Guy Warren obituary

guy warren obituary

Guy Warren in front of his portrait by Peter Wegner, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, June 2021. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

At a dinner party in 1985, the Australian artist Guy Warren, who has died aged 103, was asked by a fellow guest whether he had ever entered his work for the Archibald prize, Australia’s premier portrait award. “Oh God no,” he replied. “Nobody goes in for that. The trustees wouldn’t know a good painting if it fell on them.”

His friend and host, the sculptor Bert Flugelman (“He may have had one more glass of red than me,” Warren recalled in an interview for the University of Wollongong Library in 2017) issued a challenge. The two men would paint each other and enter the results for the Archibald. Warren’s picture, called Flugelman With Wingman, won. “For once the judges made an incredibly perceptive and intelligent decision,” Warren deadpanned. “Good for them.” With the prize money, Warren could finally afford to paint full time, at the age of 64.

It was nearly 40 years since he had graduated from the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), under a scheme for demobbed veterans. From 1941 to 1946, Warren had served in the Australian army, partly in New Guinea. While there, he met Joyce Carney, an Englishwoman working as a secretary to an officer. In 1950, shortly after Warren’s graduation, he and Carney, known as Joy, married and moved to London. They would stay for eight years, and their two children, Paul and Joanna, were born in the UK.

The trouble, as far as Warren was concerned, was that he found England visually dull. “I didn’t know what I wanted to paint,” he said, “but I knew I didn’t want to paint London.” Likewise the landscape, which he considered “very beautiful but like a bloody big park”. In desperation, he began to make pictures from his memories of New Guinea, “a very peculiar thing to do in the middle of London”.

It was towards the end of his stay that he saw a television documentary about an annual festival of Papuan dancing “by some bloke who had been to the highlands of New Guinea”. Warren wrote to the BBC and asked for still photographs from the show. A few days later, the bloke telephoned. “He said he made the film,” Warren recalled, “and that his name was David Attenborough. He invited me over for a drink and lent me a whole stack of photographs.” Images from those were to recur in Warren’s work for seven decades. “They haven’t ceased, really,” Warren said in a National Art School interview in 2021, when he was 100. “Here are some drawings from them I did a few weeks ago.”

By this time, Warren was among the most eminent living Australian artists, the recipient of honours including, in 1999, the medal of the Order of Australia, and in 2014, membership of the order. As well as painting, he had had a distinguished career as a teacher, helping to set up the groundbreaking Tin Sheds Arts Workshop at the University of Sydney, and acting as its director, 1973-76.

None of this had come easily. Born in Goulburn in rural New South Wales – “Cold as buggery in winter, hot as hell in summer” – he was the son of Leonard, a pianist, and Edith (nee Wilkie), a violinist. Warren’s father played the accompaniment to silent films in the local cinema. When the boy was 11, double disaster struck. Australia was hit by the worldwide economic depression, and talking pictures arrived from America. Leonard Warren, unemployed, took his family to Sydney. “It seemed like every street corner had an out-of-work muso busking to earn a pittance,” his son was to recall. “Poor devils. My parents really struggled after that.”

Leaving school at 14 to help with the family finances, he got a job as an assistant proofreader on a newspaper called the Bulletin. While there, he was taken with the idea of becoming a cartoonist. The longsuffering art editor, bombarded with offerings from Warren, eventually dragged him to a building around the corner “and said to the bloke inside: ‘Teach this kid to draw.’” This bloke was JS Watkins, a Paris-trained painter who was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. By the time Warren signed up for the army in 1941, he was a skilled draughtsman.

In a career that spanned 70 years, there would be many changes of style in his work. In the early 60s, back in Australia, Warren painted pictures such as Children Playing, The Garden Party (1963), which married expressionism with figuration. Space Lens, Yellow, Brown, Blue (1970) marked a move into Kenneth Noland-ish abstraction, although Warren said that he always “wanted to get back to the figure. For me, it was all about humanity and nature. Abstraction was never quite enough.”

Perhaps his most compelling body of work lay somewhere between these two styles. In paintings such as Walk to the Hut (2020), Warren integrates figures into the landscape so that each seems part of the other. This was how he felt about Australia, and what he had missed in England. “I react to this landscape because I like the feeling of being in it,” he said. “I just like walking through the bush. It encompasses you and you become a part of it.”

This closeness to the land was something he had recognised in tribal New Guinea, and among Indigenous Australians. That it expressed itself in body-painting and mark-making intrigued him, and led to works such as the series called Travelling North (1989-93) in which patterns – train tracks, stilt houses – read like maps.

Works from across Warren’s career were shown in an exhibition called Genesis of a Painter: Guy Warren at 95, at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney in 2016. Seen together, these revealed an interest in the relationship between figure and ground that had lasted for 70 years.

Joy died in 2011. Warren is survived by Paul and Joanna.

• Guy Wilkie Warren, artist, born 16 April 1921; died 14 June 2024

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