‘From the Mountain to the Sky: Guy Warren Drawings’ | Celebrating 100 years of life and art

“I’m utterly delighted I’m an artist and not a bank manager. No, no real regrets, it’s a great life and I would do it all over again.” – Guy Warren, November 2020

On April 16, 2021, Australian landscape and portrait artist Guy Warren began celebrating 100 years of life and the opening of his exhibition ‘From the Mountain to the Sky: Guy Warren Drawings’, which is on until 22 May, at the new Drawing Gallery in the grounds of the National Art School in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

Guy Warren in his studio in Greenwich, Sydney, November 2020, ahead of his 100th Birthday in April 2021.
Guy Warren in his studio in Greenwich, Sydney, November 2020 Photograph: Peter Morgan

Curated by Deborah Beck, Archivist and Collection Manager, National Art School, the selection of 100 small and large-scale artworks on view in ‘From the Mountain to the Sky’, including numerous sketch books and drawings from Warren’s studio, traverse decades of the artist’s creative practice and illuminate his remarkable journey not only in art, but also in life.

At the age of 14, Warren left school out of necessity during the Great Depression. He got a job as a proof-reader’s assistant at The Bulletin newspaper in Sydney where he also penned small articles and contributed drawings. At 15, the young Warren enrolled in part-time classes at the JS Watkins Art School, run by England-born portrait painter John Samuel Watkins (1866-1942). In 1941 Warren joined the Australian Army’s AIF serving until 1947. During those years he spent time in New Guinea and Bougainville. As a way to get through the days of war, Warren documented his experiences in drawings and sketches, which ignited a deep passion within him for the Island’s landscape, and fostered a life-long connection with the people of New Guinea.

“I was a couple of years in Australia with the army before they sent me from Brisbane to Lae in New Guinea. I was very grateful to be able to do something when everyone else was bored out of their minds. Most blokes in the army when they were bored played cards – I could draw them playing cards or doing whatever they were doing, it’s an enormous benefit,” Warren recalls.

A watercolour on paper by Guy Warren depicting a crashed war plane in Bougainville in 1945. On view in 'From the Mountain to the Sky' at National Art School.
Crashed Plane, Bougainville, 1945, watercolour on paper, 22 x 32cm. Photograph: Peter Morgan. Courtesy the artist and National Arts School, Sydney

Returning home to Australia post war, Warren enrolled in full-time art studies at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC), now the National Art School, as part of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training scheme. He studied at ESTC from 1947-1949 developing his skills in drawing and painting while paving his way towards a successful career as an artist. He travelled abroad and lived in London from 1951-59, married his wife Joy in 1950 and together they had two had children. The art scene in London was exciting and innovative and was a great source of inspiration for Warren.

“Here I was in London, bombarded with art and ideas, people were doing the most extraordinary things and I found it tremendously exciting. The first of the American abstract expressionists were showing, the first show was at the American Embassy, and the next was at the Tate. They were mindblowers, and for the first time I realised there were dimensions beyond what I had been doing at East Sydney Tech. I think my mind was liberated and I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have thought of doing two years before,” he explains.

Warren has exhibited in over 65 solo shows during his decades-long career. His artistic merits include the 1985 Archibald Prize, which he won for his portrait of friend and fellow artist, sculptor Bert Flugelman (on view in this exhibition). He was awarded with a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong in 1998, and a Doctorate of Visual Arts from the University of Sydney in 2007, and he was a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1999, followed by the Australia Medal (AM) in 2013.

Warren’s drawings, paintings, sketches and watercolours are inspired by his love of the landscape and people from all walks of life. Warren’s belief that we are part of the landscape, that we belong to it, can be explored visually in the way that the figures he portrays appear absorbed in the makeup of the land. Examples of which can be seen in the oil on crayon drawing Walking through the Andes (2014), and in East of Alice (2013), a gouache and watercolour on paper rendered in the vibrant orange hues of the Northern Territory.

Guy Warren's Fall of Icarus 1994, on view in 'From the Mountain to the Sky' at National Art School.
The Fall of Icarus, 1994, plane vapour. Photograph: Peter Morgan. Courtesy the artist and National Arts School, Sydney

Warrens says, “There’s a long tradition of landscape painting in Australia that has lasted much, much longer than any other country I know of, but I think for me it gets back to New Guinea and my reading of the attitudes of the South Pacific peoples who have always seen themselves as being part of the land and the land is part of them. It’s a binding of humanity and the land, and I don’t think Europeans have ever really felt like that. We have our great landscape painters and there have been some marvellous ones, but they always thought of the landscape as separate from themselves, something we look at or admire or use, but not as part of themselves,”

‘From the Mountain to the Sky’ features works depicting Warren’s Wingman, a figurative symbol inspired by the mythological Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun with wings of wax. Warren reimagines the Fall of Icarus in his momentous 1994 sky drawing, which he has documented in a series of photographs. The Fall of Icarus was a finalist in the 1995 Dobell Prize for Drawing. Also on view in the exhibition is Warren’s Self portrait aged 18 (1939), and Portrait of Joy (c. 1940-44), among numerous other portraits; there are beautiful abstract watercolours in soft mottled blues, mauves, browns and gold, contrasted by bold charcoal landscapes on paper; as well as richly coloured studies of tribal people, artworks that Warren created from photographs he borrowed from world-renowned broadcaster and natural historian David Attenborough.

Don’t miss your chance to see Guy Warren’s extraordinary work as part of his 100th birthday celebrations. If you can’t make it to ‘From the Mountain to the Sky‘ at the National Art School, you can catch one or all three upcoming exhibitions scheduled in 2021.

Calendar: From 29 April to 29 May Lane Cove Gallery presents ‘Of Man and Nature: The Diverse Journey of Guy Warren’, and ‘Hills and Wings: A celebration of Guy Warren and his work’ is on at the University of Wollongong Gallery from 3 May to 28 July, followed by a Melbourne exhibition at Nicholas Thompson Gallery from 30 November to 18 December.

Quotes by Guy Warren in this article originate from an interview with Deborah Beck, National Art School Archivist and Collections Manager, at his studio in Greenwich, Sydney, November 2020.