There’s nothing else I would prefer to do than paint, it’s a way of memorialising my time here, it’s why I paint directly from life. When painting from life I’m engaging directly with an experience that can’t be substituted by photographs. Painting for me is the act of looking, digesting data and then transforming those facts into an equivalent experience in paint. If the paint isn’t alive, if the experience isn’t felt, then I put a knife through it. Almost everything is already there in painting, but when I look, what’s missing is my take on the various painting subjects, my take on the figure, my take on the landscape, my take on the still life. I paint the paintings I want to look at, the pictures that aren’t already there. Paintings that could only have been painted by me, from my vantage point at a particular time and space.
The great British-German painter Frank Auerbach once said, “ When it comes to subject matter, don’t go wider, go deeper.” He understands the value of a personal view. There is always so much more to excavate and bring to the surface. Many great ideas are floating around in art, but the idea of beauty seems to be the most fantastic… and I can’t even explain what beauty is. I can only try to show it. And who can say where our sense of beauty or aesthetic sensibility comes from? Perhaps it is in our upbringing, what we are visually struck with when we are young. I can’t fully express what beauty is unless I do it through the act of painting, so when I see beauty I am compelled to capture it upon the canvas, so that something of that moment can be memorialised.
I once saw a beautiful wall on a street corner in Darlinghurst. The afternoon light hit just so. The locals walking past, their shadows cast across it, added a human poignancy to the image. I finally decided to paint it and trudged from my studio with canvas and paints. And, this is no joke, the wall had been scaffolded and demolished overnight! It was gone.
That taught me a great lesson: if I have something to say with paint, say it now because everything disappears, everything vanishes. Something must remain.
Robert Malherbe is widely celebrated for his use of dense impasto surfaces and luscious appliqué of oil paint, often in a restricted palette, which generates a startling sense of immediacy in his work. Working only from life, the artist’s vigorous mark-making records a rich visual impression alongside the other, less tangible elements embodied by his different muses. Malherbe is a regular finalist in major Australian art prizes, including the Archibald, Wynne, Sulman and Doug Moran prizes. Most recently, he was a finalist in the 2022 Archibald Prize. He has been awarded the NSW Plein Air Art Prize (2016) and the Manning Art Prize (2015).