The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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.

(1987), left

Oil on board, 1200mm x 750mm

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