myth The makers
A new book argues 19th- century Australian landscape painting served the interests of the powerful pastoral industry, writes
AUSTRALIA is in the eye of the beholder. Joseph Lycett ( 1775- 1828), convict forger and drunk, also faked Australia. He published in London a set of views based on his own watercolours, and the contrast between his accurate topographical originals and subsequent retail versions is instructive. His Woolloomooloo of 1819 shows a bleached landscape of ragged rocks, ring- barked trees, disorderly scrub and low hills. By 1822 the rocks were svelte, the paddocks lush, a fine weald- like hill had reared up and the trees had morphed into Hampshire’s finest.
Lycett wasn’t alone. Everyone did it. All art may be fiction, but the purpose changes through time. Which is the point of this book.
Painting really mattered in the 19th century. More than 150,000 people visited the National Gallery of Victoria in 1871, when Melbourne’s population was only 207,000. There were only 73 paintings to see. Fine art carried a political, moral and aesthetic weight unimaginable today ( except for Aboriginal art). Jeanette Hoorn, who teaches cinema studies and art history at the University of Melbourne, examines Australia’s rich heritage of landscape painting as it evolved in a highly charged and complex world.
It’s a familiar story. After initial disdain, the British began to imagine Australia as an Arcadiain- waiting, ready to be converted into Georgian estates. But first the land and its people had to submit. Painters could then edit the result to match the ideal.
In 1835 Tasmanian newspaper editor Gilbert Robertson blew the whistle. He slammed Benjamin Duterrau’s proposed painting The Conciliation , which was to depict a saintly G. A. Robinson, Protector of Aborigines, surrounded by grateful blacks. Robinson had simultaneously deported the Aborigines ( to Flinders Island) and salved the colonial conscience. He boasted it was the first time in history that ‘‘ a whole nation has been removed by so mild and humane a policy’’.
Robertson demanded a companion painting that would ‘‘ hand down to posterity the dark history of the extirpation of the wretched proprietors of the soil, which Britain has seized’’. Remarkably, no one stepped forward to paint the pendant. There’s no painting of Robertson either, but then he was a mulatto from Trinidad. History repeats itself in silence.
So the bitter ‘‘ history wars’’ of the past decade go back to the beginning of white time. Until the Bob Hawke years, white armbands always outnumbered the black. John Howard’s patronage has revived the former. But it’s less about history than ritual ideological warfare. Who can deny that Australia has been a great success and that the Aborigines were dispossessed, killed and sickened halfway to extinction and that the land was ravaged? Australian history will always be about the nexus between black and white, ends and means.
Hoorn’s central thesis is that Australian landscape painting served the dominant pastoral industry. There was a lucrative British market for wool, given economies of scale through huge land acquisitions. From the 1820s to the 1950s, wool was the flagship of the Australian economy.
Pastoralism was a wonderful invention, but the road to hell is paved with good inventions. As vast areas of land were taken up, the Aborigines were wiped off or wiped out.
Frank Gillen wrote in the 1890s, ‘‘ pastoralists . . . relegate the Nigger to the barren wastes which are destitute of game and tradition’’. Aborigines were also airbrushed out of the new triumphalist art commissioned by the bunyip aristocracy or reduced to picturesque extras.
Hoorn distinguishes between rural art with labour and rural art without labour. Thus Arthur Streeton is a true pastoral artist while Tom Roberts is the chief celebrant of manly work on the land. Both genres amplify the pastoral myth. Eugene von Guerard empties the sublime landscape of Aborigines to memorialise the squatter, while Roberts’s hearty crews are all strapping Anglos.
The political point is the same: masculine squatters made the hard land productive. God’s will, really, in a Presbyterian sort of way.
In the 20th century the rise of scientific racism and fascism fuelled a vicious reaction against modernism. Establishment artists Elioth Gruner and Hans Heysen, their pastoral views empty and benign, obscured the past. Gatekeepers and critics such as J. S. MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay slashed at every modernist incursion, backed by the declining squattocracy and the
noted art critic Robert Menzies. Keith Murdoch’s blockbuster 1939 exhibition of modern European art was harassed into early closure, but the die was cast. Lindsay’s tirade in Addled Art ( 1942) would have endeared him to Adolf Hitler, as he excoriated the decadence of ‘‘ moron’’ modernists encouraged by ‘‘ Jew dealers’’, but to no avail. The old order was doomed, and with it the art of the pastoral ascendancy.
After World War II, Russell Drysdale exposed the hairy underbelly of pastoral plenty in his stark, almost surreal landscapes of the inland. He populated his pictures with Aborigines and migrants. All so far from 1931 when MacDonald ( infatuated with Streeton) called for the ‘‘ the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories’’ for ‘‘ thoroughbred Aryans’’.
In the 1960s the grand landscapes vanish from Hoorn’s discourse, relegated with contempt to the realm of ‘‘ Sunday painters’’ and ‘‘ Rotary art shows’’. Landscape is thrown out with the squatter. The redemption she offers is ‘‘ a new pastoral image’’: the ritual- land- Dreaming of Aboriginal art. Pastoral has shifted a long way from sheep.
Critics don’t dare criticise Aboriginal art. No matter that most of it is produced on an industrial scale for a ravenous market. No art can retain integrity amid such commercial repetition. But Hoorn, who cheerfully dissects white artists, not only ducks the issue but lambasts the few critics who have dared to dissent. She then lavishes praise on a string of black artists: ‘‘( the late) Paddy Bedford’s brilliant paintings . . . stunning canvases of great simplicity and grandeur’’; ‘‘( Emily) Kngwarreye’s talents were prodigious and her skills phenomenal’’; ‘‘ Ada Bird Petyarre’s colourful landscapes are as arcadian as the most splendid of Streeton’s Hawkesbury paintings’’.
You’ll be castigated if you resist the super- latives, which in turn are a sleight of hand that distracts from the underlying assumption: never mind the art, feel the Dreaming. Questioning the art is tantamount to questioning the artist’s sincerity and, indeed, the Aboriginal cause generally. Double standards. Does the sincerity of Heysen, Septimus Power or ‘‘ Sunday painters’’ protect them from the critic’s lash?
Political correctness cripples both sides in the history wars. Hoorn refers to ‘‘ centuries of management of the land’’ by Aborigines, as though they were rangers in a vast national park. Did Aborigines live in harmony with the land? Hardly. Research suggests that Australia’s megafauna were driven to extinction partly by Aborigines. Aborigines may have been responsible for the spread of canines. Frequent burning of the land, likewise, had deleterious effects. And Hoorn passes over in a moment the appalling degradation of the land caused by European pastoralism, when this fact should be central to any critique of the deceits of pastoralists and their hired painters. Pastoralists as well as Aborigines get off scot- free. Ironically, Streeton was distressed by the ravages of pastoralism. Several of his works show the brutality of forest destruction. Damned hard to sell those pictures.
Although the ‘‘ art as pastoral propaganda’’ thesis is uncontroversial, Hoorn fails to define the varieties, periods and extent of pastoralism. Were the Duracks, Vesteys and Kidmans, with their vast leases in the north, pastoralists of the same ilk as the mock- baronial squatters of Victoria or the Anglo- Indians of Tasmania? Hoorn also does not fully realise that squatters may have been national heroes in their own eyes but were detested by farmers ( for locking up the land) and urbanites ( for their anti- democratic influence) alike. Pastoralism was reinvented after closer settlement in the south. The posturing remained but the acreage shrank. They may have been graziers, but they were left with mere farms. What effect did this have on pastoral art? The moral is that if you rely on a materialist conception of history, get a grip on economics. If you don’t, you’ll be shock- jocked by the white armband commentariat.
This impression of a weak grasp of economic and environmental concepts is accentuated by factual errors. Hoorn says an 1847 work by S. T. Gill shows a white hunter holding aloft the tail of the ‘‘ poor fox’’ killed by his hounds. In fact it’s a dingo tail. Foxes arrived after 1845 and the correct date of the work is 1840- 42. Gill painted many scenes of kangarooing and dog hunts, but none of fox- hunting.
Likewise, while Hoorn rightly rejects the bizarre notion of art historians that droving had all but ceased by the 1880s, she’s wrong to assert that ‘‘ the importance of droving . . . from the 1890s to today can hardly be overestimated’’. Droving is now reduced to tedious heritage events or fodder search in drought.
Worse, von Guerard’s chief patron ( and probably the richest squatter of all) is identified several times as F. G. Dalgetty. F. G. Dalgety founded Dalgety’s, for a century the greatest pastoral house in the country.
This is a book whose intellectual means do not match its ambitions. Still, it’s an intriguing account of the coded messages lurking in art.
Idealised vistas: Eugene von Guerard’s View of Geelong ( c 1856), left; Untitled by Emily Kngwarreye, facing page, top; below, from left, Arthur Streeton’s Land of the Golden Fleece ( 1926), Rabbiters Camp ( 1965) by Russell Drysdale and Joseph Lycett’s Woolloomooloo, the residence of Edward Riley Esq ( c 1822)