Prelude is the title of one of many watercolours produced between the years 1947–1950.
More broadly, the word is used for a series of paintings produced when Elizabeth Durack was honing her talent and setting a course for her future. Based after the war on remote Ivanhoe station in the East Kimberley, Elizabeth was witness to the last phase of the region's early pastoral enterprise. Working alone (or occasionally in company with Jubul, an artist from Arnhem Land) she was compelled to record what she saw and knew: the impact of pastoralism upon the land and its original inhabitants. Despite some recent claims to the contrary, by no means all of the impact was negative. The Prelude paintings reflect a people adapted to and in harmony with their environment; and they sprang from an aesthetic not political impulse. Elizabeth would walk through country learning and sharing, in company with Ord River—Mirrriuwong people, many of whom she'd known when younger. For long periods she lived in two very different worlds: at times experiencing traditions and beliefs that sustained a Stone Age Aboriginal people; at others, engaged in reading widely, thinking and acting creatively. It was an unusual time. Elizabeth accepted it as a rare gift — a gift she sought to honour by producing art that was distinctively and quintessentially Australian.
The general mood of postwar Australia was optimistic; it was also a turbulent time and in the north conditions were often harsh and brutal. Elizabeth found some respite at the Beagle Bay Mission to which, sharing an Irish Catholic background, she had privileged access. Beagle Bay, after years of struggle, by then was flourishing, in a golden phase. Affected by its ethos, by the Pallotine priests, the Sisters of St John of God and other inhabitants of the Mission she found further inspiration. She visited Bungarun, the Leprosarium on the outskirts of Derby, and recorded in small sketches the Sisters' selfless devotion to patients in their care. A set of Broome and Beagle Bay paintings, anticipating later work, are now part of the Collection of the Kimberley Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre. Kimberley SSJG pictures have been exhibited twice since 2007. Some examples are at the end of this series; others can be found under 'Drawings/Face Value'.
Durack's art in Prelude is in marked contrast to the landscapes with gumtrees or traditional still-lifes dominating Australia's art salons of the time. While some notable contemporaries in Melbourne and Sydney were also breaking with tradition, Durack’s focus was metaphysical aspects of life associated with the effects of settlement and the pastoral industry upon the land and its original inhabitants.
Labelled by some post-war critics as 'an artist with a social conscience', Durack dismissed this assessment, her letters of the time attesting that her primary concern was aesthetics and with communicating a sense of interconnection between the past and the present and with all living and inanimate things. Notwithstanding the artist's claim that her choice of subject matter was incidental to the whole, most critics simply saw unpalatable social and political aspects in the work.
Undeterred by largely negative comment in places where it mattered, within four years Elizabeth Durack had held eleven solo exhibitions in major cities around the nation. By 1950 she was recognised as an artist of independent expression and ideas, outside of the mainstream — a position she maintained over the years.
Most of the works in Prelude were completed in a grass studio on the banks of the Ord River where Durack worked by day on a trestle table, and frequently at night by the light of a hurricane lamp. Along with lyrical watercolours of station life and landscape, reflecting ideas and concerns about Australia’s land and its people, Durack also produced a number of large oils on swag covers — notably Ord River Venus, Ivanhoe Camp, Jubul and War and Peace.
Signature, a 3000 word essay written on Ivanhoe Station in 1948, stands as a personal manifesto about art and life at the time.