Christo­pher Allen ex­plores Aus­tralian sym­bol­ism

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

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

style

of

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

BER­TRAM MACKEN­NAL’S

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

Charles Con­der’s

Hot Wind (1889)

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