Christopher Allen explores Australian symbolism
THE thinking of another time can be hard to understand — ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable — but the tone and sensibility that make those ideas possible is even more mysterious. It is what we intuit, between the lines, in poems, novels or films of the past, as though each time glimpsing another facet of the potential range of human experience; and it is the only way to escape from the unthinking naturalisation of the particular sensibility of our own time, to understand it with critical perspective.
If there is one thing that characterises our present experience, it is the dematerialisation of the world into digital imagery. The massproduction and manipulation of images accelerated throughout the 20th century, but the revolution of the internet, in the past couple of decades, has transformed our relation to images. The static pictures of billboards and advertising have been replaced with evermoving, ever-changing ones on screens that we conjure up and dismiss at the touch of a button.
The interactivity of the contemporary image economy essentially has made it far more absorbing and even addictive than ever. In numerous domains, from war to sex and including what is known, with unintentionally Orwellian irony, as social media, individuals are drawn into a world of illusion and isolation that undoubtedly has consequences for their experience of the real world — that is, one in which the subject interacts with other people and material objects instead of phantoms that obey his own narcissistic whim.
The 19th century, in contrast, was a singularly material and concrete period. The industrial revolution was rapidly transforming the setting of human life, with growing cities, factories, vast residential quarters and railways carrying the population to their places of work. The signs of material progress were everywhere: scientific knowledge became the touchstone of philosophical thinking for the positivists, while Marx believed that economic and technological development were the real motors of history.
A certain materialistic weight seemed to spread to every part of Victorian culture: architecture and interior design became heavy with ornament, rooms dense and cluttered. Men grew long beards like Old Testament patriarchs; women were dressed in extravagant bustles that concealed their figures; social life lost the aristocratic playfulness of the 18th century and became stuffy with bourgeois respectability.
Even the literary
the time grew
the most turgid prose in the history of English literature.
It was against this pervasive materialism that Baudelaire protested — from his famous defence of imagination as the ‘‘ queen of faculties’’, which allows us to see the ‘‘ heroism of modern life’’ through its banal exterior, to the less well-known observation in one of his notebooks, that true civilisation does not consist in railways and gas lighting but in the reduction of the traces of original sin in the heart of man.
Baudelaire’s claims for the imagination and for an anti-materialistic vision of life were given expression in the movement known as symbolism. It appears at the end of the 19th century, partly coinciding with the movements of art nouveau, aestheticism and decadence, as a late form of romanticism which is also a manifestation of modernism. In some cases — with authors such as Lautreamont — it anticipates the surrealists in their revolt against rationality and materialism. In art, the style broadly encompasses painters such as Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, different though each of these is from the others.
The symbolist tendency in Australian art, which is surveyed properly for the first time in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, manifested itself in a range of forms, including paintings, drawing and some striking sculpture. It has tended, however, to be overshadowed by the contemporary and more important Heidelberg movement, with painters such as Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Fred McCubbin, who were, for the most part, preoccupied with the material and physical conditions of life in Australia and the protonationalist question of making a home in this new environment.
But the opposition between Heidelberg and symbolism is more apparent than real.
Although the basis of the Heidelberg style derives from French realism and British pleinairism, it is significantly inflected by Whistler and aestheticism, with its distinctively subjective, self-conscious and moody sensibility. The AGNSW exhibition, indeed, reminds us that these familiar figures of Australian art have a less familiar and more mysterious side.
The aesthetic or Whistlerian tendency in the Heidelberg style can be detected in colour schemes and elsewhere but is particularly evident in the stylised, almost calligraphic treatment of branches and leaves in the foreground of well-known pictures such as Roberts’s Artists’ Camp (1886) or A Summer Morning’s Tiff (1886), although neither of these works is in the present show. The aesthetic strand was like a recessive gene in the make-up of the style, unobtrusively present in the strongest works of the main period of the movement, from 1885 to 1895, but prone to emerging in minor or later pictures, such as those included here.
From the beginning, too, the Heidelberg artists paint the occasional moonlit scene, which is like the reverse or complementary opposite of the daytime subjects, brightly illuminated by a sunlight that comes to epitomise the Australian experience. If the daytime scenes evoke the public dimension of life in Australia, the evening, moonlit scenes allow for the expression of more private and intimate moments, as in Streeton’s Above Us the Great Grave Sky (1890).
IN the late phase of Heidelberg and about the period of Federation, many more afternoons, evenings and nights seem to turn up in Australian art. Moonlit scenes and moonrises appear in a surprising proportion of the later works in the exhibition, from David Davies to Charles Conder and Sydney Long, almost as a shorthand sign that the artist is dealing with an inner, imaginative realm as distinct from the outer, objective and material world: the nocturnal landscape lit by the moon is par excellence the scene of dreams or at least of reverie.
This imaginative world, unlike the diurnal and naturalistic one, is often filled with dream figures, allegories and mythological characters. Streeton has a strange and evocative little picture called A Bush Idyll (1896) in which five naked girls dance around in a bushland clearing. The title alludes to the bucolic tradition of Virgil and, still earlier, Theocritus — it was his poems that were first called idylls — but the presence only of female figures is atypical of the genre, which is more often concerned, whether in its literary or pictorial form, with love. No doubt a Victorian audience could accept five naked girls much more readily if there were no naked boys
CIRCE IS MORE IMPRESSIVELY INSTALLED THAN I HAVE EVER SEEN HER, REACHING OUT TOWARDS US IN A GESTURE OF ENCHANTMENT
Arthur Loureiro’s Study for the Spirit of the
New Moon (1888), above; Sydney Long’s Pan (1898), below
Hot Wind (1889)