This year Arts Centre Melbourne celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the creative collaboration between abstract painter John Peart (1945 – 2013) and composer Nigel Butterley (b. 1935). In 1967 the pair took to the stage of the Sydney Town Hall, along with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, to present the collaborative performance Interaction as part of the Last Night of the Proms.
Peart and Butterley conceived the performance as a creative interaction between music and painting, a live ‘happening’ where each could act in response to the other. Prior to the event, Butterley, a pianist and an established composer, wrote a work of five movements, each more energetic than the last. On the evening of the performance Butterley was seated at the piano and divided the orchestra into five sections. This allowed him to direct the various sections of the orchestra to come in and out, responding to Peart’s evolving painting.
Peart, who was only 22 at the time, was establishing a name for himself as an innovative abstract painter. During the performance he worked on the stage above the orchestra, with long-handled paint rollers on a large canvas stretched before the audience. For each of the five movements Peart painted with a different colour, the intensity of which increased as the performance unfolded; the palest used during the first, gentle movement and the darkest during the final, most vigorous movement.
The performance is fondly recalled by Peart’s close friends and directors of Watters Gallery, Geoffrey Legge and Frank Watters, who looked on with “amazed admiration at the way the vast painting came into marvellous and inevitable being as Peart proceeded”. They remarked that “he couldn’t step back and survey the work as it developed, he just flowed with the music. His application of black during the final exciting movement made it hard not to believe he was under the spell of an out-of-body intelligence so inspired did each new mark seem”.
Interaction, 1967, a recent donation to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Art Collection, was a preparatory study created during rehearsals. Although smaller in scale, Peart’s lyrical and direct brushstrokes capture the rhythm and movement of the improvisation on canvas. Produced at the beginning of Peart’s career, the work also signalled his lifelong commitment to an exploration of abstraction and experimentation. The addition of this artwork to the Art Collection enriches the historical interpretation of our Foundation Collection, particularly in the artistic connections with Peart’s abstract contemporaries, Yvonne Audette, Roger Kemp and Donald Laycock.
An Interaction between Music and Painting is currently on display in the Smorgon Family Plaza (May 20 – June 25), featuring Interaction, 1967, alongside the award-winning film, Interaction – music and painting, 1967 (directed by Gil Brealey, reproduced by permission of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Library Sales © 1969 ABC TV). This film, produced in the same year as the performance, captures the essence of the creative partnership between composer and painter.