___________ Sybil Curtis :: Pretty analytical ____________

Explore artist Sybil Curtis’s inspirational art from the Antarctic! Observe the built environments, ethereality & desolation through the imaginative lens of the artist.


With a predilection for industrial imagery*, upon spying Midnight at Scott Base I was mesmerised by the powerful reductive mix of abstraction and realism – these aspects together with a potent celestial light suggest a sense of mysterious desolation.


Generally, these paintings convey so much with apparently so little: not least in Midnight, an atmosphere of ‘something’ impending.
Midnight at Scott Base (New Zealand), 2018, oil on linen, 100 x 100cm
It might have been midnight in the Antarctic but a soft pink hue, the ascending viewpoint, and strident cloud formation imply an awakening or an unbidden welcome realisation.

These details in the main image promptly brought to mind the work of Caspar David Friedrich (German 1774 – 1840) an artist prominent during the Romantic period.

Friedrich’s underlying motivation lay with a belief in God’s all-encompassing presence made manifest in the infinite power, beauty and sublimity of the landscape.

A cathartic consciousness of the enormity and grandeur of nature is present in Friederich’s major works, in which man is but a spec within God’s magnificent creation.

Similarly (yet for different reasons) the observer is left in no doubt that the creator found this landscape beautifully intricate, mysterious and powerful. 
Midnight succinctly encapsulates what motivated the artist in this strange land. 


A Hostile World (McMurdo Station USA), 2017, oil on linen, 150 x 480cm
The Entomologist

Curtis began working life by studying Entomology at Queensland University.  From the study of Entomology followed some eight years as a scientific illustrator. (1)

Entomology is the study of insects and their relationship to humans, the environment, and other organisms…entomologists are interested in insects because of the beauty and diversity of these creatures.

As an Entomologist and illustrator Curtis did the hard yards copying nature – thus, on some level, technical aspects can be taken for granted. Conceding that capturing a likeness of the Antarctic’s unparalleled environment is important, it is not the force driving motivation.

The inclination lies in harnessing the plethora of skills at her disposal in the production of a captivating picture. Essential to that is the illustration of light with the artist acknowledging,

The light in the Antarctic is pretty astonishing!
There is a delicate balance between representation, abstraction and that which is important to project. Certainly, immediate observation is captured by both the gritty severity and the peculiar light portrayed from within a personal and undeniable signature.  
Ultimately presented are works in which internal aesthetic issues have reached a resolution, oxymoronically projecting quiet mercurial resonances.
Against the Cliff (McMurdo Station, USA), 2018, oil on linen, 35 x 35cm

A glance through the creator’s oeuvre demonstrates the skill to conscientiously copy the landscape had she so desired, however, here the images exhibit a combination of the composer’s feeling for the landscape which includes a sense of potential exigency as part of negotiating this landscape.  

A physical and emotional place far removed from humankind’s sensibilities in everyday life.
Hitherto unknown and distant landscapes are brought to attention as well as the beauty of uniquely personal impulses in response to those landscapes.


Beauty and diversity: another context

Pancake Ice, (Ross Sea), 2018, oil on linen, 35 x 35cm
The beauty and diversity of geographic nature are qualities that are immediately discernable in this group of paintings, both generally and in the minutiae.  Moreover, there exists a preference for demarcating the composition into three horizontals, which makes them appear balanced – infused with visual harmony.  Curtis says,
“A painting should stand up at every distance”
The horizontals conform to a differentiated foreground, middle ground and far distance which accounts for, in part, the above quote and adds to the pleasing visuals. 
The landscape is abstracted (not truthfully recorded) and as such, the poetic and esoteric nature of the snowfields has been deftly captured, enhanced and imparted.

While the 19th century is replete with art movements, the Symbolists progressed naturally from Romanticism(4) because, in part, they reacted against the rationalism and materialism which had come to dominate mid-19th century Europe.  

Stéphane Mallarmé commented …reality was best expressed through poetry because it paralleled nature rather than replicating it…suggestion, that is the dream. 

So that everpresent in this group is the feeling for risk and danger ‘as fingers interlaced’ with immersion in the overwhelming beauty of the landscape. Immersion inevitably synthesised to the awakening of self-knowledge as an artist and person.

From a poetic viewpoint, Curtis is able to see beyond the obvious imbuing the work with ethereal sensations; this is especially evident not only in the interpretation of light but also in the austere or economic mark making. These aspects interlock with the splendour, allure and unknown of the Antarctic where ultimately man is powerless, life is fragile and conceivably finite. The inhospitable is brought into stark relief: the status quo a relatively fluid notion within the vicissitudes of climate and changing conditions in this remote land. (2)

During the Romantic period: While some artists emphasized humans at one with and a part of nature, others portrayed nature’s power and unpredictability, evoking a feeling of the sublime – awe mixed with terror – in the viewer.  

Fuel Tanks and
Snow (NZ Scott Base), 2017, oil
on linen, 35 x 35cm

Midnight at Scott Base is a demonstration of opposing qualities. The rocky foreground is specially charged with an agitated, ominous life of its own.  This quality adds forcibly to the uncongenial and potentially compromised nature of habitation in the Antarctic, yet purposefully celebrates the rare natural beauty. 

Whether consciously or not, at times a certain ambivalence is discernable in the titles and subject matter, Fuel Tanks, for example, offers by inference both the potential for and connotative implication of spills from dangerous substances stored in this pristine world.  Contiguously, it makes us consider whether respective governments have thoroughly considered the implications in the race by nations to stake their claim in the Antarctic? Calamities like an oil or fuel spill, for example, would / could have catastrophic consequences on the wildlife in this relatively untouched world.  


Art and science are immersed in my brain!


Designed for the Conditions (South Korean Base), 2018, oil on linen, 35 x 35cm
The powerful sense of ‘awakening’ implicit in Midnight dovetails to another aspect of these pictures which is both self-evident and elucidating, and that is as an artist, Curtis is the first person to view the Antarctic landscape in this way. 
These are precisely her impressions of what she saw and how she saw it. In this context ‘the seeing’ is intricately tied to ‘the feeling’ of the landscape.  In this extraordinary world, the two senses cannot be separated: one reason is that all senses are on high alert.(3)
Indeed, the first and last person to see the Antarctic in the way it was viewed ‘at that point in time’. 
Importantly, between the camera and the painting, poetic licence has intervened. They are each a ‘one-off’ image captured singularly through the artist’s vivid imagination: both scientific and artistic.

By highlighting the incongruity and peculiarities of the buildings within this remote context additionally means witnessing artworks that frame ‘never seen before’ personal realities. 

Furthermore, in the May Space interview Curtis said laconically: she

“…hopes to change peoples perceptions of industrial sites…there is something intrinsically interesting about them”


New Zealand is Green (NZ Scott Base), 2018, oil on linen, 100 x 100cm


A Midsummers Night (NZ Scott Base), 2018, oil on linen, 90 x 120cm
Irrespective, the individual oeuvre captivates the writer because there is a tension between the comprehensive detail of some aspects, the flat plane and the detail denied which speaks to the visionary viewpoint through which a personal and professional reality is transcribed. 

The ebbs and flows of patches of paint and geometric forms create multiple points of interest and focus. In New Zealand is Green the distinct architectural design and details of the building, with the subject wedged between the plane and Mt Erebus, proposes both ‘important activities’ taking place within (based intrinsically on the surrounding landscape), and the unintelligibility of that work to the layperson. A factor contributing to the pervasive sense of intrigue.

It is easy to imagine a person ascending the staircase and taking the walkway to the darker green door to conduct these activities: this view is supported by the shadow which effectively parallels the walkway, terminating finally at the door.

Implicit likewise is the general incongruity and desolation of habitation in the Antarctic: the type of material presented in uncommon light conditions puts the viewer in no doubt that becoming isolated in the bleak outdoors for any length of time could / would be a frightening prospect.

One wonders whether Shakespearian ghosts readily accompanied a walk through this unreal, somewhat unearthly landscape, as the title denotes and light connotes.


If I had an influence it would be the Japanese wood cut artists!


The rediscovery of Japanese art and design had an almost incalculable effect on Western art. The development of modern painting from Impressionism was profoundly affected by the flatness, brilliant colour, and high degree of stylisation, combined with realist subject matter, of Japanese woodcut prints.


Throughout the latter part of the 19th century in the West generally, Japanese culture was highly sought!
Sensing What We Cannot See (South Korean Base, Mount Erebus), 2018, 35 x 35cm

Following the opening of Japan’s economy (closed from c1633) by the American Navy’s arrival in 1852, Japonisme as it was termed by Frenchman Phillipe Burty in the early 1870s, subsequently spread like wildfire across Europe and the West.  

An element that emerges in the Japanese woodcut tradition is the often spartan nature of the imagery, where the subject is reduced to bold, flat form (subtracting unnecessary detail to emphasise a few prominent elements), diminishing distance and a network of few colours. These are qualities immediately perceived and obvious in Curtis’s work.

“I see them like a patch work quilt, that means flat colours”


Scott Never Had It So Good (NZ Scott Base), 2018, oil on linen, 35 x 35cm

Drawn to exacting form, flat portions of paint and little tonal shading, the huts stand out from the background, which although requiring a different technique, is flat nevertheless.  The three-dimensional aspect comes from the demarcation of distance, on one hand, flat shadows as necessary, and the details added to the major forms to indicate three-dimensionality on the other. For example, in Scott Never Had It So Good there are differing heights, a small wedge of ‘pale green’ recedes in the centre, a ladder, flags, stairway, and accroutrement attached to the buildings and foundations etc.

Foregrounded is the arcane physical presence of the building’s style and odd particulars, in conjunction with developing a psychological reference to the harsh desolation and the primeval quality permeating the land.

Another of the great Romantic artists, Eugene Delacroix said,

The source of genius is imagination alone, the refinement of the senses that sees what others do not see, or sees them differently. 


The inherent beguiling mystery imbues the paintings with flexible tension – pulling the viewer to consider and appreciate the obscure buildings and the Antarctic as enigmatic reality: the artist demonstrating at once (visually, technically and authoritatively), the unsettling potential of danger within the quiet saturated beauty. 




Sybil Curtis (Australia QLD: 1943 – ), From light to darkness, 1990, Oil on canvas. 120 x 180cm, Collection QAGOMA

Sybil Curtis’s work is featured in many public collections, including Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art: QAGOMA

Queensland University of Technology: QUT 

Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery & Museum

Gladstone Regional Art Gallery

Sybil Curtis is represented by May Space, Sydney


*See liberal eclectic Talk about a picture

All quotes within parentheses from May Space Interview with Sybil Curtis

All other quotes from liberal eclectic interview with the artist October 2020

(1) Interview with May Space

(2) Curtis actually went to the Antartic in 2019, but the ship was unable to make landfall. In her words, The first trip was to Ross Sea and we managed to make landfall at almost all the scheduled places. The second trip was to go to East Antarctica particularly calling at Mawson one of the Australian bases.  With global warming, the glaciers are melting more quickly and calving to produce giant icebergs. The icebergs had formed a partial barrier behind which the winter sea ice was trapped. Paradoxically, warming had resulted in an increase in ice bergs and sea ice and without an ice-breaker it was impossible to penetrate. We had lot of good views of icebergs but failed to see the land.

(3) Interview with the artist Oct 2020

(4) Romanticism was a revolt against the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment (a type of slipstream from the fervour of the French Revolution), and also a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism legitimized the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom from classical notions of form in art. Romanticism was also influenced by Sturm und Drang, a German Counter-Enlightenment movement that emphasized subjectivity and intense emotion.

Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive inquiry into Sybil Curtis’s work: much more could be said beyond the focus here.

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