Of suc­cess

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

im­age. They ig­nored the pub­lic­ity ma­chine and avoided the trap that age­ing artists are fre­quently snared in: the im­pulse to bur­nish their own mythol­ogy with care­fully pruned anec­dotes that can leave an artist, as critic Adam Gop­nik once put it, ‘‘ stranded on an is­land of his own pet phrases’’. Jef­frey Smart (also in­ter­viewed here) springs to mind.

Wil­liam Robin­son, Nora Hey­sen, Don­ald Friend, Ros­alie Gas­coigne, Charles Black­man, White­ley, Garry Shead, Tim Stor­rierand Arthur Boyd are doc­u­mented in Artists in Flin­ders and his col­leagues to de­scribe indige­nous peo­ples, it is some­what jar­ring to find this word em­ployed by the au­thor in a few of his own de­scrip­tive para­graphs. The re­moval of ‘‘ na­tive’’ from di­rect quo­ta­tions Con­ver­sa­tion, along­side two ex­am­ples of a younger gen­er­a­tion, Ben Quilty and Adam Cullen. While Cullen’s re­cent death fo­cused the spot­light on his re­mark­able work and his par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for an un­com­pro­mis­ing life, Quilty’s as­cent was height­ened by a re­cent Archibald Por­trait Prize win — of his friend and men­tor Ol­ley.

Robin­son was an un­likely art star. He be­gan paint­ing in­ti­mate in­te­ri­ors in the man­ner of Pierre Bon­nard and Edouard Vuil­lard, moved on to witty paint­ings of barn­yard an­i­mals and made his mark un­equiv­o­cally with his won­der­ful rain­for­est trip­ty­chs. Imag­ine that you are a fly in a glass flask swing­ing away at the hip of de­ter­mined en­to­mol­o­gist. Ev­ery time the flask does an­other bounce or twist or twirl, the world rushes up to meet you. This is what hap­pens when you look at Robin­son’s rain­forests.

Apart from the open­ing chap­ter on Fran­coise Gilot (the only wo­man in a re­la­tion­ship with Pi­casso to es­cape from the mino­taur’s labyrinth, who Haw­ley in­ter­viewed last year), all the artists in this book are Aus­tralian. And they are, with­out ex­cep­tion, prom­i­nent. In her in­tro­duc­tion Haw­ley re­calls read­ing a pa­per­back called Life with Pi­casso, which Gilot had writ­ten. It seems to have pro­vided some­thing of a tem­plate for un­rav­el­ling the mys­te­ri­ous el­e­ments that un­der­pin any artist’s of­fer­ings: the in­de­ci­sion, the doubt, the ruth­less fo­cus and the eu­pho­ria.

Haw­ley’s finely tuned in­ter­view­ing skills cap­ture ev­ery nu­ance, aside and re­flec­tion in her con­ver­sa­tions with these artists and this re­viewer, for one, has never be­gun one of her es­says with­out fin­ish­ing it. One would wel­come a se­cond vol­ume where she draws out younger, tal­ented and less known artists.

Olsen has the last word, as he is the doyen of happy end­ings, with his gen­tle philoso­phies on liv­ing, work­ing and lov­ing. Haw­ley drew him out on the Third Act of Life: ‘‘ Not know­ing how long you’ve got, how long your body and mind will hold up, or what really hap­pens at the end.’’ would dis­tort the past, but the use of this anachro­nism else­where in the text makes the book ap­pear a lit­tle old-fash­ioned.

Mun­dle in­sists he has ‘‘ writ­ten this fac­tual story not as an his­to­rian, but as a sto­ry­teller with a pas­sion for sail­ing and the sea’’. How­ever, be­cause the book re­lies on the premise that it is telling a ‘‘ true’’ his­tor­i­cal yarn to jus­tify its ex­is­tence, it is dis­ap­point­ing that the au­thor or pub­lisher has de­cided that de­tailed ac­knowl­edg­ment of sources is un­nec­es­sary.

Fur­ther­more, it is a gen­eral cour­tesy to ac­knowl­edge sec­ondary sources where they have been used in the text. To his credit, the au­thor does in­clude ‘‘ a note on sources’’, but it is no sub­sti­tu­tion for a good, ef­fi­cient ref­er­enc­ing sys­tem.

Flin­ders: The Man Who Mapped Aus­tralia is partly a bi­og­ra­phy of Flin­ders but it is also a gen­eral ac­count of an age of Euro­pean sea dis­cov­ery with which many read­ers may be un­fa­mil­iar. While there are flaws in the book’s struc­ture and nar­ra­tive, Mun­dle’s en­thu­si­asm for his topic is of­ten in­fec­tious. Read­ers with a love of mar­itime his­tory doubt­less will be in­trigued by these tales of the sea.

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