Art survey has a contradiction at its heart
THERE’S no shortage of ambition in John McDonald’s projected three-volume survey of the art of Australia. Volume one, traversing Aboriginal prehistory to Federation, comes in at more than 650 pages, promising a total of something close to 2000 pages when the set is completed.
As a contrarian critic, McDonald has constructed a maverick presence in Australian art writing, a quality his publisher promises will make for a narrative that is new, provocative and engaging.
Yet McDonald is burdened by the problem faced by all authors of survey histories. It’s often difficult to see this as his book. To supersede previous surveys ( including those by Bernard Smith, Andrew Sayers, Christopher Allen, and Daniel Thomas), this book’s difference has to be declared. But historical fact is stable and historical interpretation changes slowly: McDonald’s story, in many ways, will be the same as earlier versions.
In such circumstances, there’s not a lot of room for striking shifts in orientation. McDonald’s big statement on the legendary 9 x 5 exhibition — ‘‘ It is no exaggeration to say that the frames were far more innovative than the pictures’’ — is an exaggeration, if only because the demands of the survey see him spend 13 pages on the paintings and one sentence on their frames.
The bare bones of history writing — dates, names, chronology, simple narrative succession — are always in plain view in a survey text. The author’s duty is to plant signposts or, more often, point to existing signposts along a familiar trail.
Once the journey has begun, the momentum allows for fleeting embellishments, but there’s no hiving off on to new paths. The rhythm of the survey text lures the author into a kind of shorthand, as when Smith is at one point gratuitously identified as ‘‘ then a dedicated Marxist pushing 30’’. I say gratuitously in the strictest sense; neither Smith’s age nor political affiliation have anything to do with the matter at hand ( his opinion that Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin never bettered Louis Buvelot). It’s the sort of automated pigeonholing that creeps into the subconscious of the survey writer.
What is new in this story of Australian art reflects the genteel revisionism now common in our public museums. The stature of household names is undisputed, and lesser lights and regional artists are introduced. Doug Hall, when director of the Queensland Art Gallery, once challenged me to name a 19th-century Queens- land artist and I couldn’t, to my momentary shame. Now none of us need cross the street when we see Hall coming, for McDonald has diligently and deliberately broken the stranglehold of Sydney and Melbourne on the national narrative.
Photography is given more attention than in any earlier survey, reflecting recent curatorial interest in it. And, following the lead of his former colleague at the National Gallery of Australia, Roger Butler, McDonald introduces the popular print, especially illustration and caricature, as a lively and quirky colonial language.
As McDonald notes, his role as a newspaper critic has taken him to all the important retrospectives and historical exhibitions. In a subtle sense, the book registers the present mood of museums, curators and collectors. Distilled from scholarly journals, full-scale biographies and recent exhibition catalogues, objectively collated and duly acknowledged, the characteristic tone is