduced painting, on cards, posters and even a postage stamp, is "The Babe is Wise", which captures the vibrant personality of her close friend, author Jean Campbell. The title of the picture was inspired by that of a novel by the sitter.

Campbell had taken her title from a poem by Edwin Arnold: "The babe is wise that weepeth being born ..", but to me the cool, self-assured young woman, with the jaunty hat, is the epitome of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's "babes" of the era, who hold their own with the wise guys and the gumshoes. What has been called her "insouciant chic" would not be out of place in Sam Spade's office nor in Walter Burns' newsroom.

Lina gave the portrait to Jean Campbell, who later donated it to the NGV. It is this portrait and the one of Adrian Lawlor which Lina Bryant herself regarded as her best. The Lawlor portrait was entered in the Archibald Prize in 1964, but to the indignation of many, no prize was awarded that year. The portrait is now in the National Library of Australia.

Lina Bryans also painted some marvellous landscapes, which became more abstract towards the end of her career. They will not reproduce well in black and white, but I'll put some on the WASP blog in colour, with this article, in which I have scarcely scratched the surface of Lina Bryant's long, colourful and fascinating life. For anyone who would like to know more, (and there is a lot more to know!) I can warmly recommend the biography by Gillian Forwood: "Lina Bryans: Rare Modern 1909-2000", from which I gleaned a lot of my information.