The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Christo­pher Allen

THE first lit­er­ary de­scrip­tion we have of swimming is in Homer, when Odysseus, leav­ing the is­land of Ca­lypso on his makeshift boat, is wrecked by a venge­ful Po­sei­don. The kindly sea god­dess Leu­cothea lends him a magic gir­dle that will save him from drown­ing and ad­vises him to swim for the shore. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Odysseus chooses in­stead to stay with the shell of his craft un­til it is smashed by an enor­mous wave, when he strips off, ties the gir­dle around his chest and strikes out for land.

It is there that Homer has him re­count his most fa­mous ad­ven­tures, in an ex­tended flash­back and vivid first-per­son narration, in­serted into the third-per­son of the rest of the epic. And now he tells of another ship­wreck, after his de­par­ture from Si­cily. His men are doomed to death for slay­ing and eat­ing the oxen of the sun, so the ship is smashed in a terrifying storm. Odysseus him­self, once again cling­ing to wreck­age, is dragged north by the cur­rent to­wards the straits of Scylla and Charyb­dis, where he is nearly sucked down into the whirpool.

A day at the beach was prob­a­bly not any­one’s idea of a hol­i­day in Homeric times, or even for most of the next 2½ and more mil­len­nia, although bathing be­came an im­por­tant part of clas­si­cal cul­ture. Cer­tainly from the Mid­dle Ages on, the sea was terrifying and most peo­ple could not swim. Sea­far­ing was a dan­ger­ous ad­ven­ture and sailors would tell of the won­drous and ter­ri­ble things they had seen. When the sea was cel­e­brated in art and in lit­er­a­ture it was as an in­car­na­tion of the sub­lime force of na­ture.

The idea of the sea­side as a bour­geois hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion arose only in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, and ho­tels sprang up in new sea­side re­sorts.

Such splen­did es­tab­lish­ments, as we see in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Mar­cel Proust’s Re­mem­brance of Things Past, were Ar­ca­dia: Sound of the Sea Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Can­berra, to Oc­to­ber 19 places where the wealthy could re­lax in lux­u­ri­ous com­fort on the mar­gins of the sub­lime — med­i­tat­ing on the im­men­sity of the ocean but sel­dom do­ing much more than pad­dling on its lap­ping edges. Ac­tual swimming as a phys­i­cal ex­er­cise be­gan to de­velop, but do­ing it in pub­lic and in day­light hours was still ham­pered by Vic­to­rian con­cep­tions of deco­rum.

On the other hand, the re­stric­tions on mixed bathing and the reg­u­la­tion of bathing cos­tumes also point to part of the at­trac­tion of the sea­side. Com­mu­nion with the sub­lime is ap­peal­ing in part be­cause it rep­re­sents an es­cape from the rou­tines and bound­aries of nor­mal ur­ban life, and free­dom can be tran­scen­dence or trans­gres­sion. Freed from the con­straints of nor­mal life, as we see in Death in Venice, the mind can lose it­self in an ec­stasy that may also be its un­do­ing.

Closer to home, Charles Con­der’s Hol­i­day at Men­tone (c. 1888) gives an idea of the Vic­to­rian con­cep­tion of a day at the sea­side. The young man in that paint­ing who is in­con­gru­ously at­tempt­ing to sun­bathe in a li­nen suit epit­o­mises the dif­fi­culty of en­joy­ing the sea within the bounds of pro­pri­ety, while Tom Roberts’s The Sunny South (1887) shows the other side of the coin, the pri­vate plea­sure of a group of boys skinny-dip­ping at Rick­etts Point, Beau­maris.

A num­ber of other Hei­del­berg pic­tures show men and women bathing naked, although not in mixed groups, none more de­light­ful than Con­der’s The Yarra, Hei­del­berg (1890), in which one of the girls still wears a broad-brimmed hat. In con­trast to this spon­tane­ity, Charles Meere’s Aus­tralian Beach Pat­tern (1940) shows men, women and chil­dren all bathing and dis­port­ing them­selves on the beach to­gether, but with­out a hint of trans­gres­sion: this is bathing as a healthy, hy­gienic and cheer­fully sex­less ac­tiv­ity.

Meere’s group is com­posed around a game with a beach ball, which has al­ways seemed to me a rather silly thing to do on a beach — though it must be ac­knowl­edged that the first lit­er­ary ac­count of a ball game is also in The Odyssey, and it is played at the sea­side. But surely the most ap­pro­pri­ate beach ac­tiv­i­ties, apart from walk­ing in win­ter or in the evening and fish­ing, are swimming, prefer­ably in the surf, and ly­ing in the sun af­ter­wards.

The most in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship one can have with the sea is un­doubt­edly in surf­ing, a sport that came to Aus­tralia be­tween the wars, both in the form of body-surf­ing and board-surf­ing, and flour­ished in the post­war years. And it is the cul­ture of surf­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the early 1970s when it was in its golden age as a way of life, that is cel­e­brated in a par­tic­u­larly en­gag­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at Can­berra’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery.

The show, cu­rated by Sarah Engledow, is almost en­tirely based on the photographs of John Witzig, founder of surf­ing mag­a­zine Tracks, re­pro­duced on a large scale and pinned to the walls in a de­lib­er­ately ca­sual man­ner. The pic­tures are full of spon­ta­neous en­ergy and life and ac­com­pa­nied by some of the best ex­plana­tory la­bels I can re­call see­ing in an ex­hi­bi­tion — well-in­formed, in­ti­mately at­tuned to the images, eru­dite when ap­pro­pri­ate, witty and above all warm and per­sonal in tone.

Un­ex­pect­edly, per­haps, the pho­tos are matched with large and pow­er­ful draw­ings of coastal scrub by Ni­cholas Harding — but the jux­ta­po­si­tion turns out to be very ef­fec­tive. This is partly be­cause draw­ings and pho­to­graphic prints are mostly in black and white, so no dis­so­nance arises be­tween chro­matic and tonal im­agery, but it is above all be­cause of the cu­ri­ous sym­pa­thy be­tween the two sets of works: as though Witzig’s photographs re­store the spe­cific con­text of Harding’s sub­jects, while Harding makes us see and at­tend to the qual­i­ties of the land­scapes.

Th­ese fig­ures are mostly young men and even boys, friends and surf­ing com­pan­ions of the artist, although only a few are shown ac­tu­ally rid­ing waves. More of­ten they are seen at or near the beach, ly­ing in a tent, sit­ting near a van, stand­ing on the ve­randa of an old house. Another group clus­ters around a wa­ter tank, all smil­ing. There is a per­va­sive feel­ing of youth­ful hap­pi­ness, in­no­cence and joy, oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tu­ated by pen­sive­ness.

A few com­po­si­tions are more de­lib­er­ately planned. In one a boy, stripped to the waist and seen from the back, sits gaz­ing into a pool of wa­ter. One thinks of course of Nar­cis­sus or, as the cap­tion sug­gests, a faun that one has sur­prised and who would flee in a mo­ment if he knew we were there.

In another pic­ture we watch two boys, again shirt­less, pick­ing their way across step­ping­stones in swampy ter­rain. Arms in the air, they reach out to keep their bal­ance, so that the

im­age evokes at once the light­ness and vi­tal­ity of their young bod­ies and some­how also the pre­car­i­ous­ness of our bal­ance in this world. In­tu­itively, Engledow sees in this an evo­ca­tion of Ar­ca­dia — the imag­i­nary land in­vented by bu­colic po­etry, where men still live in har­mony with na­ture, although she also re­calls Poussin’s

Et in Ar­ca­dia Ego, the re­minder that even this idyll is shad­owed by mor­tal­ity.

This work gives the ex­hi­bi­tion its ti­tle too, and it is a sug­ges­tive one, for Ar­ca­dia was con­ceived as some­thing like a sur­viv­ing back­wa­ter of the golden age, a myth­i­cal time of in­no­cence and non-vi­o­lence, the clas­si­cal equiv­a­lent of Par­adise be­fore the Fall. And even the Jews and the Chris­tians, for all their taboos about the body, ad­mit­ted that the prelap­sar­ian body, as it was first pro­duced by the hand of God, was in­no­cent and beau­ti­ful; it was only after dis- obey­ing his com­mands that Adam and Eve felt sud­denly ashamed of their naked­ness.

Ar­ca­dia, then, im­plies not only in­ti­macy with na­ture — the sub­ject, too, of sev­eral ex­cerpts from Alby Fal­zon and David El­fick’s lyri­cal film

Morn­ing of the Earth (1971) — but the beauty and joy of the youth­ful body. Youth, strength, vi­tal­ity and hap­pi­ness are all re­lated, par­al­lel, almost co-ex­ten­sive. When­ever sub­jects face the cam­era they seem to break into a spon­ta­neous smile; oc­ca­sion­ally, as in Poussin’s paint­ing, thought­ful­ness or re­flec­tion comes over the fea­tures like a cloud and they grow melan­choly. But there is none of the fear, shame and self­loathing that over­whelm Adam and Eve after the Fall.

This cel­e­bra­tion of beauty is fo­cused on the young male body, partly no doubt be­cause surf cul­ture was es­sen­tially a male af­fair; girls, if


present, would be hang­ers-on rather than par­tic­i­pants. Even to­day few girls surf. It’s un­clear how many shots in the ar­chive from which the se­lec­tion was made may have in­cluded girls, but in any case Engledow’s choice to con­cen­trate on the male fig­ure un­doubt­edly gives the ex­hi­bi­tion a sharper fo­cus.

There is another in­ter­est­ing con­se­quence of this choice. Sur­fie cul­ture, in its less at­trac­tive as­pects, could in­volve promis­cu­ity and us­ing and dis­card­ing girls. Omit­ting this seed­ier side of surf life is what makes pos­si­ble the evo­ca­tion of joy­ful youth and beauty, but given the character of Witzig’s photographs, one doesn’t come away with the sense that any­thing has been cen­sored, or the truth re­pressed.

It feels, rather, as though the cu­ra­tor has con­cen­trated on the images that are most quintessen­tially ex­pres­sive of the artist’s vi­sion, which was it­self ide­al­is­tic and joy­ful. Nor does the con­cen­tra­tion on young male bod­ies mean that sex­u­al­ity is ab­sent as a theme. On the con­trary, it is per­va­sive but la­tent, or more ex­actly po­ten­tial. Per­haps above all the sex­ual en­ergy of th­ese young bod­ies is sub­li­mated in the act of surf­ing it­self, in this ac­tiv­ity that in­volves enor­mous phys­i­cal ex­er­tion, con­sum­ing the raw en­ergy of the body and con­vert­ing it into the ec­static union with na­ture that is evoked in a shot of Mark Richards rid­ing a wave in Hawaii.

Of course this Ar­ca­dia can­not last for­ever; mar­riage, chil­dren, work, mid­dle age will follow in due course. But here, for a mo­ment, we are sus­pended in a dream of youth, free­dom and spon­tane­ity. Ten­nyson imag­ined his Lo­tos-eaters as in­hab­it­ing “a land in which it seemed al­ways af­ter­noon”; Witzig’s young men dwell in a land in which it seems al­ways sum­mer.

John Witzig’s works in­clude, clock­wise from far left, Wayne Lynch at Pos­sum Creek (1969); Nigel Coates and Mur­ray

Smith, Smiths Beach WA (1972); Bells Steps (c. 1975); and Pandanus (2011) by Ni­cholas Harding

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