THE theorists of modernism, as we have seen before, created a straw man version of earlier art, a fallacy of realism, against which to define their own innovations. And so powerful was this fallacy that it is still thoughtlessly repeated today: time and again we read or hear people say that something they call traditional art sought to reproduce the exact visual appearance of the world, like a photograph, and then photography was conveniently invented, liberating artists to pursue self-expression instead.
All persistent myths — even the silliest or most dangerous — survive because they contain some grains of recognisable truth but, as in other cases, every part of this myth is a caricature. Yes, the early modern period was fascinated with perspective, with seeing the world from the point of view of the human eye, with making space, volume, colour and tone as vivid as possible, but does any Renaissance or baroque artist remotely resemble a photograph?
Indeed, it was only after the invention of photography that certain artists began to conceive the ambition of rivalling the camera, of beating it at its own game; but the skill with which they pursued this aim revealed it as ultimately futile, as well as fundamentally at odds with the spirit of the classic early modern tradition of art.
Aristotle said literature, painting and other arts were based on mimesis, but this word we translate as imitation meant more than simply copying. As Australian classicist Gilbert Murray long ago pointed out, there is something before mimesis and that is poiesis, or making; a poet or a painter is first of all a maker but, as distinct from other makers, they make with reference to something else. This process of reference or imitation, in other words, is something different from what we may imagine. In imitating the world, the artist is also always and inevitably making something completely artificial.
To take a simple example: say you are going to make a pencil drawing of a still-life of a few bottles and other objects arranged on a table. You may start by marking lightly where you think the main forms will sit on the page; you have already begun to turn your visual experience of the motif into an artificial object with its own formal or compositional logic. You then lightly draw the contours of a bottle. Are you copying reality? The bottle has no such outlines: they represent simply, from your point of view, the boundary between the motif and the background. As you progress with the drawing and model the forms of the objects more fully, those first outlines will disappear and the form of the bottle may be demarcated only by the different tone of its background. Getting rid of obvious contour lines is in one sense a closer approximation to visual experience, but in the end it makes the fundamental artificiality of the tonal rendering of forms even more inescapable. Colour has been abstracted into tones, and a hierarchy of tonal distinctions has been constructed to make the image intelligible. Anarchist Feminist Poster Collective,
(c. 1982-83), Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide. THERE are times when artists feel they have no option but to take sides in political debates, when some subject matter can hardly be avoided, and when individual careers are eclipsed by the need for collective action.
The period from the mid-1970s through to
June 28-29, 2014
is a poster made by one all-female collective group for another during these charged times. Women Against Nuclear Energy was formed in Adelaide in 1980. It commissioned the poster from a group known as the Anarchist Feminist Poster Collective.
The poster is a collaged screen print, juxtaposing a nuclear power plant with a demonstration by the nurses union against uranium mining and the nuclear industry. It’s a piece of
Adding colour doesn’t make matters any simpler for it is not possible to achieve one-toone matching of colours (which are infinitely variable according to light conditions) and pigments: what the artist does instead is to construct a set of relativities between pigments and tones that is not a copy but an equivalent of sensory experience. What is more, it is not the picture that comes nearest to one-to-one matching that is the most aesthetically satisfying but the one that achieves chromatic and tonal integrity in its artificial equivalent of the world.
Nothing illustrates these principles as clearly as the painting of effects of light. We may assume that the solution would lie in bright colours and plenty of white. However, what seem like patches of rich luminosity in paintings usually turn out to be far from white: frequently they are muddy yellow-brownish or greenish patches that are read as bright because of the careful building of shadow all around them. Putting pure white in the same place on the canvas would look as if you had spilled correction fluid on to the picture; beginners are surprised how far they have to dull their highlights for them to come into a credible relation to adjacent tones and thus become part of the picture.
In oil painting, light is painted over dark, and highlights are built up last. In watercolours — of which there are some fine examples in this exhibition in Brisbane — the process is reversed. Oil painting, even without heavy impasto, has a different kind of body, sitting on the surface rather than being absorbed into it. Watercolour, which soaks into the paper, lies flat on the surface, with veils of colour but no body of its own.
This means that painting in watercolour involves a different way of thinking, in which the painter starts with the lightest areas, not the darkest ones as in oil painting. And the lightest areas of all, the whites, will be represented by the 80s saw occasions when artists could hardly help but be politicised. Issues such as women’s rights, American imperialism, the war in Vietnam, nuclear power, environmental destruction and Aboriginal land rights were so much on the national agenda that to ignore them was itself to make a political statement. Many artists became activists, using print media to create images characterised by a sense of urgency.
This is one mess we’re not going to clean up the bare paper. At the same time, while oils can be overpainted or even scraped off to start again, watercolour cannot be changed. Sometimes watercolourists have recourse to gouache, which is simply an opaque version of their medium, if they want make a correction or give a passage more substance, but generally speaking whatever is put on the page is irreversible.
The watercolourist, then, needs to plan the composition with care, and ensure that anything that is to stay white is left unpainted. Then they can work on the lightest and brightest passages, where it is still the white paper showing through the transparent pigment that gives luminosity, and finally build up the shadow areas.
Some idea of this process is indispensable if one is to appreciate an exhibition such as this at the Queensland Art Gallery because the range of aesthetic expression in any art form is inseparable from its specific material form and the processes dictated by the materials employed. Certain effects are more easily achieved than others in different media, and artists will be drawn to the medium that suits their vision of the world, emphasising its expressive potential.
Here, the first thing visitors may notice is how often watercolourists such as William Bustard and Roy Parkinson choose motifs that offer them the chance to exploit these large patches of pure white that are scarcely possible in oil paints: clouds and the white caps of rolling surf are favourite subjects. Not that it is enough to leave a blank area of paper; just as a silence in dramatic dialogue is made pregnant by the speech that surrounds it, the white paper is animated and brought to life as a cloud or as seaspray only by the dexterity with which adjacent tones and hues are built up, so that we are forced to read the white area as part of the picture, not simply as an inert lacuna in its surface.
Among the works here, there is an early se- agitprop that declares and incites the unwillingness of the so-called caring professions to “clean up” after a nuclear accident, as they are being asked to do in the newspaper clipping at the top of the poster. Under “positions vacant”, we’re
Ploughing the Boundary ries of views by Conrad Martens, unfortunately largely spoiled by exposure to light and mounting on acidic boards that have turned the paper deep brown. From about the same time, there are views of colonial life — a family sitting down to a formal breakfast in a rustic bush house — by Harriet Jane Neville-Rolfe. They are not great works of art but they are lively documents of the time and they remind us that watercolour was popular as a portable medium ideal for recording things seen on voyages in the great age of travel. In fact watercolour came to be considered part of a well-rounded education in the late 18th and 19th centuries, so there were many skilled amateur practitioners of the medium, or semi-amateur in the sense that an architect might make pictures for work and for pleasure. Watercolour was a medium where the boundary between amateur and professional could be blurred, especially compared with oil painting, which was generally practised by professionals.
Of the professional painters, the two most memorable are JJ Hilder and Kenneth Macqueen. The first of these, a striking example of an artist completely attuned to and thinking through his medium, exploits the fluidity and wateriness of his pigments to create a misty dreamlike environment around his subjects. In Hilder’s Landscape Near Carlingford (1910) he allows foreground and background to dissolve in his focus on the main motif yet, in the way that the subject seems to float within a moody spatial continuum, the effect is one of subjective vision rather than objective factuality.
Macqueen’s pictures are not as subtle or as virtuosic in their handling of the medium as Hilder, but they are in a certain way more interesting and thematically ambiguous. Macqueen was a farmer as well as an artist, working the land and painting it, a fairly unusual combination and one that involves engaging with the same environment in parallel modes.
And this seems to be the subject of his pictures. The best of them, the ones that make you stop with the sense of having glimpsed something you haven’t seen before, combine the evocation of nature with references to working the earth, as though he had a sense of the same intuition embodied in the myth of Cadmus who slew the serpent and ploughed the earth for the first time, that this entailed a kind of violation of the order of nature and would have important consequences, both good and evil, for mankind.
Thus in Harvesting Scene (c. 1956), a cloud floats almost threateningly towards the machine that is cutting the wheat, while in Ploughing the Boundary (1928) the ploughman with his horses carves into the land, which we can see to be swelling with an implicitly maternal life, and it is hard to resist the hint that there is something transgressive about the actions he performs almost unawares. Even stranger is The Tank (c. 1950), where a dam cut into the earth reflects the sky and clouds: one feels that this must represent an unexpected vision, perhaps when riding out across the property to tend to the practical business of the farm, and then suddenly being surprised by this vision of reflected beauty where it was least expected: in the middle of an unsightly hole gouged out of the earth, a glimpse of the transcendent. told that “following the expansion of the Uranium Mining Industry” in South Australia, positions have been created for nursing staff, social workers and psychologists.
The French situationists had a word for this kind of reuse or redeployment of image or text in a context that subverts or extends its original meaning: detournement.
It was a favourite technique of the many political printmakers and printmaking co-operatives that flourished across Australia at this time. For those involved in the Anarchist Feminist Poster Collective between 1979 and 1985, it was a neat way of taking on the power of an imageworld that seemed to monopolise the visual field, especially when it came to images of women.
Flinders University Art Museum contains a number of AFPC works. Those in this collection are on display at the City Gallery until July 13.
Serigraph, ink on paper, 65.5cm x 44.8cm