Michael Shannon 1927 - 1993
“Michael Shannon’s exhibition of landscapes places him in the front rank of our most consistently penetrating landscape painters including even Lloyd Rees. Shannon remains the modest master whose genius emerges quietly like the roads that cross the dried grasses in Mt Ida Summit, to be lost in the creek bed and re-emerge on the distant range. Rees’ later visionary painting aims at the lyrically sublime, but Shannon, despite panoramas that predict infinite bliss, resists grandeur, the grandiose and anything suggesting sublimity by a myriad of everyday observations.” (Elwyn Lynn in a review in The Australian 17 Sept 1988).
“Among Australia’s painters there are those whose vision impels them to see their chosen subject in terms of its universal significance, and those whose aesthetic discourse is pitched at a simpler and more intimate level. …. In this context Michael Shannon may be regarded as one of the “Little Masters” of Australian art revealing significance in the ordinary, and poetry in the daily round. As an artist his interest has always been in the unremarkable and the everyday, selecting as his subject those aspects of our environment which usually pass unnoticed. The choice of subject is however, only one aspect of his approach. By a process of selection and emphasis he is able to move from the particular to the general and so transform what otherwise might have been merely banal into vehicles of serious and pleasurable contemplation.”
(GraemeSturgeon “Michael Shannon and the Poetry of Daily Life”) *
Michael Shannon is best known for his evocations of urban Australia including, his sensitive rendering of the Australian landscape and for a body of work inspired by his domestic surroundings.
Some of his earliest work betrays the influences of the British and French painters – Graeme Sutherland, Fernand Leger, Bernard Buffet - to whose work he was exposed as a student in London and Paris in 1949-50. After a period of experimentation on his return to Australia in 1952 he gradually evolved his own style over the next decade.
Describing this early period, Graeme Sturgeon (op cit) observed : “Ignoring the swing and sway of fashion he settled into a personal approach which permitted him to pursue the formal problems which he had set himself without any desire or need , to refer to anyone else. In the fifties, for example, when his peers rushed lemming-like into abstraction Shannon stood firm, convinced that, for him, figuration offered the most powerful means of expressing his intent, which briefly put, consisted of an effort to reveal the general in the particular, the universal in the quotidian. In part, this holding to an independent and unfashionable approach accounts for the comparative critical neglect from which his work suffered”. His exposure to the work of Edward Hopper on a visit to the United States in 1959 strengthened his conviction that the choices he had made regarding the future direction of his own work were correct.
Growing up the youngest son of a farming family in South Australia Shannon early on absorbed a sense of the Australian landscape. Later, as a city dweller, he was an urbane and sophisticated observer of cities - of panoramic views and streetscapes; of railway yards and ports; and of the structure and detailing of buildings. On leaving school he had made the choice to become a painter and not an architect but his interest in architecture is frequently apparent in his choice of subjects and in their depiction. The third strand in his work was his focus on his own surroundings – on his houses and their interiors; on his studio; on still lifes of fruit and vegetables and shoes and bundles of twine; and on vases of lilies and anemones and zinnias.
Shannon created few portraits or depictions of people; his cities for example are frequently empty, his landscapes rarely portray people or signs of human habitation. Where they are included, people provide scale or contrast and are almost incidental to the narrative of the painting.
Shannon’s earliest cityscapes drew heavily on the work of Buffet with buildings heavily etched with black outlines. These gave way to broad scale almost aerial panoramas of central cities and ports and railway yards and still later still to depictions of suburbs. He also painted individual buildings and bridges - shot towers, milk bars, town halls, gothic Victoriana and simple cottages - which were given a more realist treatment.
Writing in the Macquarie Galleries Bulletin in April 1985 the artist and critic Elwyn Lynn summed up Michael Shannon’s achievements to that date.
”Michael Shannon is not histrionic: he is not concerned by the memorable and climatic moment; he is not declamatory; he does not fight for social or artistic causes on paper or on canvas; he is not condemnatory of old shops lining lonely streets, of cluttered railway yards, of dismal suburbs baking under the summer sun, of quarries transforming the countryside or of Queensland houses precariously living on stilts. The outback with its metaphorical rendition by notable artists can look after itself.”
“What Michael Shannon is about …. is the fragility, transitoriness and temporariness of mankind’s mark on nature.”
In his introduction to the catalogue of a limited Shannon retrospective - “Michael Shannon : A Survey of Fifteen Years Work 1970-1985” - Sturgeon observed that, in his handling of the urban environment, “Shannon .. has neither didactic nor utopian intent, nor is he a sentimental or decorative artist. …. Shannon has maintained a distance from particulars of any one location recomposing it in his mind to achieve both a work of art, and a universal image…..
“His lyrical views of a bayside city, for example, although clearly Melbourne, not Sydney, are at the same time a statement about cities in general. This is also true of the views of his studio, or the interior of his own home. These, while being accurate, and intimate records of particular rooms, never-the-less manage to transcend their time and place to become statements about the quiet pleasures of domesticity, silent manifestos of the civilized life.”
“I would like to paint landscapes with the clear delineation of Hopper, with the warm effervescence of the young Streeton and, above all, with the clear, dedicated probity of Cezanne.”
“We live in it, we work in it, we play in it, and yet at present our artists seem to celebrate only those aspects which suggest some sort of apocalyptic vision. The drama and violence of Drysdale’s paintings of Central Australia for example, that’s not for me. I would really like to bring back to landscape some sense of domesticity, understanding, sympathy and warmth, to locate some place where the landscape is livable rather than harsh, cruel and forbidding.”
Michael Shannon quoted in Sturgeon op cit p15.
Throughout his career Shannon showed an intermittent interest in painting the landscape but it was not until relatively late in his career that he approached it with any great commitment. In the 1970s he visited Tasmania where he frequently painted the landscape al fresco with his friend the painter David Chapman. Following his purchase in 1974 of a small rural property at Heathcote in Central Victoria he became increasingly absorbed in the quarries and rocks and countryside around Heathcote and this led to a body of work which became the crowning achievement of his last years.
Sturgeon “observed that “An interim stage in his move towards landscape saw him painting quarries, a subject in which the hand of man had so modified the natural forms that there was a strongly marked “architectural” feel about them. Shannon’s interpretation of the Australian landscape stands well within the established tradition, but places his emphasis in a different place. Consistent with the rest of his output, he invites us to consider the idea of landscape as much as it does the specifics of place, but in doing so never lets us forget that what we are looking at is an arrangement of paint on canvas.”
In 1990 Graeme Sturgeon published what remains the most comprehensive account of Shannon’s work “Michael Shannon and the Poetry of Daily Life”. The book was released as Shannon’s career was drawing to a premature close the result of the Parkinson’s Disease with which he had been diagnosed in 1984.
He was above all a painter but also left his mark as a teacher and art critic and as a member of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.
He is represented in most public galleries as well as in a number of important private collections.
Michael Shannon died in 1993.