ACENTURY ago, almost to the day, Australia seized the northern part of what is now Papua New Guinea from Germany, which had held it for 30 years. But this was not like earlier minor proxy conflicts in the far corners of the colonial world. It was part of something much more serious and the consequences would continue to shape the 20th century.
The world was beginning to plunge into the abyss of the Great War, the most murderous conflict Europe had experienced, perhaps surpassed only by the Mongol conquests across the Eurasian continent in the 13th century. The Great War scarred the modern consciousness of the West in a way surpassed only by the still more catastrophic World War II. After a century of economic and social progress, both its outbreak and long duration amounted to a colossal failure of modern civilisation, from which the spirit of the West has never really recovered.
There already had been challenges to the optimistic, scientistic progressivism of the 19th century. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud had raised doubts about such a view of humanity. Darwin had revealed an uncomfortable continuity between humans and their animal ancestors; Marx and other economists had suggested our existences were subject to social and economic developments beyond the control of any individual or group; Freud had shown us a dark unconscious ocean beneath the surface of the conscious mind.
Other thinkers had ventured ideas capable of being equally disturbing: modern linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure showed individuals thought largely through the patterns inherent in the semantic and syntactic systems of their languages; especially in simple societies, as anthropology suggested, everyone thought much the same thoughts. Friedrich Nietzsche questioned the principle of identity and the difference between the real and the apparent. Modern physics, culminating in the work of Albert Einstein, even started to disturb the foundations of the greatest intellectual edifice of the modern world, Newtonian science.
All these questions and doubts, brewing beneath the prosperous, progressive exterior of the Edwardian era, help explain why the decade before the Great War was the single most remarkable episode in the history of modernism, the origin not only of analytical cubism but of abstraction, futurism and expressionism. The level of inner stress and existential anguish of these years is unforgettably evoked in Franz Kafka’s early story The Judgment (1912). Kafka evokes a profoundly disturbing state of mind in which the distinction between subjective experience and objective reality — essentially the definition of sanity — becomes increasingly uncertain. This is even more obvious in The Metamorphosis (1915), written a year into the war. IN July 1969, Ray Crooke set out with three companions to travel to a remote area of Cape York in an attempt to locate the notorious Hells Gate, the site of many gruesome deaths.
Hells Gate is an elusive trail that snakes through a narrow sandstone gorge in the Great Dividing Range. Renowned in the gold rushes of the 1870s, it was a shortcut from Cooktown to the Palmer goldfields. However, miners and prospectors used it at their peril, as it was an ideal place to ambush and kill unsuspecting travellers. Explorer Edmund Kennedy also trekked through this isolated area around Hells Gate in the late 1840s. Of that ill-fated Kennedy expedition, only a handful survived, including
September 6-7, 2014 Robert Motherwell National Gallery of Australia to October 6
The war brought latent anxiety into the open, now turned to disillusion and despair, and this spirit, sometimes converted into absurdist and nihilist humour, animated dada and after the war evolved into surrealism. The surrealists carried on the dada critique of all authority, while seeking to achieve poetic and visionary art by tapping into the unconscious mind.
The most direct way they attempted this was through automatic writing. The idea was to write down whatever came into one’s head without editing or censoring it in any way. Progressively increasing the speed of writing made the results still more spontaneous.
The same thing can be done with drawing — scribbling continuously without lifting the pencil from the paper, passing from one motif to another without judgment or editing — and this was attempted by some artists. Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Rene Magritte and most other surrealist painters, however, sought to paint osten- indigenous guide Jacky Jacky. While the location of Hells Gate was well-known during the 1800s, somehow during the 1900s its precise location was forgotten.
Of course there was conjecture as to its position on the map, and various locations had sibly plausible pictures of imaginary scenes, evoking the unsettling vividness of dreams. The true heirs of automatism in painting are the American action painters, and it is no coincidence that Jackson Pollock began as a surrealist before developing his own form of automatic painting. In his method of dripping and throwing the paint with sticks on to a canvas laid on the floor, he had effectively discovered a technique of paint application appropriate to the realisation of a conception of automatic painting.
Robert Motherwell, represented in the National Gallery of Australia collection in Canberra by one of his numerous Elegy paintings and by a quantity of prints that are the subject of this survey, also was inspired by the surrealists whom he met in New York, where they had fled from the German occupation of France. Their retreat at such a critical moment proved, in hindsight, fatal to the credibility of the movement: the apostles of inner liberation had nothing to offer in the face of Nazi power, and after the war their place at the head of contemporary French cultural life was taken by the existentialists, many of whom had been active participants in the resistance.
Motherwell’s earliest prints are lithographs been proposed through the years, but the uncertainly only added to the mystique of the place.
Crooke, with two other artists, Percy Trezise and Goobalathaldin (Dick Roughsey), and amateur anthropologist Frank Woolston, were determined to pinpoint the location of Hells Gate. They undertook a modern-day exploration in search of the site, which, amazingly, they managed to find.
For Crooke, that trip was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the region around Hells Gate, and he subsequently made frequent trips to paint the majestic landscape. Several of those landscapes are now featured in an exhibition, Hells Gate, at Cairns Regional Gallery.
When I visit the gallery, it is Quinkan Country, Laura, which captures my eye for the way it depicts the subtle light and colours of the outback. Crooke, born in 1922, lives in the Cairns area. He is best known for his colourful pictures featuring tropical and island life in the Torres Strait, Fiji and Tahiti. While his outback Australian landscapes are less well known and more subdued, they nevertheless show his absolute love of Cape York and its people. In Quinkan Country, Laura, Crooke depicts a spiritual aspect of the country around Laura where Quinkans, or spirit beings, hide in the crevices.
Around the time it was painted, in the late 1980s, landscape was once again the artist’s muse, says Cairns Regional Gallery curator Justin Bishop.
“The work from this period hums with vibrant golden energy. However, it is Quinkan Country, Laura, that is the most dramatic, the most pregnant with anticipation and enigma,” explains Bishop.
“Unlike other works of broad vistas from this period, Crooke engages the subject of the sandstone escarpment from its base.
“He locates the viewer at the commencement of an upward journey that will later reveal the expansive landscape.
“His warm palette forewarns that the journey to the summit of the escarpment will be hot, it will be hard work, and yet a secret may be yielded to you. Just what the country will reveal to a traveller in the bush is part of the endless fascination we have with it.
“Quinkan Country, Laura shows Crooke’s exceptional ability to deal with space in the bush compositionally.
“He evokes a profound sense of absence, yet Quinkans are there, hidden and timeless.”
Blue Elegy based on gestural marks in black ink. There is something appealing about the density of the blacks and the resolutely minimal range of expression, yet already one senses a certain frustration that abstract gestural marks are ultimately gratuitous and can never have the depth of meaning of calligraphy.
The next room contains a series of colour lithographs in which the collaged elements of cigarette wrappers with words in French and other languages add variety and interest. Yet if you have seen one of these cigarette wrapper lithographs, you have really seen them all. There is little of interest in the subsequent variations in patches of colour and positioning of the collaged motif. Indeed, these prints remind me of the semi-abstract designer prints that one finds in hotel rooms. The production values are higher, and the choice of colours perhaps bolder, but when work is fundamentally vacuous, making it better is almost making it worse. It just seems like a slicker product.
The most interesting works in the exhibition are a little series of soft-ground etchings inspired by TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Their small size concentrates the energy of the abstract motifs, but it is perhaps above all the use of the intaglio medium that lends them increased authority. There is often something superficial about lithographs, as though reflecting the flatness of the stone itself and the passive way the image drawn on to it is reproduced.
In intaglio prints, on the other hand, the image has been burned into the surface of the plate, creating lines and pits and textures that have their own character and density, instead of merely mirroring the artist’s drawing style.
Oil on board, 1200mm x 750mm