Fred Williams (1927- 1982)

Recognised as one of the most significant Australian painters and graphic artists of the twentieth century for his figurative and landscape works, Fred Williams was in the forefront of the Australian modern art movement.

Williams was born in Richmond in 1927. Although he is considered to be a largely self-taught artist, he received his initial art training from the age of sixteen, studying at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where he was taught the fundamentals of painting. Williams then went on to attend night classes in drawing and design at the East Sydney Technical College from 1942-45 under Hayward Veal before resuming his studies with George Bell, who had his own art school in Melbourne.

Staying until 1949, it was here at the George Bell School that Williams was first introduced to Modernist and Impressionist styles and began to approach his painting with a more progressive style. During this time Williams also became greatly influenced by the work of cubists Cezanne and Braques and the fauves, Matisse and Daumier. These influences are reflected in Williams’ early figurative work, particularly in his general handling of paint and use of colour and his solid construction of tone and form.

It was also during this time that Williams became known in Melbourne for his graphic art, notably for his etchings which were mostly based on studies of the graphic work of Goya and Daumier. However, it was his landscapes for which he eventually found fame and success within the Australian art world. As he saw the potential of the Australian bush for its so-called “inherent plasticity”, Williams’ interest lay in finding a certain language in which he could effectively express the abstract experience of the Australian landscape. As a result, over a ten year period from 1950-1960, his landscapes changed to reflect a more positive, stronger form. This is perhaps made most evident in his You Yangs series (I and II). Williams’ colours became restrained, and tonal contrasts and classic simplicity of style in his later work served to invigorate the nature of landscape paining in Australia.

Between the years 1951 and 1956, Williams continued with his art studies abroad, attending the Chelsea Art School, and Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. This trip proved to be greatly beneficial for his own artistic development as he was exposed to work from the School of Paris, exhibitions of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works at the Tate and other galleries in England. Williams also learnt etching and printing techniques with which he experimented to create vivid caricatured sketches of contemporary London’s way of life.

On his return to Australia, with his artistic skills greatly broadened, Williams began to establish himself within the Australian modern art movement by often holding regular solo shows. With much of his work at this time remaining strongly figurative, he soon built up his reputation as an up-and-coming young artist and began to experiment greatly with themes and motifs.

As a consequence of his growing celebrated status, in 1959 Williams’ work was included in a major exhibition held by the Antipodeans, who were known as the heirs to Australian expressionist tradition and included the likes John Brack, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman. This served to further fuel William’s status in the Australian art scene and in 1962 he was invited to compete for the Rubenstein Scholarship. He won the award the following year, achieving his first major success.

In 1964, Williams travelled to Europe on the scholarship. This became a highly creative period for the artist, as it enabled him to concentrate on painting full-time, experiment with techniques and remain free from financial strains. This ultimately resulted in the creation of bold and innovative landscapes which ultimately established Fred Williams as one of Australia’s leading artists.

Williams went on to receive a number of prominent awards and distinctions such as the Prize in Dunlop Competitions in 1950; Second award in Georges Invitation Art Prize Competition, Melbourne 1963, major prize in 1966; the Transfield prize, 1964; the Muswellbrook Prize, 1964; the Robin Hood Prize, 1964; Wills, McCaughey (Sydney), Wynne and Trustees watercolour prize, 1966 and the Australian Print prize, 1967.

Today the work of Fred Williams in represented in all Australian state galleries.

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