There’s a spectacularly beautiful painting of flannel flowers in the Cressida Campbell survey exhibition just opened at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). The whiteish grey, soft, native flowers float against breathtakingly blue sky.
You are amongst the flowers as they float above you. You are lying in the grass on a warm sunny day. There is a whispering breeze swaying the flowers, bees somewhere nearby and in the distance a magpie is singing.
Campbell, whose retrospective is a rare major celebration of a living Australian artist at the NGA, painted the work for her husband Peter, who was dying at home.
“I wanted it to have the wonderful feeling of Islamic art in mosques, where you look up into a dome of white and blue stars,” she says. “That same feeling of peace and rapture you get from nature.”
Campbell has been painting quietly, beautifully, reflectively for the best part of the last 30 years. The rooms at the National Gallery’s major summer show are filled with intimate interiors – elegant old chairs pushed back against bookshelves, glimpses of a garden that could be nowhere but Sydney, bush views and slices of the harbour’s deep incisions glimpsed through tangled eucalyptus branches.
The worlds she paints are intimate, internal, and concise. These are not heroic works: nothing about them shouts “look at me, I’m a masterpiece”.
But as visitors walk into the gallery past a hugely blown-up rendering of her kitchen shelf painting, replete with blue and white jars , flowers from her garden and bowls of lemons, there is instead a deep sense of contemplation.
Here are the homes where we spent the best part of the pandemic years. The spaces where tea is drunk, cats are nursed, friends pour out their hearts and the crossword is done.
Curator Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax says a warm friendship developed with Campbell while she was bringing the paintings together, many sourced from private collections. The two shared a sense of humour, a love of cats and a deep connection as Dr Noordhuis-Fairfax threaded the works together, often at pandemic-imposed distance.
“Often the curator is a detective, piecing together information from research,” she says. “But I could ask her where an idea came from, or how an idea unfolded thematically. Were there other paintings with irises? How did the compost painting come about?
“Her work is amazing but particularly poignant when so many of us spent much time at home. Cressida offers us a new way of looking at our surroundings, at strange aesthetic moments, unexpected ways of presenting beauty.”
Nothing is as simple as it looks, of course: Campbell’s eye is deeply informed by her love of classical composition and Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings, the so-called floating world. Her reflective eye takes in flowers and stems, fishbone leftovers or kitchen peelings in an ice-cream tub, imbuing the works with layers of meaning about the ordinary things of life.
Dr Noordhuis-Fairfax says the NGA wants Campbell to be as well known as Clarice Beckett and Margaret Preston, by whom she is influenced.
“This is the great work public galleries can do for women in particular,” she says of the current exhibition and the NGA’s Know My Name initiative. “Suddenly you know more than Fred Williams or John Olson. There are incredible women to add to our vocabulary.”
Campbell’s practice is unique: she begins with a single woodblock which she carves then paints thickly with watercolour. It’s then pressed onto paper to produce a single print.The results are thickly incised, creamy and textured. They explore shape and pattern, portraying everything from animals and bushland to tools and hammers.
Cressida is daughter of columnist Ross Campbell – she was Baby Pip in his regular Daily Telegraph column depicting life at “Oxalis Cottage” and his four red-headed children. Much loved for his warm, gentle focus on family life, her father once described the family home as “a suburban house of 15 squares, including myself”.
Dr Noordhuis-Fairfax says Cressida Campbell, too, is deeply invested in the idea of unexamined life.
Cressida Campbell is at the National Gallery of Australia until 19 February, 2023.