Murch – the Master Teacher
Murch was a disciple of the traditions of the learning and teaching of art practice as exemplified by the great Masters of the Renaissance when an artist would have a studio and pupils. He was taught by masters – his teachers Datillo Rubbo and Rayner Hoff.
Of his “Grand Tour” of Europe, after winning the 1925 Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship, he said that he explored painting “as if he were a pilgrim traversing the years”. Fellow travelling-artist Edmund Harvey, who was a life-long friend, said that “Murch took a long time to get the Renaissance out of his system”.
And so it was that Murch continued his whole life with teaching his skills and craft and “ways of seeing” to countless students. In the 1930’s, he taught at his studio in Hailsbury House and at the Five Arts Club with the fascinating anthropologist man-about-town Professor Radcliffe Brown. By the mid 1930’s he taught modelling and sculpture at Sydney’s National Art School – then known as the “Tech” (East Sydney Technical College). From the 1940’s to the early 1980’s he taught at evening colleges and high schools, the Aboriginal Arts Foundation and the Royal Art Society.
In the 1960’s he started his own summer school called Avalon Basic Arts – with its wildly ambitious list of subjects. He had a large offset printing press set up at home and produced the flyer.
Murch would make frequent notes about his art practice and processes so that he could share his knowledge.
The transcription of these handwritten notes show Murch’s cerebral approach and constant interest in encapsulating the processes of drawing:
“Simple pattern and diagrams
Accuracy of drawing requires the enclosing of area units of subject in proportion and relationship with a line which respects features of the subjects structure….. Purpose of drawing determines the degree of:
- descriptive focus
- robustness and drama of scale
Design in drawing bends to purpose of relationship of subject unit to other units and the total picture area.”
Lecture to the Royal Art Society in 1978
Murch delivered a lecture to the Royal Art Society in 1978 which offers key insights into his ways of thinking and his influences. He screened his 1933-34 Central Australian film at the lecture and records his reactions to the drawings by people from the Petermann Ranges who he encountered on these early trips. These people – who had little experience (if any) of white people – were given charcoal and paper by Murch and he asked them to draw animals for him.
Murch writes in his lecture notes:
“The first drawing was Nature’s, the wind and water ripple, footprints in the sand.
Dawn man, speaking but a few words, hunting down his food could read the day’s menu. It is easy to imagine him teaching his children a creatures’ identity by finger-made tracks. When we asked an old man of Mt Liebig, Central Australia in 1934 to draw an emu, he drew its footprints. He was of the tribe quite unused to realist drawings. His creatures were identified by geometrical totemic symbols. So here we have stone age man about to make his first representational drawings. He knows now that it is the bird we want. He draws the upper outline of the bird, a side view. The key line of the identification of the quarry against the sky. This took many minutes. He was fatigued. His fellow huntsmen out of camera range tell him: ‘Draw his feet’. He pins them on the end of the tail and is well applauded. The under-side of the bird needs attention. He thickens it but does not seem aware that an under-side outline could be used……
I remember George Lambert’s advice on beginning a portrait, ‘Draw the top silhouette of the head carefully, it is the key to the likeness.’
Watch this lad draw. He is no novice. Fourteen years old, from 400 miles south- west near the Petermann Ranges. He has never seen white man before, nor white-man’s animals. But he knows his lizards.”
Art as Basic Literacy
Murch believed that the ability to draw should be considered a basic literacy -along with reading, writing and arithmetic. He was very serious about geometry and perspective, colour theories of hue and saturation and “tone-zones”.
Murch could be playful – as shown by his stylized fashion and children’s illustration.
He taught “drawing for a purpose” as a commercial artist would.
Some classes like those at the Royal Art Society and the Tech had real live models but for other classes such as the evening colleges, Murch would carry suitcases containing plaster casts – the anatomical man and the Michelangelo lips, noses and eyes – for students to draw. He would usually demonstrate a process and then check on each student’s progress giving encouraging advice. “Good-oh!” was a common expression he used.
David Schlunke recalls: “The memory of Arthur carrying oversized eyes, feet nose, and I think a mouth too, to and from classes wells up vividly. I think Arthur’s method of getting his students drawing big facial features separately; and then putting them together was unique? Or was it?
I remember once John [Arthur’s son] was in need of Arthur’s help in a matter of motor mechanics. As Arthur was walking by, John looked up and asked him: “Can you lend me a hand?” Arthur at that moment was carrying an enormous plaster foot. I still don’t understand why it made me laugh so much.”