The Frightened Gods, 1987
Stewart MacFarlane (born 1953)
oil on canvas
171 x 209cm
Exhibited: Stewart MacFarlane - Frightened Gods, 70 Arden Street, Melbourne, Aug 25th – Sept 11th, 1987
Literature & references: 'Stewart MacFarlane: Riddles of Life', Veronique Helmridge-Marsillian, Craftsman House, 1996, pg. 143-4, plate 51;
Stewart MacFarlane - Paintings, Nicholas Jose & Timothy Morrell, Wei-Ling Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2012 pg. 21, illustrations pg 21, pg 210
0419 540 162
“Melancholy as the fact may be, a love-affair does not even need the hostile hand of fate or society to break down—merely the conflictive interaction of the lovers will do.
A single glance at the heroine tells us that things have gone horribly wrong. Up and down n the sea she rocks, stark naked, her face strained, fighting for breath as she tries to clamber into a dinghy—the only other human being in sight rowing briskly away in the opposite direction; and the shoreline a very long way off. The viewer is himself plunged into this swirling ocean—the inner planking and oar as close to him as though he were clinging to the other side.
The colours are brightly cheerful, but the lines are angular and high-strung. The polar combinations blue/orange, green/red predominate, lightened with yellow. The near rowing-boat of orange and prussian blue and dark green, flashed with white foam and reflexes of yellow and red. Across this water comes the slashing zigzag of human conflict: from the small rowing-boat and figure to the left, through the motor-boat, to the woman's head—then down her right arm, elbow, to the transom—thence through the oar into the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas, and out. With the implacability of a natural phenomenon, the horizon alone stretches straight, and threateningly high.
The closer one examines this nautical scene, the odder it appears. In the centre bobs a half-cabin cruiser. Its lines have been simplified and the helm (perhaps obscured by the port cabin-side) cannot be seen. The rubber tyre which, when the boat is moored, serves as a fender, is still hanging off the side. Or rather, not hanging, since no rope attaches it to the deck. Moreover, so light a boat, able to be manoeuvred into shallows, does not require one dinghy, let alone two. Even stranger is the way the male protagonist is holding his oars; in fact, he holds the left oar so peculiarly that he almost appears to be towing the boat by a rope attached to its stem. This would truly be a remarkable feat.
Despite the compelling realism of the foremost figure, the significance of the painting is oneiric: it proceeds according to the internal logic and symbolism of the dream. Like a dream, its story begins with life-like coherence. Two lovers set off on a pleasure-cruise; at a comfortably private distance from land they shed their clothes, frolic in the waves, and make love between sea and sky. Elated with each other and with nature, they feel supreme, like sea-gods—this is their idyll. But even the most divine in man remains human; even the most splendid love can wear thin. The hero (or villain, depending on one's point of view) is too far for us to judge his character, but his erstwhile companion displays a moral strength that may well have verged on the domineering. Today, somehow, she overdid it . . . and the motor stalled. Giving way to a resentment that had long been growing, the young man seized his mistress by the waist and tipped her, head first, into the sea.
Down she went, and the water closed over her like a nightmare. When she came up, the scene had changed: the cruiser still floated there, but it had spawned, as it were, two small rowing-boats, in one of which her lover is now fast pushing off, with a malevolent grin. There is no salvation in the hull of their relationship—the motor-boat points its nose in the direction of the truant, as though ready to trundle along after him, by means of its wheel, like a faithful pet.
In the distance, rain slants down from the clouds, but here the setting sun bathes the heroine in golden light. Water droplets stream off her like tears, her face is haggard with regret and defiance. Its right side, the side closer to the man, to the past, shows a terrible and uncomprehending distress. But the energetic left side, whose corresponding arm and breast have already seized hold of safety, looks outward with a desperate will to survive.
Their love had made them divine, it had let them walk together on water—or the nearest thing to this that man and woman have managed. But this love proved void, it opened up beneath them; and each is now pitted, so human, so alone, against the ruthless indifference of nature and life. Technology cannot help them; the boat has broken down, the aeroplane at far right is tiny with distance. She has been—still is—badly frightened. Reaching the shore will stretch her endurance to the limit. Her partner, he, is not frightened...yet. He heads blithely out to sea, where storm clouds are banking up.” Veronique Helmride-Marsillian