Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Tree by Arthur Boyd

Arthur Boyd

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream of the Tree, 1969, Oil on canvas, 174.5 x 183 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; The Arthur Boyd gift, 1975, NGA 1975.3.95, Photo: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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The Ground of Rebirth

Commentary by

William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar was the initial inspiration for Australian artist Arthur Boyd’s series of Nebuchadnezzar paintings. Boyd viewed Nebuchadnezzar’s weakness as being his desire ‘to possess everything’ (Bungey 2000: 434). This may have reflected a degree of self-awareness in Boyd, for whom this series became an obsession as he sourced all the information he could on Nebuchadnezzar and ‘tore into the paint with a fury, his hands over the canvas like a concert pianist deprived too long of his grand piano’ (Bungey 2000: 426).  

Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of the Tree is a calm work within this wild series. If Boyd’s expressionistic use of paint across the more than seventy paintings in the series mirrors the violence with which Nebuchadnezzar’s reason unravels, then this particular work modulates into a different emotional key as his reason returns. 

In the biblical text, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree was the catalyst for his eventual descent into distress (Daniel 4:10–17). Daniel interpreted the Great Tree in the king’s dream as Nebuchadnezzar himself. Having grown too great in power and pride, he was to be driven away from people to live with the wild animals (Daniel 4:20–27). 

By setting the vision of the tree in the outback, however, Boyd relocates the dream to a point in the story after Nebuchadnezzar’s banishment to the wilderness, at the end of his distress. Nebuchadnezzar is shown as a semi-translucent, recumbent figure from whose groin the tree grows until it touches the line of the horizon. When, in his pride, Nebuchadnezzar created an image of gold, he required others to abase themselves on the ground before the image standing above them. Here, however, in a sign of new-found humility, it is Nebuchadnezzar himself who is on the ground. No longer in a position of dominance, he is the soil from which new life is growing.

The king is now ready to return to the seat of power with a new-found humility, giving a fertility and fruitfulness to the latter part of his reign. Australian musician Chris Latham, who directed Invocations: Eight meditations on paintings by Arthur Boyd at the National Gallery of Australia in 2014, notes that here ‘we have the archetypal “tree of life” growing out of Nebuchadnezzar's decrepit form, a deeply moving image of renewal, replenishment and rebirth’ (2014).

 

References

Bungey, Darleen. 2000. Arthur Boyd: A Life (Sydney: Allen & Unwin)

Latham, Chris. 2014. ‘Chris Latham's Invocations puts Arthur Boyd's National Gallery paintings to music, 24 October 2014’, www.smh.com.au [accessed 5 July 2019] 


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