Jun '04 [Home]


Images of the Antipodes

by Patrick Henry

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Art in Australia has many influences from Europe, but in surprising forms and amended by reversals that can sardonically overturn the sense of responsibility about matters here that refer to the Old World. Many creations do not refer to this at all, the ancient rock paintings, and the present-day Aborigine canvasses. All outstanding painters in Australia seek to establish how and why they are living and creating in this remote area, but by highly differing routes.

At Ballarat in Victoria state, a kind of moving work of art occurs at Sovereign Hill, site of a nineteenth-century goldmine which grew into a township enduring today in a strange sense. Citizens clothed in old-fashioned dress using period-style buildings and horse-drawn vehicles effect a living museum where the mine with traditional practises and accoutrements, still actually produces gold, smelted right here before the eyes of visitors. Elsewhere across the city, another museum commemorates the site and the history of Eureka Stockade. In 1854, gold-diggers dissatisfied about their rights and protection built a fort to defy troops and police until overrun and defeated.

In Ballarat's main city art museum, an exhibition of the late Sidney Nolan's (1917-1992) early paintings showed his primitive period style of dealing with experiences living at Wimerra, in the South Australian outback. In the guestbook someone had written, "This is rubbish. A child could have done this." Underneath I wrote that indeed a child could have, but not many adults would have achieved this freshness of touch and sublime approach comparable to that of Picasso.

Among various places where Nolan is exhibited in Melbourne, the reserve Bank in Collins Street holds his huge mural depicting the Eureka Stockade siege, executed in white jewellery enamel on red copper sheets. Its magnificent effect should leave no doubt of the great ability of the artist, although the quirkiness of the figuration might not please everyone. The art of an Australian painter often features impish humour, interwoven with tragedy, grandeur, mystery and social dissent.

Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), another son of Victoria state, shows an astonishing fusion of these constituents. Many large canvasses in the Melbourne Theatre and Concert Hall foyer find wildlife and wild places of the country assuming the air of a fantasy planet mingled with a bleak, arid reality. At The Victoria Art Gallery in Federation Square, Boyd's picture of Nebuchanezzar encountering a lion in a thunderstorm is one of several devoted to this personage to be found at various galleries nationwide. The method seems like a move onward from Abstract Impressionism, the sense of it being an extraordinary surmise of the menace and comedy inherent in this desert country as a remote reflection upon the wider historical world.

In Sydney, The Art Gallery of New South Wales holds a huge tapestry by Sidney Nolan of the outlaw Ned Kelly, wearing armour and a masked helmet, and mounted on a horse that looks comically startled. The use of simple, bright tapestry threads to create this vast iconic piece gives an ironic contrast of power and menace, and the gentle, homely medium of tapestry, a wry touch being very much Australian.

Melbourne Town Jail has in waxwork a chillingly realistic depiction of the hanging of Ned Kelly. The place also preserves the cells and death-masks of many more executed criminals, some being Chinese ex-goldminers. The whole place is a macabre work of art in itself.

Brett Whiteley's (1939-1982) studio in an old tobacco factory in Sydney is open to visitors and gives witness to the brilliance and confusion of that late artist. First deeply attracted to Abstract Impressionism, he lived in New York in a phase of personal complexity and addictions. Later he became drawn to the work of Francis Bacon, and he also created pictures of the intense poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

Italian visits brought about Whitely's absorption in Renaissance religious painting, and the Crucifixion series he created is represented here in the old studio. Tall, stark, iconic shapes haunted his work, such as figures of wild birds. This place was also his home, graffiti and poems on the walls, everywhere evidence of his sharp abilities and techniques and passionate influences which perhaps never focussed into a perfect style and achievement. Raw, awkward, ironic mixtures, as in Nolan and Boyd, bedevil the Australian artist, never to be neat, consistent or conclusive.

In Sydney, a bank foyer held a show of new paintings, which didn't keep my attention for long. I disliked those works: too bright and facile for my taste. In a nearby café, a man sitting opposite spoke to me, saying he had seen me at his show. He had painted them to take people's thoughts away from trouble to the promise of a better future. I supposed that was what repelled me; escape to easier answers was not my style. I told him I painted also, and showed him some photos of work. It was fine, he said, that I carried out what I saw, the hard, awkward starkness of the world, delving into difficulties and bizarre places, but that did not solve matters of belief and meaning in life, only belief itself did so.

He was a believer, a New Christian. He could help me who was a stranger here, and lost in the world, he could discern. Had I thought of Christ in my life, for he had died for me, did I know? I thought of the crucifixions in the work of Whiteley and Boyd, and all the images of Biblical threat and destruction there, and in the pictures of Nolan, visions of outrage and lawlessness, the world at the end of its tether. Power of art was a belief for me, perhaps an obsession, through which hope and meaning could be reached. I had come to stay in Australia and paint here and be with the lady I loved, but she soon had passed away and nearly all my hopes with her. Now I travelled the whole country restlessly, looking at images of every kind, working out a sense I no longer found in actuality.

The Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane held a retrospective of Jeffrey Smart's (b. 1921) paintings, reminiscent of Edward Hopper, cityscapes almost realistic but with a hint of surrealism: people and domestic settings caught in a bright yet stark urban wilderness to bewilder the senses into asking how and why one should be there. An ad-hoarding is corrugated tin where a pasted-on poster of the Mona Lisa wrinkles across it roughly, yet retains the perfect, enigmatic smile. [Image: Final Study for the Rome Metro]

In the Northern Territory at Kakadu, Ubirr Rock is called a picture gallery, about the oldest on earth, rock paintings from 3o,ooo years ago alongside more recent native works depicting the arrivals of white explorers, their ships, their guns and devastations. Here the whole extent of human life seems to fill images all in one place; culture amid savagery where crocodiles glide through swamplands of brilliant water-lilies.

Alice Springs at the centre of the continent has much Aborigine art work, the contemporary style that weaves accomplished figurations and techniques which carry on the essence and the spirits of the past. Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) was a native who instead made watercolours in a more European landscape style, yet captured the unique aspect of this land and its remote beauty. His work can be seen in a strange gallery here called the Guth Panorama. Henk Guth, a Dutchman, lived here most of his life and produced many paintings which never seemed to properly grasp the shapes and colours of his adopted country, but commercially he succeeded and made this odd, 360-degree panoramic model of the town within his rambling gallery. He died only recently and arranged to be buried out in the bushland that his images never quite made to live.

Namatjira died nearly fifty years ago and his grave in the town cemetery is a modest but sublime piece of sculptural work in its own right.

Hermannsburg, an old German mission for Aborigines a few miles from here, keeps its old shape, style and atmosphere, and shows paintings by Namatjira and his followers who carried on that landscape style, blending a sense of European finesse with the strong raw zeal of the native character and his sense of the spirits enduring in this place.

The vast, jumbled continent everywhere gives a sense of evolution that has far to go, but much to look back upon, and where the artist is always a frontier mixture of tough prospector and dreaming spirit, aiming to abstract or to personify the role of each human being caught in this harsh terrain.

Patrick Henry is contributing editor (UK). In mid-August, he arrives in southern Albany County for a month-long artist residency with The Author's Watermark.