Jan Senbergs’ paintings are a brilliant assault on the senses

Born in Riga in Latvia, Senbergs moved to Melbourne with his widowed mom in 1950 as part of a post-war migrant flood. After completing his apprenticeship as a screen printer for commercial purposes, Senbergs began exhibiting his art screenprints and paintings in 1960.

His art was not a part of any clear-cut art trend but rather seemed to exist on the periphery. It was figurative but never literal; expressive but not fashionable expressionist. His art is united by its engagement with society and its problems on both an individual level and a more global and holistic perspective.

Senbergs was once described as an “industrial realist” by the Australian painter Fred Williams. Senbergs is an artist whose work is rooted within the industrial landscape of his immediate surroundings, yet is informed by the strange creative process that comes from the disjunction and unexpected elements central to surrealist practices. Senbergs has always been interested in confronting and subverting the reality of his surroundings.

How can an artist, who has been practicing for over half a century and has accumulated a large amount of experience, avoid falling into the traps of repetition? In a lecture he gave in 1940 on WB Yeats, TS Eliot spoke about the difficulties faced by a mature creative person. He wrote:

A man can choose to stop writing, repeat himself, perhaps with an increasing level of virtuosity, or adapt to middle age by finding a new way to work.

Senbergs’s new exhibition is a departure from his previous work. It features a warm, glowing brilliance of color that has never been seen before.

The exhibition is a reflection of the current climate and the threat it poses.

Senbergs makes the following observations in his catalogue essay

In Melbourne in January 2014, there were four days with temperatures above 40 degrees. Bushfires in the country cast a pall over the city, and ominous clouds hung in the sky, threatening an all-encompassing inferno. The oppressive atmosphere at the edge of the city and the sense of danger at its edges made it seem as if a merciless and overwhelming force was waiting to tear down barricades.

Jan Senbergs Fire and Smoke 2 (2014. Acrylic on paper 120 x152cm. Niagara Galleries

It is a show that will shock your senses. We have forgotten what figurative paintings can do.

The paintings of the upper gallery, in particular Fire and smoke 2 (2014 and City, Heat and the Fires (2014-main image), have a strong sense of drama. Senbergs is a rare artist who can work on a large scale, with an apparent spontaneity in gestural expression and a bold compositional imagination.

The smaller works in the gallery below follow a different principle. This intimacy allows us to read the mark-making more closely, and we can feel the passion in the brushstrokes.

Still we stand, January 2014 (2014), and Wounded Tree (2014) are two brilliant small paintings that have a vibrant colour saturation, and a wonderful tactile surface. The visceral and chunky surfaces of his paintings reproduce badly, but they have a powerful impact in person.

Jan Senbergs – Still we stand, January 2014 (2014). Acrylic on paper 120 x 130cm. Niagara Galleries

Arthur Boyd’s apocalyptic painting of Melbourne on fire, painted in more than 50 years ago, was a Biblical story set against the backdrop of the Second World War. Senbergs’ reinterpretation Melbourne under a red sky puts the theme into a more contemporary and frightening context. We, as a culture, ignore climate change because of greed and stupidity. Now, we anticipate its consequences as inevitable.

Jan Senbergs, one of Australia’s elders, is a painter who has few equals today. Jan Senbergs has never been a popular artist or a prized art market show pony, but his painting is among the best in Australia today.

National Gallery of Victoria is a wise institution that has adopted a policy of presenting retrospectives of major Australian artists. Now we have the wonderful Robert Jacks exhibition, which will be followed in April by John Wolseley. Senbergs will be the next to go early in 2019.

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