Belle Île 

Luke Sciberras and Euan Macleod

Katherine Roberts, Curator MAG&M: This exhibition takes us on a journey through the landscape of Belle Île, an island off the coast of France and Brittany, through the eyes of two contemporary Australian artists, Euan Macleod and Luke Sciberras. John Peter Russell lived for many years on the island of Belle Île and Luke and Euan went and visited Belle Ile and painted there in the same way that Russell would have a century ago.

Luke Sciberras: John Peter Russell was one of the most formative artists of the world at that time. He was great friends with Vincent Van Gogh, he had a huge influence on Matisse. He was great friends with Monet, Rodin, his entire generation of European painters and Australian artists. His life is one of the great stories of Australian art. He went to Paris in 1888 or whenever it was with Tom Roberts and they made this great adventure together but Russell stayed there and he found his own genius loci on the coast of the most remote part of France.

Russell has always been important to me, from the very first moments I started to look at paintings and I had a life long, I guess affection and familiarity with John Peter Russell’s work and his life story but it was a revelation to Euan, it was a very new story to him.

Euan Macleod: I really didn't know what to expect and I really didn't get a sense from the paintings of what I was going to find. It was much more dramatic. And of course now I look at the paintings and I think, well, they have all that drama in them. Why didn't I see it first?

It is a very overwhelming landscape, very powerful landscape and having had someone who shows you how it can be done or a few guys that show you how it can be done, it really is throwing down the gauntlet.

Luke & Euan walking:

Luke: Oh look at this hey?

Euan: The sea is mine.

Luke: Here we are. That’s yours, I’m looking this way.

Luke Sciberras: We are very different sorts of painters essentially and I think most great painter friends are. And I think the relationship that is formed between one another is of a curiosity about each other’s work.

Euan Macleod: I love going away with other people painting. There's something kind of quite nice about painting with other people. It's quite difficult on your own, you feel like a victim. Come and harass me, you know, I'm just sitting here waiting for you to come and ask me how long I've been painting, and what are doing, and all those kinds of stupid questions. When there's a few of you, you feel like there's safety in numbers, I think but it is just a lovely process. You don't harass each other, you're not kind of constantly looking at each other’s works. I've noticed sometimes you don't even know what the other person's done until you get back. But there’s a lovely sense of experiencing a place in a similar way.

Luke Sciberras: I think one of the most stand out differences between Euan and I as painters is that Euan is essentially spot on with tone. That is his biggest strength and so he will put in the big strong shapes of the most dramatic shadows and shapes that he can see. I come at a painting primarily and firstly with colour and I observe what is happening in any landscape and my response to it with colour.

Euan Macleod:  For me Luke saw the work more through that impressionist colour but, you know, he's got his own take on it all and they're quite different, the way he deals with it. There's some much more kind of pattern making and the colour is really important but it’s not, I don't see them as being any more than homages to John Peter Russell. They’re certainly not slavish imitations, that's for sure, you know, he's found his own way of looking at them and I think that's true of the larger works he's done since he's got back. He's also had a bit of space and time to actually think how he's going to interpret that landscape.

Luke Sciberras: This is the one that engaged me consistently throughout the whole period of making this body of work. I came and went from all the other paintings but I kept coming back to this one because I realised that the scale of it absorbed me bodily in the subject. I scaled all these cliffs and got varying angles of these incredible rock formations and then down on this tiny pebbly beach and the sea comes in and pulls all the little pebbles out and in. The sounds are amazing but these cliffs rise above you and abbreviate your peripheral vision all the time so that’s what I was sort of wanting to achieve in this work. The sense of being plunged down into that little tiny bay. It was a very very close, claustrophobic little bay that has a fantastic view.

Katherine Roberts: When I first walked into Luke's studio, I was really surprised, delighted and blown away by the freshness of the palette, the uniqueness of the vision, the familiarity of the landscape yet it was so different from the paintings I'd seen of Russell's. So while they were there and standing in many of the same spots as Russell, they just had a completely different feel, obviously the painting technique is quite different, the colours, the tones, that being freshly painted, you get that real sense of immediacy and then going into Euan's studio, how he's peopled the landscape with the presence of himself as an artist, with his fellow artists, the claustrophobic feeling that he creates in all of his work and then to translate that into the Bell Île landscape.

Euan Macleod: This is probably the largest painting I’ve done from the Belle Île works. It’s based on walking down to the beach which was not the easiest thing, it was very steep walls and it was quite fun scurrying down but yeah you had to be a bit careful to get down there. It’s slightly based on a photograph that Luke took actually. He took a photo of me and I loved the way the relationship between me, the needles, and my painting of the needles. I’ve stuck a staircase in there that isn’t actually there and I’ve made the beach look a little bit more narrow and scary but I kind of like that idea of being a little bit precarious. You’re sort of trapped on the beach waiting for the water to come in in funny kind of way. A bit like the act of painting.

Katherine Roberts: I think it provides Manly Art Gallery and Museum and Sydney audiences in particular with an opportunity to see the work of two great Sydney New South Wales painters who've been inspired by one of Australia's great impressionist painters who's little known and to have it running simultaneously with the exhibition at the Art Galley of New South Wales, I think provides a great conversation across the harbour, where people can experience Russell's original paintings and then come and experience Luke and Euan's work created largely on site and then back in their respective studios in Australia to get a deeper sense of what it’s like to work across time and place, and how contemporary artists respond to place and the past.