Issue Number: 120
Whether seen as a golden land of opportunity, harsh deserted wasteland, or sacred wilderness, Australia’s landscape has always dominated its diverse culture. Here Peter Conrad sets the scene for the Academy’s sweeping survey of Australian art, evoking the spirit of the land that has inspired and challenged its artists
Art, according to the classical theory, is nature perfected or at least ameliorated. Traditionally, artists were trained to idealise, producing stationary crystalline waves like those on which Botticelli’s Venus balances, or trees that, as painted by Fragonard, look as fluffy as cushions. Given such a visual education, it’s easy to imagine what an affront the landscape of Australia must have been to the first Europeans who set eyes on it. Here ragged trees shed bark not leaves, misbegotten marsupials gave birth in unorthodox ways, and the indigenous population seemed still to be living in the Stone Age.
Could it be, as Charles Darwin suspected after visiting Sydney and Hobart in 1836, that there were two creators operating in separate hemispheres – one who conceived the Garden of Eden, the other a fumbler or diabolical parodist who dreamed up Australia’s shaggy flora and bizarre fauna? America had its mind-boggling gulfs – Niagara, the Grand Canyon – but they could be classified as sublime phenomena, awe-inspiring evidence of divine power. Until the explorer Ernest Giles sighted Uluru in 1872, Australia had no such marvels, only the dry jungle of the unkempt bush and, beyond a barricade of mountains, the flat, dull and deadly emptiness of the desert. In 1949 when Kenneth Clark visited what he privately called ‘that intolerable continent’, he had trouble with nomenclature: shuddering in parenthesis, he referred to ‘the Australian countryside (if one can call that inhospitable fringe between sea and desert by such a reassuring name)’.
Eugene von Guérard, 'Bush Fire Between Mt Elephant and Timboon, 1857', 1859. Art Gallery of Ballarat.
Countryside is an accessory to the city; it offers reassurance by giving evidence of human presence, ownership and control. But in Australia the first settlers and generations of their descendants saw only emptiness and menace. They were unaware, of course, that for centuries the people they dispossessed had mapped, mythologized and cared for this land, walking across it, singing about it and painting not only the way it looked but its origins as it was moulded into shape by migratory spirits. For the colonisers, the vacancy they saw out there was convenient. The legal fiction of terra nullius justified the continent’s use as what the Victorian novelist Henry Kingsley called Britain’s ‘cesspool’, where ‘a vast quantity of nameless rubbish’ – he meant the convicts – could be dumped. It also came in handy when Britain tested nuclear weapons in the outback in the 1950s, and it helps to explain the ravaging of nature by mining companies in Western Australia and wood-chippers bulldozing forests in Tasmania.
The penal colony established in 1788 was situated as far as possible from Europe. No-one thought of civilizing or cultivating this waste land, which – in the opinion of Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook – resembled ‘the back of a lean cow’ whose ‘scraggy hip bones’ jutted out, their furry covering worn pathetically thin. America was at least a newfound land; to the first European arrivals, Australia looked dishevelled, decrepit, burned-out. Was it already moribund? In 1906 the geologist John Walter Gregory described central Australia as a ‘dead heart’, a phrase that had lethal consequences for Australian thinking about the land: our country, we were told when I was growing up there in the 1950s, was a corpse. Art can make sense of the world and make us feel at home in it, but the colonists pined for a remote mother country – hence the archetypal Australian story of the child lost in the bush, depicted in Frederick McCubbin’s Lost in 1886 – and preferred instead to look away from their benighted surroundings.
John Glover, 'A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land', 1835. Gift of Lady Currie in memory of her husband , the late Sir Alan Currie , 1948. Art Gallery of South Australia . Morgan Thomas Bequest Fund, 1951.
The first landscape paintings made by Europeans in Australia were therefore modest topographical reports, or an offshoot of the struggle for subsistence. John Lewin’s Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour, painted around 1813, focuses on the edible riches of Sydney Harbour – including a Murray cod (actually a freshwater fish, caught far inland), a mullet and a hammerhead shark. This is a still life, though the eyes of these creatures that were living not long before accuse the viewer with a quizzical or reproachful stare. It’s a reminder that the civilizing process is another name for killing.
In Australia, culture followed agriculture or horticulture. European farming methods failed in the earliest years; My Harvest Home, painted by John Glover in 1835, celebrated a successful crop and for that reason allowed the plains of central Tasmania, described by the artist as ‘a new Beautiful Land’, to be irradiated by a beatific setting sun. Each of the flowers and shrubs planted in strict rows in Glover’s A View of the Artist’s House and Garden in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land (1835) represents art’s small victory over the fertile mayhem of nature. Nothing could have been further from Aboriginal gardening which, rather than coaxing imported species to take root, specialises in locating succulent and sometimes medicinal fruits, nuts and fungi, especially those startled into life by rainstorms or even by fire.
The incongruity remains. Autumn Equinox, The Loss of the Sun (2009) by the contemporary painter Philip Wolfhagen, a transplanted Constable, depicts a corner of northern Tasmania that is a plausible simulation of England, with oaks, elms and hawthorn hedges. But the skeletal relic of a silver birch remains on display in Wolfhagen’s garden: this immigrant withered and died of homesickness.
Australians still call sheep farmers ‘pastoralists’, using a word with a quaint classical pedigree, and Glover’s landscapes are versions of pastoral, proof that a kind of Arcadia could be cultivated in surroundings that initially seemed so inimical. As settlement established a foothold, fear of Australian nature abated, or – for painters at least – became a sensation to be harmlessly cultivated.
Russell Drysdale, 'The Drover’s Wife', c.1945. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra /Gift of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia Inc. New York, NY, USA, made possi ble with the generous support of Mr and Mrs Benno Schmidt of New York and Esperance, Western Australia, 1987/Estate of Russell Drysdale.
Eugene von Guérard, who arrived in Australia in 1852, was relieved to find mountains as impressive as Kosciusko, and in North-East View from the Northern Top of Mount Kosciusko (1863) even set a windblown Caspar David Friedrich wanderer in the foreground with outstretched arm to orchestrate the viewer’s excitement. Meanwhile, a geographer crouches behind a boulder to the side, making barometric readings. Rapture is irrelevant to the serious business of topography, just as art in Australia was for Guérard a second best, a compensation for the failure of another dream: he had travelled from Germany during the Gold Rush, and it was only after failing to strike it lucky at the diggings that he resumed his career as a painter. Guérard’s customers were pastoralists, and from their verandas they wanted to see nature pacified, smoothed into pasture. His Bush Fire Between Mt Elephant and Timboon, 1857, painted in 1859, therefore keeps terror at a distance, prettifying the plumes of reddened smoke that improbably fail to blot out the moon.
Another painter featured in the exhibition, Fred Williams, studied this seasonal Australian peril at closer range a century later, when a runaway fire at Upwey in suburban Melbourne swept past his house in 1968. The experience changed the painter’s attitude to the land: fire, as he saw when he returned to the charred area, was a necessary agent of renewal, which is how the Aborigines used it in their controlled burnings. Among the cinders Williams found a sudden, almost disrespectfully premature resurgence of greenery, like laughter at a funeral.
Indigenous artists have a stark but resignedly tragic understanding of Australia’s extreme weather. Rover Thomas (also known as Joolama) – who painted some of his most ambitious landscapes not on canvas, unavailable in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, but on dismantled tea chests – imagined how the cyclone that demolished Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974 might have looked if seen from high above. The black wedge in Cyclone Tracy (1991) is the river of annihilating wind, fed by speckled tributaries that represent sandstorms, devils of whirling dust. One of Thomas’s relatives was killed by a flood in the cyclone’s aftermath, and his aerial perspective sees the land as a transmigrating spirit might do. It is also the cosmic vantage-point of the meteorological simulations used by weather forecasters on television: mysticism or myth are not, after all, necessarily incompatible with science.
Rover Thomas (Joolama), 'Cyclone Tracy', 1991. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra . Purchased 1991/© the artist’s estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre.
In English paintings of rural estates, the gentry are seen strolling at their ease in fields that are a personal fiefdom. Figures never establish such precedence in the Australian landscape. The dumpy subject in Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife (1945) has separated herself from the brittle, stick-like vegetation and perhaps from the drover, and has her hat on and her bag packed, as if ready to move on. She is a descendant of the battling outback matriarch in Henry Lawson’s story of 1892, also called The Drover’s Wife, who protects her four children in her husband’s absence and, stranded in a hut with ‘bush all around – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat’, kills a poisonous snake that lurks under the floorboards; she rehearses for this feat by fighting a bush fire on her own, wearing her husband’s trousers and thrashing the flames with a green branch.
Drysdale’s woman has no such tasks to perform. In 1971 the novelist Murray Bail wrote a short story – the third great Australian work of art entitled The Drover’s Wife – that speculates about her identity. Bail’s narrator, a timid and narrow-minded dentist, claims to be her real husband, on whom she skittishly walked out. The painting annoys the dentist, because despite its desolation it can’t convey the horror of the bush, with its scorching heat and maddening swarms of flies. He is also not sure whether he is pleased to have discovered the whereabouts of his errant wife. Bail leaves their little drama unresolved, and admits its insignificance: what the narrator calls ‘the rotten landscape’ dominates everything.
John Brack, 'The Car', 1955. Purchased 1976. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
To make the combat with nature more uneven, Sidney Nolan deprived a bushranger of his cover in the bush. In his painting Ned Kelly (1946) Nolan moved the outlaw away from Glenrowan in rural Victoria, where he and his gang went to ground, and placed him on the edge of a desert whose surface is filled in with the harsh, blistery enamel used by house painters – a medium that is another indication that the artist in Australia is an artisan, not an aesthete. Nolan’s Kelly is a tersely symbolic demonstration of what it takes to survive in Australia. The outlaw has metallised himself, disappearing into his home-made iron armour; there’s an aperture for his eyes, but no head is visible. When the impervious skin of metal runs out just below the waist, no legs are visible either. At that point he merges with his horse, like a centaur whose upper half is mechanised not human, so it remains unclear whether the tail belongs to his mount or is a tassel added to the armour. Like a down-under Don Quixote he rides into a distance where he will surely perish, as the explorers of central Australia mostly did, and the rifle he carries at a diagonal angle is aimed at a cloud, not the police – unless, of course, what seems to be a cloud is actually smoke discharged from the rifle, which would turn the painting into Ned’s paranoid dream of Australia, a mental space that exists only inside his spectrally empty helmet.
Elsewhere in the Royal Academy show that helmet, with its rectangular opening, turns into the windscreen of a car, the picture frame with which suburbanised Australians separate themselves from the landscape: hence the nuclear family on an outing in John Brack’s sharply satirical The Car (1955), or Wesley Stacey’s photographs of long, dusty road trips between the cities (1973-75). Conversely, in Shaun Gladwell’s video Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007) the motorcyclist appears to embrace the desert before him with outstretched arms.
Watch: A clip from Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi Mundi
The man Max Dupain photographed on the beach in Sunbaker (1937) has a more relaxed attitude to nature than Ned Kelly, who maintains his guard with his gun. The photograph was taken a year after the Olympic Games in Berlin staged a eugenic festival of physical health and vigour, admiringly recorded by Hitler’s pet film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. Dupain was attracted to this cult of the body, but he knew that Australia was no place for heroic posturing. His figure lies face down, disarmed not domineering, asleep on the sand. The soporific stillness of the image suggests that the man has been there long enough to merge with the ground, and the low, almost subterranean angle chosen by Dupain gives his head and shoulders – if you let your gaze go slightly out of focus – the profile of Uluru dozing in the desert. He buries his head in an act of prostrate homage to the earth, just as the head of Nolan’s Ned is invaded by the sky. It’s significant that Dupain’s title specifies that the figure is baking, not bathing, in the sun: his flesh will soon enough be terracotta.
The source of the light and heat that he basks in will also be on view on a ceiling at the Royal Academy, in John Olsen’s painting Sydney Sun (1965) – a vast panorama of a molten sky that would be dangerous to look at directly, with the sun as a bubbling orange octopus that sends out rays like writhing tentacles. Here, in this explosion of radiance, is another of Australia’s myths of origin, which at the same time celebrates the origins of painting, the heliocentric art practised by those who worship light.
Max Dupain, 'Sunbaker', 1937. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
‘Nature creates culture: geography rules,’ Daniel Thomas bluntly declares in the catalogue for the RA exhibition. Is Australia, even with what Thomas calls ‘the world’s poorest soils and most erratic climate’, merely the helpless subject or slave of geography? History has surely altered the terrain and made it habitable, in different ways for the oldest inhabitants and the newer arrivals.
The Aboriginal people follow their songlines, tracks that trace dreams and lead backwards to the moment of creation; the white usurpers travel straight ahead on highways of Tarmac like that which races across the treeless Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Perth. The ancestors have their sacred monolith at Uluru, which at sunset looks like the earth before it was kneaded into shape. The newcomers have constructed a monument on Sydney Harbour that is not quite fit for its purpose as an opera house but serves as a stimulus to flighty poetic metaphors: is it a mound of shells, a flotilla of yachts with billowing sails, an orgiastic scrum of mating turtles, or a stack of white dishes drying on a kitchen sink? Despite their incompatibility, there is room in Australia for both the occult rock and the ceramic ornament.
This oldest, youngest continent is the site for a confrontation and possibly a reconciliation between two opposed world views, systems of belief that carry with them theories of how we should treat nature and why we need art. Restless Western progress clashes here with a contemplative wisdom that used to be called Eastern or Oriental but that now, in the age of the Asian tiger economies, should probably be called Antipodean. One culture exploits the land, the other seeks accommodation with it. One kind of art supersedes reality by making a replica of it; the other grows or dies into that reality, like the images of totemic animals made with earth pigments on eucalyptus bark and on rocks in the Northern Territory, or the hollowed, decorated tree trunks containing powdery ancestral bones that are placed in the bush where, like biodegradable sculptures, they patiently wait to decompose.
During the autumn, this aesthetic, ecological and metaphysical dispute will rage through the RA’s galleries – an argument about how the world began, what rights we have in it, and whether our conduct may be hastening its end.