Financial Review 6-7 December 2003

Still life with ancestry


What little girl could resist? At the age of two, Sophie Dunlop was taught how to mix poster paints by her dad, creating pink - magically - out of red and white. Sophie would toddle after her father and paint "little birdies" with him. Three decades later, her ice-blue eyes still glint with the memory.

For many young artists, art is rebellion. It's a crusade for independence and originality. It's also a battle for survival. But for Sophie, it was normality. It was domestic. It was belonging. "It wasn't strange," she says with a tiny shrug. "My dad was always painting. I just used to observe it. And do it myself."

His father, too - a carpenter by trade - was always sketching and probably would have been an artist if he could have. The son lived out the father's dream: made it work.

Sophie's father is none other than Brian Dunlop, a most successful and private painter of charged interiors, fruity still lifes and likened, with some justification, to another recluse 30 years his senior, the Parisian artist known as Balthus.

But if Brian's lead made the choice of vocation easier for Sophie, it also lulled her into believing it was possible to generate a respectable income from painting.

"I just thought it was normal to be an artist," she says. "So I did it. Then, in my late 20s, I thought: 'God, why the hell did I do this? It's so hard!' My dad could always support us. It didn't seem like a terrible struggle. I realise, now, it probably was. It's a bit of a silly choice for a career!"

But rather than abandon that career, she's tightened her belt, moved to Adelaide, and is supporting her creative habit by teaching part-time at Adelaide Central Art School and waitressing at that most exotic haven for indulgences of all kinds, The Elephant Walk in North Adelaide.

At first glance, Sophie's work is uncannily reminiscent of her father's: the tonality; the palette; the direct references to (and occasional copying of) ancient paintings and frescoes; the arrangements of lemons, figs and pomegranates . . .

Compare Brian's Quinces (1997) with any of Sophie's triple panel works from 2003 and the similarities are obvious: fruits are strewn in front of an intricately patterned fabric. Tassled embroidery in the case of the father, a Rajasthani cloth in the case of the daughter.

But the differences in emphasis, subtle as they are, are decisive. And if anything, the opulence is more characteristic of the daughter than it is of the father - even if Sophie reckons her father, now 65, is getting romantic in his old age. "I think he used to be very austere, looking at things intensely, not making [them] look beautiful. He's really changing at the moment."

And the make-believe theatricality of Sophie's latest works actually harks back to a part of Balthus's oeuvre - his designs for stage - that Brian has hardly ever touched on.

Brian's bandwidth, too, is rather narrower than his daughter's, who is evolving at a prodigious rate. "I think you should include the whole world in your paintings, not just get stuck on one thing," she says.

One of her fabric still life series, Pomegranate (Triptych) (2003) looks like a one-off experiment in tonality: like something by Margaret Preston in its deliberate eschewing of bright tone. But why did she feel compelled to make it so flat?

"Because it was so colourful. I had to knock back a lot of the tone because it was just jumping everywhere." Only plummy reds, burgundies and cherry blacks remain to suck up the light.

A new exhibition of Sophie's works (this time at AXIA Modern Art in Melbourne's Armadale) also includes her first pastels, which are as vibrant and exquisite as Brian's first works in the medium in his late 40s, circa Smouldering Light (1985) .

There's also the proudly austere canvas Grapefruits (2003) a high-key still life that has a pitcher, a terrarium-sized glass bowl and a little ceramic stand all strewn with leafy lemon-sized fruits.

In this work, Sophie's intentions are transparent. She is trying, no less, to paint the animation; to paint the juice within the fruit, to paint the life within.

Apart from this oil and the two pastels, the most-exciting work in the new set is Citadel, in which Sophie again takes a leaf out of her father's sketch pad and folds it into something uniquely her own.

Many times over the years her father has included an ancient painting in his canvases: Malatesta Kneeling in the late 1970s, Coromandel in the 1980s and so on.

In Citadel , Sophie takes a fresco by the 15 th century Italian painter Benozzo Gozzoli (St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds) and fills her canvas with it. She uses that fresco as a backdrop for a still life. Basically, she has removed St Francis and all of the people from the painting and replaced them with jars and bottles.

The latest challenge Sophie has set herself is to put figures in her work. To replace the pots and jugs with living, breathing, bleeding human beings. To replace still life with real life. In the past, she's resorted to using a stuffed rabbit as a model.

Now she has to overcome an innate Dunlop reserve. And, as someone who is "not very pushy with people" and won't use photographs, this might be a tall order.
But she has learned from her teaching "how to be a bully"; she says this with an arch of an eyebrow and her lips pressed tight into a bent smile. As if to say: "watch me now".