Donald Friend: An Australian artist’s affair with Italy
Ian Britain is a senior research associate of the School of Historical Studies at The University of Melbourne. He is the author of Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts 1884–1918 (1982, republished 2005) and Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (1997). With Brenda Niall he co-edited The Oxford Book of Australian Schooldays (1997). He edited the literary journal Meanjin between 2001 and 2008. Currently he is researching and writing a biography of Donald Friend, following Friend’s footsteps in Italy and Asia.
‘All I want is love, sex, money’, Donald Friend announced in his diary during a visit to Italy in 1950, when he was nearing his 35th birthday.1 For dauntless cheek, you may think, as well as ruthless simplicity, this is beaten only by the Beatles’ refrain a decade or so later: ‘Money, that’s what I want.’ At hardly any stage in his life did Friend ever want for money, sex or love. By the general measure of such things – if we take it, say, from Philip Larkin’s rueful belief that ‘sexual intercourse began in 1963’, just before ‘the Beatles’ first LP’ – Friend was extraordinarily privileged for his time, and enviably precocious.
Of the youthful Donald, at least, it would be hard to surpass, in succinctness and accuracy, Jane Austen’s famous description of her 20-year-old Regency diva, Emma Woodhouse: ‘handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition’. So the description kicks off, though the real, subtle kick is in the words that immediately follow: ‘seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence’. Seemed… ? Some… ?
On the verge of middle age at the time of his European travels in the early 1950s, Friend may have recognised himself all too well in this ambiguous description. Here he is in London at the end of 1952: ‘I spent the evening alone at home, feeling a bit blue, and reading Jane Austen, which is not my favourite occupation’2 – perhaps because it made him bluer, though it’s interesting that he persists enough to call it an occupation.
The more endowed we are with nature’s, or culture’s, blessings, the more precarious they may appear to us, especially as we age, and the more unappeasable our hunger for them may become. Friend was the scion of a gilded caste in twentieth-century Australia but his experiences as an adolescent of the 1930s Depression – relatively limited as his exposure to this was – taught him not to trust in the security or stability of this world. He was the second of four children born to a prosperous grazier father and a highly cultivated socialite mother. His father ran two large properties in rural New South Wales, while his mother, who hailed from a dynasty of fine art auctioneers in Sydney, presided over a salon of musicians, singers and others of an aesthetic bent at her spacious, stylish flat in Double Bay. The flat had to be given up in 1931 (Donald’s mother was threatened with insolvency) and Donald was taken out of his current school, Sydney Grammar (he’d earlier been at Cranbrook and Tudor House), and packed off with his brothers to one of the family properties, Glendon, near Moree.
‘The end of the rich pampered life,’ he labelled this period more than 50 years later,3 somewhat over-dramatising the situation, but faithfully registering the sense of sudden deprivation. At Glendon he was expected to join in the hard, ceaseless work of running the property, mustering and castrating sheep among other menial and domestic tasks that previously a team of servants and hired hands had performed. Some of these employees were retained, however, and his indulgent mother saw to it that Donald had a studio on the homestead, where he could retreat to paint and draw, carve, design fabrics and ruminate in the diary he’d begun keeping at Cranbrook a few years earlier.
Following his sexual initiation with an alluring itinerant worker from Thailand – which threatened to cause a family crisis4 – he ran away from the property, with his mother’s complicity, and fetched up in northern Queensland and the Torres Straits Islands, where he lingered for a couple of years before coming back to Sydney to attend the classes of émigré artist Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. It was the start of a pattern in Friend’s life that was soon to expand to a global, a truly ‘transnational’, scale: a pattern of escape and return, as one might sum it up, except that each of these components at every stage involved for him an advance in self-exploration or self-confrontation. They were never merely forms of escapism or retreat.
You can see the resoluteness of this process from some of the earliest entries in Friend’s dairies, when he was just 14, and as the Depression was making its first visible dents in Australian daily life: ‘I have lately studied myself,’ he declared in September 1929, and ‘the reward of my studies is this – I am in a state of being gay, longing to leave this horrible political tangle of Australia’. A state of optimism, he means (there’s no conscious sexual connotation to these words; he wasn’t as precocious as that). A state of complacency, if not selfishness, may also be detectable; his obliviousness to the ‘tangle’ elsewhere in the world is certainly naive, if understandable in one so young and so cosseted up to that time. But that’s not to diminish the extraordinary steeliness and scale of his ambitions:
I long to travel on the Continent, and meet the gaiety in Paris, of great and untalented persons. At other times I am greatly impressed by pure beauty […]. Each new phase leaves some small expression or trait in my soul […].
Arthur Benjamin [the composer] […] proposed that I should journey to England with him! He shall introduce me, and I shall seriously take up painting and drawing of which I am so fond […]. Perhaps this day shall put an absolutely new light on my life.5
In 1931, confined to Glendon and deprived of what aesthetic consolations Sydney life had once offered him, he observed: ‘Australia is a very beautiful country, and full of adventure. But it is not the land of an artist, no, not this uneducated and new land for me.’6 By the mid 1930s Donald was already on the way to realising his ambition and had moved to London. There he enrolled at the Westminster Art School, found a gallery for his works and publicly exhibited them for the first time in a group, then a solo, show. He also made his first forays on the Continent, fell in love with another alluring ‘exotic’ (this time a young Nigerian called Ladipo), travelled to West Africa, where he started drafting a book on rituals and arts of the Yoruba people, and then, following the outbreak of the Second World War, decided to come back home. His first one-man exhibition in Australia was held at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1942, just before he enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces.
No great success as a soldier, by his own confession, he nevertheless made those confessions the basis of his first success as a writer, with the publication of extracts from his wartime diaries in 1943, when he was still just 28. And his consummate talents as a figurative draughtsman were sufficiently recognised for him to be appointed an official war artist a couple of years later. In this capacity he served in New Guinea and parts of Indonesia in the last year of the war, significantly noting at one point, when based on Morotai in the Moluccas, how ‘all tropic islands are alike. The jungle is international.’7
Beguiling as the tropics remained for him throughout his life, there’s a hint of ennui in that epithet ‘international’. (Friend would not have been a friend of the homogenising tendencies that we now call globalisation.) The transnational scale of his ambitions for himself, and the pattern of escape and return necessary to the self – necessary, that is, if the self were to be extended, properly fuelled and duly tested – were succinctly captured in a diary entry made a couple years earlier, while he was still doing his army training in Australia:
Life’s not long enough to do all the things I want to. For immediate consideration after the war I want to do a lot of painting, publish the Disasters [his title, after Goya, for his wartime diaries], finish off my book on the Yoruba, spend a while in Tahiti. Then I must return to Africa. After that Europe, Spain, Greece, France. Then places like Cambodia and the Celebes. Then probably back here again to remind the world I’m alive, since there is no joy in creating unless one can be confirmed in what one has done by the approval of people who understand.8
It’s a sign of his maturity that he can now accept Australia as an important token of ‘the world’, or at least of the world that matters to him as an artist.
As it turned out, on being demobilised in 1946, Friend retained an attachment to the now legendary community of artists and bohemians at Merioola House in Sydney. However, his home town could not be expected to contain him for long stretches and, while offering him sufficient stimuli and challenges, it also contained too many of the world’s distractions. ‘The sooner I leave the better’, he confided in his diary at the end of August 1947. ‘Here I don’t work enough, or seriously enough. They are right, it seems, the people who say my work is frivolous. Certainly, it lacks depth.’9
The creative self must be opened to scrutiny and challenge once again; so, after making an extended return visit to his friends in the Torres Strait Islands, Friend sought out a new horizon. He opted to settle in a former gold town, Hill End, near Bathurst in New South Wales with Donald Murray, his close friend and occasional lover for more than a decade. The comforts and challenges of a home in a new place, of a relatively stable relationship, and of burgeoning recognition in a profession of his choice, were not to be scorned; neither were they ever enough for Donald Friend. Within a couple of years, he’d left Australia again for Europe, and it was there and then we find him compiling that list of abiding ‘wants’ in his life: love, sex, money. If we read on, this turns out to be not quite as brutally definitive as he first avers – not quite ‘all’. In the next breath he supplements and elaborates on those basic items with: ‘Work and a good place in the country and friends. In other words, Attilio [his current beloved, of whom more later], painting, bank account, Hill End with Donald Murray’.10
In one sense these may represent, if not pretty standard home thoughts from abroad, then the dilemmas of expatriates or transnationals everywhere: perpetually divided within, gnawingly conscious of missing someone, or some place, all of the time, wherever they are. Yet Friend was more than usually resourceful – for all that he claimed of his lack of resources – in mitigating any such dilemma and turning it to creative effect. Among past and present Australian expatriates it would seem difficult to name any that was more ‘transnational’ than he.11 There was that first, youthful foray in Europe; the Nigerian venture at the end of the 1930s, and his spells in New Guinea and Indonesia as war artist. Following his return visit to Europe in the early 1950s, a quickly hatched trip to Ceylon (as it then was) in 1957 turned into a five-year stay. Then there were jaunts in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia in the mid 1960s that prefaced a decade-or-longer commitment to Bali. And all of these journeys were punctuated by long return trips to Australia, where he was also to return for the last decade of his life.
Much of this travelling was done long before the jet age made global commuting a routine exercise. Friend turned himself into what we might call a serial expatriate, and as remarkable as the restlessness in him that his toings-and-froings reflects are the speed and ease with which he adapted himself to each destination. Well, more than just adapted. Clive James has recently saluted Friend’s generation of Australian artists and their capacity to submit to another country, another culture – ‘the big secret of learning anything’, as James contends.12 Friend, it needs to be added, was exceptional in this company for his multiple, and successive, ‘submissions’ – and perhaps, too, for the readiness and passion of his periodic ‘re-submissions’ to his homeland. Just as I’ve found little real evidence in him of the fear, shame, guilt or other forms of a tortured self-consciousness with which homosexual men of that generation are customarily associated, so I’ve found nothing in him of that ‘condition of Australian cultural self-hatred’, that ‘self-tortured relationship with the rest of the world’, by which a recent British reviewer of Peter Carey’s novels is still inclined to characterise the Australian sense of identity (Wood 2006).
It’s become a bit of a cliché – cheap comfort for us lesser mortals – to point out those insecurities that lurk beneath the confident front of this or that celebrity. With Donald Friend, I’m interested, rather, in the inner core of confidence that lies beneath the vaunted anxieties and protested deprivations. What impelled and sustained his elaborate trajectories – this ceaseless, radiant embrace of the world?
To answer such questions comprehensively would require a full-scale biography (on which I am only just embarking). But we can get a clear enough sense of his imperatives by focusing on the relatively, seemingly, brief period of Friend’s ‘submission’ to Italy after the end of the Second World War: relative, that is, to the length of time spent there by so many of his fellow Australians, artists or otherwise, and to his own protracted tarrying in Asian climes; seemingly, because the time he physically spent on Italian soil – I calculate this to be no more than about a year and a half, broken up and mainly spread over a four-year period between 1949 and 1953 – gives no idea of the pervasiveness of its allure for him, long after he left but also before he even arrived. It’s fitting, I think, that it should be this milieu, at what turned out to be the mid point of his life, which prompted his ruminations on what he most wanted out of life. It didn’t satisfy all those wants – for such a compulsive transnational no one country or culture could – but it did help crystallise for him (as it does for us) their range, complexity and interdependence.
Friend’s initial, instinctive attraction to Italy can be traced back as far as his childhood and schooling in Sydney, and perhaps especially to his artistic apprenticeship under the charismatic Datillo-Rubbo. Bearing out another of Clive James’s generalisations about Australian expatriate artists, that they often ‘discovered Europe before [they] got there’ (James 1989, 37–38), Friend wrote in his diary on beholding Florence in 1949:
It’s fantastically beautiful – every house, every street shows something admirable, something one has known about as long as one was conscious of art. I feel sick and lonely but at last a place that pours over me the richness of the civilisation I need.13
The feeling of loneliness here alludes to other needs consonant with those basic ‘wants’ he articulated elsewhere; and in these departments of love and sex you could say that his engagement with Italy resulted in a kind of marriage that survived for many years after he left. Given the speedy and continuing succession of ‘infidelities’ on both sides, marriage may be too strong a word. But certainly, the intimacy he forged with the young Ischian fisherman and diver, Attilio Guarracino, on the second of his four visits to Italy, proved to be one of the most sustained (and sustaining) relationships of Friend’s life. Winning him away from fellow painter Jeffrey Smart, Friend managed to pack Guarracino off to Australia before he returned there himself. Many battles lay ahead in Australia, not so much with Smart as with Guarracino, whose main sexual interest was clearly in women, for all the emotional (and occasionally physical) generosity he could extend to his own sex. But – if often at a considerable geographical distance – Guarracino remained as attentive a friend of Friend’s as the latter’s own prickly personality allowed. Guarracino continues to live on in Australia, some several years after Friend’s death, and has just married for a third time.
At Portofino, on the first of his postwar visits to Italy, Friend relished ‘the beauty of the place […] the coloured houses clustered round a tiny piazza […] and villas, bright pink set in gardens on the steep olive-covered slopes’. Yet, never one to idealise any place in Italy – even Florence, as it turned out – he was soon complaining that ‘This is too pretty and picturesque, too much of a decoration. And the people are simple, aloof […]. My thoughts cannot turn away from love and my need of love’.14 Yet once he had moved to Florence he soon found love, or thought he had, in the arms of young Rolando, who came to model for him: ‘a boy of seventeen, with a good figure’ as he described him.15 The second of his visits to Italy was dominated by his passion for Guarracino and the battle over this youth that he waged with Jeffrey Smart. On the third of his visits to Italy – with Guarracino now safely installed in Australia, though not entirely out of Smart’s orbit if we can believe Smart’s own version in his memoir (Smart 1996, 285–286; 303–304) – Friend allowed himself temporarily to fall for the charms of yet another young and obliging model, Rosario.
Was this Friend’s real attraction to Italy, or, subsequently, to any foreign place far from the conventions and constrictions of his native land? Christopher Isherwood in his autobiography took mischievous pleasure in puncturing any exalted explanations for his own continental cavortings in the 1930s: ‘For Christopher’, he famously insisted, ‘Berlin meant boys’ (Isherwood 1977, 10). And of Donald Friend and his adventures in Italy in the 1950s one might easily (too easily) conclude the same, from various sorts of testimony, including some of his own.
In the first flush of his passion for Guarracino, Friend reflects: ‘I am become a sentimental pederast.’16 (Hazardous, potentially inflammatory words in today’s moral climate, unmoved as it is by any appeal to the classical lineage of this disposition; so one needs to remember that when Friend first met him this ‘boy’ was an 18-year-old, and in Guarracino’s case an extraordinarily mature and savvy one.) It was a few days after this declaration that Friend made his more general confession: ‘All I want is love, sex, money.’ More than a decade and a half later, back in Australia, and when his passion for Guarracino (by now married to the first of his wives) had mellowed into a rich friendship, Friend found himself:
[R]ather bogged down in a sort of contentment […]. One wonders, is one’s personal view of geography entirely coloured by sexual fantasies? I suppose so. The world outside one’s own particular location sometimes seems to promise to be one vast sodatic zone.17
Our age’s now almost unconscious immersion in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, or its vulgarised forms, has encouraged us to view sexual impulses as somehow in conflict with, or at the bottom of, seemingly more ‘civilised’, cultural imperatives. No less an authority on Australian literary life in its cosmopolitan contexts than David Marr, the biographer of Patrick White, confidently pronounced on a television history of homosexuality in Australia that up to his own generation, at least, battalions of expatriate gays, from whatever walks of life, had left their homeland for no other reason than to assuage their sexual thirsts, for which they could be prosecuted if they stayed at home. Forget any cover story such as cultural enrichment. These pink-blooded Aussie blokes were checking out the rest of the world for ‘roots’ – Marr’s own word, and he didn’t mean the ancestral variety.18
There’s probably a lot of truth in such pronouncements, which might also be applicable to these young men’s more red-blooded brothers or blue-stockinged sisters or whatever other brands of expat there’ve been. And, of course, it’s hard to be less than blunt on TV documentaries, or your point is missed. The beauty of a diary as a form of historical record is that you can be as blunt as you like or you need, but you also have the space for more leisured, more nuanced reflection, and for all manner of retrospective qualifications or corrections. These may not be truer than first impressions or spontaneously-made judgments but they complicate the picture in interesting and challenging ways. I recommend Donald Friend’s diaries of his brief encounter with Italy for its capacity, in so small a compass, to abet but also to challenge the notion that sexual urges underlie all other imperatives, including aesthetic ones. There are numerous passages in these diaries that suggest a much more complicated and dynamic interaction between the sexual and the aesthetic.
You’ll remember how Friend immediately qualifies his basic wish-list of love, sex and money with other items: work, friends, Guarracino, painting, and so on. The drawing of the young Guarracino that adorns the jacket of the third volume of his published diaries is a testimony to the power of sex as an artistic muse – but may it not also suggest the power of an aesthetic object as a sexual turn-on? Friend’s observations on his other, more transient, Italian lovers suggests something of the same dialectic. Here he is cataloguing the charms of Rolando on just the second day that the boy came to model for him: ‘Good humour, and the largest member I have ever seen, which waggles when he coughs. I am tremendously pleased about it all – boy, waggle, drawings and every detail of my present life, the good life of the artist.’19 The focus of Rosario’s interest for Friend was located elsewhere on the boy’s body but the nature of the interest was similarly complex: ‘I am happy with Rosario, and enchanted with him. His face expresses the whole person – half innocent, yet savage, a little cunning, and not very intelligent, but extremely affectionate. And young enough (seventeen) to be bossed about a bit. And certainly perfect to draw.’20
Prompted by reading Bernard Berenson’s Italian Painters of the Renaissance, and frustrated by its lack of any explanation for why artists do what they do, Friend was happy to supply his own: ‘Cock, cunt and spaghetti I think would cover the field’. A reversion, you might think, to the blunt, unillusioned fundamentalism of Christopher Isherwood, David Marr, and Friend himself in certain moods. Except for this teasing rider – that cock and cunt ‘provide the painter with the only means of comprehending his fellow beings from within’.21 There’s still the possibility that this is just a wry anatomical joke, but I think it’s also a reflection on his own motivations and on the difficulty, when observing these, of making any rigid divisions between the aesthetic and the sexual.
Friend was apt to disdain artists in whom he could detect such divisions more clearly. Christopher, or his kind, were among them – not Isherwood as such, but his chief pal from the old Berlin days, W. H. Auden, who was living in Ischia with his American partner and fellow writer, Chester Kallman, around the time Friend arrived on the island. From Friend’s account, you might get the impression they’d just moved from one fleshpot to another: ‘God knows how these creatures write poetry: it would seem from their talk that they give themselves day and night without cease to promiscuous sex with the local boys and think of nothing else’.22
However accurate or fair this may be as an account of the Auden ménage, what’s significant is the yearning it evinces in Friend for something more: an extra dimension to the wanderlust of the artist, though not just an optional add-on. Friend would be the last to condemn either wandering or lusting as long as he felt that each was somehow integrally combined with the development of the creative self. He once remarked in a filmed interview: ‘art’s not really a hobby, you know, that’s if you’re really going to be a painter. It’s the whole thing, it’s yourself, it’s self-recognition’.23 It would be tempting to say of him what his great friend, fellow painter, fellow wanderer and temporarily (very temporarily) bedfellow, Margaret Olley, said of herself in a recent interview: ‘Art was my big love affair’ (Hawley 2005). Except that in Friend’s case at least, that would still make too much of a separation between art and sexual love when, for him, at their best and truest they were inextricably fused. His sojourn in Italy provided him with some of those best and truest moments.
1 13 April 1950; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 70).
2 23 December 1952; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 177).
3 1 January 1983; see Friend (2001–2006b, IV, 577).
4 See Friend (1994, 49–52; 57–61; 97).
5 September 20 and 21 September 1929; see Friend (2001–2006a, 7–8).
6 5 July 1931; see Friend (2001–2006a, 47).
7 27 May 1945; see Friend (2001–2006b, II, 247).
8 5 October 1943; see Friend (2001–2006a, 304–305).
9 31 August 1947; see Friend (2001–2006b, II, 540).
10 13 April 1950; see Friend (2001–2006b, II, 70).
11 See, for example Britain (1997).
12 Clive James, ‘How the Australian Painters Came Home’, lecture to The National Trust, Sydney, 27 June 2006; see James (2006) – that is, the shortened, published version of this lecture.
13 3 June 1949; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 12).
14 12 May 1949; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 9).
15 22 June 1949; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 16).
16 10 April 1950; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 70).
17 28 October 1966; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 643).
18 The television documentary is that written and directed by Con Anemogiannis, The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia, made in 2004, produced by Fortian Productions in association with SBS Independent.
19 22 June 1949; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 16).
20 14 March 1952; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 135).
21 11 May 1952; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 141).
22 10 January 1950; see Friend (2001–2006b, III, 51).
23 Archive footage reproduced in ‘Artist Donald Friend’s original diaries on display’, The 7.30 Report, ABC TV, 14 November 2006.
Britain, Ian. 1997. Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Friend, Donald. 2001–2006a. The Diaries of Donald Friend, edited by Gray, Anne. Vol. 1 [of 4]. Canberra: National Library of Australia.
Friend, Donald. 2001–2006b. The Diaries of Donald Friend, edited by Hetherington, Paul. Vols 2–4 [of 4]. Canberra: National Library of Australia.
Friend, Gwen. 1994. My Brother Donald: A Memoir of Australian Artist Donald Friend. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Hawley, Janet. 2005. ‘Good Golly, Miss Olley’. The Age Good Weekend (24 September).
Isherwood, Christopher. 1977. Christopher and His Kind. London: Methuen Paperbacks.
James, Clive. 1989. ‘Approximately in the vicinity of Barry Humphries’. In Snakecharmers in Texas: Essays 1980–87. London: Picador.
James, Clive. 2006. ‘Out from under the Balcony’. Times Literary Supplement (1 September).
Smart, Jeffrey. 1996. Not Quite Straight: A Memoir. Melbourne: William Heinemann.
Wood, James. 2006. ‘Damaged beasts’. London Review of Books (8 June).
Figure 11.1: Donald Friend, The Studio, Florence 1949 (1949)
Ink and wash on paper. 30 x 47cms.
© The owner
This chapter is from Australians in Italy: Contemporary Lives and Impressions, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup (Monash University Publishing: Clayton, Melbourne. 2010). For more information about this book, or to purchase print copies, please go to http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/ai.html.