Books Stephen Romei’s A Pair of Ragged Claws col­umn

An out­stand­ing new his­tory of Aus­tralian art is sen­si­tive to the glory of great art­works and the hu­man­ity of those who cre­ate them, writes Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

WHEN re­view­ing a book on a sub­ject on which one has also pub­lished a work, it is prob­a­bly pru­dent to be­gin by ac­knowl­edg­ing the fact. My Art in Aus­tralia from Coloni­sa­tion to Post­mod­ernism (Thames and Hud­son, 1997) was com­mis­sioned by Nikos Stangos, who had about three decades ear­lier com­mis­sioned Robert Hughes’s Art of Aus­tralia (1966). In fact Stangos saw my book as in some sense a re­place­ment for Hughes’s vol­ume, tak­ing into ac­count not only an­other 30 years of con­tem­po­rary art but also the sig­nif­i­cant re-eval­u­a­tion of Aus­tralian colo­nial art in the last decades of the 20th century.

As part of the World of Art se­ries, my book was nec­es­sar­ily con­cise, con­ceived as an ac­ces­si­ble in­tro­duc­tion to the sub­ject. My in­ten­tion was to pro­pose a way of read­ing the his­tory of Aus­tralian art, a nar­ra­tive that stressed the in­trin­sic con­cerns of artists in this land rather than see­ing Aus­tralian art as a se­ries of colo­nial, and later provin­cial, re­flec­tions of art-his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­tres.

Sasha Gr­ishin’s new book, Aus­tralian Art: A His­tory, is very dif­fer­ent in scale, in am­bi­tion and in its his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal ap­proach. And in the first place, if my book was meant to take the place of Hughes’s short in­tro­duc­tion, Gr­ishin’s is in­tended to re­place Bernard Smith’s Aus­tralian Paint­ing (1962), hitherto the great­est syn­thetic vi­sion of the de­vel­op­ment of art in Aus­tralia. Gr­ishin’s book is nei­ther an in­tro­duc­tion nor an in­ter­pre­ta­tive es­say, but a full-scale his­tory of art in Aus­tralia.

When I ar­rived in Lon­don to see Stangos, a Cus­toms of­fi­cer asked me the pur­pose of my visit. When I said that it was for a book on Aus­tralian art, he replied with­out miss­ing a beat, ‘‘That would be slim vol­ume, then, sir.’’ In fact, Aus­tralian art is far from a small topic and Gr­ishin’s book is cer­tainly not a slim vol­ume. It is huge and enor­mously heavy, and yet it would be hard to ar­gue that it is too long: it is sim­ply the scale the sub­ject de­mands if it is to be cov­ered in the de­gree of de­tail he has set him­self.

The scale of a his­tory, of course, is like that of a map: it can be greater or smaller depend­ing on what one wants to achieve. On a map of a small scale, it is eas­ier to see the shape of a coun­try but hard to make out any but the big­gest moun­tain ranges, rivers and cities; on a very de­tailed map, even small topo­graph­i­cal fea­tures and mod­est towns and vil­lages may ap­pear, but it will be harder to grasp the over­all shape of the land. In a his­tory, con­ci­sion will favour the sketch­ing of a vue d’en­sem­ble, but greater length is more con­ge­nial to the em­pir­i­cal his­to­rian who is con­cerned to gather all the facts in the most ob­jec­tive way pos­si­ble. Gr­ishin, pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer- Aus­tralian Art: A His­tory By Sasha Gr­ishin The Miegun­yah Press, 584pp, $175 (HB) sity, is es­sen­tially em­pir­i­cal rather than in­ter­pre­ta­tive in his ap­proach, and he has suc­ceeded in mar­shalling a vast amount of re­search, im­pres­sive in its de­tail and its ac­cu­racy, into a struc­ture that pre­sents pe­ri­ods and move­ments in an in­tel­li­gi­ble way, while fo­cus­ing largely on a se­ries of in­di­vid­ual stud­ies in a man­ner that makes the book use­ful and con­ve­nient as a ref­er­ence work.

In a shorter sur­vey, the bio­graph­i­cal cir­cum­stances of an artist’s life can only be briefly out­lined, and their oeu­vre fre­quently has to be re­duced to one or two works that epit­o­mise their con­tri­bu­tion to the over­all story. In a his­tory of this na­ture, there is room to dis­cuss the up­bring­ing, artis­tic de­vel­op­ment and ca­reer of each sig­nif­i­cant in­di­vid­ual in­clud­ing, im­por­tantly, the date and cir­cum­stances of their death. There is space to ac­knowl­edge per­sonal and aes­thetic com­plex­i­ties, as well to recog­nise that an artist’s ca­reer ex­tends be­yond the years when his work oc­cu­pied the lime­light of fash­ion or the fore­front of the avant-garde: time and again, artists have grown from young rebels into mem­bers of an art es­tab­lish­ment that does not al­ways wel­come the fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tion.

One of the great virtues of this book, in fact, is the au­thor’s abil­ity to en­ter into the spirit of the suc­ces­sive pe­ri­ods and to sym­pa­thise with the artists he writes about. Far from the com­pla­cency of hind­sight too of­ten en­coun­tered, es­pe­cially in ac­counts of mod­ernism, Gr­ishin has the his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tion to see things from the point of view of the artists and oth­ers that he is writ­ing about, which does not mean that he is un­crit­i­cal. The right bal­ance be­tween crit­i­cism and sym­pa­thy is im­por­tant in deal­ing with any pe­riod or in­di­vid­ual, and a de­gree of sym­pa­thy can it­self al­low crit­i­cism to be deeper, rather than merely harsh or stri­dent.

In any case, it is one of the most at­trac­tive fea­tures of Gr­ishin’s work that he en­gages in such a gen­er­ous spirit with the artists whose ca­reers and work he deals with. With­out be­ing ex­actly an ad­vo­cate for each in­di­vid­ual, one does feel at least the au­thor has sit­u­ated them in their time and ex­plained their work, in­ter­ests and style in a way that pre­sents the best plau­si­ble case for their claim to our at­ten­tion.

The way that artists of one gen­er­a­tion in­flu­ence and are in turn judged by those of suc­ces­sive ones is al­ways im­por­tant, but the ques­tion be­comes more com­plex than ever, and of­ten fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties, in the mod­ern pe­riod, be­cause of the ra­pid­ity with which new styles ap­pear and chal­lenge the author­ity of those who had come be­fore. At the same time, there are of­ten con­flict­ing per­spec­tives even within

by Tom Roberts, left;

by Wil­liam Do­bell, right

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