“COVID is a bit like bullets whizzing over your head – hopefully it is over your head. Of course [the Second World War] was prolonged for five years … I think there are signs of people being left to their own devices, sorting out more seriously what matters to them,” Robertson-Swann says. “I hope that continues, because life is so hectic – you don’t get a chance to do much serious thinking.”
Almost 80, the award-winning sculptor and painter is crazily busy. Despite shutdown, not a great deal has changed. He has produced more work in the past few months than at any other time in his life: there are no other distractions, he says with a laugh.
Sculpture by the Sea, postponed this year as a result of the pandemic, changed the profile of sculpture in Australia, he says; his piece Nijinsky will be shown as part of the coastal show next year. During the past six months, he has been working on the development of sculpture park Hillview at Sutton Forest in the Southern Highlands, along with his wife and Damien Miller, among others.
His sculptures are made from welded steel and painted, “which means they’ll last forever”.
“It’s not that steel is that lovable; I mean, you don’t caress steel, but it has extraordinary tensile strength and malleability, so you can almost do anything you like. And because of the nature of the sculpture that I do, which is heavily influenced by Cubism, it’s like wanting to draw in space as it were. And very few other materials will allow you to do that – you can’t do that with marble or stone or bronze or wood,” he says. “I can just put a tiny little weld in here and then make a giant leap across the horizon and it holds up.”
His teachers proved a major influence on Robertson-Swann’s style: often large-scale, Modernist, abstract pieces. He also worked as an assistant to Henry Moore, perhaps the world’s best-known modern sculptor.
Before moving to London, Robertson-Swann had studied sculpture at East Sydney Tech, now the National Art School, and “was smitten from that point on”.
“I was wandering around – I was in the army and doing odd jobs – and all of a sudden I found what I wanted to do. That’s all there’s ever been.”
The course involved art history, colour theory, painting and ceramics, and Robertson-Swann credits teachers including Dadswell and Peter Rushforth with lighting a fire in him.
“They made me fall in love with their love of something,” he says. “So much of this stuff in life is good luck. I knew bugger all and these people showed me the way, and I am eternally grateful to them.”
Awarded a medal of the Order of Australia in 2002, things came full circle when Robertson-Swann began teaching at the Canberra Art School and later at his alma mater, the National Art School, where he was head of sculpture for many years, retiring in 2018.
He and fellow sculptor Ayako Saito have been together for seven years, marrying three years ago. There’s a significant age gap: “Next year for a couple of months it’s 40 years – I’ll be 80 and she’ll be 40. I wasn’t going to go in to that so early …”
They work in the studio every day and he adores her, saying shutdown together was a joy. Although having an artist – especially one who has taught – as partner can be fraught. “When she’s in the middle of resolving something in her work and I jump in, that causes serious problems,” he says. “I’ve learnt to restrain myself, which will come as a surprise to a lot of people … She’s got to find her own voice. She’s copped a lot of criticism being with me.”
For Robertson-Swann, the creative process remains a great mystery; Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that “art is unsayable” appeals. “That just touches me because even if it’s literature or poetry, you cannot explain why [it] is so bloody good, why it stays in your head.”
Our conversation is wide-ranging, covering ageing (“all my mentors are dying on me, the bastards”), his famous Melbourne pieceVault’s impact (“it has no equivalent in Sydney and its architecture is much duller as a result”) and cancel culture.
“Probably the two greatest artists of the 20th century, Picasso particularly but also Matisse, they were arseholes … But they were geniuses and they produced extraordinary stuff,” he says.
“For me it’s not a problem – it’s a sadness, but you must separate those things. They are different things. Bertrand Russell was an arsehole, his relationships with women were destructive, but that doesn’t make what he did in mathematics wrong. It makes him as a man wrong,” he says. “You’ve got to treat everything on its merits. And there are important distinctions between things.”
Robertson-Swann is particularly concerned by the conflation of politics and art, arguing that too much funding is tied to ideology. Here again, the merit of the work should be the focus.
The Australia Council, of which he was a founding board member, alongside Fred Williams, James Mollison, Ann Lewis and Patrick McCaughey, should be disbanded, he says. “It’s run by ideologues – if you don’t tick certain boxes, you don’t have a hope in hell. I know a lot of serious artists who don’t even bother to apply … It is the state telling artists what to do … the state shouldn’t be telling artists what to do. This is not bloody Russia.”
With regard to public art, Melbourne has been more adventurous, more generous and as a result is much richer than Sydney, he says, citing Architectural fragment outside the State Library and Public purse in Bourke Street Mall. Of Sydney City Council’s Pavilion, a massive milk crate, he is dismissive: “Boring as bat shit.”
Growing up, there was little sculpture in the public domain. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a series of Aboriginal burial poles resonated, in part because they had colour and form. “Colour is something I find very exciting; colour is the closest thing to the emotions of music for me,” he says. “I try to incorporate colour into my sculpture.”
Which leads back to Vault. Legend has it that even the Queen observed it could have been “a more agreeable colour”.
Four decades on, it’s hard to understand why the sculpture generated such outcry; Robertson-Swann himself is not sure. “That City Square that Denton Corker Marshall designed was mostly bluestone and I just thought it needed a lift,” he says. “It needed the sunshine in, in some ways. You need a colour for a sculpture that kind of fits its mood; I thought yellow fitted its mood. I just didn’t know I’d release all sorts of hell on myself.”
The bill, please.
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Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald