myth The mak­ers

A new book ar­gues 19th- cen­tury Aus­tralian land­scape paint­ing served the in­ter­ests of the pow­er­ful pas­toral in­dus­try, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Aus­tralian Pas­toral: The Mak­ing of a White Land­scape By Jeanette Hoorn Fre­man­tle Press, 303pp. $ 29.95 Frank Camp­bell

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)

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