THE FULL PICTURE
ART history and criticism as we know them began with the tradition of artists’ biographies founded by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century and developed by his successors, including Gian Pietro Bellori in Italy and Andre Felibien in the north. Because the biographical genre included a critical assessment of the artist’s character and work, Vasari generally avoided writing about individuals who were still alive — though he made an exception for Michelangelo in the first edition and Titian in the second — and this became a convention followed by his successors during the next couple of centuries.
Gradually, critical writing about the work of living artists developed into a separate genre. Diderot, contributing to a private newsletter in the late 18th century, was a precursor, but it was really the combination of large public exhibitions as the occasion with the new vehicle of daily newspapers that allowed it to explode in the 19th century. Art history, too, began to transcend the limits of individual biography and consider broader movements of culture and civilisation, reflecting the wider intellectual concerns of the time: in the wake of Hegel and other thinkers of the romantic period, history was no longer simply an account of contingent events, but the manifestation of a people’s ethos or even the unfolding of a cosmic destiny.
Marxist historians were the heirs to the cosmic destiny model, adapted as a theory of historical necessity based on economic and social development. Individuals, in all such accounts, are less important than their social categories, classes and affiliations. The later 20th century, however, witnessed an enthusiastic renewal of artists’ biographies, often in several volumes, revelling in intimate details that once were glossed over.
No doubt this interest in microscopic biography is symptomatic of the way art and artists are thought of today: in a world of extreme conformity, art has become a kind of escapist game where the most gratuitous and ostensibly shocking gestures are valued as an inversion of the utilitarian constraints of real life. The artist, too, is fetishised as a symbol of freedom in a world of economic servitude. Hence many intelligent readers are genuinely interested in wading through the most minute accounts of the life of such modern legends as Picasso.
The question one has to ask, of course, is how much this kind of information contributes to understanding what the work means, and in the end it is only the work, and the ideas crystallised within it, that matters. Ultimately, an excessive emphasis on the artist’s life represents a form of the intentional fallacy, the mistaken assumption that what an artist says about their work — what they claims it means, or even what they wanted it to mean — is a reliable basis for determining its meaning. The truth is none of us fully knows the sense of everything we do or think; and the situation is exacerbated for the artist, who operates at intuitive and imaginative levels partly at least below the radar of rational self-consciousness.
But although exhaustive biographies may be of questionable value, some biographical information is desirable. Knowing an artist’s dates allows us to situate them in history and distinguish the production of youth from that of old age. Further information may cast light on character and aesthetic choices, and reveal his connection to the social circumstances of the time. This is true, for example, of John Lewin (1770-1819), whose oeuvre and career are properly studied for the first time in an outstanding exhibition and book by Richard Neville, Mitchell librarian at the State Library of NSW.
Even for those who know something about early Australian art, Lewin is likely to be summed up by calling him the first professional artist to come to Australia as a free man, thus distinguishing him from such convict painters as Joseph Lycett. As for the work, we may know him as a painter of birds and flowers who occasionally did landscapes, and who painted, in a lecture, a picture of kangaroos that makes a telling comparison with one the great Stubbs had executed from a stuffed specimen brought back from James Cook’s first voyage.
Neville has restored a full picture of a man and his time, including his artistic formation, his relations with contemporaries, and his patronage within the still very small social world of the new colony and the related question of his status within that milieu, dramatically divided as it was between convicts, free settlers of various ranks and those who considered themselves gentlemen. And he allows us to understand both Lewin’s gifts and his limitations as an artist.
Lewin was the son of a natural history illustrator who enjoyed some success, although not the standing of a real scientist, a pattern repeated to some extent in John’s life. His father seems to have been his first teacher, and the exhibition includes a selection of books illustrated by William, with fine images of various creatures, from birds to moths and their grubs. On some of these he may have been assisted by his son, who was still very young. After William’s death in 1795, John emigrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1800.
It is not surprising that a young man with this background, seeking to pursue his career and keen to work from better specimens than desiccated ones brought back to Britain from the colonies, should have thought of travelling to New Holland, as it was still known.
The colony was in its infancy and Sydney Town still consisted of a few buildings clustered around Sydney Harbour, the first ever erected on the continent. But for a naturalist, Australia represented an extraordinary source of new and unpublished material.
Natural history was the passion of the later 18th century, as the focus of scientific research moved from the fields of physics, mechanics, optics and astronomy that had been revolutionised in the 17th century to the investigation of the living world, an orientation that would soon lead to the momentous discoveries of evolution and
John Lewin’s 1817 painting, Male & Female Red Kangaroo, is a prime example of his art
Lewin’s Platypus (1810) seems about to slip into the water