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image icon 'The sisters', 1954

'The sisters', 1954
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large ceramic sculpture made from earthenware clay, measuring 95.5 cm x 50.0 cm x 34.0 cm. Made in 1954 by Arthur Boyd (1920-99), the work consists of two standing figures that are hugging each other with long spindly arms. Both figures, which are joined at the midsection, have strangely distorted heads, exposed breasts and simplified body shapes that barely identify them as human. The faces have enormous eyes and the shorter of the two figures has a huge hooked nose and a gaping beak-like mouth. The surface of the sculpture has some decorative designs scratched into it, and is coloured with soft green, pink and yellow textured glazes.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Arthur Boyd, who is widely acclaimed as one of Australia's greatest painters - Boyd attended night classes at the National Gallery Art School, Melbourne, in 1935; from 1936 to 1939 he painted landscapes with his artist grandfather Arthur Merric Boyd (1862-1940) at Rosebud on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula; during the Second World War (1941-45) Boyd produced a series of images that expressed his horror at the suffering caused by war; 1945 saw Boyd commence a series of Australian landscapes that directly referenced the work of Dutch artist Pieter Breughel (c1525-69) in their depictions of religious scenes and crowd action; from 1948 to 1959 Boyd produced a series of works drawn from the landscape of the Wimmera and Berwick regions of Victoria and the 'Bride' series (1957-59); in 1959 Boyd relocated to England, but returned in the early 1980s to settle at Shoalhaven and later Bundanon (a 1,000-hectare property on the south coast of New South Wales); in 1993 Boyd donated Bundanon to the nation along with several thousand works of art from five generations of the Boyd family of artists and from other Australian artists
  • is regarded as the most successful of a series of larger ceramic works made in the early 1950s - in these works Boyd created strange sculptural forms that were hybrids of both the human and animal form; these sculptural forms aimed to create a powerful sense of movement
  • explores the theme of human relationships that is pivotal in most of Boyd's work - the two 'sisters' appear to be embracing, perhaps a little awkwardly but maybe tenderly; however, the fierce hawk or parrot-like faces with their gaping mouths and staring eyes suggest otherwise, as if they are about to devour each other; a number of Boyd's 1960s ceramic works depict women engaged in fierce, destructive battles with animals
  • expresses, in its bold sculptural forms and inventive surface textures, colours and patterns, Boyd's passion for ceramics as a creative medium - Boyd once commented about one of his ceramic pieces coming out of the kiln, 'When I took it out it was still hot. It was the most marvellous feeling ... the thing was whole, the glaze was - I'll never forget it ... A painting doesn't have anywhere near the impact of pulling something out that has been almost purged by being through fire ... It's formed in the fire so the surprise is marvellous'
  • references the central importance of ceramics in Boyd's work and life - the artist's father, Merric Boyd (1888-1959), was one of Australia's first and most gifted studio potters; Boyd acquired from his father an appreciation of ceramics as a serious artistic pursuit; as a child he built his own kiln and fired small clay models of animals; in 1944 Boyd established the Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery, where he, along with artists John Perceval (1923-2000), Peter Herbst (1919-) and others, initially produced utilitarian wares; across the periods 1949-53 and 1962-64 Boyd produced bodies of 'ceramic paintings' (notably tiles); in 1981 he decorated a series of 40 large bowls thrown at Bundanon
  • demonstrates technical control and innovation - the painterly qualities evident in the colouring and decoration of this sculpture's surface is a direct reflection of Boyd's childhood introduction to the ceramic medium; Boyd remembered the way his father and mother used to decorate a lot of their works with slip (liquid clay) decoration, using brush techniques much like painting; 'It seemed', he said, 'a natural thing for me to try'; his approach to creating interesting surfaces was a painterly one in that he approached ceramic 'decoration' as if undertaking a painting; this process was facilitated by his highly individual use of oxides (colouring used in glazes) and slip mixed to the consistency of oil paint; commentators have remarked on the brilliance of colour and 'stained glass' effect Boyd was able to achieve through his experiments with firing methods and lead glazes
  • reflects the influence of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) on Boyd - Boyd experimented with Picasso-like designs on tiles that he painted in the early to mid-1950s; in these images Boyd began to dissect (and to a degree reassemble) his figures; the intertwined and hybrid appearance of Boyd's 'Sisters' closely resembles the directions that Picasso's art took in the decade after the Second World War, wherein the human figure became the starting point for his creative explorations of form.