Wep’s 1956 Romanian adventure: Wep travels behind Iron Curtain on cultural exchange

Orbit Travel Service, Sydney Australia - preferential passenger

In 1956, acclaimed Australian artist, William Edwin Pidgeon (WEP) was issued with a visa for travel behind the “Iron Curtain” to Romania as part of a cultural exchange program.  This series of posts includes extracts from letters he sent back home to his wife, Dorothy and son, Graham, describing his adventures and depicting the places, people and life as he witnessed them. Included with posts will be some of the photos he took and art work inspired from his trip. Earlier that year Wep had been diagnosed with glaucoma in both eyes, a secret closely guarded for years to come for the potential impact it could have upon his ability to obtain painting commissions. Within his Romanian papers is a handwritten note; “My eyes are troubling me very much.”

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Invitation to Wep from the Romanian Institute for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries to visit Romania; 17 July 1956

Wep’s travel arrangements came to the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) with a consequence that he was monitored by ASIO for the next three years. Two other Australians were also invited; actor, Peter O’Shaugnessey and author, Frank Hardy.

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Wep left Sydney on September 22, 1956 with stopovers in Darwin, Singapore, Rome, Venice, Munich, and Vienna. He arrived in Budapest, Hungary on October 2nd, travelling to Bucharest in Romania the next day. He spent two weeks in Romania, returning to Vienna on October 18. Five days later a cloud fell over Hungary when widespread revolt erupted against the Soviet backed government leading to its fall from power. On November 4, the Soviets invaded, crushing the revolt, and by November 10, all resistance had ceased.

From Vienna, Wep traveled to Paris where he planned to stay with his old friend and journalist, Roley Pullen. It was here that he met Roley’s assistant, another fellow Australian, Margaret Murray, with whom he formed a lifetime friendship. He remained in Paris for for just over two weeks, then a similar amount of time in London, finally arriving back home in Sydney on December 2, 1956.

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Caravanning with Wep – Mon., 9th Aug 1937; painting in Bylong Wep defines his artistic style

Bylong

Monday 9th Aug.

Got a letter from Geoff, I mean, Mickey Blunden yesterday. Seem to be enjoying themselves. Hope none of the wicked Frenchmen grabbed a bit of Mickie’s buttocks. South of France – I too would like to see it, the country of Van Gogh & Cézanne. Be interesting to see the actual scenes they had painted. Be very illuminating as regards their conceptions of nature.

Letter dated 30th June. I suppose they’re pretty near back by this. Strange that they should have seen so much of the world while I have been busy prying & poking into odd corners, gullies and old trees.  If only one could take such a leisurely trip on such a vast scale.

Had our first guest yesterday. Farm hand from homestead up yonder, on property of which we are camped. Spoke to me whilst doing my ‘masterpiece.’ Treated him to a cup of tea and was rewarded with vision of him balancing said cup on lap and trying to avoid getting crumbs on his lips, all in very best drawing room style.

Did a spot of bush carpentry today. Made a lean-to table against the tree. Have also constructed sunken brick fireplace. Stay here much longer I’d better buy the acre and, so conserve my activities. My! But I’m proud of that table. Jerky writing here the results of most powerful hiccups. Potent rissoles I make!

Have got 4 paintings on the go. Only 1 any good I’m afraid. Still, having great old experiments on others. All mistakes duly covered over with tempura white (home made). How I loathe painting over dried & mistakenly applied colour! Seem to be discovering, after 6 months, the method of painting I prefer to employ. Essentially all a prima, which gives freshness, but unless greatly interested in the subject and it well within one’s capabilities is difficult of execution. However, all mussy paintings can, I suppose, serve as a basis for subsequent, more considered attempt. The difficulties will probably have managed to resolve themselves in the messy soup of paint.

Caravanning with Wep – Sunday, 23rd July 1937, Skyring Creek, Qld., description of painting surrounding area and of local friendliness

23rd July Friday

Still at Skyring, but all ready for marching orders. Have been detained here a week now waiting on news from home. From civilization – which strange to say appears to be getting along quite well without us. Wrote down to Sydney on Monday, begging for information as to amount earned for past year and for official billet douxs on which to mail said remembrance. Expect to hear from city tomorrow or is the wish fother to the thought?

Have, in a way, been quite busy this week, wasting paint. 4 oil sketches on the worst canvasses I had. Choice examples of my manufacturing craft – genuine antique within a fortnight, complete with glue worms, dirt and dents. However think I have the substance for some future painting embodied in said sketches. One turned out quite well, one – bloody awful, & two, fair reference. Have re-experienced my Kurrajong troubles (the scale of greens & blues) but have managed a trifle better. The extraordinary luminosity of the rolling green slopes along the Skyring Creek! A darkish yellow green almost discordant in itself, clashing stridently with the intense yet lighter blue of the sky. The subtleties of golds & pinks that weave their patterns in the shafts of grass! Gorgeous, Gilded! Dark, sombre, & well packed, trees line the waterway, their edges crotched with shimmering light.

Damned if I can paint the totality of impression I receive by setting up my easel before the particular and transcribing it. Nature forces extraneous considerations upon my outlook and I cannot synthesise. Only possibility is to make a mental analysis & vague remembrance in paint from which to synthesise the whole. Away from the sheer immediacy of the scene I may be able to comprehensively combine the sum of impressions within one vision, a paraphrase of nature. Force my design upon the canvas rather than have nature force her riotous fecundity (indifference) upon me.

The light changes – a full moon rises beyond the opalescent ridge & clear cold rays percolate through gaunt yellow grayed limbs of the dead trees marshalled stiffly in great bayonet masses behind the dank rich foliage that lines the creek, a hundred yards across the field. The pale magic lantern of the moon hangs lemony on the bars of pink & blue which stripe the sky.

Visited Pomona about 8 miles off the main road, twice this week and were amazed at the friendliness and cordiality of the people. A pleasant cheerful crowd, spawned of warm and sunny hills.

Have been getting milk free from the folk up the road. The typical bush hospitality we have read about. And lettuce too!  Guess I’ve just about earned it all though listening to Miss Mackay & her experiences & views on an art or Edwardian, slag at dawn, vintage. Still, they went out of their way to be decent. Would choose to set my easel up on a main road & so incur the combined amazement & mirth of myriad school children, who daily arrived in two parties. First the bloody plutocrats on bikes and horses, would stare stolidly while their bloody ponies breathed down my neck, second, the proletariat arrive on foot, mostly girls, and twitter like a bunch of sparrows while I lose all concentration & think only of how hot my ears are getting. Finally they all disappear, twinkling colour dots vanishing far up along the pink and dusty road. That painting never did get a chance.

Caravanning with Wep – Sunday, 11th July 1937, Queensland, near Warwick, a philosophy on the art of nature

Derelict Cart, Queensland

11th July, Sunday

Queensland, near Warwick

Am camped alongside road, beneath still and flawless sky. The new moon sinking, leaves the world to starlight and quiet wonder. I clean my teeth beneath the aloof light of the thousand stars and am of the sudden impressed with their utter remoteness and unconcern with the fate of man, their unwinking & uncurious gaze. Am abased with feelings of pellucid beauty and my own futility. The remote crystalline beauty of the starry night as a model of beauty, the work of art (for me) as akin. The same detachment, the sufficiency of the thing in itself. The clarity, the utter remoteness; indifference towards the reaction of the beholder.  The essence of the thing, ART which remains in work after all extraneous matter has been subtracted. Remote, clear, cold architectural FORM. How I’d like to express that remoteness, indifference which is nature. Express the very stillness. The apparent impassive immobility of mountains, windless trees and placid sky. And yet the knowledge of the life beneath it all, sleeping, awaiting a call to action. Sensed as though the eyes are attuned to the vision of time. The art that gives me this sense of beauty I call great. Its characteristics are monumental. The appearance of complete repose, yet implying (and possessing) life that is strength. A product of infinite understanding & subtlety without denoting a simplicity of mind and vision. Simplicity as kinship with nature, life, being a part of it. Can it be produced when man lacks inner conviction, a way of life, a credo, an identification with the credo of his civilisation, a belief, a will-to-something which is inherent in the growth of a culture? When national will-to-something has disappeared & has left men bereft of point in life?

Caravanning with Wep – Monday, 7th June 1937; Dawn playing at Daner’s Gap, dinner at Hotel Kosciusko & frustrating caricatures

7th June

(Our first wet day)

(Jess very crook – 3 days)

 Went up to Kos. Again yesterday the third time within the week. Visited there on the Thursday & afternoon tead & took Dawnie up to Daner’s Gap. How she revelled in the snow, belly deep and leg embracing. How she scooped and chewed & pranced & SNIFFED. Too bad I didn’t have the camera to get a picture of her eating the blooming stuff. Hear her clicking galloping down the road after me. Seemed to be nowhere but under the points of my skis. Turned much better. Snow, what there was of it, delightful, powdery over a frozen surface. Fool proof. Would run out of petrol 2 miles from home, and of course would leave the tinfull at the camp. OF COURSE!

Three of us tramped drearily in great boots soon to feel like leaden boots of divers. Tramp back. Two cars passed going the wrong way, OF COURSE! Got back after an hours walking. No darn wonder my legs are getting fatter. Friday, another lousy strip. Wednesday, much excitement, PAY DAY, Whoops!

Saturday gave the old girl up in the hills a neck and did feel most disconsolate at night. Sunday, Kos. Did ourselves regally and had dinner at the Hotel. Sat by fire and listened or appeared to listen to Miss Happ telling dirty jokes. God! What a boresome business that all is. Met Arthur Hill who gave me a lift up to Daner’s in his car. Three others. Lent myself to help photograph’s appearance. Crowd from Cooma up there. What a joke the old boy with his sons were. And how he skied like riding a horse and with the bottom of his pyjamas showing beneath the leg of his trousers. A riot. In an old lorry – Christeson or something Swedish like. All swarming on the slope like maggots over a corpse.

Teddy took me into the Speet Holy of Holies where photos were duly inspected. Will I ever forget that old man Speet in his days of early marriage. Ma-Teddy & Pa & someone else. Ma-in-la I suppose. But Pa’s mustachios! Better than anything ever seen in the pictures or in musical comedy. Gendarmerie style – a la Kaiser avec splayed out ends. Classics of their kind. A real loss to posterity that he didn’t clip them off holus-bolus and mount them under glass. I could dream about their rhythm, their poetry, their fire! And I’ll bet he thought he was a wow!

Pretty near wasted a whole day trying to paint Ernst Skadarasy. Having gone wrong on him before I sadly think I’ll never get it right. What evil genius prompts me to tell people I’ll do them a caricature. I never can. A curious form of self flagellation. Just a waste of time & paper to say nothing of the havoc wrought amongst nerves & temper. IDIOT!

Did my own butchery today. Butch has cut his hand.

Been drawing cows this week.

What crazy visions of a life time’s art in 6 months I’ve entertained. How much I thought I’d do and learn and how little I have accomplished. A couple of paltry paintings and a realization of the immensity of the task. A realization of how little can be done in a few weeks – of how short the days are in which to endeavour. And of how hard it is to be resigned, to realise that it all doesn’t matter and that the number of paintings is not so important at the moment as learning to see. The time I spend in seeing. At least I’m learning that. A groundwork, a new outlook, a basis upon which I can build when the tempo of the mind is not so agitated, wanting to do all things, knowing it lacks the time. And yet, I think I’m learning.